Image: Sony

Fumito Ueda's artwork for Japan Studio's classic action-adventure Ico is constantly brought up when talking about great video game box art.

The Giorgio de Chirico-inspired cover depicts the horned character Ico pulling the young girl Yorda through a surrealistic landscape, while a series of stone ruins dwarf the vanishing figures. It perfectly sets the stage for the mysterious and epic adventure about to take place, without ever being a literal representation of the game's story or art style.

Yet, when Ico launched in North America back in September 2001, this artwork wasn't what was shipped along with the game. Instead, North American players had to make do with a more generic 3D cover that depicted Ico holding a stick below a windmill and Yorda's giant CG-rendered face.

For years, the disparity has led to negative comparisons between the two covers, with the North American art since being dubbed "one of the worst cover art downgrades" ever. The former vice-president of Sony's Japan Studio Yasuhide Kobayashi even later blamed it, in part, for the game's poor sales in the United States, making this claim at the 2009 DICE Summit Asia.

Recently Time Extension looked into how this cover came about, speaking briefly to the artist behind it, Gregory Harsh.

Harsh now works as an art director at EA, but back in the early 2000s was an associate art director at the American company Beeline Group. This is a company primarily for video game and entertainment packaging and advertising. As we discovered, he had a bit of an impossible task, with the artist having to create a new cover illustration for the game, as the popular Japanese and European cover had yet to be finalized (the game was released in the US before other regions).

He tells us:

"It was just a matter of timing. At the time I was not involved in the meetings with Sony. I only became aware of the controversy when my package appeared on a "worst package fronts" list a few years ago. It's a badge of honor [now, and] I find the backlash against the cover amusing. I don’t claim it’s a great piece of art! And I too prefer the Japanese art - but the US was about a big logo and had a thing about big heads in the background (maybe because of movie posters?).""

According to Harsh, he knew nothing about the game or the existence of the other cover at the time he was making the cover, with only a couple of screenshots to go off and some vague direction from Sony.

He continues:

"We started with Beeline’s sketch artist [Steve Lang] doing a few pencil layouts, which I modified in photoshop to meet whatever changes Sony had. Then (as a budding 3D artist) I pushed Beeline to let me take a crack at it in 3D using Lightwave. I don’t recall having much information about the game other than a screenshot or two."

Hearing Harsh's story today, it makes sense why the cover didn't exactly turn out to be a masterpiece, with the artist on a tight deadline and not really in a position to take risks due to his lack of knowledge about the property.

For a more generic game, the movie-esque poster probably would have slipped under the radar. However, when judged against the contents of the game itself and the artwork that followed, it's hard to ignore the odd juxtaposition. Nevertheless, Harsh seems unscathed by the criticism it's received and has since gone on to have a long and successful career in the industry.

He later worked on the manuals for several LucasArts games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, before joining the company in-house in 2004.

Do you own a copy of the US PS2 release? Let us know!