Modern gaming PCs and components look like sports cars designed by brutalist teenagers. Manufacturers mold them with sharp edges, blue lights, and red racing stripes to make them go faster. The results are huge, hulking edifices that sit in the corner of bedrooms, looking like the obelisk from 2001 if it was designed by a Stanley Kubrick who'd grown up watching the Fast & Furious movies and chugging energy drinks.
But compared to the aesthetics of the PC gaming past, these new creations are positively subtle. In the not so distant past, when computers were beige and monitors were fat, PC gamers had to make do with a different kind of design — that of the graphics card box. For roughly 10 years, from the late '90s until around 2010, the art on the boxes of PC graphics cards was reliably strange — and no one really knows why.
These days, graphics card art is usually boring
The images on the front of these boxes were ostensibly designed to sell the card inside, to show how much better your rig would run if you plugged the jumble of chips and silicon into your PC's PCI (or AGP) slot. But for some unknown reason, these cardboard canvases became the home of some of the weirdest art to ever come from human fingers. Components were advertised with bored wizards, floating heads, and silver surfers. Amphibians with delusions of grandeur inexplicably appeared on the boxes of graphics cards in a way that sellers of processors, or RAM, or hard drives — other vital bits of a self-built PC — never used.
The trend has largely died off now, as the smaller manufacturers that were able to license technology from Nvidia or AMD have either gone under or shifted into new areas. Those graphics card makers that remain are generally more subtle in their packaging — a shame, because we usually miss out on art like this:
Gather together every box from the last 25 years of graphics card technology, and Palit's Radeon X700 is the mean, the median, and the mode. It's got every element you'd expect if you wandered into a computer hardware shop between 1999 and 2010, featuring a slightly bored-looking woman, unnecessarily skimpy armor, an abstract swirly background, too many badges, incomprehensible numerical designations, and textures that are paradoxically much worse than you'd be able to achieve on your actual PC with the card inside the box.
If the bored computer woman was the archetype for graphics card boxes, then goofy monsters ran a close second. Is XFX's cover star a dog? A tiger in wrestling makeup? He-Man's Battle Cat, after he lost his job on the cartoon and had to take work wherever he could find it? It doesn't really matter — with his carefully modeled drool, vinyl cuffs, and patchy fur, Toothy the weird CatDog is the kind of mascot that we just don't see any more. XFX is still one of the bigger gaming component specialists, but its newest graphics cards are packaged in boring gunmetal gray or understated black boxes.
Image: IXBT Labs
Nvidia's GeForce 3 Ti500, a slightly faster revision of the standard GeForce 3 card, was released in 2001 — the same year that expansive god game Black & White, the genre-redefining Grand Theft Auto III, and gritty noir shooter Max Payne hit store shelves. While Gigabyte's card itself was capable of running each of those games at high settings, the warrior that graced its box looked like he was drawn on a scientific calculator, by an artist who'd only ever overheard the concept of video games being explained in a bar at 2AM.
Video game wizards harness the powers of the elements themselves to twist the fabric of reality, rending holes in time and space, pulling fire and lightning from the sky to hurl at their enemies. Leadtek's wizard is angry about some kids who won't stop playing on his lawn. "Come on guys," he appears to be shouting. "Please! You'll ruin my grass. Put that phylactery down! Aw, you broke it."
It might not be as outright inexplicable as some of its peers, but PNY's 6600 GT is, fittingly, a perfect storm of a graphics card box. There's a bored-looking woman, tribal tattoos, very few clothes, a series of arcane numbers, and a swirly background. The company — still making graphics cards — also gets extra style points for including the angel wings and headdress, additions that serve primarily to highlight how bad the 3D artist was at drawing feathers.
"Shit, I said I'd appear on this graphics card box, but I can't remember if I locked the front door. I'm pretty sure I did. I mean, I remember picking up my key... What's that? Pull some goo from the weird spinning apple that's hanging here in space for no reason? Yeah, okay, hang on. I said hang on! I always lock the door. Huh? No, I'm not distracted, I'm just..."
"No, take the picture now, it's fine. I swear I locked it..."
Image: IXBT Labs
Kingston, Jamaica, 2001. A young Usain Bolt walks into his local computer hardware emporium. Already a talented young athlete, a 15-year-old Bolt is looking for two things: a trademark celebration to use whenever he wins a race, and a new graphics card. He finds them both in ProLink's PixelView GeForce 3 Ti200. While Bolt would go on to dominate Olympic sprinting, smash world records, and achieve global fame, ProLink would jettison its graphics card licensing operation. In 2015 it sells 3D printers, lightbulbs, and tablet covers. Remember it instead for its weird silver griddle man.
So many questions. How are you breathing, half-wrecked cyborg man? Do you even need to breathe? What are you even doing, bobbing menacingly a few hundred yards from Shitty Texture Island? Is that rock just floating next to you? Do rocks float in your world? What happened to your forehead to tear it open like that? Do you even have a body, or are you just a head, doomed to wander the oceans of Jimi Hendrix world with little propellers pushing you around? And — most importantly — how would anyone ever see this box on the shelf and say "ah yes, that's what I want my games to look like!"
Frogmech. Frogmech. It's a frog in a mech suit. No, I don't think you understand. Take a moment and drink it in. It's a frog, yes? But the frog is in a mech suit. "Perhaps," you might ask, "perhaps there's a video game with a frog in a mech suit, that this frog — who is in a mech suit — is referencing?" I'll stop you now. There is no video game with a frog in a mech suit. That means that at some point, someone at Palit called someone else in Palit's art department and said "you know, I really think we need to put a frog on our next graphics card box. But not just any normal frog! Can you put the frog in a mech suit? I think it will be a good idea." And that other someone said "yes, I think it is a good idea to put a frog in a mech suit on the cover. I'll design that for you right now."
I want to shake the hands of both of those people.
A valiant attempt at the standard graphics card box composition here, but the now-defunct Soltek didn't quite stick the landing. The cover star looks more terrifying than bored, combining Klingon forehead ridges with deep skin grooves, blow-up doll lips, and what appears to be a Bluetooth headset designed by a nu-metal band. The hilt of her sword appears to be farting in binary code, though, so there's that.
Now we know where Jared Leto got the idea for his Suicide Squad Joker from. Hercules' 3D Prophet 9500 Pro gets bonus marks for the tribal tattoos that adorn both face and box — just in case you weren't sure that this was released in the early 2000s — but the real star of the show is that tooth decay. That's the kind of attention to detail that should really sell a product. Sadly Hercules was never particularly good at that.
The company started out producing its own graphics cards, but lost business to Nvidia, ATI, and 3dfx in the 1990s. The brand was sold to ELSA, before that company too went under, and the name was eventually shipped to Canadian company Guillemot. The 3D Prophet 9500 Pro, built on ATI's popular R300 chip in 2003, was one of the last cards to bear the Hercules names — Guillemot stopped production of graphics cards in 2004. Their terrifying clown faces only haunt our dreams now.
Gainward's use of the shiny-skinned 3D woman is a textbook example of a graphics card box, but this one is notable for the expression of the 3D model: somehow both pained and haunted. Perhaps her face is like that because she's been told she's appearing alongside the words "golden sample," a combination that sounds like the kind of thing your new employers will ask you for to prove you're not taking any illegal drugs. Gainward is still using the tag to denote cards that have been overclocked and tested by the company itself prior to retail.
The first 3dfx Voodoo cards, released at the tail end of the 1990s, were blessed with surprisingly tasteful box art. But as 3dfx's profits were eaten away by better-performing Radeon and GeForce cards from its rivals, the company apparently decided if it couldn't beat them, join them, and decided to advertise its Voodoo 5 with the peeling, cracking face of a man willingly standing in the midst of a house fire. His skin is raw, his nose is warped, and his eyes scream "help me." The tactic didn't work — 3dfx went bankrupt shortly after the card's release.
Image: Tech Labs
The reappearance of Frogmech means that not only did Palit design Frogmech, but that someone inside the company believed so much in their mechanized frog creation that they made the call to stamp it on a variety of Palit products. Note this time that Frogmech is angry. Who hurt you, Frogmech? I love you, Frogmech.
Will we ever see the likes of Frogmech again? It's tough to say. Many of the smaller manufacturers responsible for some of the wildest art have gone bankrupt. Others have stayed in business but dropped the awkward orcs, robot heads, and warrior women, adjusting their aesthetics for a new breed of gamer that expects huge black boxes and industrial design. Maybe, as gamers now buy their components on the internet, physical boxes don't need to be so eye-catching. Or maybe, like cubism, art deco, and rococo, the greatest artistic movements are meant to explode in a burst of creativity and then burn out fast, leaving the world with truth, beauty, and Frogmechs.