A History of Video Game Branding

Mario Mendez

Digital Media Designer

Over a year ago Sony Computer Entertainment, rebranded and redesigned its PlayStation 3 line of products, including the logo, the software boxes and the console itself.  It’s not uncommon for a company to rebrand its main line of products from time to time, but what caught my attention was that the PS3 had just been launched three years before, videogame consoles usually get rebranded once their cycle is near its end. Clearly, doing such a thing to a product that is supposed to have a 10 year life span is a sign that  not only the competition is outselling you but that there is something wrong with your brand. The original PlayStation, for instance, was rebranded 6 years after its launch and its successor, the PS2, never needed such a thing.


On a personal note, what really bothers me about completely changing the design of the game’s box is that all uniformity is lost when placed neatly on your game room’s shelf. The nice thing about having 50 PS2 cases lined up was that they all looked the same, but that no longer happens with my PS3 collection,  now they are horribly divided between the old design and the new ones.

Lets face it, the original PS3 brand design was fine when it launched in late 2006 considering  it used the same font as the Spiderman movie trilogy, a Sony Pictures property of course. Spiderman 3 was launched in 2007 and unfortunately it didn’t come close to achieve the same success the first two movies did. One year later the same logo lost a lot of its appeal. The lesson Sony learned was not to visually link a product with an expected lifespan of ten years to a movie that could be a flop.

In the following images you can take a look at the original design for the PS3 game boxes with the famous “Spiderman” font on the left side.

Street Fighter IV, Little Big Planet  and Spiderman 3, uniting two very different Sony products with the same font.

Now, this is the current design the boxes, the logo and its location have completely changed.

Uncharted 2, Ratchet & Clank A Crack in Time and Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 with the new design.

How have the different video game companies been handling the designs of their game boxes over the years? Coming up next, an historical account of the most important consoles in the last decades starting with the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in North America and Europe in 1985.

True classics: Super Mario Bros., Metroid and Golf

This design was only used in the first generation of Nintendo published games. The pixelated style of the illustrations is used today very often in products that want to express a retro vibe.

During the first years of this console each game publishing company, like Capcom or Konami, applied its own design to its boxes. It wasn’t until 1993 when all the games started to have a red bar on the top part with the name of the system. Since then, Nintendo has successfully applied uniform designs to each of its consoles, unlike Sony just did a year ago.

NES Open, Yoshi, Wario’s Woods

Meanwhile, Sega debuted its Master System to compete against the NES. I recall the design of the game boxes being very eye catching, modern and elegant (well, at least for a kid living in the eighties). Even with the most horrendous illustrations in history, the background grid and the fancy font were enough to make them look presentable.

Wonder Boy, Pro Wrestling and the classic  Alex Kidd in Miracle World

Sega’s design evolved and in the first years of its next console the Mega Drive (Genesis in North America), the first 16-bit home console in history, games were packaged in plastic boxes (instead of cardboard) and shared a uniform design for the first years. Sega was at this time, without a doubt, “the leader of the 16-bit revolution”.

Strider, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Sonic the Hedgehog

A few years later Sega wanted to standardise the game box designs for ALL of its consoles placing a vertical stripe on the left side with the name of the system in huge letters and a different colour for each one (red for Genesis, blue for Mega Drive, purple for Mega CD, yellow for 32X, white for Saturn, etc.). Though it’s very important to have brand uniformity among different products of the same company, Sega had so many consoles during the middle part of the 1990s that they were unable to sustain them all and sales dropped dramatically.

Mortal Kombat II (with blood!), NFL ’95 and Sonic & Knuckles

Nintendo arrived late to the “16-bit revolution” but when they made it they did it with a well planned branding strategy ready to last through the whole cycle, which lasted from 1992 to 1998. One of the most recognizable charasteristics was the horizontal orientation of the boxes.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy III and Super Mario Kart

Sony introduced the first PlayStation in 1995 and originally it had rectangular boxes with a black stripe on the left side. The only discrepancy between them, at first, was the material they were made of, some of them were black plastic (my favorites), others transparent plastic and some very ugly ones made from cardboard. One fine day, Sony decided to make them all squared shaped and transparent plastic, just like regular audio CDs.

Twisted Metal and Resident Evil in the original size;  Final Fantasy VII in the audio CD size.

Nintendo decided to give continuity to the model used in the Super NES for its next console, the Nintendo 64. This design, which features the first and only transparent stripe in the history of game boxes, is one of my personal favorites.

Super Mario 64, Star Wars Shadows of the Empire and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Sega did the impossible to pull itself out of the hole it got stuck in after the 32X and Saturn debacles and created what could have been the greatest console in the history of videogames: the Dreamcast.  With excellent games, gorgeous graphics, online play and a controller that was out of this world,  it was a dream come true (no pun intended) for hardcore gamers everywhere. The game box design was simple and elegant, the size of a regular audio CD. Sega was back and many of us thought that it would reclaim its place as one of the leading videogame companies, unfortunately…

Sonic Adventure, Soul Calibur and WWF Royal Rumble

… just one year after its launch sales, although they were not bad, weren’t strong enough to completely pull Sega out of its misery. With the upcoming release of the PlayStation 2 and the announcement that the mega corporation Microsoft was entering the videogame hardware market, Sega had no choice but to pull the plug. In a last attempt of increasing its final sales, Sega slightly changed the design of the boxes making the background black and removing the word ‘Sega’ from the logotype, as if that could remove the bad memories the public had with them in the past. Few months later, Sega retired definitely  from the console wars.

Another great game almost no one played, Shenmue.

In the year 2000 Sony introduced its sequel to the mega successful PlayStation with a bang. Over ten years have passed since its release and the PS2 still sells quite a respectable amount of units. Over 2 thousand titles have appeared in the best selling console of all time and all of them have had the same box design. The design itself is nothing revolutionary or beautiful, but it is clear, constant, and it is easy for everyone to know that they are buying a PS2 product.

Shadow of the Colossus, Street Fighter Anniversary Collection and  Final Fantasy X.

Though Microsoft, with its two iterations of Xboxes, has never been the worldwide leader in sales they had successfully created a distinctive visual identity for its line or products. Using a colour no other console had used before, green, both Xbox and Xbox 360 managed to gain an important place in the mind of hardcore gamers everywhere (except Japan, maybe, the Japanese hate Xbox). Notice that ‘Microsoft’, a brand not usually associated with cool quality products, is nowhere to be seen near the name ‘Xbox’.

Halo Wars, Beautiful Katamari y Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

Currently Nintendo is the only company dedicated 100% to videogames that is still in the hardware market. The Big N has managed to overcome mega corporations like Sony and Microsoft and making its Wii the best selling console of this generation by shifting the target audience from hardcore gamers to everyone, regarding age, gender, or previous gaming experience. In order to achieve this a strong and constant visual identity is essential so that anyone can easily know that what they are buying is going to work with their console.

Super Mario Galaxy, Resident Evil 4 Wii and Okami.

After hitting the nail with the PlayStation 2, both in visual design and product quality, Sony has been having trouble with their latest console and the whole “Spiderman font” debacle. What we and future game box designers can learn from this is to think ahead of what’s ‘hot’ or fads when designing for a product with a 10 year life cycle.  Be classic, be timeless.