Thinking outside the box (art).
Never judge a SNES game by its box.
I decided to revisit an old blog post I wrote a few years ago as its one of the key reasons that many gamers like myself collect Japanese CIB games and after I posted it I received some amazing emails from readers who after reading it, took up collecting for the first time as well as a lot of blog posts sharing more examples. So, for gamers that may be less familiar with ‘80s and ‘90s Japanese box art or play only non-physical formats of the games, this should hopefully be of some use as to why they’re so collectible and why they can be are priced considerably higher than their Western counterparts.
“We don’t want a Japanese invasion”
By the 1990's, Nintendo had four international divisions established in Australia (NAL), America (NOA), Germany and the United Kingdom (NOE). Nintendo’s content guidelines were provided from their Headquarters in Japan. Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi believed that if the company allowed the licensing of pornographic games, the company's image would be forever tarnished. This would be Nintendo of Japan’s No.1 rule. Nintendo of America and Nintendo of Europe went further in that games released for Nintendo consoles could not feature nudity, sexuality, profanity (including racism, sexism or slurs), blood, graphic or domestic violence, drugs, political messages or religious symbols.
This decision in diluting the content of a game would mean dialogue, plot, graphics and packaging would be have to be revised. By contrast, Japan’s gaming culture was vastly different from Nintendo international’s principles on content. From as early as the 1980's Japanese games contained stories and artwork that could be deemed extreme in their execution. This may have been dampened by the limitations of pixel art but mature content was clear nonetheless. As a result, all internationally released games would have to be reviewed and edited to tailor each region. The Japanese parent company was concerned that it may be viewed as a "Japanese Invasion" by forcing Japanese gaming cultural standards on North American and European children and agreed to have its other headquarters govern the tone of it’s games outside of Japan.
Western marketing vs Japanese culture
With these polarising views on content, things started to get weird with box art. Each Nintendo division would market the games to suit, starting with box templates to house the two different types of physical cartridge. The larger cartridge design for the North American SNES was the first to be presented to Nintendo Japan. This template, with it’s cropped landscape artwork became the prerequisite design for European PAL boxes, despite the fact that PAL carts were the same shape as Japan’s. The decision to make American carts bulky and less ergonomic stems from the American NES cart design and a continuity from the previous console was considered important for marketing the console and it’s games to an American audience.
Let’s start with one of the best known examples of severely misguided U.S re-designs. In Japan, Phalanx’s box was adorned with original and stylish artwork, incorporating clever distortion of perspective that pulls the space craft towards the viewer and forcing it outside of it’s framed background. This is an illustration that’s executed perfectly with a sleek logo designed to match it’s minimal colour palette. Its stylish, clean, technically well drawn and suitably futuristic – everything that the developer would want when marketing a Sci-Fi shooter. However, the American version throws all of these concepts out the window and inexplicably replaces them with a what can only be described as a redneck playing a banjo. In the background is a tiny spacecraft, the only remaining feature that reminds us of anything relating to the game. It is the very epitome of ‘box art fail’. The European design attempts to emulate the artwork from the Japanese version by cutting out the space craft and dropping it over it’s original re-scanned backdrop. It’s also framed within the PAL box template that insisted on large borders surrounding the graphic. Three very different compositions with only one that truly works.
The Japanese cover uses a drawing based on a photograph of the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger from the movie Raw Deal and places him in the center of an industrialised, heavily saturated post-apocalyptic backdrop. This use of plagiarism is nothing new images for Japanese games. Gun-Dec on the Famicom contains a blatant illustration of Bruce Willis from Die hard and Jaseiken Necromancer for the PCE side-stepped the need to re-draw its artwork and instead took a complete scan of one of H.R Giger’s airbrush paintings without the artist’s consent. The cover of Necromancer was only brought to Giger’s attention recently when a fan took along a copy of the game to have Giger sign. So, with Contra Spirits we have something of a tradition with artwork emulating other Western cultural sources. All of this makes for an excellent design and with the title suitably positioned at the bottom, it makes for a very cinematic-looking cover.
The U.S version opts for a descriptive tagline (The Alien Wars) and opts for a less photogenic style (with some dodgy alien designs) but its the European version that suffers from having lost anything relating to the game. The title ‘Contra Sprits’ was deemed too political and militant-sounding so Super Probotector was used as a more peaceful (‘protector’) and positive-sounding name. The in-game human characters were also replaced with robots, a move made by Konami Europe to reduce the violent look of the game and to guarantee a release in Germany. Out of the three designs, it’s the Japanese version that has stood the test of time.
The Japanese box depicts the experience of the game perfectly with its vast, barren alien landscape, dwarfing the main character who’s positioned precariously at the edge of a cliff. It also cleverly hides the main character’s face in the illustration, lending itself to the simplistic graphical style of the game. All credit goes to Éric Chahi, who not only created Another World but also painted the artwork used for the Japanese release. It was already widely distributed on the cover of other formats around the world but Nintendo of America and Europe decided that it would have to alter the tone and reduce its mature look. The American version invents an entirely new name and alters the box art with a drawing of a more contemporary 1990's-looking character with jeans and a yellow sweater, flailing his arms around at the sight of a monster’s face, none of which reflects the game’s content. The PAL version uses the game’s official name, Another World but utilises the same artwork created for the American version. The Typography for both Western boxes is merely an afterthought.
Three designs and one stand out winner. Developed by Australian developers, Beam Software, their original artwork contains a bustling, detailed Blade Runner-esque depiction of the future. The Japanese chose to use the artwork as it’s perfect for a portrait box and for fans already familiar with the role-playing franchise of which it’s based on. It far outweighs the style of the U.S design, a logo set against a backdrop of a circuit board. The European design fails miserably with some hastily drawn characters and garish, childish colouring, downgrading the tone of what was a very cleverly written and complex adventure game.
Again, the Japanese version has stood the test of time with its fantastic comic book illustration. Both western releases opt for imagery taken from the film. The US version suffers from a badly colour calibrated photograph. The European version manages to correct the colour but uses the same montage of movie stills. One of the key reasons for the Japanese cover’s success is down to Steve Erwin, The artist responsible for illustrating the cover and also the official comic book adaptation. The Japanese box avoids the need for additional marketing spiel and instead focuses purely on what the franchise is renowned for, the characters and the comic book art.
Here is a good example of three different regions using the same artwork but with varied results. The Japanese artwork looks fantastic. Everything is balanced and detailed to suit the dimensions of the box. The U.S and PAL versions recreate the design by simplifying Samus and Ridley and removing the atmospheric backdrop. Thankfully, both Western releases make use of the original logo but overall the boxes pale in comparison with the SFC original.
ASSAULT SUITS VALKEN
Giant robots! And what better a way to depict this than using a giant robot for the centre of the cover. The Japanese version also has some nice dynamic perspective with the pipes and wires feeding into the mech from the bottom of the illustration, giving the static subject some dynamism and a path for the eye to work its way into the centre of the artwork. It’s a perfectly executed technical illustration with the horizon line perfectly positioned along the centre of the box. The hues are suitably war-themed, earthy and muddy. The U.S and European versions avoid any war connotations by renaming the game to Cybernator (ditching the relation to the Japanese Assault Suits series entirely) and ruin the in-game character design with an ill-proportioned robot and a need to further describe the game on the cover. It’s one of the Super Famicom’s greatest game covers and yet the Western versions are easily the most forgotten. The Western release was also heavily censored, resulting in changes to the plot, characters and ending(s).
SUPER GHOULS ‘N GHOSTS
I love the design of the Japanese version. Legendary Japanese illustrator Susumu Matsushita’s classic artwork manages to illustrate each of the in-game characters perfectly, reflecting the personality and fun to be had with playing the game. However, The American and PAL revisions use an entirely different design that centre around a cold, faceless, predictable drawing of a knight. It lacks humour, excitement and personality. The PAL and U.S releases also suffered from censorship, with the removal of churches, flaming skulls and boss names.
Similar to Phalanx and Assult Suits Valken, the artist behind the Japanese version of Axelay works wonders with the use of perspective with some highlighted lines created with the ship and laser lights, creating a propulsive look to the action it contains. It’s executed with technical panache. Unfortunately all of these elements are lost on the other versions with a decision by Nintendo Europe and America to make the title of the game the most prominent visual aspect. The illustration of the ship is re-drawn and shortened in scale, resulting in an illustration that has lost the overall impact that the original contains. The Japanese version illustrates a sleek and futurstic ship. The western art depicts a sluggish, cartoonish one.
The PAL and Japanese versions opt for a fantastically abstract image. It’s intriguing, stylish, dark and most importantly sci-fi. This was the original artwork commissioned by French developers, Delphine when it was originally released on other systems throughout Europe and the US. the The American design pales in comparison with a poor attempt at depicting some of the game’s content. The result is a cover that loses some of the mystery that’s conveyed in the other two. I’m surprised to see the American publisher didn’t opt for the laser-to-the-face design.
The Japanese design for Vortex is one of my favourite box art designs. It’s so much better than the game. The other two illustrations are actually more in line with the game’s woeful environment and character design. I own the Japanese copy of Vortex simply for its cover. It’s design has stood the test of time and far outweighs the quality of the game itself.
Undercover Cops was only released in Japan. The artwork to the right is the unreleased American box design. I find it incredible that the American publisher had ignored the look and style of the original version and instead, designed a box that imitates a Sylvester Stallone film. Badly. Again, it’s the Japanese cover that has aged with grace. This is one cover that was thankfully spared a Western revision.
FINAL FANTASY VI
Yoshitaka Amano’s design for the Japanese market is brilliantly executed. It’s an elaborate, detailed illustration that effortlessly blends sci-fi and fantasy art. Had this game been released in Europe, there would have been a silver border that clashed horrendously. The U.S box has to be one of the worst boxes for the console, despite being one of the greatest games of the 16-bit era. Absolutely no effort was put into the Western cover art.
After ESRB was introduced in 1994, Nintendo slightly loosened the noose on censorship and made some changes to what could be depicted on the boxes and content of its games. By 2003, PEGI had established its rating system and Nintendo chose to abolish most of their policies in favor of consumers making their own choices about the content of the games they played. Today, changes to the content of games are done primarily by the game's developer or occasionally at the request of Nintendo, not by the five headquarters located across the globe. The only clear-set rule is that ESRB AO-rated games will not be licensed on Nintendo consoles in North America, a practice which is also enforced by Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo has since allowed several mature-content games to be published on its consoles but is still vocal about family-focused entertainment. Their once heavy-handed approach to censorship and editing of content has thankfully been lifted but it wasn’t without hesitance. It is for this reason that Super Famicom games remain as the best option for sourcing games that have their content, pixel art plot and box art completely intact.