With gamers going bonkers over the recent release of Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini, which jams more than thirty classic games from the 8-bit era into a super cute miniature version of Nintendo’s 80s game console, nostalgia for a simpler time in gaming is at an all time high.
As we all know, any time we put on those rose-colored glasses our memories tend to become very selective, weeding out all of the negative stuff from our collective gaming conscious. Whether that’s blowing in your cartridge until you almost passed out in order to get it to work or insanely difficult game, we are lucky that the gaming industry has evolved.
One of the things that was particularly bad about this era of gaming was the box art. Since there was no YouTube to give us a quick taste of what a game was like, and magazines at the time were amateurish at best, biased at their worst, it was hard to know what game deserved your hard earned birthday money.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, gamers had to judge a game by its cover, and results were mixed. Box art in those days was often hand drawn to mask the rudimentary graphics and entice the imaginations of prospective buyers. As a result, some of the box art seen on retro games is beautiful and awe-inspiring. Other times, it is a complete mess that failed on every level. Join us as we take a look at some of the worst videogame box art from a bygone era. These are 15 Wonderfully Bad Retro Video Game Box Covers.
15 Anticipation (NES, 1988)
Late-80s fashion aside, there are so many questionable things going on here. We admit, Anticipation isn’t a bad name for a game; in fact we bet it’s piquing our readers’ curiosity right now. What really seems out of place here is the alphabet. Why is it there? What prominence does the alphabet hold within the game? Does the row of dots that separates the alphabet from the game’s title hold some kind of significance? Is it a complex cypher needed to conquer whatever it is you are anticipating? The anticipation is too much, so you pop the cartridge into your NES and you’re presented with… a board game.
What seemed like a novel idea for the NES turned into a pretty lame party game with very little replay value. And why are there eight people on the cover? The game only supports four players, and that’s only if you had the Four Score peripheral. The box also claims that the game is “party fun for all ages,” yet the cover is clearly aiming for a certain demographic, although on closer inspection of the motley crew on the box, we’re not entirely sure what that demo is.
We have Giles from Buffy in the back wearing what appears to be an Illuminati sweater, the guy in yellow who looks like he might suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the chick in the middle who uses way too much hairspray, the creepy guy in the red stripes who is way too touchy feely, and the two actually playing the game who appear to have suffered from a bad case of scoliosis judging by the way they are hunched over their controllers.
14 Final Fight (SNES, 1990)
Initially developed as a sequel to the original Street Fighter, Final Fight switched from a one-on-one fighting game to a side-scrolling beat’em up following the success of Double Dragon. This change in direction was ultimately a good one, as Final Fight was a huge success both critically and commercially.
Final Fight was originally released in arcades in 1989, and by 1990 it had been ported to the Super Nintendo. While the SNES version was well received, it wasn’t entirely without criticism as the game omitted the 2-player co-op mode that proved to be popular in the arcades.
Another thing that Capcom left in the arcades was the art that adorned the promotional flyers for the game. Any of these would have made for excellent box art, especially since it would have been familiar to arcade enthusiasts. Instead what was commissioned for the SNES box looked like a Freddy Mercury impersonator holding an intense staring contest with an extra from The Road Warrior. If it weren’t for the words “Final Fight” being printed on the box, we can’t say for sure if these two macho, macho men would have been preparing for fisticuffs.
13 Ghost House (Master System, 1986)
The Sega Master System played second fiddle to the insanely popular Nintendo Entertainment System during the 8-bit era of consoles, and with cover art like this, one has to wonder if Sega’s lackadaisical approach to box art is the culprit. The game was originally released on the short-lived “Sega Card” format, and the box inexplicably features someone holding the actual game card, in some kind of weird, lazy videogame Inception*. There is no indication as to what the gameplay might entail, although some gamers may have surmised that it had something to do with bats, which is partially accurate since in some versions of the vampire mythos, vampires can take the form of a bat.
In the game players took control of Mick, a boy who moonlights as a vampire hunter on his quest to destroy five bloodsuckers the manual affectionately refer to as “Draculas”, despite the fact that “Dracula” was the name of a particular vampire and not a blanket term for all vampires. When the game was re-released on cartridge, the box art was overhauled to simply feature the title of the game and the aforementioned bats. Why this wasn’t done initially is a mystery.
*Most games released on the Sega Card format had box art that simply featured a disembodied hand holding the actual game. It was a simpler time.
12 Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II (NES, 1989)
In this action platformer, players take control of a valiant knight and explore a large world to defeat an evil wizard. The game was fairly well received by critics and went on to sell a respectable number of copies. Despite this, the actual gameplay of Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors will forever be overshadowed by Acclaim’s bizarre choice when it came to the cover of the game.
Acclaim hired Italian male model Fabio to pose for the cover, who at this point was known more for his appearances on pulpy romance novels than his television commercials. Bare chested and holding a broadsword, Fabio’s costuming was aesthetically similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan, something that came as a shock to the developers, since players control a knight in a suit of armor for the entirety of the game.
There is some debate as to whether the box art for Ironsword is bad, good or is of the it’s so bad it’s good variety. Whichever way you tend to lean, one has to speculate if some of the game’s sales figures can be attributed to housewives who saw the cover and liked what they saw.
11 Transbot (Master System, 1986)
Master System box art design must have been dictated by a memo that stipulated that every box must have a black grid on a white background, a giant font that took up anywhere from a third to a half of the box’s overall real estate, and finally, it must feature a crudely drawn image that only vaguely represents the plot or experience of the game.
TransBot incorporates all of the aforementioned design (and we use that word lightly) elements, however this is the only game from the Master System’s library that featured a cheap Optimus Prime rip-off giving a, let's just say, questionable salute.
The game itself was your standard shoot ‘em up that saw players take control of a standard starship that could transform into a robot, the titular TransBot.
Fun fact: TransBot was one of the games released on the Sega Card format that featured the “game within a game” box art like Ghost House.
10 Tommy Lasorda Baseball (Genesis, 1989)
The Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, depending on where you live) was the first real competitor to mighty Nintendo. With an aggressive marketing campaign, the Genesis positioned itself as a console that catered to older gamers with superior (16-bit!) graphics and a wide assortment of sports titles thanks to their partnership with Electronic Arts, who produced titles like the Madden football series.
Before Sega and EA got together, however, Sega produced Tommy Lasorda Baseball, a launch game for the Sega Genesis that was officially endorsed by the soulless, dead eyed wax figure seen on the box art.
Lasorda was the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers at the time, and having him lend his likeness to the game would have made sense if this was a baseball management simulator. Except this game isn’t, it is a standard baseball game, and since Major League Baseball didn’t want anything to do with it, Tommy Lasorda’s Baseball lacks all of the real MLB teams and players. It’s like if Madden just featured a fat guy on the cover and had team names pulled straight from your hometown’s peewee football league.
9 Strider (Genesis, 1991)
Strider was a fast paced hack n’ slash game that originally debuted in arcades back in 1989, and was one of videogame publisher Capcom’s earliest successes prior to the release of Street Fighter 2.
The game was well received by both critics and gamers alike, with much of the praise being focused on its innovative gameplay and frenetic action. It’s a good thing that Strider had such a stellar reputation before being ported to home consoles considering how the box that it came in looked like the poster for an incredibly hokey B-movie from the 70s.
Featuring a Scott Bakula look-alike in lavender spandex, the cover didn’t even remotely look like the title character from the game, not to mention failing to capture any of the fun. Luckily, the horrible box art didn’t prevent people from buying it, and Strider is often cited as one of the best games on the Genesis. Must have something to do with that 8 MEGA MEMORY.
8 Zillion (Master System, 1987)
Depending on how you look at it, Sega Master System box art was either a brilliant execution of minimalist design or the product of rushed and/or lazy marketing.
As we know, most Master System boxes feature a graph paper background, however whereas some high profile titles received colorful interpretations of gameplay, other games featured little more than a clip art image floating against the grid. Zillion was one of the latter.
What is that thing anyway? A TV? A microwave? Some sort of future E-Z Bake Oven? The art offers zero clues as to what the gameplay might be or even what the plot of the game is. At least we could venture an educated guess with titles like Ghost House. Zillion was just obtuse on every level.
The game itself is an action platformer with a heavy emphasis on exploration and backtracking, not unlike Metroid or Castlevania. In Zillion, your goal is to find five floppy disks that you need to feed into a computer to save the world. We guess that could be a computer on the cover, but we’re still not entirely convinced.
7 Clu Clu Land (NES, 1984)
We’ve got a sure-fire way for you to make some easy money. Bet a friend that if they can guess what a game is about solely by looking at the box it came in, you’ll give them $10. Then show them the box for Clu Clu Land. There is a small chance that your friend might have played Clu Clu Land before, but we’re going to go out on a limb and say that nine times out of ten you are going to have a new $10 bill in your pocket. Seriously, look at that box. Any idea what’s going on there? Any clue as to what the gameplay might be like? We didn’t think so.
To be fair, Clu Clu Land was a launch title for the original Nintendo Entertainment System in North America. Back in those days they often just took sprites from the actual game and slapped them on a generic black box. This normally wasn’t a problem due to the literal titles most games employed, as consumers could figure out what the game was about regardless of how simplistic the sprites were.
Unfortunately for Clu Clu Land, there are no clues (sorry) to be found in either the title or the box art, so gamers were really just pulling the trigger and hoping for the best with this one. There’s just no way they could have predicted that they would be controlling a blowfish named Bubbles who swims around a maze trying to retrieve all of the treasure of the underwater kingdom of Clu Clu Land which was stolen by an evil sea urchin.
6 My Hero/Black Belt (Master System, 1986)
These two Sega Master System games are so similar that it seemed redundant to list them separately. Both games are side-scrolling beat ‘em ups that have players take control of a character whose girlfriend is kidnapped by some random guy and the only way to get her back is to punch and kick your way through endless waves of cannon fodder.
It should be noted that while gameplay is incredibly similar between the two, Black Belt has achieved some noteriety due to its “Engrish” instruction manual, which proclaimed that the player would be fighting “black women” and “wang”.
The two games even had similar box art designs. In the case of Black Belt, the box depicts a floating leg emanating from the bottom left corner of the box, kicking the air with such force that a cartoonish explosion radiates from the foot, and that’s it. No enemies, just half a leg connected to a foot. When buying a game called Black Belt, one would naturally assume that the game had something to do with the martial arts, but the only thing indicating that this might be true would be the fact that the leg is clothed in what appears to be a Karategi.
The box art of My Hero is a little less . This time, we have a disembodied fist punching what looks like a poor man’s Butt-Head of Beavis and Butt-Head fame. We suppose that the box art had to be a little more literal, as a sole fist punching the air doesn’t automatically make us think of beat ‘em up, especially when paired with a title as vague as My Hero.
5 Phalanx (SNES, 1991)
Phalanx has to take the cake for the most surreal video game box art of all time. It’s like the marketing team behind the game saw all of the other super literal box art of the time and just said, “you know all of those games that try and appeal to potential consumers by showing action-packed illustrations of gameplay on the box? Well we’re going to do the opposite of that. We’re going with something way out of left field.”
What they came up with was something that wasn’t even in the same ballpark, as the box for Phalanx featured a bewildered elderly hillbilly strumming on his banjo. Predictably, this prompted more questions than answers. Was Phalanx a Deliverance-inspired survival horror game? Maybe it was a music rhythm game based on the soothing twangs of the banjo! Guess again. It was a horizontal shooter that took place in outer space.
4 Rival Turf (SNES, 1992)
Before we condemn the laughably bad box art to this forgettable game, we should look back at the reason why it exists in the first place. Early in the Super Nintendo’s lifespan, Capcom ported their popular arcade beat ‘em up Final Fight to the console. Gamers were amazed at the conversion, but were left feeling a bit short changed as the SNES version removed the 2-player co-op mode (as well one of the three playable characters) due to the system’s memory limitations.
Keen to capitalize on this grievous omission, publisher Jaleco released Rival Turf (known as Rushing Beat in Japan), which did include 2-player brawling. The inclusion of this feature was such a big selling point that it was often printed on to the front of the box. Gamers hoping to grab a friend and partake in some hand-to-hand street justice were ultimately left disappointed as critics panned everything about the game, from the collision detection to the animation.
Possibly even worse than the mediocre gameplay is the North American box art which features two adolescent male models trying their best to look intimidating while wearing the gang member’s clothing from Michael Jackson’s Beat It music video. What makes this even more perplexing is the fact that the two kids on the cover do not resemble any of the characters in the game at all.
3 Fester's Quest (NES, 1989)
Just ignore the box art for a minute (it’s hard, we know) and think about this game for a second. In this game, which came out in 1989, players assume control of Uncle Fester from The Addams Family TV show, which went off the air in 1966. This means that this spin-off videogame came a whopping 23 years after the show went off the air and two years before the Addams Family movie starring Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia hit theatres and introduced the macabre family to a younger generation.
Given the fact that videogames were mostly seen as entertainment for children, who possibly could have been the audience for an Addams Family game? If you can think of an answer, please let us know in the comments.
Possibly even more perplexing is the game’s box art. Fester’s giant head leers at something we can’t see, making his facial expression that much more unsettling. And why is he wearing lipstick? If you can believe it, the actual game is even more confusing, which begins when Fester witnesses an alien invasion and takes his old-timey pistol out to save the world from the alien scourge. The game was infuriatingly difficult and incredibly tedious, with many considering it one of the worst games to appear on the NES.
2 Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy (Atari Jaguar, 1993)
Appearing in an age where techie sounding buzz words like “bits” and “megs” dominated the marketing departments of video game consoles, the Atari Jaguar boasted a whopping 64-bits compared to the popular 16-bit consoles like the Genesis and SNES at the time (what those “bits” were or how they impacted gaming were murky at best). Atari embarked on an annoying and somewhat confusing marketing campaign that dared gamers to “do the math”, instead of showing off any of their actual games. In retrospect, this is most likely due to the fact that the games were complete rubbish and playing them required some basic aerospace engineering experience due to the overly complicated controller that featured about 18,000 different buttons.
When the Jaguar hit store shelves in 1993 it came bundled with one of the most hated launch titles of all time in Cybermorph. If you didn’t like a disembodied head telling you how terrible you were at the game, the only other option was Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, a Star Fox rip-off that is one of the most boring side-scrolling space shooters ever made. As bad as the game is, the box art is just as offensive, featuring copy and pasted screen grabs, awkward hand drawn furries and amateurish typeface. Everything about this game is a mess.
1 Mega Man (NES, 1987)
While the Mega Man franchise is well known and loved by gamers all over the world, it’s almost as if Capcom was deliberately trying to sabotage the sales of the original Mega Man with this steaming turd of horrible box art.
There is simply no excuse imaginable that could forgive the ugly and uninspired art that sullies the quality game on the inside of the box. We realise that in the early days of console gaming, box art was more likely to be hand drawn, often times by third parties. These artists had to creatively interpret the plot and gameplay, in an attempt to make a game look appealing based on rudimentary graphics and blocky sprites.
Even with these concessions in place the Mega Man box art fails on virtually every level. First of all, the boyish robot protagonist is replaced with a middle aged man in what looks like a poorly designed homemade Tron costume (not to mention that no version of Mega Man ever had any yellow in his suit). Many often point out the fact that this representation of Mega Man also wields a pistol as opposed to the iconic arm cannon that instantly identifies the character as Mega Man. But what is truly horrifying about this hand drawn imposter is the oft-overlooked limbs. Contorted in a sickening disregard with how human beings move the box art Mega Man looks as though he is in constant, torturous pain. We honestly can’t believe anyone actually bought this game. And don’t even get us started on that quasi-futuristic isometric neon grid in the background that frames this monstrosity.