An extremely interesting history of game packaging

It’s not hard to find articles poking fun at or cataloging the discrepancies of videogame box art. Hell, we’ve written our fair share and even have an annual “worst box art” feature that posts every December. But has anyone ever stopped to discuss the actual packaging said box art is printed on? How many of us really notice the subtle changes our boxes go through during each console generation? Have you noticed at all? Do you even care?

Of course you do. You love games enough to visit a site that’s known for writing about this exact kind of esoteric nonsense. In fact, you probably noticed how much the 360 and PS3 cases have changed in just the past year. So without further yammering let’s get into a big ol’ list of game boxes through the ages.

Atari 2600 – 1977

There are several potential starting points for this article, but for the sake of hitting the widest possible nostalgia group, let’s go with the Atari 2600. Unlike today, where boxes are rigidly uniform, the Wild West days of the 2600 led to nearly every company adopting its own style of box and cartridge. Imagine looking at a store shelf and trying to figure out which of these games plays on your system. Madness!

Above: Pac-Man and Haunted House exemplify early 2600 boxes, with the name and modes featured prominently

Above: Later, the style switched to silver boxes with huge art

Above: This silver variation worked its way in even later, with smaller art and tons of wasted space

Above: M Network released games with this dizzying design, plus its cartridges were unlike other 2600 games

Above: Imagic is supposedly gaming’s second third-party developer ever (the first being Activision), and it released 2600 games in shiny, reflective boxes

Above: Speaking of Activision, it made sure every game featured the company logo and its signature color wave

Above: “Adult” publisher Mystique placed its art on a grid, along with a warning to protect children from the cripplingly awful gameplay hidden inside

Believe it or not, this merely scratches the surface of 2600 packaging. Like we said, almost every company had its own presentation (and oftentimes its own unique cartridges), so that means there are roughly as many box types as there are ‘70s game companies. As we move forward, you’ll see this “every man for himself” attitude fade away – which would you prefer?

Nintendo Entertainment System - 1985

The next major touchstone would be the NES, which followed in the 2600’s chaos-riddled footsteps and allowed each company to print boxes as they saw fit. Even Nintendo failed to keep a consistent style throughout the system’s life, though it did begin with an iconic first run of games that all looked the same.

Above: The NES launch games mostly stuck to this specific formula – a game sprite in action, with diagonal game name and a “Series” designation in the corner

Above: When Nintendo introduced passwords with Metroid and Kid Icarus, it kept the sprite/diagonal look but changed the box to silver

Above: Which was kind of confusing once Konami shipped all its games in silver boxes as well

Above: Capcom began life on the NES with a weird floating grid, always behind a piece of character art

Above: Later, Capcom dropped the grid and put everything in a violet border

Above: Tecmo slapped a big red rectangle and logo on the bottom of its big hits, namely Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl

Above: Tengen (in between lawsuits) released games with a gold half-border

Above: As the years wore on, Nintendo adopted a fairly standard-ish red bar across the top of its games. Still, not every game used this approach

Above: Nintendo re-released classic games from the early days (maybe the first instance of “Greatest Hits” packaging), each stamped with “The Original” on the box

Above: For the most part though, companies could do whatever they wanted. Each game required a Seal of Approval, but even that could dance around the box

With such relative freedom, publishers could design very striking, very unique boxes that leapt out from the retail shelf. However, this wouldn’t be the case for much longer, as once Sega and Nintendo started going head to head, the need for a unified presentation was made quite clear.

Next up – Sega’s many attempts to find a consistent style


  • ackbarsoup - November 24, 2010 4:46 a.m.

    Great article! I swear I learn something new and interesting every time I come to Gamesradar :)
  • TheCakeIsaPie - November 22, 2010 2:15 p.m.

    Brett, you are my hero for making this.
  • zigs - November 22, 2010 10:57 a.m.

    100 comments and no one has pointed out the grievous error in this article!?! On the last page, the very last photo on the shelf of PS3 games, they appear in chronological order, but Ratchet and Clank is sandwiched between Soulcalibur IV and The Sims 3. AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A JOURNALIST?! THIS IS BULLSHIT! HOW MUCH DID MICROSOFT PAY YOU TO DO THAT!? WHERE'S YOUR INTEGRITY? (Loved the article though, I'm enough of a pedant that I did in fact find it extremely interesting!)
  • Darkhawk - November 21, 2010 2:40 p.m.

    What has always struck me about Gamecube cases is how, on the spine, the logo sits at the bottom. As a design choice, it also bugs me, because I would prefer more fluidity between PS2 logos to Xbox logos to Gamecube logos. On the Wii, it's back at the top again.
  • EsotericFerret - November 21, 2010 12:35 p.m.

    This was an awesome article, Brett. Definitely keep up this kind of material.
  • super0sonic - November 21, 2010 9:44 a.m.

    awww man been looking forward to this since it was mentioned on talkradar. It was very interesting and there was a few games with box are so interesting i had to goggle it like Capcoms Section-z and jaleco city connection.
  • tayls - November 20, 2010 10:35 p.m.

    Great article, and one that took me on a nostalgic journey. I obsessed over game packaging from the time I was a small child (maybe that's why I'm a graphic designer now?), and this is laid out beautifully. God, the first version of PS3 game packaging is bad. Just can't get over it to this day.
  • Backspacekilla - November 20, 2010 10:23 p.m.

    Awesome article! My fave is SNES's Super Metroid Box. By the way while were talking about cardboard lol. My favorite console box,unboxing ect,.. is the Japanese PS2 console box and unboxing soooo tech like and that new car smell. Mhmmm...
  • iFeastOnAntista - November 20, 2010 7:19 p.m.

    This is really incredible! How long did it take to write this article? I love this site. :D
  • dinoczar - November 20, 2010 5:51 p.m.

    outstanding article Brett, it is articles like this that keep bringing me back to this site. Very insightful and fun to read.
  • LaffPiranha - November 20, 2010 9:24 a.m.

    Much more interesting than I thought it would be. This article actually got me and my friend talking, in-depth, about the subject at hand. A great read.
  • Scotch - November 20, 2010 8:21 a.m.

    this was fucking awesome
  • WTeen8 - November 19, 2010 9:43 p.m.

    NSMBWii came in a red box, but otherwise.....
  • Asral - November 19, 2010 11:46 a.m.

    A very good and interesting article, but I think you largely left out the differences between boxes in different regions. For instance, in Europe, the PS1 boxes had the logo always on the bottom horizontally, and there were no ridges. There were also color differences between PS2 games, the older ones were in black cases while the newer ones were in blue ones. And the DS cases are also different, in Europe they are in white thick boxes unlike in US or Japan, one of the reasons why I usually buy my DS games from abroad
  • shnazzyone - November 19, 2010 8:49 a.m.

    wow, that was damned thorough. The earlyest examples are interesting. It's madness coming to order over time. It really makes today's gaming seem dull by comparison.
  • TeaserTuesday - November 19, 2010 4:14 a.m.

    Very glad he mentioned the color-specific sides for the N64 cases. Oh and that the first 2 Xbox examples are 2 of the best games ever.
  • Valntyne - November 19, 2010 2:57 a.m.

  • gunslinger19 - November 19, 2010 2:05 a.m.

    I still like the old PS3 cases better.
  • 8bitBaby - November 19, 2010 1:41 a.m.

    wh-what?! " So now half the games are white, and the other half are black. Looks quite a mess on a shelf unless you split them up" WHAT?! why they gotta be segregated maaaaan?! what's wrong with mixing a little... black and white cd cases living in mixed cd case harmony?! i don't think i like your racist game case world, Brett... NOT ONE BIT. XDD
  • CanadianBeaverHunter - November 19, 2010 12:18 a.m.

    That was much longer than I expected. Good work.

Showing 1-20 of 102 comments

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