Nintendo Power was an enormous resource when it came to helping NES owners determine what games were worth buying, renting, or better off skipping entirely.
However, not everyone was blessed enough to be a Nintendo Power subscriber, and there were very few other ways to determine a game’s potential attributes. The existence of online playthroughs and reviews that showed actual gameplay footage would still be decades away. Today, you can watch games being played, you can hear the music and in-game sound effects, and you can browse dozens of unbiased online reviews. There’s really no excuse for any modern gamer to purchase a game that might completely take them by surprise, in either a good or bad way, unless they intentionally avoid the multitude of media options that already cover the gaming industry.
In the late 1980s, your options were magazines, such as the aforementioned Nintendo Power, television advertisements, word of mouth, or simply browsing the titles available at any given time at your local retailer or rental store. It may seem like an antiquated method today, but I distinctly recall checking out games this way. For me personally, in 1986–1989, that would have either been Pamida, a small, now defunct, mid-western department store chain or Wal-Mart, the big-box retailer that moved into my Wisconsin hometown around this time and promptly ate Pamida up & spit it out.
To get my grubby preteen hands on these games, I would either tag along with my parents on their shopping trips, making a beeline towards the electronics section, or else I would jump on my bike with friends on the weekends or during summers. I used these opportunities to imagine what each Nintendo game laid out in front of me would be like to play, how the levels were designed or how the gameplay might be like. I now know stores like Toys R Us would only have laminated cards representing each game and you’d have to take the card of the game you wanted to look at and possibly buy to the counter before you could see it for yourself in person. However, I definitely recall having full access to the complete, shrink-wrapped NES games and their glorious, pixelated 8-bit era boxes located in these smaller chain stores during the early days of NES popularity.
This series of posts are meant to celebrate the preliminary years (1985–1987) of NES game boxes and what being able to touch them, turn them over, read the description and view the screen shots meant to a 12-year-old video game fiend with no money to actually spend. These will be the NES black box era games I have the most vivid memories of seeing in stores or in advertisements. These NES boxes sparked my imagination and led me to believe, correctly or incorrectly, that the games housed within the cardboard were magical adventures, realistic sports titles and reflex challenging platformers.
The original set of first party games released for the NES were known as the “black box” titles due to their uniform appearance. Each box had a black background with a drawn representation of the game’s sprite-heavy graphics on the upper half. The bottom half was divided by the game’s title, printed in colorful block lettering while pointing diagonally towards the upper right corner and the words Nintendo Entertainment System (circled in red) underneath. In the lower left corner was the game’s “series” designation, a one or two word descriptor meant to provide the potential buyer with a clue as to what game genre would best fit. Action, sports, programmable, arcade, light gun, robot or the infamous education series were the varieties available for these black box titles. The adventure series wouldn’t be introduced until Nintendo added a new color pattern, silver, in 1987, but that’s for another post.
No discussion of Nintendo black box games would be complete without introducing the granddaddy of them all, Super Mario Bros. Part of the action series, Super Mario Bros. was of course the pack-in for many versions of the NES, either as a stand-alone game or as part of the Duck Hunt dual pack or Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet triple pack. The box art itself is fairly generic as the black box titles tend to be. However, Nintendo chose to represent the now iconic plumber as something other than his normal jump-suited/red-capped, mustachioed self. The Mario image chosen for the box art is the fireball version, which changes his uniform and cap to white while his shirt/hair/moustache changes to red.
In gameplay terms, this is the visual clue that Mario can throw fireballs as an alternative weapon to jumping on enemies. Of course, the artist chose to draw the sprite of a jumping Mario more dramatically, with a fireball directly in front of him, indicating it had just been thrown. There is also a wall block that Mario is apparently supposed to be jumping onto with lava licking his boot heels. This is clearly a suicide pose for Mario, intended to get that perfect shot for the box cover. Who knew that Mario was such a martyr for the sake of his art?
On the back of the box, you are treated to a much more accurate description of this iconic game. The challenge has been laid in front of you. “Do you have what it takes to save the Mushroom Princess?” There’s no mention of the name the Mushroom Princess would eventually go by, Princess Peach, nor is there any mention of your eternal nemesis, Bowser. Instead Bowser is referred to as the Koopa King, the king of the turtle tribe. The four screen shots used for the back of the box show off a nice variety of gameplay and worlds. The largest shot in the upper right is of Mario jumping in world 2-3. That’s the level where the red Cheep-Cheeps fly up from below.
Additionally, there are smaller screen shots from castle level 1-4, where Mario is jumping over one of the fake-Bowser’s fireballs, level 4-2, where Mario can be seen jumping yet again, this time onto one of the rising platforms, and finally level 7-2, which is a water level, so Mario isn’t jumping for once. The box does a good job of showing the wide variety of world and level types representing above ground, underground, water and dungeon levels. Overall, it’s a very simple, yet effective box that certainly shows off the type of graphics, gameplay and excitement of Super Mario Bros.
Pro Wrestling, part of the sports series, was another game that really caught the eye early on in the NES life cycle. The front of the box art offers an excellent representation of the look and feel of real wrestling action, characters and special moves, with the glaring exception of “who the hell is that wrestler with the red and yellow boots and mask?!?!” There is no character in the game that looks like that, which is confusing since the actual wrestlers in the game were likely programmed by the time the box art was commissioned for drawing. As kids, we all assumed that is what the game’s final wrestler, Great Puma, looked like since none of us could actually reach him to find out. Whoever he is, he looks cool in contrast to the other wrestler, Fighter Hayabusa, with his generic black boots and black wrestling trunks.
“Now real wrestling action is at your fingertips!”
Indeed, the back of the box intends to show off the real action that players of Pro Wrestling might expect, along with the variety of wrestlers you could choose from and the moves they can pull off. The larger photo in the upper right once again features Fighter Hayabusa, this time performing a Brain-Buster on the fuchsia-clad Starman. The three smaller screens on the bottom show King Slender, with his long blonde locks, taking on creepy, green merman The Amazon, who is performing one of his special moves, the Outlaw Choke, while outside of the ring. King Slender turns the tables on The Amazon by performing his special move, the Backbreaker on another screen picture and the final screen shot is of King Slender flying through the air, about to perform the Flying Body Attack from the upper left corner post on Kin Corn Karn.
Only Hulk Hogan wannabe, the suntanned within an inch of his life Giant Panther, and of course the elusive final wrestler, Great Puma, are not represented on the box art. Nevertheless, the Pro Wrestling box was a winner with its inclusion of detailed character sprites and special moves clearly identifiable. The box certainly was enough to sell me on its charms back in ’87 as it was one of the first games I asked for when I got my NES that Christmas.