‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is an old adage that we’ve all heard time and time again. But why stop at books? For as long as video games have been sold in a physical form, artists and marketing teams have put their minds together to create some of the most outstanding, colorful, and eye-catching box arts. These can range from vibrant, colorful worlds, all the way to simplistic, minimalist designs that say a lot by saying very little at all.
Representing an entire game in one image is by no means an easy task. Designers must work meticulously, ensuring they’re including a whole range of different things such as main characters, environments, enemies etc. to produce an effective way of letting the player know what they’re getting for their money before they even start playing. For the most part, these designs hit the mark.
As with any promotional material, however, not all of these designs hit the mark. While it is true that many do their job as being a ‘face’ for the game, many are met with valid (and occasionally invalid) criticism, from fans and journalists alike. As a result, we’ve taken a look back and picked out 15 box arts that were met with some controversy in one way or another.
15 Unfairly Accused
Far Cry’s fourth installment in the franchise’s main series attracted very positive reviews from game critics. Unfortunately for Ubisoft, the game’s cover art was not met with similar acclaim. Some fans and news sites noted that the cover appeared to depict a white man (presumably the player) sitting on a desecrated statue while resting his hand on a darker-skinned man who was kneeling beside him.
Naturally, many claimed that this depiction was racist and unacceptable for the game’s cover art. Before things got too out-of-hand, however, the creative director of Far Cry 4, Alex Hutchinson, set things straight on Twitter. “He’s not white and that’s not the player” Hutchinson bluntly noted, putting a firm stop to any rumors circulating that the game’s cover art was racist or unacceptable.
14 Offending All Of Britain
Valve’s acclaimed Left 4 Dead 2 wasn’t afraid to go for a more gruesome approach with regards to their cover art. Blatantly featuring a human hand with three fingers chewed off was a bit too much according to the ESRB, and Valve was asked to change the cover.
Valve fixed the problem by simply bending the two leftmost fingers backward, behind the hand, leaving only the thumb chewed off. It’s unclear as to why the ESRB deemed one chewed-off finger more acceptable than three, but it worked, and thus the cover we’re all familiar with came to be.
In the UK, however, this still wasn’t enough. Valve needed to change the cover further by turning the hand around since, in the UK, two fingers facing someone is the equivalent of giving the middle finger in the US.
13 Game Over For Game Over
The 70s and 80s were a sensitive time for video games. People weren’t exactly sure what you could and couldn’t get away with just yet. Things that would seem relatively fine nowadays were extremely frowned upon back then, such as something as simple as running over zombies with a car (as was the case with 1976's Death Race).
Even by today’s standards, however, this next game caused went a bit too far with its marketing. In 1987’s Game Over, the character Gremla can be seen on the cover with a bit too much on show. Through her clothing, Gremla’s chest is clearly visible.
The inlay artwork, which also features the same art, appeared on the cover of American magazine Heavy Metal, where it was unsurprisingly complained about. Despite the controversy, readers of Crash magazine voted for Game Over enough to honor it with the awards for 'best advert' and 'best inlay' of the year.
12 Fighting For Ellie
No-one can argue that Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was a darn-near-perfect game. From the beautiful graphics to the loveable characters, everything was looking great for the studio. Luckily, upon release, everything did go smoothly. But apparently, the box art of all things received some pushback in the lead up to the release date.
According to Naughty Dog’s creative director, Neil Druckmann, the developer was repeatedly pressured to change the box art before release. The reason? People higher up thought the game might not sell as well if it had the female protagonist (Ellie) at the front of the packaging. According to Druckmann, they were repeatedly asked to remove her, or at the very least push her to the back. Naughty Dog didn’t back down, however, and the cover was eventually greenlit.
11 A Doomed Return
While on the subject of characters on game covers, this next entry comes courtesy of the Doom reboot (pictured right). With many outlets straight up calling the box art “terrible”, it’s not hard to see why.
Anyone familiar with Doom will know of Doom’s expansive, immersive worlds combined with the fierce enemies and hellish aesthetic. This is why, when the cover was revealed to be a generic robot soldier standing amongst what appears to be a fire and some embers, people didn’t really think it encapsulated the thrilling nature of the game. Perhaps it’s too generic, perhaps it doesn’t really show the game to its full potential, maybe it’s just... terrible.
Whatever the reason, people couldn’t quite believe the trailer that was revealed alongside the cover art was so good in comparison, almost as if the studio or executives assume cover art just doesn’t matter anymore.
10 The Case Of The IGN Logo
Graphic design is by no means an easy task, and we’re not trying to pretend it is. People get paid thousands to make something look good, and we’re glad they do, because most of the time, they do a wonderful job. But hey, we’re all only human, right? Sooner or later, even the most professional of us are going to make little mistakes.
For the North American release of Okami on Nintendo Wii, whoever was putting together the cover art for the game made a slight oversight. If you look closely next to Amaterasu’s mouth, you can see a small IGN watermark in plain sight. It’s unclear as to how this error went unnoticed, but Capcom made up by rewarding affected customers with free hi-res replacement covers, completely free of charge.
9 Not Historically Accurate
Controversy emerged over this World War I shooter’s cover art after it was revealed to feature a black man on it. Now, this is all fine and good, but many people noticed that if this took place in World War I, wouldn’t it be far more appropriate to feature a German, a Hungarian, or even a Russian man on the front instead of a black man? Especially considering America didn’t even enter into WWI until a few months before it concluded, many were left puzzled at this decision.
While Battlefield 1 definitely held up as a solid entry into the Battlefield franchise and was met with critical acclaim from players and critics alike, it’s a shame a bit more thought wasn’t put into the cover.
8 He Can't Get No Respect
We’ve all had disagreements before. It’s inevitable. Sometimes two people just don’t get along, they fall out, it happens. But what’s the pettiest thing you’ve ever done? Given them the silent treatment? Gossiped about them to your friends? Removed their name from a franchise they started? If number 3 didn’t sound familiar, your name mustn’t be Konami, because that’s exactly what the company did to Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima when they released the ninth game in the series: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
In the lower left of the box art, you can see Kojima's logo has been removed in the final box art (pictured right). This all took place after Kojima left the company. Did they think they could just remove the name of the guy who started the series from the cover and no-one would bat an eye? Of course not, people were mad and rightly so, calling the move extremely disrespectful.
7 Come On, This Just Looks Bad
Different regions around the world react better and worse to different things. That’s why we have regional variations in video games. Characters such as Crash and Spyro were changed in Japan to appear more friendly to players over there, as that’s what sold more. This can even extend to cover art. While many changes are fair enough, some are just very questionable.
Ico is perhaps one of the most famous examples of this. The original Japanese version (pictured right) of the cover art is minimalistic, mysterious, and expansive. The North American version (pictured left), on the other hand, is cluttered, lacks any real focus, and overall just poor and confusing. Sony Japan’s Vice President even stated that a better box art for a North American release of Ico would have likely sold more. Ouch.
6 He Didn't Deserve To Be On The Cover
EA planned to release NHL 16 with hockey players Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the front in September 2015. Kane had previously appeared on two previous installments in the NHL series.
Just over a month before the game was released, however, Kane became the subject of an assault investigation. Naturally, as with any incident of this nature, a company such as EA would not want to associate themselves with all of the negative attention Kane was attracting. Furthermore, they absolutely would not want to be misconstrued as promoting or advocating Kane’s alleged actions.
As a result, EA made a statement. They announced on Twitter that they would be removing Kane from the cover and no longer consider him a spokesperson for the game as a result of the ongoing investigation, leaving just Toews on the cover holding a silver trophy.
5 Twin Towers, Too Soon
Spooky coincidences are everywhere. They’re hard to miss if you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet. We’ve come to accept and ignore most of them, but some still surprise us to this day.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 was released in the year 2000, one whole year before the tragic events of 9/11. That is why it is even more surprising, upon further inspection of the game’s box art, so see what appears to be a plane flying towards them.
In fact, there’s no “appears to be” about it, that plane is clearly flying directly towards them. Naturally, after the attacks, the cover and any other promotional materials surrounding the game were altered. Probably for the best, you know how these conspiracy theory types get.
4 A Vixen On The Cover Of Vixen
In the 1980s, releasing a video game with a woman wearing very little clothing was risqué enough, but Martech Games went one step further by releasing platforming game Vixen. The woman on the cover was already wearing revealing clothing, but it emerged that she was actually Corinne Russell, a UK model who frequently took part in shirtless photoshoots for a national newspaper.
Of course, the revealing nature of the woman attracted a lot of controversy. One store simply refused to even stock the game. After all of this controversy, the UK developer decided it would be better to just change the cover and re-issue it, ensuring it looked less provocative. A gaming magazine that was released around the same time that featured a slightly different version of the game’s cover saw a huge boost in sales... for some reason.
3 Putting Men At The Forefront
Earlier in the article, we discussed the Naughty Dog team making the conscious decision to place Ellie, the female protagonist, as the main face on the box art, despite the decision being heavily contested by executives. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate must have wanted to avoid this slight pushback from publishers by going in the complete opposite direction.
The box art for this game featured both Jacob and Evie on the cover. Cool, they’re both protagonists within the game, no issues there. But you’d never think that by looking at the cover. Jacob is unquestionably front and center here, despite both him and Evie having an equal role in the game, leading many to call the cover misogynistic. Oh, but don’t worry, Evie’s there... in the background... with the other characters.
2 This Cover Doesn't Do The Game Justice
Dudes. Dudes with guns. Occasionally, a dude with a gun fighting another dude with a gun. Sound familiar? It should, it’s apparently every contemporary action, open-world video game box art according to many. BioShock Infinite caused some controversy after such a well-thought-out, imaginative, and intriguing game was summarised and portrayed as “angry dude holding a gun” on the game’s box art.
Haven’t we seen that before? Yes, we have. Many times. And people weren’t happy about it. This goes back to the entry of Doom–how can such an immersive and entertaining game with so many likable characters and environments be portrayed as the most generic thing imaginable? If you ask any executive, they’d probably tell you it’s because it sells well. What an age we live in.
1 This Seems A Little Barbaric
With many of the games on this list, the controversy appears to arise from simply the cover. With Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, however, the entire thing was criticised for its content, cover and all.
The gameplay was criticised for being far too violent, with one attack decapitating the enemy. Combined with the larger sprite sizes than normal, many felt this was far too graphic for a video game.
The cover was also criticised, mainly in the UK, as it features a woman wearing very little clothing. Back in the 80s, video games were seen as pieces of media to be enjoyed solely by children, and featuring such objectified women on the front of the box art was almost unheard of. Naturally, however, this controversy boosted the game’s sales, and it went on to become a commercial success. This stuff sells, people.