Mysterious Japanese illustrators Behind Classic Game Covers
From the 1970s Fairchild Channel F to X-men vs Street Fighter
In early video game history, a game’s cover artwork was simple. But as the industry grew, Japanese and American artists alike created covers that reflected and inspired the era in which they were part.
The Magnavox Odyssey was released in 1972-- It was the first home game console ever released to the public.
The Magnavox Odyssey utilized “Game Cards”, these cards would be inserted into the console and modify the circuitry-- causing the game to appear on-screen. One of the very first games on the Odyssey was Table Tennis (which would eventually lay the foundation for the groundbreaking hit Pong by Atari).
These game cards were small in size, and as a result,didn’t have any distinguishable artwork on them— the cards simply had a number printed on them; each number corresponded with the game’s title in the console manual.
But later in 1976, the Fairchild Channel F — the first game console to use ROM cartridges developed by a team led by Jerry Lawson (commonly known as the father of the game cartridge).
Fairchild Channel F developed and paved the way for gaming art. The console’s primary artist, Kamifuji, brought a beautiful and psychedelic flair to the gaming industry.
Tom Kamifuji (1922-2015) ran a design studio in San Francisco. He was an illustrator, poster designer, typographer, art director, and designer. Yet, there is very little biographical information about him available despite his legacy of brightly-colored spheres.
Perhaps his most universal success was the inspiration for the rainbow swath of color within the Apple Computers Apple logo.
Even though the details about Hiroyuki Kamijui are not widely known, this wouldn’t be the last time that an enigmatic artist of Japanese origin would seriously impact the artwork of video game covers in the west.
In 1977 the Atari 2600 hit North America. The console was very well known for its beautiful box art. Freelance artist Cliff Spohn was hired to illustrate their beautiful hand-painted covers.
The era of Atari was one of the earliest moments for proper game covers as we know them. Atari knew simply having the game’s description, and a few screenshots would not be enough to entice players to buy the game.
The iconic style exercised by Spohn reflected the era of art in commercial advertising.
Artist Ralph McQuarrie, who worked on Star Wars as a concept artist, worked on the arcade version of Atari’s Vanguard (1981). During this period, Atari pioneered the usage of cinematic covers for their games. This work was stylistically similar to the work of Drew Struzan, an artist who worked on over 150 movie posters, including the early iconic Star Wars promotional posters.
Fast forward to 1987, and another amazing thing happened, the game Street Fighter hit arcades — The game was developed and published by Capcom. The legendary and mysterious Japanese artist known as Bengus drew the character concept artwork for some of the game’s later titles.
Bengus’ hand was pivotal in helping Street Fighter become recognizable not only in the East but also for American markets.
Bengus’ influence only evolved from there and eventually mushroomed into an even stronger global presence. Bengus eventually became a lead artist for the 1994 game X-MEN: Children of the Atom. Being a property of Marvel comics, this fighting game allowed Bengus to utilize his skills, helping further define iconic characters within Western pop culture.
This collaboration between Marvel and Capcom eventually became X-Men vs.Streetfighter (1996) and Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes (1998). Bengus played more than an instrumental role in concept art, promotional art, and even game covers.
Around this time, due to the nature of the game’s expressive, flamboyant style, the playable characters had to follow suit. This led to some of the most beautiful artwork in gaming history and was a blatant nod to the crossover that was the fusion of East and West intellectual properties. Even though the game X-Men vs. Street Fighter is a fighting game where players compete against each other for dominance, the game’s artwork often showed Marvel’s Cyclops and Capcom’s Ryu joining hands.
This moment; this handshake between these two larger-than-life leaders, reflects the harmonious relationship between East and West Pop culture.
No gaming covers are the same, varying from real-life photographs to computer graphics to illustrated artworks and paintings. One thing is for sure, gaming artwork and their promotional covers have played a slightly different role in recent years since more and more players are buying their games digitally.
For many players, the need for hyper-realistic or traditional game covers of the Atari 2600 days is less common. Instead, games today need attractive digital thumbnails to encourage players to look at the game’s description and in-game screenshots.
This is just a brief look at the transitory identity of physical mediums worldwide. Physical objects are relics of culture and commercial expansion. However, video game covers and their promotional artwork displayed some of the earliest consumer product collaborations between Japan and the United States.