When I was a kid, I didn’t often have the luxury—much less the sense of spontaneity—to purchase video games without first doing my research. My monthly subscription to Nintendo Power was a great source of information, but the featured walkthroughs and “Pak Watch” previews were a poor substitute for actually playing Nintendo games. Luckily for me, my family didn’t live far from a video rental store. West Coast Video, a chain founded in my own city of Philadelphia, began stocking video games along with VHS tapes. I saw this video games section grow rapidly from a dedicated shelf to an entire rack, and finally to a complete section of the store. Eventually, West Coast Video and the recently moved-in Blockbuster became not only cheaper alternatives to buying games, but also libraries—places to find video games that had long stopped selling in stores. Unlike retail stores, where games were often locked inside towering plastic cases, video rental stores gave me full access to the packaging. Often enough, video games boxes were my first impression of games, and their imagery influenced the way I approached their contents.
In the late 1980s through the 1990s, the video game boxes that I mostly loved, sometimes hated, and often tried to imitate with pencil and paper, differed vastly from their counterparts in Japan. In some extreme cases, box art might be mutually unintelligible to players on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. With the help of the internet, it has become an easy task to make side by side comparisons of North American, Japanese, and occasionally European box art. Discussions about transoceanic box art differ- ences usually highlight the subjectively poor artistic merit of North American artwork compared against its Japanese predecessors, though defenders of the Western aesthetic are not in short supply. Box art comparisons, then, tend to become simple arguments over which region did it best, though recent matchups have also demonstrate subtle changes in the box art of American and Japanese versions, like how Nintendo’s beloved pink puffball Kirby tends to look angry and battle-ready on North American boxes, but seems to be having a jolly time on those same adventures in Japan. These slight variations, however, are nowhere near as noticeable as the radical splits in box art during the early days of console gaming. I began wondering just why box art localization has shifted away from highly idio- syncratic repackaging—why the inspired, sloppy, thrilling, ridiculous, or just plain baffling box art styles of yesteryear have mostly disappeared.
No one in my family seems to remember just when we bought an NES. I maintain that it was a present for my fifth birthday in 1987, though true to its original Japanese name, it soon became a “Family Computer.” My earliest memories of playing Nintendo were swapping controllers with my sister to play Super Mario Bros., cheering when my dad finally knocked out the celebrity final boss of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and attempting to make urban legend into reality by trying in vain to shoot down that mocking dog in Duck Hunt. None of these, however, can hold a candle to the events of April 3, 1988. That Easter Sunday, I awoke to a special kind of egg hunt that could only have been dreamed up by my mom. Golden (plastic) eggs had been scattered throughout the house, and I had to track each one down to unlock a hidden treasure. Inside the shiny eggs were all sorts of strange artifacts: an hors d’oeuvre skewer in the shape of a sword, a toy apatosaurus, a small metal key, a monster finger puppet. After I had assembled all of these items, I was given the ultimate prize, The Legend of Zelda.
I instinctively knew it would be special. The heraldic box art was already whispering to my imagination. The upper left of the regal escutcheon on the box was a win- dow to something shinier than any of the eggs I had found that Easter morning—the aureate cartridge itself. For me and countless other players, The Legend of Zelda was a golden ticket into the world of epic gaming. Japanese players, however, did not receive anything close to this spe- cial treatment. The box art of the original Famicom disk version, The Hyrule Fantasy: Zeruda no Densetsu, shows an anime-style Link crouched in front of the Hyrulian land- scape. The game itself was an elongated yellow floppy disk, a pale comparison to the shiny cartridge released in North America.
The box art conceived for other fantasy questing games in North America took cues from The Legend of Zelda’s packaging. Its own golden-carted sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, shows a large jewel-hilted sword, and Square’s Final Fantasy took the typical role-playing imag- ery further, showing a crystal ball above a crossed sword and battle-axe. The Japanese Famicom boxes have vastly different imagery. Rinku no Bōken shows the elven hero slightly matured and adventuresome, and Fainaru Fanatajī depicts a fey swordsman in ceremonial armor in the now timeless style of series artist Yoshitaka Amano. Neither of these cartoonier approaches seems to have found favor with early marketers of Japanese games localized for North Americans. Instead of the heavy anime stylings of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Quest series, for instance, the Dragon Warrior games feature scenes that could have been lifted from the covers of generic Western fantasy novels. These box art localizations exchanged cute for cool, childlike for adult, and play for adventure.
The larger adventure genre similarly translated approachable and ethereal Japanese box art into more intimidating and straightforward North American terms, sometimes with hilariously bad results. Perhaps the most infamous example of North American box art localizations is Mega Man. The character immortalized by this cover is far removed from the version on the Japanese release of Rokkuman (“Rockman”). Instead of a friendly robo-boy with an arm cannon who battled other bipedal robots, North Americans saw an adult in safety pads awkwardly wielding a pistol on a futuristic pinball landscape. Beyond the sheer incompatibility of this art with the game’s con- tent, the box art version of Mega Man is off-model, with strange bodily contortions and a misshapen helmet. His hangdog, almost haunted expression tells us what we can easily ascertain—there is nothing mega about this man.
Ultimately, North American NES players didn’t adapt the old adage about not judging a book by its cover— despite the fact that the gameplay of Mega Man had little to do with its packaging, the game sold poorly. But the North American manual for Mega Man tells a different story, and one closer to its Japanese origins. After skipping past the steroid-fueled welcome from Capcom’s partially eponymized mascot Captain Commando, the reader gets a glimpse at how Mega Man was envisioned for Japan— a plucky hero who is more playmate than action figure. Here in this 1987 package begins a long-standing tension between the Japanese Rockman and Western depictions of Mega Man.
(Read the rest of this essay in Continue? The Boss Fight Books Anthology.)