The box art for the North American release of the original Mega Man is notorious. Behold its glory:
Much has been written about it over the years, but not by me, so I wanted to go on the record for enthusiastically loving this artwork. And not in any kind of ironic or sarcastic way, either.
The story goes that when Capcom was getting ready to release Mega Man in the North America market, the American side of the company didn’t want to go with Capcom’s Japanese style artwork, which had a cartoony, cute, kid-friendly anime look to it.
Now, there’s really nothing at all wrong with the Japanese artwork, and as it turns out, American kids love Japanese cartoons. Even if the art style looks like it would appeal more to very young children, I’m not sure that it would have turned off older children. But, looking to appeal to 12-16 year old American boys, Capcom USA probably wanted something with more muscle and scowl.
The story goes, Capcom US rushed a replacement, giving the artist assigned to do the work like a day to turn it around, and the artist had never seen the actual game, and only had a vague idea of what it was about. But none of that excuses the apparent lack of artistic skill displayed by the guy who whipped out the colored pencils and drew this proportionless, perspective-free monstrosity.
The people at Capcom must have a good sense of humor about the whole thing, because over the years they’ve embraced “bad box art Mega Man” and paid homage to it numerous times. And that’s exactly the right attitude to have about it. Today, it’s remembered and talked about far more than the cover art for any other game.
I didn’t hear about Mega Man until after Mega Man 2 came out, in 1988. But Mega Man 2 almost didn’t happen. The original didn’t sell very well in the States (I wonder why?) and the sequel only got produced because the developers believed in it so much that they snuck it into their spare time, working on it when they could, without formal approval from their bosses.
Mega Man 2 is one of the best games ever released on the NES, and was an absolute blockbuster when it came out. I read the full-length review in Nintendo Power magazine, and immediately knew that this was a game to buy. It was definitely my favorite game after I played through it. It was incredible: great music, huge graphics, challenging and fun.
Being a sequel, I also sought out the original. I found a copy at my local Toys R Us a few weeks later, and bought it. I looked at the box art, and thought it looked awful, but I didn’t let that dissuade me from paying for it, because I knew how awesome MM2 was. I didn’t expect it to be quite as good, but if it was only half as good as Mega Man 2, it would still be worth the money. Spoiler: it was.
I didn’t understand why Capcom would have chose this art, this art style. It didn’t make good business sense — I’m sure the poor cover art must have hurt sales. It looked like a crude piece of fan art drawn by a small child. And that’s what I actually thought it was, for a long time. But how could there be fan art for something brand new that hadn’t been seen by any fans yet? Could it have been a reissue done as some sort of contest for the fans?
Maybe it was just one of the guys who worked on the game had a young kid who drew it as a picture of what daddy does at work all day. And daddy was so proud of what his little boy had done, he couldn’t not put it on the cover.
I didn’t find out the true story until many years later. But over time, I grew to love the terrible box art. To me, it signified Capcom’s confidence in what was inside the box, that they were willing to use such a bad drawing for the cover art. Like Princess Leia said to Han Solo: “You came in that thing? You’re even braver than I thought!”
Unlike so many other video game companies that dressed up their low-quality on-screen graphics with a fanciful, professionally done painting, here was Capcom saying, in essence: “Look, we don’t care what you think about the cover. This game will blow your socks off, and tear you a new one. We put 100% of our budget into the game, and had fuckall left over for the box art — deal with it. You’ll thank us as soon as you plug it in and hit the power button.”
The video games I played filled me with enthusiasm and excitement, and it inspired me to want to design games of my own. And since I had very little idea of how a computer program worked at the time, most of my game ideas were conceptual drawings with captions explaining what was going on and how it was all supposed to work. I appreciated the box art from Mega Man, in part perhaps because it gave me hope that I could do it too.
Capcom seemed to be telling me: “You have passion and an idea? That’s all you need! Make it happen!”
A life lesson, to be sure.