From cartridges to complete-in-box to sealed games, prototypes, signage, kiosks, and even clothing, there exists a vast wealth of niche sectors in video games that collectors can delve into when building their sanctuaries of gaming paradise. As someone who was born in the late 1980s and grew up in the Pokémon card era, I had a natural inclination for collecting things. When I first ventured into video game collecting, it was on the heels of a comic book collection that I had built on and off since high school. Early sealed and complete game finds quickly drew me in, but as I immersed myself further, one category ticked all the boxes and distilled the essence of what I loved about retro video games: original video game art.
So, What Is Original Video Game Art?
When we say “original video game art,” we mean artwork that is traditionally handmade by an artist for reproduction onto game boxes, advertisements, magazines, and signage. These pieces are all one of a kind—original—and are important pieces of cultural history.
If you were lucky enough to grow up in the 1980s and 1990s, you will remember shelves of electronic sections filled to the brim with colorful video game boxes from the NES, Super NES, and Sega libraries. Back then, without YouTube or websites for kids to read game reviews, these boxes were often the first point of sale for a new game purchase. They were designed to attract the wandering eyes of children and their parents as they shopped for new games. What many fail to realize is that the artwork on these boxes—up to a certain period—was handmade by an artist with pencils, inks, and paints.
I distinctly remember the first time I laid eyes on a piece of original video game art: the box painting for Mega Man 7 (Greg Winters, Super NES, 1995) framed beautifully with an original game box matted below the artwork as a point of reference. Before that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the artwork on most Super NES boxes was actually handmade—or that it was in fact possible for private collectors to own the paintings. When an opportunity presented itself a few years down the road, I acquired the original painting to the obscure—and rather terrible—Super NES basketball/hiphop game, RapJam: Volume One (spoiler alert, there is no Volume 2). Despite the game’s poor reputation, I jumped at the chance to acquire a piece of original video game art from my favorite console era, and after seeing the richly colored, airbrushed artwork in person, I immediately knew there was no going back. I was hooked.
Why Can’t I Buy Art For [Insert Favorite Video Game]?
Many gamers and collectors grew up with and have nostalgia for similar games, especially mainstream titles from first-party franchises. With generally one box painting for any given game, I quickly realized that I would be in for a fascinating journey of discovery—and a lot of work if I wanted to acquire anything significant. To start, the demand for game art has substantially increased. Pieces that were once a few hundred dollars some fifteen years ago have skyrocketed into the tens of thousands due to increasing demand, nostalgia, and reverence for the retro-era aesthetic.
In one public example, the magazine cover painting for the December 1994 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, which features “Doom Guy” by the original Doom artist (Don Ivan Punchatz), sold for a mere $286.80 on Heritage Auctions in August of 2008. More than a decade later on September 25, 2020 it resold publicly for $38,889 through Heritage’s “Make Offer to Owner” program. The sale was a staggering amount at the time for any magazine cover piece, but the painting had all the hallmarks of success when one considers certain factors: the popularity of Doom, the fact that it was painted by the artist of the original game box, and the unavailability of the original box painting due to corporate ownership. In another interesting example, the original box painting for Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse flew under the radar and sold on Heritage Auctions in July of 2016 for $2,629. The piece has since received numerous public offers, with the most recent for $64,050, as of July 2021; the offer was not accepted. At the end of the day, these one-of-a-kind pieces of art are in short supply, and it should come as no surprise that collectors and aficionados will spend large amounts of money to acquire these exclusive items of video game history.
Next, the vast majority of original video game artwork is from the mid-to-late 1980s until the mid-to-late 1990s; however, much of this artwork is either corporately owned, didn’t survive, or simply doesn’t exist in traditional form due to the emergence of digital art in the late 1990s. Furthermore, even when companies kept the artwork they had commissioned for their game boxes (legally or otherwise), items from their archives were given away, stolen, or tragically dumped in the garbage when these companies moved or ceased operations.
Infamously, the late artist Bob Wakelin (Contra, Mr. Nutz), upon learning that much of his corporately-owned Ocean Software artwork was going to be dumped in the garbage after the company’s closure, made a mad dash to the company warehouse and rescued as much as he could. In a candid interview, Wakelin stated that he had recovered about 90% of his work, with the rest having already been dumped or taken. Even artists who retained their original artwork sometimes suffered losses. In an unfortunate case of bad luck, the late illustrator Greg Martin (The Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, Disney's DuckTales 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and 3) lost several important paintings to a flooded basement; both Felix the Cat and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were among the numerous pieces that could not be salvaged.
Adding to the difficulty, the artists for many pieces sadly remain unknown. Most commonly, box artists were freelancers hired through outside design studios, and as a result their names rarely made the credits of the games themselves regardless of their reputations as illustrators. The industry was simply work-for-hire and no different from any other illustration gig, unless an artist was specifically employed in-house on the development team—a more common occurrence in Japan with companies like SNK and Natsume but far rarer in North America (aside from Atari) and Europe. Fortunately, much of the important game art that has survived over the years was recovered over a decade ago by several individuals who had the foresight to recognize its cultural significance.
Art collecting is about patience, perseverance, and discovery, and the hobby is continuously evolving as new and important works surface in the secondary market for the very first time, such as the box painting for Bionic Commando (Frank Cirocco, NES, 1988).
Put Down Your Brush and Pick Up A Mouse, Why Don’t You?
Before the digital art revolution of the late 1990s, box art was created by professional illustrators who worked with traditional mediums, like pencils and paints on canvas or illustration board. As an example, the original art for the box cover of the aforementioned Mega Man 7 was created using a technique called airbrushing, a common style of the late 1980s and 1990s in which acrylic paint is sprayed through a high-pressure nozzle to create a fine mist and unique texture. Greg Winters, a prolific illustrator who is now retired, worked in this style for the vast majority of his career and he, like his colleagues mentioned previously, is responsible for many iconic game boxes that retro game enthusiasts know and love—Wild Guns, most Mega Man titles, Final Fight 2/3, and numerous other popular games.
As the internet age progressed and the industry digitalized in the late 1990s, it was much easier to advertise and market upcoming games to kids through avenues other than magazines. Marketing companies simply had less of a need to lure in buyers at the point of sale (the store shelf), thus the quality of box artwork suffered as the console generations progressed into the mid-2000s and young and eager art directors could easily and more often request changes after the art was completed. Most traditionally-trained illustrators found themselves between a rock and a hard place; they either had to learn digital techniques or switch careers entirely. For collectors, this unfortunately means that there are few games from this post-1995 era that have any traditional artwork at all for their boxes and advertisements. Fortunately, there are occasionally exceptions to this trend.
For any collector who is a fan of the Hitman series, most will remember the unique and iconic box art for the 2012 Xbox 360/Playstation 3 re-release of the original trilogy, Hitman HD Trilogy. In what is a rare occurrence today, Square Enix commissioned Canadian pop-culture artist, Jason Edmiston, to create a cover painting for the trilogy’s release. To date, this is Edmiston’s only piece of packaging art for video games, though he painted a poster piece for Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight—a Mondo collaboration that sadly went unpublished. While modern pieces of traditional game art do exist, they are now the outliers amongst their ubiquitous digital counterparts.
Paintings and Pencils and Photos, Oh My!
Much like movie poster and comic book art, video game art encompasses many different mediums and styles:
Painted Art: painted art collectively makes up most original video game art and, as a broad category, is as simple as it sounds. Common paint mediums include:
- Acrylic: acrylic paints are simple to use, durable, and resistant to moisture, and accordingly, the majority of art created during 1980s and 1990s was created using acrylics, which were commonly applied onto illustration board with a high-pressure device called an airbrush (previously discussed box art technique for Mega Man 7).
- Watercolor: this type of art, which is made with diluted water-soluble paints, yields a delicate, transparent color and is more commonly associated with Japanese artists, such as Akira Toriyama and his numerous watercolor paintings for Chrono Trigger.
- Gouache: similar to watercolor, gouache is an opaque, water-soluble paint that results in a more colorfully bold version of watercolor. An example would be the cover for the Resident Evil: Code Veronica novelization (Stephen Gardner art, Capcom/Pocket Books, 2001).
- Oil: the paintings of renowned fantasy artists Boris Vallejo (Ecco the Dolphin, Phantasy Star 4, Onslaught) and Julie Bell (Demon’s Crest, Super Valis IV, King of Dragons) are first-rate examples of oil paintings done for games. This medium requires significant skill to work with—and often much more time than commercial illustration jobs allow due to the time it takes oil paints to dry—but yields fantastically rich and durable results that can endure the ages. Oil paintings are a rarity in commercial illustration.
- Mixed Media Art: any artwork that uses two or more different types of medium or material can qualify as mixed media. Art that is sketched and finished digitally can be considered mixed media as well. An example of painted mixed media would be the art for Crazy Taxi (Mark Stutzman, Sega Dreamcast, 2000) which features a watercolor underpainting with gouache finishes applied by airbrush. Also, a fascinating example is the black box library for the NES; these are considered mixed media pieces and feature pasted-on construction paper cutouts with airbrushed embellishments—a style of art for game boxes that was very unique for the time and set Nintendo apart from its competitors during the video game revival of the late 1980s.
- Comic-Style Art: the covers of many Marvel/DC video games (Sunsoft’s Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge for the Super NES, The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback) feature comic-style artwork. In fact, many famous comic artists, like Neal Adams and John Romita, have created video game box art at some point in their careers. In the case of comic-style art for game boxes or magazines, the penciled/inked line art is considered to be the final artwork and is the most important piece of the process. The colored art is considered a production piece and is normally created by assistants using copied blue lines. These production pieces can also be very desirable and valuable but are ultimately considered less significant than the original conceptualized line artwork by the original artist/inker. The coloring process from the mid-1990s on is mostly digital.
- Anime-Style Art: Japanese-made games of the time sometimes feature anime-style artwork on their boxes or advertisements in both North America, Europe, and Japan. Artwork created in this style for advertisements and game boxes is called hanken 版権 (copyright). Pieces such as these are created by animation studios and are considered production assets made by a team of artists. These assets are often distributed into the secondary market when space becomes unavailable in the studio. In general, anime-style art made pre-2000 will be hand-painted on animation cels (acetate sheets) and will have all sorts of preliminary material associated with the final piece, like pencil drawings—the finals of which would be printed or hand-copied onto the acetate before painting. Artwork created post-2000 tends to be detailed pencil drawings that are digitally colored and finished rather than painted. Preliminary design sketches, called genga 原画 (original pictures), can also exist from both eras and be collected. These genga are often the works of senior animators. For collectors wanting Japanese-made game artwork, anime-style art is a more realistic goal than singular-illustrator paintings, or in-house Japanese artists.
- Photography: Kemco’s Phalanx for the Super NES is one comically classic example. Photographs of arranged clay sculptures also broadly fall in this category, such as the boxes for the Clay Fighter games for the Super NES and N64, though clay sculpture is a medium on its own, and one collectors may seek to collect.
- Digital Art: the medium of the vast majority of modern video game boxes post-1990s. The only way to collect digital box art is through some sort of print method, but it cannot be considered “original” video game art as no original piece exists tangibly. An early example of digitally rendered artwork for a video game box is Aero the Acro-Bat (Sunsoft, 1993) for the Super NES and Sega Genesis.
Box Art? Magazine Cover Art? What’s The Deal?
There are many categories of video game artwork, which presents collectors with numerous options to get unique pieces of history at many different price points. Accompanying the below descriptions are links to gallery categories on OVGA that showcase examples of those usage types.
- Box Art: also known as packaging art, this is the art that appears on the front (and sometimes back) of game boxes. Box art is often synonymous with the game itself and as such, tends to be the most valued for collectors.
- Advertisement/Magazine Art: the covers of video game magazines of the era, like Nintendo Power, GamePro, and Electronic Gaming Monthly, all feature some sort of artwork. Many of these magazines sported custom painted/drawn covers featuring video game characters. The majority of these magazines also have spot illustrations internally as advertisements for the popular games of the time. There can also be original artwork for official signage, store posters that advertise game releases, as well as official art for other promotional advertising. The vast majority of original video game magazine art that exists in the digital age is primarily done by comic-style artists who still draw by hand.
- Art for Unreleased Games: video games often go through years of development and some end up canceled before they hit store shelves. If a game made it far enough along the development cycle, artwork would be created for packaging and/or advertisements in preparation for release. These pieces of unreleased game art—much like video game prototypes—are fascinating relics of an age where many games existed only in rumor, that is until their prototypes and ephemera are discovered years later. Art from unreleased games can sometimes be found published in magazine articles or on convention flyers of the time, like those from the Consumer Electronics Show.
- Unpublished Box Art: much like comics, video games sometimes have multiple box covers made, either due to rejection of an initial piece or the artist creating multiple options for the job. Pieces such as these also offer a fascinating insight into the visual development of games. An example is the unused box painting for X-Men 2: Clone Wars (Christopher Moeller, Sega Genesis, 1995), which was rejected by Sega and repainted by Ken Steacy.
- Instruction Manual Art: many games often have custom artwork created for their manuals. These pieces can vary from full paintings to simpler black and white drawings. Manual art can be an opportunity for an eager collector to acquire some artwork from a favorite game without the higher price tag of box/advertisement art. Uniquely, the instruction manual for Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (Nintendo 64, 1997) features a mini-comic drawn by comic artist, Rafael Kayanan.
- Preliminary Art: typically, artwork goes through several phases of design before it gets to the final rendering, and often these preliminary drawings still exist. Styles of prelim pieces can range from rough pencil sketches to detailed drawings that resemble the final piece, as well as painted color roughs (these look most like the final artwork, but are smaller and less detailed). Preliminary pieces are an option to get art from a more established title or series for much less than a final piece; however, prelims for popular titles can still cost exorbitant amounts when compared to final paintings from more niche or obscure titles.
- Comic Book and Novel Art: popular franchise games will often have tie-in comics or novels associated with a more popular series (like Resident Evil), or one-off comics that were created as promotions for a game release, such as Twisted Metal 2 (Duncan Fegredo cover, DC Comics, 1996). Sonic the Hedgehog, as an example, has had exceptional amounts of artwork created for various comic runs in both North America and Europe.
- Licensing Art: companies often want popular video game characters, like Mario or Sonic, on their products to market them towards kids, so they acquire the license to do so. New artwork is typically commissioned for this specific purpose, or simply swiped from a style guide. Companies like Nintendo will send these style guides for the creation of new artwork so it adheres to their current visual standards. This type of artwork is normally featured on anything from birthday cards to toothbrushes, puzzles, and many other commercial items, including more involved projects like comic books and films. Similarly, magazines using official artwork would have had to license those images or have artists create new artwork according to guidelines from the copyright holders.
- Design and Concept Art: these types of pieces can be anything from painted concepts to level/stage/character designs. For collectors, pieces such as these are often more attainable financially but nevertheless significant in terms of a game’s developmental history.
Game Art Around the World
North American, European, and Japanese artwork is incredibly diverse stylistically, and it is often the case that Japanese artwork would find itself published on North American/European game boxes and vice versa. Artwork by Japanese illustrators (like Super Mario World, Super NES/Super Famicom by Yōichi Kotabe for example) is often unattainable for collectors; not only do many companies—like Nintendo and Blizzard—retain most of the artwork made for their own titles, it is said to be something of a cultural faux pas for Japanese artists to sell published artwork they may still possess. It is a rare case indeed when a piece of artwork for a first-party Nintendo-published title or advertisement makes it into private hands, and it’s often through irregular circumstances that a piece remains outside of the company archives. The first-party Nintendo and published Japanese game paintings that do exist in private collections are extremely rare and valuable treasures.
A New Era of Collecting
Switching gears to original art has been a wonderful adventure, and in this post-pandemic world, it is still incredibly exciting to be a video game collector. Whether we collect graded games, complete in box games, video game clothing, displays, or original artwork, ultimately we all belong to the same hobby and we all benefit by cross-pollinating and sharing our knowledge with each other.
Many thanks to Dan Maresca for being so generous with his endless amount of passion and knowledge, his contributions to the article, and for letting me constantly pick his brain on game art and collecting throughout the years. Also, many thanks to Sanford Hesler for helping me edit and clean up this article.
Want to chat about game collecting or how to get into the art hobby? Get in touch with me on Instagram (@the_game_curator) or come say hello in the Facebook group, Original Video Game Artwork Collectors.