Living in a Cardboard Box: The Inner Life of Video Game Packaging

Last Updated on July 26, 2023

Unboxing videos. They occasionally appear on my YouTube page and are a lurid reminder that time is short and I should go and unpack it somewhere else. But I do understand the sentiment.

Less so the delivery boxes themselves, which I tear into like it was a super move from BlazBlue, but the manufacturer’s packaging, with its branding and brooding over the contents; there is something to that. I even quite enjoy the rasping sound of polystyrene catching against cardboard as you pull a new console free from said packaging.

All very nice, but even speaking about it here is beginning to waste time.

I just mean to say that I appreciate packaging, especially video game packaging itself. As someone who used to indulge myself in 90s imports, I must admit a fondness for the fullness of old packaging. I hadn’t really realised that things had changed that much until a Nintendo Switch came into the house, the first new console since I had bought my third Xbox 360 around 2009.

Goodness, the change, and not for the better.

`Video game, 'Spitfire 40' (video game)

Jingo-Jargon

Game cases, for their varying sizes and occasional disappointments, have almost always shared a reliable format, be they CD, cartridge or 8-track. An added bonus from back in the import days for me was that after the cover and the disc itself, the juice of the instruction manual, I didn’t know what was going on.

All that Japanese text and design going off all over the place.

They were magnificent. For all incoherent effervescence, there was a sense of great care and clear signifiers to the culture.

You couldn’t touch Japan for that back when, and you certainly won’t find anything close to it these days in your average Switch case. And I have been looking. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is all but empty inside, just a sad little cartridge and a piece of art that reminds me why this game isn’t one for me. But it really should have come with an instruction manual. All the cases have little holders for where the manual should be, but where are they?

I even quite enjoy the rasping sound of polystyrene catching against cardboard as you pull a new console free from said packaging.

Some do have them I must say, but they are pathetic. Just full of a load of corporate, jingo-jargon and no pretty pictures of characters or concept art.

I am not going to pretend that something as prohibitively expensive as game development hasn’t been commercial for a long time; it was always the goal to reach that, and that is fair enough. But the cutting of corners, the imprints of a top-heavy inclusion of financial investment from those not personally invested in the culture is a little wearing.

People tell me encouraging things about the independent scene of modern gaming, and I am happy to believe that it is so, but even then so much of it is download only and that is just a no from me.

Some cases have instructions, but I must say, they are pathetic. Just full of a load of corporate, jingo-jargon and no pretty pictures of characters or concept art.

It used to be that all we used to throw away were clothes from Primark, after just a couple of run ins, but now we are up to people throwing away physical media like they were yesterday’s corduroys. Perhaps that is why Nintendo just don’t bother with instruction manuals any more, in which case everyone knock it off. I’m not a rampant materialist, but let us give some value to objects, and if we are going to, then let’s make them superb and worth the material to make.

By quite some chance it might appear that this is already going on.

Supercharging

Evercade have been on the scene for a little while now and appear to have gained a reputation for not only material quality but also a fine eye for the filigree. And that makes the difference, with the packaging becoming a piece of the entire world that is being presented to you.

I do not agree with the view that physical media is dead; it might have been having a nap but I am betting on it waking up again. Retro collectors could argue that it has done so already, and in some cases (!), like Evercade, they have done more than just woken. They have gone, to use the classic car term, full resto-mod.

Evercade cartridge case and contents

Resto modifying classic, and modern classic cars, involves stripping everything back and rebuilding it with careful attention to gentle tweaks and improvements. Nothing vulgar, but perhaps some discreet modern brakes or a carefully hidden supercharger. Go see something like Alphaholics or Evenflow on YouTube for that, but in Evercade terms, that means gingerly reworking the code for better sound quality and a pinch of extra resolution.

Classy stuff that I can appreciate having recently been a participant in the absolute state of Nintendo’s SNES pack on the Switch.

It is no good presenting me with Donkey Kong Country to play if when I do it is no longer Donkey Kong Country in appearance. My daughter, who lives in the modern world where graphics perse are not relevant, but fidelity is, looked at me playing this game and just pulled a face.

‘Is this right?’ she said. No my dear, it is not because Nintendo haven’t been careful about things. Again. But Evercade have. Not ostentatious, but careful and for the sake of a taste that you remember.

Now all that we need is a chain of Woolworths to line them up in.

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About the author

John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90's Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.

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