RPG Codex’s massive box collection makes me wish we still had real boxes…and manuals

RPG Codex recently posted a great follow-up to their Top 72 RPGs of All Time list — a list that had also inspired Codex community giant, felipepepe, to compile an authoritative and intimate look of each of those games as a Top 50 book featuring a potpourri of CRPG lore from the likes of CGW’s Scorpia to the decades-worth of experience gathered not only at the Codex but from a few developers sharing a bit of their own history with the ongoing project.

This time, the list is the “boxed” edition, as in, pictures of the actual boxes and their contents for each of the 72 classics plus two (author, mindx2, explains that they had to include two more games, Blade of Destiny and Chaos Strikes Back, in honor of Codex editor-at-large, Crooked Bee).

Looking through the article brought back a flood of memories. The kind of care and effort that went into packaging these games is something of a lost art today, something that only Kickstarters, high priced “Collector’s Editions”, or developers such as CD Projekt can even deign to indulge in.

As PC gaming progressed from ziplock baggies back in the 70s and early 80s, so did the work that went into extending that imaginary space outside of the game. A few years ago, I scribbled a small article on how much I missed having actual manuals — really good ones pages thick and filled with fictional fluff squeezed in between the actual instructions — to paw through. For many CRPG fans, games like Richard Garriott’s Ultima series and SSI’s AD&D license stand out as some of the best examples of this, both franchises including a host of extras to get the imaginative juices flowing.

manualpotpourri_01

All the pics in my article linked above apparently broke when Gamesbeat republished it after overhauling their backend. Photobucket doesn’t seem to have liked that very much, but here’s a pic of a some of what I have to try make up for that.

BT2_hint_2

Bard’s Tale II‘s hint guide wasn’t just a set of instructions on how to survive the game. It told you how to do it through an actual story capped with a twist ending. The book itself was also crafted quite differently from other guides with rough, thick paper staple bound inside a thick, grey cover giving it the heft and feel of a booklet that might have weathered the journey from Skara Brae and into your hands. Today, someone might whine about just wanting a tl;dr version. Sigh.

RPG Codex's box collection also shows off all of the extras that came with each game. Back then, especially for certain genres of games such as CRPGs, it wasn't unusual to get quite a lot of extras to help your imagination fill in all of the blanks that the game didn't. In this example, this

RPG Codex’s box collection also shows off all of the extras that came with each game. In those classic days, especially for certain genres of games such as CRPGs, it wasn’t unusual to get quite a lot of extras to help your imagination fill in all of the blanks that the game didn’t. In this example, this “newspaper” comes from Deus Ex to help set the mood for what the world was like at the time.

CRPGs weren't the only ones to feature incredibly detail rich extras. Flight sims were another genre that needed that kind of detail, but it also extended to many other games such as Activision's Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers. The

CRPGs weren’t the only ones to feature incredibly detail rich extras. Flight sims were another genre that needed that kind of detail, but many other games such as Activision’s Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers also did it to enrich the experience in general. The “manual” was written like a technical manual describing the four-way monitor system that you would use to guide a set of robots through a highly secured facility. To say the learning curve was a bit steep is an understatement. Then again, the audience for gaming back then was also pretty different from what it is now.

The first Wing Commander came with

The first Wing Commander came with “Claw Marks”, a “pilot’s magazine” that covered life in Wing Commander’s universe with the other half dedicated to actual flight mechanics. Without these profiles, meeting these enemy “aces” would have just felt like a different battle to me. But knowing that I might be going up against Khajja the Fang after reading his bio here added a little something extra that the AI by itself couldn’t deliver.

daggerfall_preorder

Pre-orders for Daggerfall came with a little pewter wizard guy like this one which is hard to see behind the transparent window (sorry). It was about the size of an average person’s thumb. The rest of that space behind the cardboard was taken up by the giant styrofoam brick it rested in.

Most of the boxes that I have are collapsed in order to save space aside from a few that are made of the kind of hard cardboard that were actually like boxes such as Might and Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum’s, SSI’s “Gold Box” series, or Baldur’s Gate II’s Collector’s Edition (which you can see on RPG Codex’s list). It’s also great seeing one or two differences in packaging — my Wasteland box was the album version (NA release), not an actual box that you see on the Codex’s list.

Having all of these boxes on shelves at the local software store back then was like walking into a candy store of stories. The marketing arms of the publishers, and indie developers, knew just what buttons to push to stand out from the rest. Alas, today, the drive towards the uniformity of package designs dictated by the needs of retailers to economize floor space means that we won’t soon see a return to Eidos’ “triangle” boxes or huge-sized ones such as those used for both Might & Magic’s Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen releases.

The move to DVD style cases and boxes was probably inevitable given how huge gaming has become and how retailers were trying to make the most out of their shelves. At the same time, something has also been lost in the same way that moving from records to tapes and CDs have wiped out the need for huge album covers to one up each other as artistic expressions of what lay inside.

As gaming becomes more portable, smaller, and made to fit in a market that is growing larger by the year, game packaging has whittled itself down as a result making stand out examples that rare animal offered only to those who pre-order specialty items like Dark Souls’ metal collector’s case or Valkyria Chronicles’ history booklet. Or a Kickstarter like Wasteland 2’s, or Pillars of Eternity’s.

But thanks to efforts like that of the National Museum of Play located in Rochester, New York, which boasts one of the world’s largest collections of video game related items, or the virtual Museum of Computer Adventure Game History, later generations at least have a chance to check out some of these items in person or online. Even industry icons, such as SSI’s founder, Joel Billings, had donated towards the National Museum’s collection. And now thanks to RPG Codex’s visual record, we have another chance to look back on one of the reasons why CRPGs of yore were some of the best ever made.

To some, it might seem silly to make such a fuss over video game boxes and manuals, though one has to understand that for many titles, they were also as much a part of that game’s identity as what was on that floppy. Restrained by hardware and other factors, those developers knew that they had to somehow cross that distance between the dungeons and haunted mansions they were dreaming up and players’ perceptions. Not all took to the medium in the same way, but those that did made these pieces of cardboard and paper perfect passports into their worlds.

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