Book review: The Art of the Box

I opened my last Bitmap Books review with a similar sentiment, but this idea is so perfect that it astonishes me that we've only just got it - a book covering the rich and varied history of, well, box art. "Big box" PC games have always been gorgeous, though it's not something I personally appreciated back in the days when I was buying them. It's packaging, right? An obstacle between you and your fun. Something taken absolutely for granted, much like the gorgeous manuals supplied with the likes of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. But we live in more enlightened times... well, actually, we don't, but for this specific thing we do. So here's The Art of the Box, an enormous tome with almost 600 glorious pages of beautifully printed imagery from the glory days of computer gaming.

Cleverly, the focus is put on the artists themselves - each chapter focuses on a different creator, presenting the works that defined their careers in the gaming space, with extensive interviews prologuing each gallery to showcase the influences, inspirations and artistic technique of each contributor. The astonishingly detailed, gloriously reproduced box art often get full pages to really let you soak in the nuances. Every image is accompanied with details of its origins, the tools used to produce it, and a little useful context for the piece. Who knew that drawing the cover of The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle would turn out to be such an ordeal for Steven Peringer?

It isn't just Western artists getting a look-in; the legendary Susumu Matsushita has a chapter to himself, which not only demonstrates their established skill working with acrylic, but yields the outstanding fact that Matsushita considers Hank Marvin his "idol" - finally, I get to mention Hank Marvin in a Retronauts blog! SNK's Shinkiro and Eisuke Ogura pop up as well, their Art of Fighting, Metal Slug etc pieces making for a lovely companion to Bitmap Books' outstanding extant SNK books. Polish artist Grezegorz Domaradski's "alternative movie posters" and the Brazilian Dudu Torres' outstanding work on Joymasher's games such as Blazing Chrome also get a look-in, making for a beautifully diverse read that covers much more than you might initially expect from the PC-focused cover. Indeed, while home computer games are the focus of many of its contributors, there are console and handheld games represented all the way back to the Atari 2600, the fantastic gouache paintings of Steve Hendricks covering the first chapter of this exhaustive journey through an artform that was until-now mostly unappreciated and unrepresented.

Finally, there's a gallery of screenshots for each game featured - an unexpected and thoroughly welcome way to put this artwork in the context of the products it was designed to sell - and that, of course, is a dismissive remark that pigeonholes this fabulous exhibition of creativity as mere marketing, when Art of the Box demonstrates quite ably that it is far, far more than that.

You'll notice a lot of superlatives in this review. Every one of them is earned. It's rare that I'm presented with something this good. Even by the standards of Bitmap Books - a publisher yet to even slightly disappoint me - this stands out as essential. This will enthrall and enlighten anyone who deigns to pick it up, a behemoth of a treatise from the UK gaming legend Steve Jarratt. Much more than just pictures, The Art of the Box is a definitive, all-inclusive masterpiece.

The Art of the Box is available directly from Bitmap Books here.