Ten of the best pieces of art on Japanese Game Boy boxes

Ten of the best pieces of art on Japanese Game Boy boxes

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One of the best known secrets in the world of retro gaming is the high quality of art adorning the packing of Japanese video games, and the Game Boy was no exception. So picking a list of top examples should be pretty easy then, right?  

Well, with over 1000 games to choose from there are actually far too many titles to pick that deserve your attention, so we have done all the hard work for you and picked out ten titles that warrant your attention.  In the effort of delivering something new, we have also done our best to omit any Nintendo first party games as they are probably the most well known and who want´s to see endless Pokemon and Mario themed boxes?!

1. Spartan X – Irem, 1990 aka Kung-Fu Master

First up is a conversion of an arcade classic. Featuring 6 levels of fist flying and back-flip kicking action, you´re charged to take out 6 murderous bosses and their endless spawning goons in New York City.  For what´s rather unusual for the Game Boy this is a fairly easy game to play through, with the bosses being the only real challenge and even they can be rush attacked. It can make for a largely forgettable title, however, it´s the box art that really makes it stand out.

The cover presents a dramatic change from the cartoonish home console versions through the use of NYC in the background and the intimidating character design. The hero stands out with the use of full color and blue outline, with a pose and steely gaze that would make Bruce Lee proud whilst the five bosses lurk menacingly with their weapons and crimson eyes.

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Konami, 1990 (aka TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan)

It was incredibly tricky to pick one TMNT title, but the most striking one has to be the very first game. Whilst it is a simple side scrolling action game, the attention to detail in the characters on screen are hallmark Konami. It has a simple premise – rescue the damsel in distress (April O´Neil), but the execution is solid and provides enough fun for any turtles fan. One of the more interesting facts is that the composer was a one Michiru Yamane, who would later find fame by composing the soundtrack to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. A simple game yes, but with pedigree and quality flowing throughout.

The box art, whilst it the hallmarks of the original comics of Eastman and Laird, originates from Archie Comics. The publisher produced 72 issues of the TMNT and had its adaption of the first live action movie used for this game. Whilst the U.S. and EU versions have the same base artwork, the Japanese version has the thick black border and faces of the Footclan removed to ensure the Turtles with their defiant poses stand out.

3. Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-Kun: Bangai Rantou Hen – Technos Japan, 1990 (aka “Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio: The Further Brawls” and released as Double Dragon 2 by Acclaim in the West)

A sequel to the Famicom’s Nekketsu Kuoha Kunio-kun with the same artstyle as Downtown Nekketsu Montogatari, this release brought High School brawling to the Game Boy with a technically solid and down-right fun to play game that once again proved the versatility of the system. The ability to team up with a friend to pulverise your enemies into submission and protect Hanazona High School provides plenty of replayability, and with up to 5 additional moves there´s enough versatility to keep this game fresh.

The box art continued the chibi style from Downtown that would become the staple for the series, so fans knew exactly what they were getting (especially as there are no Hockey Sticks, Dodgeballs or Soccer balls in sight!). Kunio´s brash stance pops out from the borders of the city-scape and Riki crouching in the corner shed a light on the game to come and the possible relationship between the former rivals.

4. Game Boy Gallery 2 – Nintendo, 1997

The only game on the list with Mario on it (we did try our best to avoid him) but one of the biggest surprises!  Mario is joined by key characters from the series to continue celebrating the original the Game and Watch series, something Nintendo were keen to do in the late 90´s.  It included both the original and remake versions of Parachute, Helmet, Chef, Vermin, Donkey Kong and Ball, providing plenty of classic gaming fun

The characters here are enjoying themselves, a bit of a contrast to the western box art in which they are playing the games included on the cart. Using what is now the classic character design, the art draws you in with star power and then dazzles you with nostalgia in the form of the gold G&W. Plus, who can ignore the super cute Bowser tickling Toad, and Yoshi ready to knock him out with a hammer!

5. Ayakashi no Shiro – SeTa Corporation, 1990 (Castle of Ayakashi)

The first, but not last, Japan-only title in the list is a dungeon crawling RPG, similar to Wizardry. You take control of a Ninja named Hayabusa tasked by Oda Nobunaga to kill the Demon Lord Douman, whilst traversing 5 castles, so is more of a historical piece rather than your typical fantasy fare.

Deadly snakes, a sword wielding Shinobi, a fortress and a blood drenched marque banner all combine to make for one of most striking pieces of box art.  In the West, the Game Boy was mainly seen as a children’s toy, bar all adults ensuring a copy of Tetris was at hand ready to play when their kids went to bed, but a title like this shows that this was anything but the case in Japan. SeTa – take a bow!

6. Selection: Erabareshi Mono – Kemco, 1989 (aka Sword of Hope)

Another RPG, and another dungeon crawler for the list. This time, it is the Japanese version of the classic Sword of Hope.  Taking control of Prince Theo after he comes of age you are given the task of defeating his father, the corrupt and mad King Hennessy.  You move screen by screen to progress through the intriguing story, slowly levelling up and gathering the required strength to take down the King. All standard RPG fare in terms of story and gameplay. Yet, one of the element that makes it stand out from the rest of the RPGs, and the version in the West, is the delightful box art.  

It is hard not to see the connection to Akira Toriyama, with Prince Theo looking like he has arrived straight from a Dragon Quest adventure. The child-like and cartoonish representation of the game on the box is quite misleading, as it requires a solid understanding of RPGs and dungeon crawling mechanics in order to progress. Certainly a very young Dragon Ball fan would have some difficulties finding their way to complete this difficult game. Whilst we did get a sequel, Kemco decided to move away from the Dragon Ball style characters and settled for something a bit more mature, and unfortunately some magic was also lost.

7. Kaeru no tame ni kane wa naru – Nintendo R&D1/Intelligent Systems, 1992 (aka The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls)

There had to be something linking Zelda to this article, it felt almost inevitable. Here it is, in the form of the Japan-only action-adventure title developed by the legendary R&D1 team, in collaboration with Intelligent System (Fire Emblem fame).  Just from seeing 5 seconds of gameplay and a glimpse of the box art, it is clear which popular game this inspired. What is surprising is how the game has largely been forgotten by Nintendo except for the obligatory Smash Bros Ultimate spirit nod, When it comes to unreleased Game Boy games to pick up, this is always one of the top on a list and with the pedigree behind it, it´s easy to see why.

With a mixture of chibi anime (always a winner) and Studio Ghibli charm (multiply that winning), this box art demands your heart be stolen, and demands a pretty hefty ransom if you want to get it back.

8. Red Arremer: Makaimura Gaiden – Capcom, 1990 (aka Gargoyles Quest)

Hailing from the famous, and very tough, Ghosts n Goblins series, Makaimura Gaiden puts you in control of the Red Arremer (Firebrand) and his quest to become the predestined Red Blaze and take down King Breager.  The character is taken straight out of the original Ghosts n Goblins games in a spin-off that inspired a number of sequels across multiple platforms. The gameplay is more forgiving than its predecessor, giving you enough lives to learn what you are doing and some RPG elements that give you the chance to levels up the character and unleash hell on any unsuspecting ghoul. The wall climbing ability allows for a lot of vertical platforming and with the large sprites it stands out as a unique game on the system. There are some performance issues causing sprites to flicker and slow down during some boss battles, but otherwise it´s a fantastic game.

The box art is an excellent example of how mature some of the games on the Game Boy were positioned in the Japanese market, and it is in stark contract to the previous game mentioned on the list. In the west, Firebrand was represented by a green goblin, but here we see a mysterious creature hidden in flames and a color palette that gives you a sense of foreboding and hellish encounters.

9. Roadster – Tonkin House, 1991

We swing back again to the more cartoonish side of Game Boy box art and arrive at Roadster, a simple top down racing game from Tonkin House that has an abundance of cuteness hidden away in its packaging and box art.  Tonkin produced a string of simple to play yet whimsically packaged games on the system, with a heavy slant towards the Asian market. It meant, like a lot of games in the early 90´s, their titles rarely ever left the continent and failed to get the recognition they deserved.

The sports car evoke classic motoring and the lettering feels like it would adorn the back of a Ferrari or Cadillac in the 1960s, with the R looking like it is part of a race track. Tonkin House produced some great artwork for their games, even though they were always quite simple affairs, and they sit nicely next to the Nintendo sports-themed games boxes.

10. Side Pocket – DECO, 1990

We end with a port of the Data East classic, Side Pocket.  The Game Boy received a very capable version that was scaled down from previous versions, but it still produced a fun experience for any pub sports enthusiast. 

The box art looks like a scene taken straight out of a 50´s gangster movie, with the bow-tied player struggling to get out of being hustled. The finishing touches really give this box character, from the trilby wearing gangster, the helpful lady holding the other players cue and the game title set on top of a pool table. It´s by far one of the most unique boxes on the Game Boy and fully deserves a spot in this list.

Honorable Mentions

There are too many great titles to choose from, so here are some honorable mentions:

Fist of the North Star
Double Dragon
Navy Blue 90
Contra Operation C
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