Box Art Disparity:
Showdown Between Regions
19 September 2010

NES European box art is an especially confusing and inconsistent affair. There's isn't even one Europe in terms of marking. Rather, you have region A (United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Australia, New Zealand) and region B (mainland Europe, excluding Italy). But even when you look at one region of these regions, you find major differences from country to country.

Thanks to a fan who recently emailed me a scan of the German box art for Mega Man 2, I now have a perfect example of how you can find major variations within region B. Thanks so much for the write-in! I've updated the Mega Man 2 entry below, and I'm quite pleased to say that the German box art actually looks pretty good—a very welcome addition to this feature. If anyone else has similar examples, please send them my way.

30 March 2010

This time I made a special effort to focus on games that were released in all three regions, so for the first time in this series I can three-way showdown. Japan has traditionally held the advantage in such contests. Will the land of the rising sun prevail? Or could the U.S. and European upstarts stage an upset victory? With thirty boxes to examine and criticize, let's get down to business.
When you think Castlevania or gothic, pink and purple aren't exactly the first colors that spring to mind, but this box pulls it off quite well. All four playable characters dominate the center, each in a distinct pose. Whether Grant or Trevor is closest in the foreground is a little ambiguous, but we'll let that slide. Dracula's castle and the ominous skull lurking in the background provide conflict and tension to what would otherwise be the standard group portrait. The lettering below that drips with blood is a nice touch, as well, making the text feel more like part of the entire composition.
In the U. S. of A., Trevor steals the spotlight, although if you look closely you can also identify Grant climbing a pillar, Sypha unleashing a fireball, and one of those bats must be Alucard. It's a fine introduction to the main characters, but the rest of the composition doesn't fit together nearly as well. The gray box border is quite ugly and wastes lots of space. The red and gold seals encroach further on the part of the box that really matters. The castle, gears, and other parts of the landscape look nice individually, but they fail to form any cohesive whole. It seems like the were haphazardly thrown in there to support three separate scenes.
Europe does much better with box coloring—black is major improvement over the lackluster gray in the U.S. version. Trouble arises, however, with how the art is cropped. Sypha's head is obscured by the title, while Grant and Alucard have been banished entirely. It's great that Trevor is front and center, but the area behind him is reduced to a nonsensical clash of wind/water and fire. The ideal U.S./European hybrid art would be the U.S. vantage point with the black background and lettering featured above. If I was better with PhotoShop, I'd mock one up. Another project for another day...

I guess Konami went through a gray background and vertical fade phase, because the layout of the U.S. box is identical to that of Castlevania III, even though the latter was released two years later! Fortunately, Contra works better—look at Bill and Lance bursting out of the limited frame imposed upon them. That they stretch to the very edges of the box and there's great perspective also makes a big difference.

Japan—for a radical change of pace—provides its worst box art in this entire feature. The main characters look dorky, and the rest of the box is a horrid clash of pink and brown. Oh yeah, I suppose there are those alien entities like the green pod, but seriously? How lazy was this artist? Only about 1/3 of the box shows any detail.

While the title is ridiculous, you can't let that bias your opinion of the art. Gray, blue, red, and white dominate the composition, giving it a very fluid and coherent appearance. At the same time, though, you lose some of the intensity of contrasts seen in the U.S. version. These robots sit further back in the scene as well, which reduces the sense of urgency. While it's a solid piece of art, it fails to capture the excitement of its U.S. counterpart.

Dark. Twisted. Beautiful. Gray. The sci-fi atmosphere oozes from every detail. You can't tell if she's a robotic slave or a human about to take flight with those wings. This is a brilliant composition, one of the best for the NES. Maybe it doesn't reveal anything explicit about the game, beyond the setting and themes, but there's plenty to catch your interest and pique your curiosity.
Almost half the box is lost to the mustard yellow and the title—a bad start to say the least. Though the serpentine face on the horizon emitting lightning may be interesting, it's so far removed from the actual game that it borders on the nonsensical! There isn't even an abstract theme here that applies to the actual game. Maybe Broderbund just bought a random piece of art and slapped it on the box.
Thankfully, this artistic rendition steers clear of its American counterpart. Like the Japanese version, we have a technologically-encased female in the spotlight. This time the wings are more dominant, and as well they should be, given the game's airborne shoot 'em up levels. The planet in the background provides additional scope, alluding the exploration that's fundamental to gameplay. Very nice!
As goofy-fisted as he is goofy-eyed, you have to love this rendition of the famous martial arts acrobat. The supporting cast behind him looks nearly as silly, even if it approaches information overload. It would have been nice to have a box border with bolder contrast, but that's not a serious flaw.
I guess the marketing team thought that American gamers needed something more serious. Stranger is the apparent likeness to Bruce Lee. Did the artist know that the title included the words "Jackie Chan"? Hudson also apparently thought the gray background would make this sell like a Konami's title.
Europe takes the Japanese original and improves the contrast and focus. Now Jackie really seems like he's leaping into the foreground. The retooled title looks great against the blue background. One minor quibble, though, is that Hudson had to take its logo and smack Jackie in the finger with it.

The U.S. artwork for the first Mega Man has already gone down in history as one of the worst pieces of box art in the history of video games. I'm not exaggerating. There's so much wrong with this composition it's hard to know where to begin. Before scrutinizing any details, look at that ludicrously awkward pose! Zooming in closer, you're faced with the anachronistic fact that he's holding...a pistol? Palm trees in the background and neon red graph paper framing the art work take us from horrible to atrocious.

Japan's artistic vision is far from great, but it seems like a work of genius compared to the U.S. version. Everything is very cartoony and light-hearted. Naturally, the choice of the aqua border to contrast with the brown could have been handled better.

The European artwork comes out of left field with something truly odd and excellent. It's odd because the tone is so dark; look at how the Blue Bomber's mouth is open in a scream as he fires. The excellence comes from the composition—blue border matching Mega Man, and a tragically depressed portrait of—taking my best guess here—Dr. Light in the background. That orange robot arm that frames the "A" in "Mega" also adds a sense of gravity to the composition; already one foe has fallen.

The chunky body, silly visor, and little pistol may be awkward, but they're a vast improvement over the artistic debacle for the original Mega Man. On the practical level, this composition also provides a good exposition of the gameplay's platforming and shooting elements, even including some bosses and one of the scientists, probably Dr. Wily. Plus, you can save up to $10!!!
The striking contrast between red and blue grabs your attention right away. "State of the Art" and "High Resolution Graphics" stand out as boldly as they are humorous. The art evokes much more of a fantasy feel than a sci-fi one, complete with Mega Man looking more like a knight in shining armor than a robot. Even the supporting enemies look fantastic, like that silver dragon.
This three-pane layout with the triangular insertion of Mega Man makes for a pretty dynamic and interesting composition. The blue and red limited color palette works well, too. I have to wonder, though, why the dragon and tank are floating. Mega Man, himself, is also looking a bit peculiar. He appears to have only one leg and his eyes are crossed. Nevertheless, this is a solid effort.
Although Japan doesn't exactly knock the ball out of the park with this effort, at the same time there isn't anything explicitly bad about it. It covers quite a bit of ground with characters and enemies, yet does a much better job selling the goofiness that seems out of place in the non-Japan boxes.

Overall, there's a very light-hearted tone, but the comic book-style of the art makes the silliness seem more natural. It's a rather solid—if not especially imaginative—composition. Predictably, Rockman is in the center, surrounded by bosses, with all of them together forming a triangle. Meanwhile, random enemies and Wily's castle fill the background. It's an impressive feat of variety, color, and detail.

American artwork has come a long way since the previous Mega Man installments. Although the Blue Bomber still looks chunky and weird, he finally has a proper arm cannon. The overall composition, thanks to its perspective and greater detail in general, is also vastly improved.

Japan sticks with its comic-book inspired visuals, but what an awful green for the border. Contrast is important, but this is way too Ghost Busters Slimer green. Other than that poor color choice, the composition is solid, demonstrating an action-packed triangle of characters in the center, villains flanking Rockman, and the evil shadow looming overhead.

Yet again, Europe offers something rather different, maintaining its overall quality across the series and rising to a zenith. Look at how the contrast and facial expressions create tension in this composition. On the lower level you have the typical cartoon-like cast of characters. Above, however, there is a scientist with crazy hair and haunted eyes—Dr. Wily I presume. The artwork also makes good use of the entire box worth of canvas, with lightning blasting beyond the box and even Proto Man leaping towards Rush. Another contender for my best NES box art list.

Drawing a convincing ninja can be surprisingly difficult, but this Japanese rendition nails it. Note the trailing head wrap and the eyes obscured in darkness. The strange stone creature in the background provides a sense of mystery, which helps compensate for the composition's boring symmetric layout.
Kudos to the artist for using nearly the entire canvas. The flame effects are surprisingly well-rendered, too. Let's focus on the main event, though, the ninja. Is he floating in mid-air? Some incredible leap off a building below? With nothing grounding him, and the clearly rendered building below, there's a fundament problem with coherence.
Wow, for every element that works well in the American artwork this version makes it worse. The flames look strange and unconvincing, while the buildings seem overly pristine and perfect. Worst of all, the ninja sees no need to hide his face at all, sharing a goofy visage with—one that for the benefit of sales should remain concealed.

Hot damn! For once in this feature the U.S. box art knocks it out of the park. Ready to fight, weapons bared, your two main characters dominate center stage, and their dynamic poses show that they're ready to throw down. Not only does this composition take full advantage of the entire canvas, it makes the entrance to the school seem more like a prison yard. The color scale moving from black to explosive orange and red, combined with grainy (rough) imagery leaves you anticipating the impending action.

As if the Japanese version wasn't goofy and animé enough, you're assaulted with a pink border and green lettering. While the town sections and RPG elements are an important part of the game, you'd never expect any real fighting looking at this box. Silly and even misleading.

The name change is lame enough but this artistic vision is even worse. Multiply abstract art by comic book humor and you get this anti-synergy. The landscape is bland and the two characters are almost as dull. I suppose the kick to the chest could look impressive under other circumstances, but this kicker appears stoic and bland. There's hardly any story here and all that you see is exceptionally ugly and lacking detail.

No doubt, this is a peculiar blend of ninja meets space ship. That said, we do have an interesting contrast between colors (blue vs. pink/orange) and themes (swords vs. technology). Moreover, the composition is pretty clever and entertaining. Is that a last stand atop that precipice? Defenders of the temple's ancient traditions against new monstrosities unleashed by technology?

The green swirling background for Kage reminds me of prints I used to do in art class, where you dropped ink into water, swirled it with a paper clip, then carefully dipped a sheet of paper in to absorb the pattern. Malicious red-hued boss in the upper-left. The two heroes in the bottom right. And in-between them—right through the title—a slash and characters that look kind of like a splash of blood. An original and inspired composition.

I'm a big fan of animé art, but in the European case this doesn't work out nearly as well as I would like. The overall orange/red scheme could work, but the blue lettering and armor on the male protagonist makes for an unpleasant contrast. It's also unclear why the heroine has to wear red that is exactly the same color as the villain's beard. Plus, WTF is going on?
Final Verdict

I threw down the gauntlet earlier. If you were to take my personal rankings and apply points across the board, here are the results:

1st Place (2 Points)
2nd Place (1 Point)
Last Place (0 Points)
Castlevania III
Guardian Legend
Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu
Mega Man
Mega Man 2
Mega Man 3
Ninja Gaiden
River City Ransom
Shadow of the Ninja

As should be obvious, Japan dominated the completion. The United States and Europe ran a close race for second place, with the "victor" hedging out the other by an insubstantial amount of points.

Total Points (out of a possible 20)