As much as I enjoy new technology, I’m a traditionalist at heart. For me, there’s an immense amount of value in the more tangible things in life. Physically handling something that represents your hobby, the thing you enjoy, it’s fulfilling. It’s probably why I find the world of Tabletop gaming so enjoyable. Physical items I can touch, paint and move, it never fails to produce a smile.
These physical forms are still widely available, but there’s one that has been relegated to the history books. The Big Box.
PC Gaming is famous for many things. Cutting edge technology, pushing video game development into new frontiers. The PC master race, mouse and keyboard, unique experiences. One element that is becoming less and less recalled is how games were once packaged.
Large titans constructed of cardboard and excitement. Broad chests covered in logos and game art. The sound of CD cases and bulky manuals crashing into each other. Big Box PC games were, and still are, iconic. Throughout the years, no other format has looked so proud and triumphant. Every angle was drenched in detail, demanding the attention any eye that dear pass it. They were more than just a box, acting as a way to express the game’s personality in a visual manner.
Standing out from the crowd was vital in the pre-internet days. Not everyone had access to an online connection. No review sites or YouTube videos to help weed out the good from the bad. While it may seem rough in retrospect, it resulted in a wild west of box art and design.
The Bold And The Beautiful
Walking into a store was once similar to stepping foot into an art gallery. Wall to wall art, different styles from different cultures. Imagery that would become iconic, dictating where the future market would tilt towards. Reflecting on such experiences conjures up memories of being equally overwhelmed and impressed.
It’s the moments that lead up to a purchase which highlights how wonderful Big Boxes were. Being drawn in by the art, the small developer logos in the corner. Awkwardly wrapping my hand around the hulking beast, flipping it over to investigate the back. Those screenshots, they burn into the mind. More art dances around each frame, slipping in and out of focus. The blurb describes the promised adventure with all the flair of a book. Excitement builds with each second spent soaking in the splendor.
I may have been too young to fully appreciate the golden age of Big Boxes, but what I did see left an impression on me. Second hand and independent stores acted as portals to the past. Instead of seeing the small boxes containing consoles games, I was greeted by the giants of the past. Quake’s simple, but incredibly bold, box art sucked me. What is it? What does that symbol mean? The hellish grin of Diablo shared shelf space with the cartoon-like art of Escape from Monkey Island. So much variety, so much choice. Each investigation provoking differing experiences.
Raider of the Lost Ark
Big Boxes weren’t simply nice to look at, far from it. Opening them up for the first time was always steeped in mystery. Shaking the boxes produced an orchestra of cardboard hitting paper, plastic, and surprise. You never quite knew what to expect from these things. Some played it simply, shipping with CDs and a manual. Others would gift stickers, additional reading material, and even the odd gift.
The old romantic in me remembers these moments well. It felt like more than just buying a product. There as an element of craft to it, a little piece of passion sewn into the box. Recently, people gave credit for CD Projekt Red after they included a thank you not in copies of The Witcher 3. That was a distinctly old school move, a Big Box move. Games were able to build a fleeting connection between developer and consumer. It’s the little thing that counted like manuals with lore inscribed into their pages, or the simple act of including a mini poster.
As time went by, Big Box releases started to fizzle out. Towards the mid-2000s, only a handful of companies were still releasing them. It all seemed dead and buried, but from the ashes came a cult collecting scene. The concept of collecting older games is nothing new. Fans of retro games have formed a wealth of notable communities across the web. YouTuber is a hotbed of collectors showing their collections and telling stories of how they picked certain games up.
Big Box PC games are no different, increasingly growing as a popular item to collect. Their place in history has garnered respect and admiration, along with a nostalgic emotional connection of days gone by. As digital increases in popularity and physical media begins to shrink, it’s these collectors who will become historians. In their own passionate way.
I may not own quite as many Big Box PC titles as I’d like, mainly due to space, but my fond memories remain. There was nothing quite like opening up those big cardboard treasure chest. Exploring the details of the cover art, being wooed by the back of the boxes. Unquie moments in time that I remain thankful for. Who could have guessed the packaging of a product could produce so many emotions.