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Larger Than Life: Video Game Box Art That Overpromised

Larger Than Life: Video Game Box Art That Overpromised

Here at Bitmap Books, we love video game cover art. So much so, our latest book, The Art Of The Box, features hundreds of brilliant game covers, each by one of our talented interviewees. Of course, a video game cover’s chief role is to persuade you to pluck that box from the shelf and hand over your cash. But which covers promised more entertainment and excitement than the game could ever provide? Let’s take a look at six such covers.

Haunted House – Atari 2600, 1982
Artist: Steve Hendricks

As every gamer in their mid-40s and beyond will tell you, back in the eighties, we had to use our imagination regarding video games. Consoles such as the Atari 2600, while legendary in their own right, featured blocky visuals and gameplay limited by a single-button joystick. So, it was up to artists such as Atari’s Steve Hendricks to conjure the images that sparked our imaginations. Hendricks’s career and art are detailed in The Art Of The Box; this cover of the 1982 game Haunted House is possibly his most famous.

It's a fascinating composition that echoes several elements from the game. A colourful spider lurks in the top right, waiting for prey to wander into its web; bats hang upside down, the one to the left cloaking its wings in a Dracula-esque pose; and finally, those eyes, so imbued with fear and terror at the spooky mansion before them.

In a sense, this cover doesn’t overpromise – after all, both bats and spiders feature in the game, and the only part of the player character you can see is their eyes. However, the background, a fierce and emotive blend of crimson and white, and those petrified eyes suggest a level of shock and dread that Haunted House, as good as it is, had no chance of replicating.

The Eidolon – Commodore 64 & others, 1985
Artist: Ken Macklin

Unlike Steve Hendricks, our next artist, Ken Macklin, worked freelance, predominantly for Lucasfilm Games. This early piece follows Lucasfilm’s earlier efforts, Ballblazer and Koronis Rift and features its trademark fractal graphics, a level of tech and presentation that wowed reviewers of the time. The Eidolon is unquestionably an important title, yet its gameplay fails to convey the breadth of excitement and steampunk theme of its Macklin-drawn cover. The player’s craft, reminiscent of the time machine from the 1960 George Pal movie of the HG Wells novel, plummets into a dark void, with the cave walls barely visible. A helmeted troll, a comical half grin on its face, stands out, suggesting a cheerful vibe to The Eidolon. Behind it are further wacky creatures, all of them indicating an amusing and vibrant gameplay experience. The Eidolon’s cover is definitely a dash of overpromising combined with a pinch of promising something somewhat different.

Ocean Ranger – C64 & DOS, 1988/1989
Artist: Marc Ericksen

Ex-Special Forces soldier Marc Ericksen switched careers to art in the mid-seventies, inevitably specialising in military-themed covers. In The Art Of The Box, you can marvel at his creations, such as Afterburner and Choplifter!, but here we look at his cover for Activision’s naval combat simulation, Ocean Ranger. In this aerial shot, the small attack boat is under constant assault from opposing forces. Enemy jets roar above, plumes of flame reflecting successful hits. More seacraft patrol in the distance, and rockets and explosions are everywhere throughout the image. Ericksen is a talented artist who infuses a scene with extreme exhilaration and thrilling combat. While Ocean Ranger is an excellent game, it never quite evokes the perils of sea warfare as much as its cover.

The Fury – ZX Spectrum & others, 1988
Artist: Rodney Matthews

Vehicular combat games were popular in the eighties, and The Fury was an ambitious attempt at creating a mix of Mad Max and Rollerball. Artist Rodney Matthews had a fascinating backstory, as detailed in Bitmap Books’ The Art Of The Box, and here we focus on his work for the 1988 Software Communications/Martech game. Futuristic vehicles charge around a circular track, weird alien creatures at the wheel. Laser fire shoots out from a white car in the background while a poor unfortunate plummets into the abyss, their car on fire, and in pieces. This picture shows an admirable expression of both violence and speed, twin principles that the game fails to epitomise.

Death Bringer – PC & others, 1988
Artist: Lee MacLeod

Known as Galdregon’s Domain in Europe, the legendary Frank Frazetta firmly influences this cover’s fantasy themes and characters. A brace of heroes occupies the lower half of the image, and neither appears appropriately dressed for a dangerous battle. Artist Lee MacLeod employs some excellent shadow effects as the male warrior repels a fiery blast with his one item of defence, a shield. Death Bringer is a decent slice of eighties RPG that in no way contains the glamour and close-up shots of flesh as suggested on its cover. Strangely, only the US Commodore 64 release featured this cover – the other versions portrayed just the musclebound hero in a pose that will be mightily familiar to fans of the Conan The Barbarian movies.

Friday The 13th – ZX Spectrum & others, 1989
Artist: David Rowe

The original release of this horror movie adaptation features the famous ice hockey mask and copious amounts of blood. Bug-Byte employed David Rowe for its re-release of the game four years later, and the veteran artist created another fantastic piece for the cover. The mask once more takes centre stage, this time presented in pristine white, with wisps of smoke curving around it, lending a mystical look to the item of facewear. Unfortunately, the Bug-Byte logo obscures the cottage from which the smoke emanates; in the Bitmap Books’ book, The Art Of The Box, you can view the original painting in its complete glory. Nevertheless, even in its obstructed form, this is a powerful and intense cover, promising a horrific, terrifying and panic-stricken game that’s very far from the actual experience.

Don’t forget you can read all about these brilliant artists and more in Bitmap Books’ The Art Of The Box.

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