Let’s face it, graphics were not the selling point of a ZX Spectrum game. It wasn’t often someone would pick up a cassette box and shout out “WOW, look at the graphics on this game!!” – Spectrum gamers knew what kind of graphics they were probably going to get even before flipping to the back of the box.
What made it worse was that a lot of the times on the back of a box the publishers had provided screenshots of not only the Spectrum version, but alongside them screenshots from the rival Commodore 64 version, and even the Atari ST and Amiga versions which were streets ahead with graphics capabilities. Some cassette inlay’s took it a step further with a complete disregard for false advertising as they showed screenshots from a completely different system (one of the ones with the much better graphics) and decided not to show any Speccy screenshots at all! Admittedly, there were times I would look at these comparison screenshots and think “Why can’t my game look like *that*”. I’d still buy the game anyway, because I knew what to expect and of course I could always use my imagination to make the game better. No matter what version of screenshots I was shown, I had a feeling of what was going to be fun. But what made the Spectrum owner pick up the box in the first place?
In a time without YouTube or the internet, and television advertising for games was unheard of; it was the cover art that had to grab your attention. Yes there were Spectrum magazines filled with screenshots and reviews but when you turned the page to reveal a full page colour advert for a game, it was dominated by incredible game cover art, and only a few small screenshots of the game (if any at all) usually subtly placed at the bottom with the other unimportant stuff.
When I’m talking cover art, this was not computer designed 3D CGI at the standard seen these days; these were beautifully drawn or hand painted – this was real talent, and time and effort spent – nothing computer aided or digital. In some cases you could see the felt tip pen strokes, brush marks or pencil lines. This was real art. Walking in to a computer shop and looking across the shelves at a sea of cassette boxes, each one with their own cartoon cover, painted hero scenes, or movie poster style art – you knew you were in for a treat, even if the treat was the time you spent in the shop looking at them. There were titles you had never heard of, title’s that didn’t even show a single screenshot on the back of the box! But this added a mystique to the choice of this week’s game purchase. Even without screenshots, the cover art told you it was worth taking the gamble as you stared at the picture on the front of the box on your bus journey home (..sometimes the gamble didn’t always pay off, though.)
These sometimes breathtaking illustrations would pull you in, and they tempted you. Like the art on the cover of a book, you wanted to open the pages and dive in to the story to be the character emblazoned on the front; the cover set the tone for the incredible adventure you were about to embark on… which of course ended up being a number of basic looking pixelated shapes awkwardly moving around a screen to the soundtrack of a few bleeps and white noise, but that’s not the point.
Today graphic artists could simply take a frame from the photo-real texture mapped game sprite and place them in any position or pose, and that alone would be enough to sell the game. However, in the days of the Spectrum, in it’s place would stand an actor in action poses dressed up in full costume as characters from the game! I, of course, refer to the very memorable cover of “Barbarian”. It gave it an extra dimension of realism to the point of sale rarely seen today – oh, and boobs. Protesters focused so much on the risqué (although not by today’s standards) cover art, that nobody pointed out that in the game you chop peoples head’s clean off with a sword, for it to be then kicked across the screen! To be fair, the type of person to make complaints about a girl wearing a bikini on the front of a computer game box, probably didn’t know how to load the game up in order to be outraged by the beheading.
Grand gestures and attention grabbers were needed in the early days of computing, of course this was mostly to counter the incredibly unrealistic game and sometimes pitiful gameplay of a title – usually the movie-licenced ones, to be fair.
If a movie was a big hit, any kind of game of any standard would do – sometimes with no actual relevance to the plot of the movie, and forget screenshots – not needed! â¨Get the license to publish a game of the worldwide epic movie “Jaws”, put the famous Shark on the front emerging up toward the swimming girl; then it’s going to shift a considerable amount of units. Oh wait, what about the game? OK just swap the X’s and O’s for Shark Fin’s and Girls Face’s in a game of sharky Tic-Tac-Toe – that should do it! (That wasn’t the game version of Jaws, by the way, I just made that up for an extreme example – the actual game was *much* less relevant to the plot). The point being, as long as it had the big Hollywood cover art, then it was going to sell by the bucket load no matter what. Gamer’s did feel let down however, and through the years would become wise and double check the screenshots and reviews of movie-licensed games, just to make sure they weren’t being conned.
There were good games, and bad games, correct screenshots, deceiving ones, and no screenshots at all; but one thing was certain when you purchased a Spectrum game – you were going to have a new experience (good or bad) that started the moment you set eyes on the cover art.
In the 80’s and early 90’s, when graphics were not the greatest, how did a game grab your attention when sitting on the shelf? The cover art! Filled with personal experience and humor, this article takes a subjective journey in to a time when the screen shots on the box were not always that of the system it was being sold for.