Box Shaped Heart

Firm, smooth, and with a sexy sheen in your sweaty grip, the old adage that bigger is better may well be true… at least in terms of games. Or, rather, boxes.  For some of us, gaming doesn’t just begin with the intro, tutorial, or pummelling the start button… it begins as soon as we catch our first glimpse of a game across the shop floor.  You know how the story goes: a piece of gaming tottie catches your eye; you sidle closer and work up the courage to make your move before someone else gets to it first.  Hesitant touches turn to caressing, which turn to… hair sniffing (in this case, the manual – yes, I Am Freak) and the hefty weight of its packaged goods promises nights of satisfying fun, regardless of its looks.

For me, gaming is an experience from start to finish.  The thrill of the first fumblings with the box, the trip to the checkout, the ride home, the anticipation, opening it and reading the manual, etc.  It is like a heady buffet for the senses.  Or it used to be.  Now the monolithic Amazonian beautific boxes have been replaced by crackly cellophane and an anti-tamper seal.  Big deal?  Listen sonny, how would you feel if you came home from work/uni to find your partner’s Calvins/Intimates in the bin and him/her wearing the groin-stirring equivalent of a bin-bag with Robert Kilroy Silk’s face printed on it.

In the same way that heavy = expensive, bigger often means better – it’s almost hardwired into our psyches.  No matter how many gadgets a Sinclair C5 Mark 2012 Killatron could pack into its tiny frame, no army/secret agent would be seen dead trundling off to war/shagsville in one.  You could pack more weapons than Borderlands into the flip down headlight wells and Jeremy Clarkson would still take the piss… right before he drove over it in his Chieftain tank, while shouting into the world’s biggest camera, nursing the world’s biggest ego.

The Top Gear trio getting tanked up...

Mad architects (at least, those who aren’t trying to convince us to live like in Bilbo Baggins in some lightless eco dwelling in our back garden) build em big.  You don’t see the mayor of London cramming his floppy hair into an office the size of a coffee percolator in a tiny, glassy London low-rise,  Do you buggery.  If it can’t tickle God’s testicles, then it isn’t big and tall enough.  So what the fuck happened to games… where have all the big boxes gone?  Did young girls pick them every one?

In the days before GAME turned to the dark side and eventually self-destructed, it used to be called Electronics Boutique.  There was one tucked neatly away on Canterbury high street, and it was a different world.  PC games, before they fell from retail grace and were relegated to ‘mutant cousin’ status, filled the shelves as far as the eye could see, from floor to ceiling.  And they had to… because they were massive.  Yes, vast slabs of boxy delights that could put the average tombstone to shame.  They were glossy, thick, and big.  Some were spot-varnished and/or matt-encapsulated; some had regular flap boxes, others had sexy slipcovers over a more plain looking cardboard inner, but there was something satisfying about them.  When you held one and turned it awkwardly to gawk at the screenies on the back it felt worth the money.  They looked good and they felt good and opening your wallet for upwards of thirty quid felt a damn sight more justified, somehow.

What happened?  It would seem churlish, even childish, to point fingers at the environmentalists.  So let’s do that.  Less packaging, reduce waste, save a blind polar bear.  We’ve all heard it.  That’s all well and good, but when your game box is large enough to crawl into and shelter in the event of a city-killing environmental disaster, we don’t especially care – in a selfish way, I’m inclined to think “bollocks” to it. While supermarkets continue to stock stupid sized hollow chocolate eggs in packaging the size of Jabba the Hutt, I feel no shame about coveting inappropriate and unnecessary game packaging.  But, as with everything, money is the biggest factor, not the environment – they just lucked out.  The bigger something is, the more it costs (except caviar and ladies’ underwear – true).  It isn’t unreasonable to hypothesise that, typically, publishers wanted to squeeze a greater margin out of their releases, and with devs already milked dry and left crying in the corner, eyes naturally fell to PC packaging.  You know that jewel-case that you eventually unearthed after peeling back the cardboard layers of your new game?  Well, that’s all we’re going to give you from now on.  Excuse me?

I remember standing in EB and drinking in the big boxes and spotting one or two games in jewel or DVD cases.  I laughed.  And then I shunned them.  Who wants a game packaged like that?  They’ll never catch on, I thought, as I staggered out of the shop with a huge boxed copy of Commandos.  After getting it home via a team of elephants and an industrial sled, I saw the problem.  Space.  Suddenly I didn’t feel so pleased with myself when I saw how little room I had left.  The thing is, my shelf was only actually holding about six games.  Because of the huge boxes, I had run out of room and the area under my desk was also piled high to the point that I had no leg room.  At first I resisted.  Then I conceded a little.  I peeled away the boxes and lined up the hated breaky jewel-cases instead (ever have one whose hinge(s) didn’t fucking break?), but I stubbornly kept the boxes stored beneath my bed because they looked good and I told myself that one day I’d have more space to return them to their rightful place.  It never happened.  Slowly, but surely, one by heart-breaking one, the boxes were consigned to a bin-bag over the course of the next few years; I slipped off the Dungeon Keeper 2 cover and secreted it though.  I still take it out and stroke it from time to time, like a serial killer with a lock of trophy hair.

Fast forward to the present day and there are a soulless collection of DVD cases on my shelves.  And do you know what?  I still don’t have any fucking room.  It isn’t  just the boxes that I remember with nostalgia though, it’s what was inside.  Back then, you got the game but, because of the space, you actually got other stuff too.  You got a manual that you could use to club a continent to death, perhaps a poster, or a few cards featuring unit types and construction trees, and maybe even a few stickers or some other papery trinkets.

But wait… allow me to pause while the needle jerks off the record.  We still get this stuff… you know where I discovered it?  They’re called collector’s editions and publishers have the audacity to charge us upwards of sixty quid for them.  Big boxes, extra packaging, shelf-hogging footprint… check.  Oh look, this special edition contains a book with histories, character info, and some nice pictures.  We used to have those.  The were called ‘decent manuals’.  Check out Colonization for the Amiga to see a reasonable example – a game that also came with cards detailing unit/terrain types (things that often get proudly bandied about on content lists of the latest limited/collector’s/special edition sets).

How did this happen?  I don’t know.  I may resent paying a small fortune for these unnecessary special sets, but looking back I can sort of understand the genesis of my obsession now.  I can see the roots in my past; the nostalgic strings that get plucked whenever I heft a big box reminiscent of the ‘old days’ and hurry to disgorge the contents.  Yes, we may get more extras, such as resin figures, soundtracks, stickers, and art books, which justify – to some extent – the inflated price, but on the basic level they aren’t far off the things that we used to have as standard – at least on the outside.

I miss those chunky game boxes as much as I miss the PC sections of the golden age of gaming retail.  Perhaps that is why I still have no space… because my shelves remain filled with bulky boxes – they are just called ‘special’, ‘limited’, or ‘collector’s’.  The only small thing is my bank balance.  Given the choice of being environmentally conscious, maximising premium retail space, and considering publishers’ margins or the big game boxes of old, I’ll jump behind the wheel of that outdated, chunky tank anytime and happily drive over your compact cases with the ‘I Heart Blind Polar Bears’ stickers on the back.

Last five articles by Lorna



  1. Richie Rich says:

    I loved this piece. Sure, I don’t even display my shitty putrid-green Xbox cases now – I use a disc wallet – but I miss those old Amiga boxes for sure. Even if I too didn’t treat them with the requisite respect due at the time.

    Still, we will miss the shitty DVD cases when Microsoft eventually lease us our games digitally.

    Great stuff, Lorn.

  2. Rook says:

    I have a few Infocom games in bigger but not massive boxes, like some of the other PC games I own, and they had extras bits in them too. Letters from characters in the game or an eviction notice for how The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy game stated. I always liked these extra touches and something that belongs to the game world and not just something to represent the game. My favourite Xbox 360 extra is the septim coin from the Oblivion special edition, actual currency from the game.

    As you pointed out though the problem with the bigger boxes was space so I’m kinda glad not to have the big boxes for every game I own; they could probably be used to build a house to contain themselves.

  3. Graham Graham says:

    My favourite thing about old game boxes was that no two were the same size. Even games from the same studio would have boxes with completely different dimensions.

    I pine for the days where the game manual was a 600 page tome. Page 312, paragraph 15 – Mum! What’s a paragraph?! – word 7. Peccadillo. You may pass.

    Excellent article, next time I visit my parents I’m going to have a good look at the boxes that still reside on the top shelf in the study and reminisce.

  4. SimonJK says:

    I really do see your point. I remember that feeling that every box was specially made of each game and now it maybe just a fancy peice of designer art (no disrespect to the artist) crammed into a crappy green art frame and I also use a dvd mini case to hold the games I am actually playing but the special box seems to now be restricted to the more upscale and over expensive limited editions. For many years I held onto the tee shirt that came with my Space Harrier game among others and more recently still have a copy of Oblivion with coin and the tin luch box case that came with my Fallout 3 (minus the game). i think my personal most recent favourite case came with Forza 3. Even in the case of extras the recent years have saddened me, Lim. Eds just seem to have maybe a map and a ‘making of DVD’ or sound track and if you are very lucky a steel case! Witcher 2 Dark edition was a beutyfull exception but it’s a shame Game dropped the ball on it’s monopoly.

    I agree with Graham about the manual, it seems a more often case and definately with EA games that you get a piece of laminated paper for instructions and an extra option showing the instructions in game – what the hell do I have to read whilst waiting to play? I recall the ‘olden days’ of Micropose games like Gunship 2000 with a huge manual explaining everthing about the game and detailed specs on every thing else, now all we get is a detailed picture of what each button on a controller is!!! If a player doesn’t know that, for example, the button with a X on it is the X button then they don’t deserve to play nevermind ‘put the disc in the disc tray’ etc!

  5. Tania Tania says:

    As much as I do miss the big boxes with their fab freebies and decent manuals, space IS an issue these days. Most gamers are loaded up with not only shelves of games but also some kind of to-play pile and if you’re like me then add a shelf of game guides on top of those. It’s sad, but as much as I have always loved physical copies of games I find myself leaning more and more towards digital copies that are both convienient (no disk faff) and the ultimate space savers.
    And, let’s face it, even most boxed games make you print your own manual these days anyway, might as well go that one step further and download the sucker.

  6. Chris Chris says:

    Great article Lorna. I spent my years collecting a large amount of games boxes. My favorite was the Doom series. Manual came packed with information about the enemies, weapons and how you came to be stranded on Mars and it’s moons. Very much missed.

  7. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    Pinball Dreams, Pinball Fantasies, Pinball Illusions, Shadow Of The Beast, Rise Of The Robots… man, I could go on and on listing the big-box games I bought for my Amiga and then re-bought on PC. I think the best damn deal I ever got was in PC World when I picked up the full X-COM collection for £5. Granted, the only reason it was a big box was because it had all the games in it, but it was one of the best purchases ever and probably the last big-box game I ever bought. I think C&C The First Decade was bought before it. Maybe not.

    I do miss those big boxes though, regardless of the space they take up. When you consider the number of DVD collector sets we’ve got strewn around the house, I’d much rather have some awesome games instead. Oh, I just remembered… I have a shitload of big-box games, but they’re all classed as special editions so it probably doesn’t count. Most impressive are undoubtedly the Two Worlds sets, as the first one comes with a replica sword letter opener as well as a t-shirt, map, and god knows what else and the Two Worlds II set has a statuette (a decent one), mouse mat and all manner of awesome things.

    I’d happily trade the DVD space for games though, if I’m honest. Games used to cost twenty quid and you got so much stuff with them, yet now they’re double the price and you get a shitty Amaray case. I get that production costs increase over time but let’s not forget that publishers such as Lace Mamba are still producing huge boxes crammed full of stuff and they’re probably half the cost of your typical triple-A release. I think corporate greed plays a part in all this. It has to. There’s no other solid explanation if the little guys can do it.

    Love this piece. A lot.

  8. Keegan Keegan says:

    A problem that I have with the current system can easily be shown through one example: Soulcalibur V.

    The game introduces several new characters with little or no explanation of who they are, why they are there, etc. I thought this was a major deficiency in the game, only to discover later that if I’d plumped for the Special edition I would have got reams of information about each character and their pasts, backgrounds, motivations etc.

    Now call me crazy, but surely everyone deserves that information, if not in the game then at least with the game.

    I admit, I was a bit young for the massive game boxes, but I do still remember my old man getting several very chunky boxes with plenty of stuff for me to read while he played, and I think that it’s a real shame that that’s not longer the case.

    Love the article :D

  9. Ian says:

    Those massive gameboxes were doomed once DVDs came to market and the horror of PDF version manuals became a reality.

    *clutches boxed copy of Sam & Max*

  10. Steve says:

    Here, Here!

    I currently have 7 of these beauties sat on my computer desk. I don’t (read can’t) play the games anymore but I don’t half get nostalgic looking at those cases (and the manual for Starfleet Command… I could use it as a door stop!)

  11. Edward Edward says:

    I feel this is something that’s JUST before my time, or my parents were a lot less scrupulous about chucking stuff away. When I was first introduced to PC gaming we only had the Floppy Disks without manuals etc, and then the jewel cases. Where I gained my appreciation for the boxing and manuals was with the N64, where you’d be given heaving instruction manuals and a carefully packaged game, and that continued with all my Game Boy/Colour/Advance/DS games to the Wii. In fact, Nintendo are the only people who actually seem to give a shit about the packaging and manuals anymore, or they’re at least one of the few who haven’t resorted to a two page manual that only tells you the controls and a barely protected disc. The times, they truly are a changing.

  12. Lorna Lorna says:

    Thanks for the comments folks :) I used to truly adore the big ole game boxes. As Rook said, some of them had some great stuff inside. I even used to like the anti-piracy code wheels that came with some of them, as they were pretty individual and often gorgeous. I can just imagine though, if I were to have a big box for all my current PC games… there just wouldn’t be enough space in the house or garden to contain them all :(

    @ Graham/Simon – Great point and I agree – I loved that there was no real uniformity to the box sizes. It seemed like every one had gone its own way and it made for a diverse looking collection. I completely agree about game manuals too (another ranty article for another day – soon). I used to adore having manuals thicker than the cast of most Big Brother iterations and hate that they are slowly vanishing now. It seems like everything that I used to love about physical games is slowly being eroded.

    @ Tania – You are a fucking traitor and are henceforth expunged as my sister. Ever since you got Steam, you’ve been warped to the dark side. If we had any kind of family name, you’d be shaming it. That said, downloading is perfect when there is no other way to get hold of an older title, or your physical copy won’t work with the latest hateful version of Windows.

    @ Chris/Mark – That is what made the game manuals great – that you had that extra info – it helped you to sink further into the whole experience. I remember the Pinball games well, and I can still see the Pinball Dreams box in my head. Good point about the cost remaining high, but getting less for your money. If some of the smaller publishers can still manage it, it is a shame that there isn’t more effort elsewhere.

    @ Keegan – Agreed. I like to have a good grasp of the character backstories, history of the setting, etc. I find it ridiculous that SCV would ship without any decent info on new faces as a standard – that should not have been held back for a special ed. That is a pretty cheap trick, to be honest, but sadly unsurprising.

    @Ian/Steve – Doomed indeed. Let’s just hope that physical media doesn’t vanish entirely. It is bad enough that half my PC titles will no require much faffing about thanks to changes in operating systems over the years. I can see myself having to re-purchase stuff via GOG and just keep the boxes anyway as a sort of memory/backup. But for how long, if my beloved game boxes of old eventually went the way of the bin?

    @ Ed – Ah, yes, the floppy disc floating about in a big old game box in the Amiga’s time :) Consoles games also used to come in pretty decent boxes, I agree, although they did tend to be incredibly flimsy. Nothing deteriorated faster than my SNES boxes. Every house move that we go thorugh, they get more and more punished :( Same with the original GameBoy games, which is why most of those boxes are long gone. You make a good point about Ninty.

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