Games | NES | Black Box Games

Article by Jeremy Parish? | September 20, 2010

Nintendo didn’t enforce specific box art trade dress for its licensees, or at least nothing beyond the inclusion of a little gold sticker to indicate that, yeah, this company’s publishing license is all paid up. Nevertheless, the system’s early years in particular saw a number of publishers gravitate toward common box designs: the Konami silver stripes, the Ultra black borders, the Capcom grid, etc. But none of these designs are more iconic, more quintessentially NES than Nintendo’s own 1985-86 releases.

Beautiful in their simplicity, Nintendo’s “black box” packages created a sense of unity while playing up the visual iconography of the games within. The black box style was perfect for the console’s early years, presenting a striking visual identity for the console’s key early releases while playing off the effective sprite design of Nintendo’s early game efforts.

The common visual elements of these packages -- a solid black box emblazoned with the game’s name in bold Helvetica type, a slightly embellished representation of the graphics within, and a genre (“series”) identifier -- are iconically tied to the NES. They’ve been parodied, homaged, and co-opted by nerds the world over... though mostly just American and British nerds, since Nintendo’s packaging in Japan was iconic in an entirely different way.

The Nintendo black box style lasted up through Metroid and Kid Icarus, which were graced with the same box layout as their predecessors yet clad in silver to denote their sophisticated use of passwords. Next up came The Legend of Zelda, which ushered in a more sophisticated and varied era—both for Nintendo game design and for its packaging as well.

The obsolescence of the black box style only served to strengthen its legacy, forever binding it to a time when Nintendo was the hot new game system in town.

For millions of kids who desperately wanted an NES as it rose to prominence in 1986, the black box format promised untold wonders, videogame experiences the likes of which had never before been witnessed on a family television. For two years, this was the focus of the pent-up nerd lust that helped launch one of the most successful consoles ever.

Small wonder this distinctive package design has become an icon of gaming history.

10-Yard Fight
Irem/Nintendo | Sports | October 1985

Aprimitive, early take on football, 10-Yard Fight is primarily notable for being a third party-developed game co-opted by Nintendo. Presumably because Nintendo didn’t want to sully itself by programming a game based on American football, which is for heathen and monsters. Otherwise, a wholly missable game that has not aged well at all.

Balloon Fight
Nintendo | Arcade | June 1986

Despite being an unabashed rip-off of Joust -- or maybe because of it -- Balloon Fight is one of the more memorable and enduring of the NES’s launch titles. Players pump their little avatar’s arms wildly to flap around an arena, bursting their opponents’ balloon to send them plummeting to the water below. It would be a totally adorable, kid-friendly take on Joust, too, if not for the fact that falling into the water gets you eaten by a giant fish. I’ll take Nightmare Fodder for $500, Alex.

Nintendo | Sports | October 1985

America’s favorite pastime is also Japan’s favorite pastime, which is handy for baseball fans as it means they get to enjoy baseball videogames developed on both sides of the ocean. Nintendo’s Baseball came along before American and Japanese baseball games had experienced divergent evolution into the “realistic” and “goofily big-headed” camps. Not exactly a crown jewel, but it gets the point across.

Clu-Clu Land
Nintendo | Arcade | October 1985

Clu-Clu Land is kind of like Pac-Man meets that part of Singin’ in the Rain where Fred Astaire swung around on a light pole. You move through mazes, collecting coins, and can only change direction by grabbing onto posts at the corners of the paths and revolving around them. Humming “Singin’ in the Rain” is wholly left to the player’s discretion.

Donkey Kong
Nintendo | Arcade | June 1986

The NES version of the arcade classic seems to be the one Nintendo likes to sell us over and over again, which is pretty annoying. Sure, this was the best-looking home version of Donkey Kong, but it’s still missing a level. No big deal, right? Except the original was just a four-level game. Any algebra teacher can tell you that 25% is a pretty sizable cut. And you should listen to algebra teachers about Donkey Kong, because they’re mostly fat, mustachioed men who look a lot like Mario. So they would know.

Donkey Kong Jr.
Nintendo | Arcade | June 1986

The awkward, less-inspired sequel to Donkey Kong has its moments—such as scaling chains to free the big ape—but between its imprecise controls and the weird way it makes Mario into a completely unsympathetic villain, DKJr definitely ranks as the most forgettable Donkey Kong game... leastways ’til Rare came along, anyway.

Donkey Kong 3
Nintendo | Shooter | June 1986

While the third Donkey Kong owes far more to Galaxian than to its immediate predecessors, it’s a fun (if weird) game. Sadly, the generally unfavorable reaction to the game and its shooting-a-monkey-in-the-butt-with-bug-spray mechanics meant that Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi had its protagonist, Stanley the Bugman, quietly whacked by his Yakuza connections. Godspeed, Stanley.

Donkey Kong Jr. Math
Nintendo | Edutainment | October 1985

A really boring and pointless game in which you learn basic math by playing a crappy version of the worst chapter of the original Donkey Kong trilogy.

Nintendo | Racing | October 1985

One of the earliest instances of Nintendo’s ineffable ability to make games that are way more fun than they have any right to be, Excitebike is a simplistic racer that succeeds through highly focused design and cheerfully chaotic multiplayer. It’s almost enough to make you forget that we got the short end of the stick—Japan got a semi-sequel in Excitebike Vs., which science has determined to be 130% more awesome than standard Excitebike.

Nintendo | Sports | October 1985

This rudimentary simulation of the game of golf featuring a similarly rudimentary approximation of Mario. It was vastly outmatched a few years later by NES Open Tournament Golf, which featured a better rendition of golf and the actual Mario. But for 1985, it was perfectly decent.

Nintendo | Light Gun | June 1986

Normally, light gun shooters are about protecting yourself from threats directed at you, the player; Gumshoe, however, takes you out of the first-person perspective and forces you to protect a wandering detective from threats directed at him. In a way, it’s a sort of precursor games like Lemmings and Mario & Wario, and it’s almost completely unlike any light gun game since.

Nintendo | Robot | October 1985

Apuzzle-platformer kind of game, Gyromite wasn’t too far removed from the likes of Wrecking Crew but for one small detail: It was designed to be played with the Robot Operating Buddy. This turned a fairly straightfoward puzzler into a slow, cumbersome chore. Too bad, really, because the basic game is perfectly decent.

Nintendo | Robot Operating Buddy | October 1985

The Robot Operating Buddy was the worst friend many NES gamers ever had, an undersupported and ill-conceived toy that has long since been exposed as a simple marketing gimmick. That being said, R.O.B. remains an indelible part of NES nostalgia, thanks in part to his iconic appearance and his ubiquity. Well, in America, at least; in Japan, “Robot” was released after most gamers already owned a Famicom and never really supported, making this NES standard a genuine rarity in its homeland.

Hogan's Alley
Nintendo | Light Gun | October 1985

It’s a game! With shooting! At gangsters! And... that’s about it. Sometimes there are civilians, and the game makes you feel bad about killing them. If you try really hard, you can pretend it’s a precursor to BioWare’s morality gauges.

Ice Climber
Nintendo | Platformer | October 1985

Chances are good that Nintendo put Ice Climber together simply so that when Super Mario Bros. came out, we’d have something to look back on and say, “Yeah, that’s what platformers were like before Mario.” Two mountaineers jump awkwardly up a mountain, avoiding walruses and collecting... eggplants? Hell, why not?

Irem/Nintendo | Brawler | October 1985

The second of Nintendo’s co-opted Irem games, Kung-Fu actually began life as a tie-in to a Jackie Chan movie, of all things. That connection doesn’t really come through in the game, but it’s still good fun to kick midgets to death. (Nothing personal, short people.)

Mach Rider
Nintendo | Racing | October 1985

The NES’s obligatory primitive over-the-shoulder racing game, Mach Rider sure ain’t no OutRun. However, it does take place in the year 2112, so you’re free to pretend you’re racing to destroy the Temple of Syrinx.

Mario Bros.
Nintendo | Arcade | June 1986

You know what’s weird? Nintendo released the NES version of Mario Bros. a good year after its sequel. Well, maybe not so much “weird” as “totally counter-productive,” since this game wasn’t a patch on Super Mario Bros. That sure didn’t stop Nintendo from spamming it in the Mario Advance games, though.

Nintendo | Arcade | October 1985

In a stunning case of “exactly what it says on the label,” Pinball is... pinball. Mainly remembered for including a Mario cameo in the bonus stage, the fact is that it really was about the best home adaptation of pinball ever made to that point. Ah, 1985.

Nintendo | Arcade | June 1986

Legend has it that Shigeru Miyamoto only designed Donkey Kong after his intentions to create a Popeye game fell through for licensing reasons. When finally given the opportunity to build a game around Popeye, this was the result. Frankly, it’s no Donkey Kong... but it’s moderately amusing, and those darned licensing issues mean it’ll probably never show up in any sort of collection, which makes this NES cart something of a collector’s curio for Nintendo fans.

Pro Wrestling
Nintendo | Sports | March 1987

The curious magic of Nintendo was at work with this one: The world’s only wrestling game that even people who hate wrestling can enjoy. Its appeal rests primarily in its colorful cast of characters, its preposterously over-the-top action, and the fact that it has pretty much nothing whatsoever to do with actual wrestling. Plus, there’s this one fish dude who totally chomps people’s heads, which is, like, way gnarly.

Rad Racer
Square/Nintendo | Racing | October 1987

Before Final Fantasy came along, Square’s fortunes were largely tied to genius programmer Nasir Gibeli’s ability to make the NES perform all kinds of technical trickery, such as rendering fast, fluid scaling graphics to mimic a decent 3D effect. But Rad Racer took this gimmick one step further by incorporate a genuine 3D element that required the use of colored graphics. Ultimately a sort of dull and uninspired racer, it was still miles more interesting than its cousin, 3D World Runner?.

Rare/Nintendo | Sports | August 1987

Slalom’s flat white graphics and unremarkable play design literally paled next to Rad Racer. Worse, the fact that this was developed by Rare Coin-It and Rad Racer was developed by Square caused me to confuse the two companies for years to come. At one point, I may actually have thought Final Fantasy was developed by the same people who made Battletoads. Tragic.

Nintendo | Sports | March 1987

Like most of Nintendo’s internally developed first-generation sports titles, Soccer is borderline unplayable today. Unfortunately, it also arrived in the U.S. a good year and a half after the NES’s debut, which was a little late for its primitive visuals and graphics to have made a good impression on players.

Nintendo | Robot | 1985

One of the only two games made for R.O.B., Stack-Up was the lesser of the pair... which is really saying something. Even in 1985, Nintendo fans were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of playing a game that required a clumsy robot toy to stack pieces of plastic, so this was a lousy seller... which means that it’s the rarest and most expensive of Nintendo’s black box games. Ain’t that how it always goes?

Nintendo | Sports | October 1985

While it was a fairly straightforward interpretation of the eponymous sport, Tennis did some clever things within its limited framework. The use of simple scaling to denote the ball’s position relative to the viewer was a great touch that—like the cartoonish word balloons that indicated referee calls—made the game accessible and intuitive for novices to both tennis and videogames alike.

Urban Champion
Nintendo | Brawler | August 1986

An absolutely terrible fighting game whose only mildly redeeming feature is the way the pugilists will break up their brawl and act nonchalant as the cops drive past. All things considered, that’s not particularly redemptive.

Nintendo | Sports | March 1987

In retrospect, Volleyball makes me wonder what the big deal was with Samus Aran being female. Sure, it was unusual to see a woman as an action game’s protagonist, but Volleyball starred entire teams of them! This is, in fact, the sole remarkable element of this otherwise by-the-numbers sports game.

Wrecking Crew
Nintendo | Puzzle | October 1985

Nintendo’s first-ever puzzler, Wrecking Crew starred Mario in what appeared to be a simple arcade demolition game. Advance a few levels, however, and you quickly discovered that much of the challenge revolved not around avoiding bad guys so much as completing stages within the correct order without becoming trapped by falling debris. An underappreciated classic.

Wild Gunman
Nintendo | Light Gun | October 1985

Loosely based on a classic pre-videogame Nintendo arcade amusement, Wild Gunman is the game all the cool retro-hounds will be playing in the year 2015, just you wait.

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