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Cover Art Theatre

This week we have a real treat for you video game cover art O.C.D. freaks completests out there:
As I was thumbing through some of my old NES manuals, I found something interesting. On the back of the Arkanoid manual, there's an ad for three upcoming Taito NES games. For the most part the ad's drawings were basically the same as the finished cover art; but for one of the games, the drawing was ENTIRELY different!
Whatta scoop!
Here's a scan of the whole back of the Arkanoid manual, just to let you know generally what it looked like (I've of course blurred out the three drawings so we can look at them one at a time below):
Let's also talk about the three games in question, from left to right: I'll start with in-game pictures and a little discussion about the actual game, then we'll put on our mortarboards and get all art analysis on them!
The Legend of Kage
The Legend of Kage is a jump-three-screens-high-and-throw-shurkens-at-ninjas-em-up featuring 5 short-ish levels, each of which has a different objective:
  1. Kill enough ninjas that a Red Monk appears, then kill him
  2. Kill 10 ninjas
  3. Jump upwards through 8-12 screens or so
  4. Run from the left, climb some stairs, run back to the right; repeat this a few times then rescue the princess.
  5. After the princess is re-kidnapped: kill a butterfly, then kill a white ninja.
...then go back to step 1 and repeat! This game is most notable for your character's ridiculously powerful legs: on the first and fifth level (where the screens are big enough to support your full vertical leap), each jump launches you upwards for a very, very long time. Even Mighty Bomb Jack was limited by the top of the screen, but not this radical mighty ninja: yes, it's screen after screen of "up" for poor Legendary Kage!
Also, on a fairly pointless note, I've been informed that "Kage" is probably not pronounced like the word "cage", it's more likely pronounced "Kah-Gi".
Well, anyway -- on to the finished cover art vs. ad art comparison!
L: cartridge cover art — R: Arkanoid manual ad art
As with all of these games, the actual Nintendo cartridge has the Nintendo Seal of Quality and the "Licensed for Play", etc on it, plus a beefy "Taito" logo. Perhaps to make space for the legalese, the bottom of the black rectangle obscures more of Princess Popeye* and Mr. Legend of Kage: we see less of Kage's sword-hit, and not as much of Kage's oddly-placed left hand.
*: I'd never taken a close look at the princess on the cover of this game until now -- look at her eye that's right next to Kage's chin -- she's half Marty Feldman!
Honestly, both of these omissions are positive things: Kage's sword-blade is tiny (almost shorter than his topknot pony tail) and green, thus losing him massive ninja street-cred, even BEFORE we're able to see that it has a hilt about as long as the blade itself. Of course that's not necessarily a bad thing...unless you notice that he's wrapped it with athletic tape starting RIGHT BELOW WHERE HE HOLDS IT.
And the less said about his left hand, and really the whole left side of his torso, the better. He apparently got the call to rescue the princess while he was in the bath, and he only had time to throw on Grandma Kage's big fuzzy fuschia bathrobe and dash out the door.
Leaving aside his clothes, where the hell is his left arm? It appears his forearm is growing directly out of his shoulder. Kage has also bashfully tucking the tip of his thumb in the bathrobe's breast pocket. How did this guy become legendary, again? The more I look at that drawing up close, the more I'm inclined to agree with the Princess's questioning "what the hell, bro?" glare.
Superior cover art? The Cartridge!
Elevator Action
Yes, it's the bow-tie-and-elevator-em-up, Elevator Action! Not since Spy Hunter has such a mundane activity been dressed up as an espionage-related caper, had guns thrown in, and then foisted on the video game consuming public. That is to say, Spy Hunter challenges you to drive a car (with a gun!) and pretend you're a spy, Elevator Action dares you to ride an elevator (WITH A GUN!) and pretend you're a spy.
Fortunately, contrived-spy-ness aside, it's a kind of fun (if limited) game: your master-(SPY)-plan involves riding a zip-line onto the roof of a building, then trying to survive the elevator ride to the curb where your sports(SPY)car awaits*. This is made more challenging by the fact that the architect w�┬╣ho designed each of the game's buildings must have been getting massive kickbacks from the elevator manufacturer's guild: every building has dozens of different elevator shafts, some of which only allow access to two or three different floors.
Then again, the architect could be crazy like a fox: the only people who seem to live in his skyscrapers are Boris Badenov-like men dressed in black and wearing lumpy fedoras, all of whom are packing heat and will shoot you on sight. Perhaps they explicitly requested these horribly user-unfriendly elevators as a security feature,o protect the valuable sets of (SPY) documents hidden behind their Important Red Doors.
Though be that as it may, I'm not sure how the door changes colors after you've snuck in and stolen the documents...can doors turn from red to blue due to some kind of post-document-partum depression? Could it be it's this very conundrum that your (SPY) Spy Agency is trying to crack? Highly unlikely!
*: actually it's a shame that Elevator Action and Spy Hunter weren't made by the same company -- if they were, there could have been some pseudo-canonical-joke about how the building-descender from Elevator Action becomes the driver in Spy Hunter, the same way Bomberman became Lode Runner
L: Cartridge cover art — R: Arkanoid manual ad art
Once again, aside from the obligatory legalese on the cartridge, the main change is the cropping and framing.
Yet again we get a better look at Mr. (SPY) Spy's non-weapon arm...but this time, SURPRISE -- I guess he's a lefty, because that's the hand he's holding his pistol in! Either that or that "TOP SECRET" folder/pizza box/whatever is so important he's required to keep it in his right hand at all times, even if that means shooting with his non-dominant hand.
In this case, it's not that big a deal: his right hand (when not covered by the Nintendo Seal of Quality) looks perfectly reasonable, down to the tip of his visible (and well-manicured!) thumb. We can also see more of his McGruff-the-Crime-Dog-esque right sleeve and its shadow. While we're at it, his gun-arm shows a bunch more shadow as well. I guess that's enough to put it over the top in my book:
Superior cover art? The Advertisement!
Renegade: it may be the first game in the beat-em-up linage that would eventually produce River City Ransom (or at least the first game in that lineage released outside of Japan), but let's just say that they certainly improved the combat engine over time.
If you've never played Renegade, lucky you perhaps you've played a little game called Double Dragon II? If so, you'll know a bit about its "Zone Defense"-style of controls: the "B" and "A" buttons don't have an assigned move as much as they have an assigned direction: "A" (on the far right of the controller) attacks to your right, and "B" attacks to your left.
Like in Double Dragon II, if you attack the direction you're facing (as in, you're facing Right and you press A, or your facing Left and you press B), you throw a lower-powered Punch; it takes about 3 or 4 hits to knock someone down. But if you attack Behind you, your attack is the more-powerful (and possibly longer-ranged) Kick, which knocks opponents down in two hits.
However, UNLIKE in Double Dragon II (where you can use these two moves strategically), in Renegade you can't choose which direction you want to face: you always point towards your nearest opponent, so the only time you can kick people is:
  • if you're surrounded
  • AND there are guys sneaking up on you (a popular beat-em-up tactic)
  • there may occur a brief moment where BOTH the guys in front of you AND in back of you are one kick-distance away (so you're not forced to face towards the sneaking-up guys because THEY'RE the closest target);
  • during that time, you can connect with a kick.
All I can say is, it's a good thing that you have other attacks (like the jump-kick, grab-and-knee-in-the-gut, and sit-on-and-punch). Of course most of these don't work on bosses, but don't worry about that --
uh...I've forgotten why you shouldn't worry about that. Perhaps because you should worry more about this: the first three levels are relatively short, giving way to the fourth level. The Fourth Level is a horrible door maze that not only goes on longer than the whole rest of the game put together, features more boss-type enemies than the rest of the game put together (often 2 or 3 at a time, sometimes with several reinforcements in reserve), AND some of the doors can send you back to earlier levels (so I guess it can be said to also CONTAIN all the rest of the game, too).
If you're lucky enough to make it through the forth and final level's Door Maze of Doom, you get to fight a boss who occasionally whips out a gun which will kill you with one shot.
Very well then; let's move along to...the cartridge cover art vs the advertisement cover art:
L: Cartridge cover art — R: Arkanoid manual ad art
I'm not gonna lie, this whole article is pretty much an excuse to rip on that really awkwardly-staged fisticuffs illustration to the right.
Granted, the actual cover art on the left is not great, either: it begins with an overly-wordy sentence, creates the illusion that you'll be facing different gang members with unique details (instead of clones of the same guy, as is the tradition), AND it has the biggest, fattest "TAITO" logo smack-dab at the top.
But on the bright side, the real cover art captures some important aspects of Renegade: for example, your character's "I'm facing one way and kicking another" move looks just as awkward in this picture as it does in the actual game. Also, um...oh, I've got another one -- the first level DOES begin on a subway platform, and an important aspect of the gameplay is flinging people over the edge.
Ok, all that aside, let's turn our attention back to the odd picture that the Arkanoid manual used to advertise the upcoming Renegade game:
Jeez, where to begin...
Let's start with the guy on the right, the one hefting a baseball bat (or perhaps a slightly outsized bowling pin painted brown). Shall we call him "Cap'n Skull Vest"? Oh, I think we shall! Cap'n Skull Vest is wearing bluejeans with both a belt AND a chain around his waist, plus a red bandana on the left knee for "zest". As if that wasn't enough to establish his bad dude rep, he's got a floppy brown vest on, and of course, it's got a skull on the back of it! (I guess that's good -- otherwise I'd feel pretty stupid calling him "Cap'n Skull Vest").
I guess Cap'n Skull Vest's vest of choice would later influence lower-left-foreground, flattop-plus-red-bandana-man on the actual cover-art, but that guy had the good grace to put a ripped t-shirt on under that vest. Also Flattop Man knows that you should either wear a belt OR a chain around your waist, and he's made the sensible choice to use his left-over chain as a weapon (in case his other weapon of choice, a lead pipe complete with 90-degree connector socket, somehow fails him). Additionally, well...Flattop Man has his hair styled into a flattop; a little 1950s, but still a reasonable haircut for a street tough in a mid-'80s video game. Cap'n Skull Vest's coif of choice? A raggedy mullet!
I guess it's only suitable that Cap'n Skull Vest is clearly getting his butt handed to him by the guy on the left, who I've come to think of as "Haughty VPL Soldier."
Haughty VPL Soldier may hold a thick chain in his hamhock-like left fist -- but he doesn't need it to handle the likes of Cap'n Skull Vest and his rickety baseball bat: the mere presence of Haughty VPL Soldier's right fist towards the flapping edges of Cap'n Skull Vest's brown namesake is enough to make the bemulletted Cap'n wince in pain and retract his neck into his torso!
Also Haughty VLP Soldier might be kneeing the poor Cap'n in the groin -- it's a little hard to tell because of Haughty VPL Soldier's oddly-drawn legs and thighs. You see, his lower limbs seem to lead up to either a badly drawn corner of his pants or an immensely lumpy buttock. I think it's just unfortunate that the trailing end of his chain obscures his left thigh muscle; if that weren't the case it might have been a thicker line, giving him a more dynamic (and still humanly possible) pose. As it is, his leg rises up into an oddly-jutting hip, all sucked in to wasp-like proportions by his belt...which actually might be a weight belt, if you look at how many holes it has in it!
Given that it's mostly olive-drab, I don't think we need to to add too much about most of Haughty VPL Soldier's wardrobe, but just briefly: he has an adorable butterfly collar which descends to a laced v-neck, he evidently has very strong (heavily-shaded) cheekbones, and his red string-bandana ties back his mane of Fabio-like locks. Best of all, I like the odd red rubber-with-holes-in-them things wrapped around his arms/upper torso area. These would later be worn by Leeloo Dallas in The Fifth Element!
Superior cover art? The Advertisement!
Well, I think I've spent too much time on the nature of the dramatic fist- or pose-fight between these two titans of combat...but just imagine if they HAD used these two as the cover art for Renegade?
This is sheer speculation on my part, but I imagine it would involve Renegade selling billions of copies, eclipsing the entire concept of "video games" -- if not of video itself!
Eventually every home would have a life-sized Rock-em-Sock-em-Robots type set-up, where fully articulated mannequins of Haughty VPL Soldier and Cap'n Skull Vest would engage in blockily-choreographed rounds of combat, pausing only briefly to download the day's news from the Renegade Psychic Information Network. They would then act out the news in a series of punches, chain-flailings and baseball bat swipes while the bedraggled remains of humanity would toil away in the Renegade Mannequin factories, where we'd distill our own tears and phlegm to make the fuel that would power the fickle mechanized ughty VLP Soldiers and Cap'ns Skull Vest that we so foolishly built -- and who then cleverly rose up and became our tyrant-kings!
Well, enjoy these illustrations as you see fit, but remember -- keep pressing "B" while facing to the right! KEEP PRESSING "B" WHILE FACING TO THE RIGHT!
— carlmarksguy, 2013-08-16
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