A Salute to the Absurdly Ugly Video Game Guide Cover Art of the Past

A Salute to the Absurdly Ugly Video Game Guide Cover Art of the Past

Retro game guide covers were a hot mess, but they sure turned heads.

When the NES revived the half-dead home console market in North America, it took everyone by surprise. As kids fell in with oft-obtuse games like The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior, and Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest, astute writers spotted a great money-making opportunity: dig into the games, write guides that contain puzzle answers and secrets, then put the shebang up on shelves—but not before slapping "ULTIMATE" or "FORBIDDEN" somewhere in the title.

In time, major book publishers would work with game developers to make official guides. Those guides served us well until GameFAQs and fan wikis took over, but there was a magic to the sloppy, unofficial retro guides.

Most of the character exuded by these bootleg books is owed to the baffling cover art that adorned them. The interiors often consisted of blurry screenshots and bad sketches on cheap newsprint, but damned if these backyard publishers didn't spend coin on covers that made kids double-take. Redditor "YoungFentanyl" posted a perfect example of a thrown-together retro guide for The Legend of Zelda. Its cover features a blonde, hatless Link who looks nothing like Nintendo's official interpretation, to say the least. It also appears he's about to go face-to-face with a fully armored knight while armed with nothing but a stump of candle. R.I.P., young warrior.

His halberd is no match for your candlestick, Link. | Source: YoungFentanyl via the r/Retrogaming subreddit

The '80s gave way to the '90s, and the transitionary period was awash in jagged neon-hued designs. More unauthorized game guides poured forth, including the Ultimate Unauthorized Nintendo Game Strategies series that contained very little in the way of "strategies." The "Ultimate Strategies" amounted to poorly written game reviews sprinkled with a few "tips" that were practically lifted straight from the games' instruction booklets. The Ultimate Unauthorized Nintendo Game Strategies series never faded from our collective memory, though. Decades later, its bizarre covers are still taking up real estate in our brains. What is up with that hobo-wolf? What does he have to do with Nintendo? We don't know. Maybe it's best that way.

Where are you running to, orange wolf? The disease is inside of you. | Source: Amazon

The NES gradually moved aside to make way for the SNES. Game guide publication was still a free-for-all, moreso than ever thanks to the rise of RPGs. This resulted in a lot of generic guide covers outfitted with dragons and wizards and whatnot. Pretty tame stuff overall; no hobo-wolves tipping their hats to some offscreen presence. One still-beloved exception is the cover for the Complete Final Fantasy 3 Forbidden Game Secrets, which features a dragon-shaped sword. That's not unusual by itself, except the blade for the sword is substituting for the dragon's reproductive organ—which said dragon is gripping proudly. Also note these forbidden secrets are written by "Hayaku Kaku," which roughly translates from Japanese to "Fast Writer." Seems legit. You can check out the guide for yourself on Archive.org. Be careful, learning these ancient secrets might melt your face off.

"Hey ladies." | Source: Archive.org

By the time Pokemon Red and Blue came around, people were just barely crawling onto the internet to find secrets and advice for games they loved. (That's how the long-running Pokemon fan site Serebii got its start.) There was still a huge market for unofficial Pokemon guides, most of which avoided putting official Pokemon on their covers for obvious reasons. One strange little gem is "The Pokemon Trainers Survival Guide," written by Mark MacDonald (1UP and 8-4 alumni, now the VP of production and Enhance Games). Its cover, which was illustrated by a good friend of mine, features a completely made-up dragon Pokemon with a big, meaty paw. It's not bad, per se. It's just weird. If I showed this cover to my friend, who went on to become a professional animator, she'd probably hit me.

I bet it's still not a Dragon-type. | Source: Dinosaur Dracula via Twitter

As game guides became a more legitimate and organized industry, crazy-ass covers were replaced by high-resolution art from official sources. Guides also focused around one game instead of being a hodge-podge of tips for a bunch of games on one system. Clean. Functional. Kind of boring. That's the way it goes. We salute you, dragon-dong sword, hobo wolf, and indescribable "Pokemon." You were the keepers of sacred knowledge through the '80s and '90s.

Header image via NES Zelda guide, posted by user YoungFentanyl via the r/RetroGaming subreddit.

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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