Continuing the topic of the early Nintendo black box titles and their box art, I wanted to quickly highlight a few more from some of the other series that really caught my attention in the 80s, such as the light gun, programmable and arcade series.
Arcade series games were self-explanatory. These were familiar titles with the exception of Donkey Kong 3, that I had enjoyed in arcades prior to the arrival of the NES. However, the light gun and programmable series were a bit of a mystery to me. I had never before used a light gun in any form or fashion and the concept of aiming a plastic toy gun at a television screen and having it respond to your actions seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. I couldn’t wait to try it out! Even more incredible to me, however, were the games in the programmable series. From what I understood, I could manipulate the game’s levels to my own desires and whims and then actually play them, essentially creating a new game each time I pressed power on the cartridge. What a concept!
As an avid fan of arcade games, then and now, the idea of getting the latest and greatest arcade titles at home wasn’t anything new in 1986, but certainly no one could deny how GOOD these Nintendo ports of arcade games looked! One particular game caught my eye, however, and that game was Mario Bros. Mario Bros. was one of the few games located in the entrance to my local grocery store for months and months, draining quarters from me and my friend’s pockets after school, on weekends and during the summer of 1986-1987. Seeing the box for Mario Bros. staring back at me from the shelves immediately told me that the NES was a console that would have at least one game that I would thoroughly enjoy.
Something I didn’t notice back then, but do now, is that the artist for the “Mario Bros.” box art didn’t exactly follow the proper color scheme for our favorite plumber’s attire. On the box, Mario is wearing a light blue shirt under blue suspenders and a blue cap as opposed to the red shirt and cap that he wears in the game itself. Clearly this mistake has no bearing on the gameplay within but I thought it was worth a mention.
“You’ll need lightning-fast reactions to get out of this pipeline adventure alive!”
As for the back of the box, this is where an arcade title needed to shine in order to show off how close it looked to what we were used to seeing in the arcades and I think “Mario Bros.” shows well. Considering it’s a single screen game without much variation in stage appearance beyond the enemies and hazards that are present in each “phase”, Nintendo used the screen shots to effectively show off the two player co-op action. On all back of the box screen shots for “Mario Bros.”, with the exception of the shot of the game menu, both Mario and Luigi are present. In addition, you get to see the turtles, crabs, fighterflies, as the back of the box calls them, and the slippery results of those nasty slipice. One of the screen shots shows off an example of a bonus phase where Mario and Luigi compete for coins, attempting to get them all before the timer runs out. Overall, “Mario Bros.” is a great game box that sold me on the system’s ability to provide the most realistic arcade action.
While Duck Hunt and to a lesser extent, Wild Gunman and Hogan’s Alley, were the light gun games that most NES owners gravitated towards, there was one additional light gun game that fascinated me at the time. Gumshoe sold itself as a light gun platformer which made my head spin, wondering how Nintendo would be able to pull that off. The long and short of it was, they couldn’t, but that didn’t matter to my fascinated and curious childhood mind.
“You’ll have to shoot fast to get out of this Light Gun game alive!”
The Gumshoe box cover showed a bearded, yellow jacket and hat wearing character (the titular gumshoe) leaping into the air with an orange balloon hovering behind him and a very Bowser-like green dinosaur/monster shooting what appears to be a fireball back at the gumshoe. Right off the bat, the similarities to Super Mario Bros. have to be noted and can’t be assumed coincidental. Fortunately, “Super Mario Bros.” was an arcade phenomenon and sold many early NES consoles so utilizing the Mario craze to sell a light gun game with a similar look and feel was just smart development and marketing.
Once you turn the box over to view the back, Gumshoe continues to draw inspiration from the Koopa smashing plumber’s epic adventure. There are screen shots showing the gumshoe leaping from cloud to cloud, swimming in shark infested waters and fighting a nasty looking monster. In effect, this game looks quite fun—that is, until you actually play it. As one could surmise in retrospect, using a light gun to keep your perpetually moving character out of danger by both shooting at upcoming hazards and forcing him to jump was quite a difficult task; some would say nearly impossible. Nevertheless, when I look at the box art for Gumshoe, all I see is a Super Mario Bros. clone, and in 1985, there was nothing wrong with imitating the best game around.
Finally, we have a title from the aforementioned programmable series, Mach Rider. Most people immediately think of Excitebike when the programmable series is mentioned. However, Mach Rider is the game that caught my eye thanks to cool looking box art. The front of the box features a nicely detailed sprite of a helmeted (safety first!) guy on a motorbike, viewed from behind. The “mach rider” appears to be in some sort of desert environment as the ground is sand-colored and there looks to be a cactus in the background.
Like the rest of the black box titles, the back of the box once again sells the game with its descriptions of the action taking place within the cartridge and colorful, exciting screen shots. One screen shot seems to take place in the same sandy environment that appears on the cover, with a purple sky (seemingly a common theme regardless of the level) and various shades of beige to represent the track and the sides of the course. The other two levels shown on the back imply there is both an ice/snow course as well as an urban course. The only indication that the upper right course might be urban is the destroyed cityscape in the background that you race towards. The ice/snow course screen shows what appears to be an explosion occurring on the course itself, highlighting the mortal danger your character is in throughout these races. While these photos are nice to look at, the real draw for Mach Rider was always going to be the promise of creating and playing a course that you design yourself. The fourth screen shot on the lower left shows off the course design screen.
“It’s a thrilling race to save the planet – on a course you can create yourself!”
The individual who created this particular course must have been a bit of a masochist as it is one of the most twisty, curvy courses you could ever dream up. I wouldn’t wish a course this difficult on my worst enemy, but it sure works for showing what a Mach Rider owner could do with a little creativity and bravery. I wouldn’t become a Mach Rider owner for a couple decades after first spying this game in stores in the 80s, and of course, while it is fun, it’s a bit underwhelming like many black box titles tend to be in retrospect. But in 1986, there likely wouldn’t have been anything that could deter my enthusiasm for this console and it’s wonderfully simple black box titles.