Back before they were just putting Sonic into various Mario games on Nintendo consoles, SEGA (short for SErvice GAmes) used to make video game consoles of their own — I wrote a thing about the Dreamcast last September, so if you want to read more words I typed about defunct video game consoles, you can click that link and do so.
Anyways, the first of Sega’s consoles that I became aware of was the Sega Master System. It was basically the outside-of-Japan release of the Sega Mark III, but I’ll let you do your own research to learn more about that. The SMS got a couple of re-releases in the United States, the best of which was hands-down the Sega Master System II, which had a built-in game. That’s right, if you turned the game on without a cartridge in it, you could play Alex Kidd in Miracle World, an action platformer in the vein of Super Mario Bros. But I’m not here to talk about the pluses and minuses of the console itself — I never owned one, and only ever got to play one a handful of times. It wouldn’t make sense for me to talk about the virtues of video games I’ve never played.
But I can talk about box art! And holy cow, does the Sega Master System have some insane highs and lows in that department. According to Wikipedia, there were 313 games released for the SMS. Nobody is interested in me giving my opinions on that much box art (nor do I want to write that much), so I’ve narrowed it down to the dozen or so that stuck out to me.
First, let’s look at some highlights:
Sonic the Hedgehog should be immediately-recognizable to anybody who’s played video games after 1991. The Master System version wasn’t quite as robust as the Genesis/Mega Drive version, but it’s a decent enough game. Sonic himself is lifted directly from the European release of the 16-bit game, and the background looks like the first stage in the game, and it’s on the iconic white-grid Master System template. This is great.
Vigilante has some cool comic book-style art. The guy in nunchucks wearing overalls is a little strange, but his mullet is period-appropriate, and he’s punching a dude that looks like a late 80s/early 90s thug, while also holding a pair of nunchucks. A simple city backdrop is behind them, over the white grid. It’s silly, but with a name like “Vigilante” and that image, you probably know what you’re getting into.
Phantasy Star was Sega’s big RPG franchise. The airbrushed painting is great. I get it, it’s a fantasy game with knights and wizards and monsters. And the art is pretty solid. That metallic 80s lettering for the logo is top-notch.
So there’s some cool art. But they’re definitely amongst the best on the console. So let’s look at what some more average box art looked like:
Oh boy. That went downhill pretty quickly.
I mean, the painted Wonder Boy in Monster Land art is decent, and the airbrushed Ailen Syndrome art is fine. And TECHNICALLY there’s nothing wrong with that OutRun art, as it’s a decent representation of the game — You drive in a red sports car along the Miami Beach coast where there are palm trees. So.. sure?
But there’s no real backgrounds to speak of, it’s all just clip art on the white grid background. And all of them have the same font (Modern TwoSxtn ITC Std, if you’re curious). And the black grid lines just intersect the text, making it harder to read? It’s bare bones graphic design. Although, considering the time these games came out, Photoshop didn’t exist (I’m not even sure QuarkXPress existed), so the designers at Sega were probably doing the best they could with whatever they had built in to their mid-to-late-1980s computers.
So now we get into…well, just take a look:
Space Harrier was one of Sega’s biggest arcade hits. And it’s not that the drawing shown isn’t…accurate?… to the game. But, wow. It makes the 1985 arcade masterpiece with a killer soundtrack look like little kid’s art class project.
Black Belt‘s art is pretty boring, with a foot that wouldn’t be too out of place in those Fido Dido 7Up commercials. But it’s a kicking foot with an impact star behind it, and the title of the game is pretty straight forward. It’s a karate game. If you like karate, you might want to check this out. Simple, but not really offensive, I guess?
I have no idea what My Hero is, but holy fucking shit this art. Is that guy getting punched so hard that he now has two mouths? Like, seriously, what is going on there? Also, is he a punker or a pirate? The mohawk says punk, but did we really need him to have a red-and-yellow-striped tanktop? Couldn’t it have just been ONE of the colors? And is that a Jolly Roger tattoo on his shoulder, or just a general poison warning? Is this guy radioactive?
It’s very rare that a game cover makes me curious about a game, but My Hero has absolutely done just that. But I’m afraid the game will not live up to the majesty that is this box.
So here’s a fun comparison. I’ve found three games with similar subject matter, and VERY different box art:
Look, I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but seriously: which of these three ninja-inspired games are you going to play based on just the box art?
I don’t know what The Ninja is, but I swear that art was done by someone sitting at his desk with a pack of 16 Crayola color markers (I would say 8, but I think you only get grey in the 16).
Shinobi is one of Sega’s classic franchises. The airbrushed art on this belongs up with the Alien Syndrome and Wonder Boy boxes. It’s solid, you get that you’re playing as a ninja, and actually the game’s title is in its own font. So that’s cool.
But then there’s just the masterpiece of Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden art. The burning city, ninja battling on the rooftops in the background, a fucking amazing Dragon, burning oil drums… it’s just majestic, and if not the best piece of Sega Master System box art, it’s definitely up there.
Okay, I’m sure some of you know that I saved the best for last. Or maybe the worst, I dunno. Check this out:
Just… what the fuck? Did this guy rip his OWN head off to put himself in a headlock? Does he have like a giraffe’s neck that he bent around backwards? Is he a headless wrestler and his opponent is just a head?
Between Pro Wrestling and My Hero, I just have so many questions!
I actually really like that Sega had the foresight to give all of their games the same white grid aesthetic. It helped make the games stand out amongst the complete rainbow vomit of other video game box art at the time. White with a grid? That’s gotta be Sega! And the genre tags in the corner are helpful, in case the game’s name isn’t as obvious as Black Belt.
And when their follow-up console, the Genesis hit the US, the first few years of boxes for those games were all black with grey gridlines. So it was fairly consistent within the company!
But despite the consistent template these boxes share, there’s almost no consistency amongst the art itself, and it just looks awful compared to its competition. Do a Google Image serch for “worst NES box art,” and look at how much better ALL of it is than the majority of what we’ve seen here today. Even the horror that is Mega Man 1‘s art.
Is it any wonder the Sega Master System was nobody’s… Hero?