Like many people that grew up with video games during the late 80s and early 90s, I have a very strong appreciation toward the box art that Konami used to make for their games. Artwork on the covers of games like Turtles in Time, Super Castlevania 4 and Contra 3: The Alien Wars has stuck with and inspired me through the years. For many years, the box artist behind these games had gone nameless, but recently discovered to have been painted by a man named Tom duBois. It turns out that Mr. duBois is still painting incredible pictures, though very different from the commercial art he used to create for clients like Konami. Regardless, a few months ago I had the idea to paint up a series of covers inspired by his old artwork. Mainly to learn how to step my game up a bit in regards to digital painting, but also as a tribute to his work. The following are the images I created and below that the steps I took in order to try and emulate the work the best I could.
For starters, I wanted to take a handful of modern games and re-imagine how those games would be tackled as if these boxes were done in the 90s. I chose the Super Nintendo era of boxes because those are the ones that have stood out the most to me. I took time carefully deciding which games I wanted to do and ultimately came up with the three above. I chose Yokai Watch because I thought it would be fun to Westernize cute Japanese characters. I chose Uncharted 4 because I wanted to pick a modern game that fell into the category of generic dude standing seriously. Finally I picked Axiom Verge because I wanted to paint a game that maybe could have existed back then but simply did not.
Example of modern box art where a guy is just standing there.
The first thing I did was study four of duBois’ covers and kind of reverse engineer them to see why they worked and what made them special. I chose Castlevania 4, Contra 3, Turltes in Time and Mystical Ninja for this process. My first step was to figure out the perspective and composition work of each image. I simply lowered the opacity on the covers and started creating lines to figure out the perspective. I was initially stumped on the Castlevania 4 artwork as the perspective guides weren’t working across the whole image. It took me a while to wrap my mind around but I finally figured out that duBois was using 2 different perspectives for the Castlevania 4 art. There is a stealthy split toward the middle of the box which seamlessly switches perspectives as the left side of the art has 2 point perspective and the right side of the art uses 3 point perspective. The Mystical Ninja art also featured two different perspectives, but not even close to the same level as to how it is done on the Castlevania 4 artwork. If you’re curious the Contra 3 cover uses 4 point perspective and the Turtles in Time art uses mainly 1 point perspective with a few “tricks” I actually couldn’t figure out.
Example of Castlevania 4’s two perspectives.
The next step was to overlay a rule of thirds guide over each piece and see where the main points of interests were. It turns out most of the main characters were usually featured in the lower thirds, either the left or right side. The logo generally has a reserved space in the upper left third, so that part of the painting is usually kind of blank. I found that most of the characters are usually positioned in triangles to guide the eyes from one point of interest to the next. That covers some of the more technical stuff.
After that I tried to find themes between all of them. Each cover generally features a specific stage or merging of stages from the game. Each cover also shows between 6 to 8 enemy characters, also the main character(s) is always facing toward the viewer, and most importantly each cover also shows off game play mechanics. For example on the Castlevania 4 artwork it features Simon using his new whip grappling technique that he could not do in previous games. Contra 3 also shows dual wielding of weapons and that players can hang from objects/bad guys. Mystical Ninja shows the cat power up item (which I modeled my Jibanyan after on the Yokai Watch cover) being used by Goemon. I tried to tie all of these elements into the covers I designed to make them feel as faithful as I could. Essentially each cover is telling a story not just about the game, but also how the game works.
I realized that this is why these covers had such an impact. Not only did they feature great artwork, but they told the story of the game play itself. You don’t really see that with game box art in modern games. Most of the “serious” Triple A games feature a character holding a gun or weapon just standing there looking serious. There is no action, there is no story, and there is nothing telling you what to expect from the game.
In the end, I learned much while making these covers and I’m glad I have gained a greater understanding about how and why those old Konami covers were so great.