Day 127: Bad Video Game Art

originally published May 6, 2012

Are video games an art form? If you ask Roger Ebert, his answer would be a resounding “no.” But I would argue that there is art involved in the game world, whether it’s designing a likeable protagonist character, an immersive and often colorful environment, and even in designing the game’s marketing material.

This is where some games go horribly wrong. Whether it’s the cover of the box or the side of the arcade cabinet, an image required to draw in the target audience – be they angst-ridden teenagers or love-sick girls with a fetish for Italian plumbers – needs to be created with care.

So what were these companies thinking?

This is the side-of-cabinet art for Konami’s 1987 game Dark Adventure. In this game you play either as Condor, an archeologist, or Labryna, a reporter, trapped in another dimension and forced to kill lots of things (which is the most popular pastime in other dimensions). For the artwork Konami adopted – or more accurately, ripped off – the poster art from Return of the Jedi:

For Dark Adventure, “Luke” has a spear instead of a lightsaber, “Han” has a whip instead of a gun (because all archeologists fight with whips), “Leia” has a weapon instead of that kick-ass gold bikini, and Darth Vader appears to have been replaced by a somewhat bloodthirsty Bobcat Goldthwait.

I’d like to mock this game for the artwork, but I think it’s the game’s core concept that’s flawed here. In Jerry Rice & Nitus’ Dog Football you control a human quarterback who has inexplicably found himself playing football with and against a bunch of dogs, like some opium-saturated hallucinatory fantasy.

Jerry – whom I must remind you was voted the greatest football player of all-time – contributes his voice and likeness to this odd family-tization of the sport for the Wii system. I imagine the truck full of money that was backed up to Jerry’s house for this game was suitably impressive.

Kids love astrology, and no doubt the release of Russell Grant’s Astrology was a smash success for the Nintendo DS in Europe. And what better way to pitch the game than to throw Russell’s face on the cover, looking like a hybrid of Cam from Modern Family and Bruce Vilanch.

I like that this game is rated “12+”, because it would be rather traumatizing for your eleven-year-old to log on and discover that, as a Taurus, he’d better get his scrotum checked for abnormalities because Saturn is in the seventh house of Aquarius (or something).

Metro-Cross helped to introduce skateboarding as a fad in the 1980s, suggesting that the most bodaciously awesome way to ‘board is to wear a lot of protective equipment, a Spandex onesie, and to sing while demonstrating your note articulation with your hand. It was a rad time to be alive.

This game comes from an era in which ‘plot’ was deemed unnecessary or superfluous to the gaming experience.

“Kids love skateboarding, so let’s put a dude on a skateboard and have him jump over and dodge stuff. Oh, and my questionably competent cousin wants to design the box cover art. We can pay him in Oreos.” – Namco executive, spring 1985.

I was a teenager when Rival Turf! was released for the Super NES in 1992. Looking at the cover art, I think my biggest fear would be running into these youths in an alley and being forced to dance their choreography. The most menacing thing about them is the red jacket’s flared collar, which looks like it could put an eye out.

It’s the subtle details that make this cover truly awful. The Smurf-colored building in the background. The exclamation mark in the title for added excitement. The Arsenio Hall “whoop-whoop” that the dangerous-looking 12-year-old on the left is executing. This is a high-concept game.

Night Trap, a horror-type interactive movie game designed for Sega’s ill-fated “Mega-CD” game system, appears to feature a rather irritated Dana Plato in a sports bra, indicating with her thumbless right hand the stack of dishes her roommate didn’t do. The game itself created a controversy, when it was held up as “shameful”, “sick”, and “disgusting” by a US Senate committee on video game violence.

The original cover art was considered too sexist (it wasn’t), so this is what replaced it. I think the folks at Sega simply didn’t care – the controversy was enough to sell the game to the masses, the cover art didn’t matter.

And that really is Dana Plato from TV’s Diff’rent Strokes – she has the honor of being the first live-action star of a video game. Now she has the honor of appearing on this site.

I have no idea what this game is, or why these two men are so happy to be posing almost nude, apart from Speedos and wrist-shackles. The white guy has a Hitler-stache though.

I’ve discussed Pac-Man clones before, but this is the original. I guess the Atari people felt that they needed a realistic Pac-Man action sequence to really get people to grab this title off the shelves. So we have Pac-Man in a track outfit, wearing a shirt that sports his own image, munching on Frisbees while Shadow (more commonly known as Blinky) chases him, apparently with intent to eat him.

Pac-Man didn’t need drama. Turning the lines into castle walls doesn’t help make the game more realistic and fun. This cover was a buffet of horrible ideas.

Possibly one of the greatest games built for the original NES, Mega Man suffered from a dreadful cover. If I’d been a more discriminating youth, I’d have taken this cartridge out of the box and chucked the packaging, storing the cartridge in a shoebox or something.

For one thing, why is Mega Man’s right leg larger than his left? He’s lopsided, and he doesn’t look particularly happy about it. He’s poised, ready to shoot (who knew Mega Man was a leftie?). A handful of palm trees and a burning city lay behind him, while a group of amorphous yellow globules scatter the landscape.

Look, I know it’s not easy designing a piece of art to sell a game. You want to capture the essence of the game while making kids drool at the prospect of playing it. Who knows? Maybe these designers were anticipating the mocking sect of the Internet, and hoped for promotion years later in articles like these.

I’d like to think there’s some reason for this crap.

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