Inside The Big Cardboard Box is where we delve into the history of the largely defunct world of boxed PC games, with a particular emphasis on all the ones I used to own, but later gave away or sold.

So, after a brief detour into the world of compilations, we’re back again finding more budget labels inside the big box. (Did I ever even buy any full-price games? I think such things were luxuries reserved for birthday and Christmas presents).

We’ve already covered the main two ‘prestige’ budget lines from Virgin and EA, and as far as I remember, they were the most prominent and successful ones available in the 90s. While other publishers certainly followed suit, they never quite had the range or quality of titles available to leave a lasting impression, and even a committed bargain hunter like myself would find that these second-tier lines would either have been discontinued or rebranded following an initial purchase.

We’ll start with one that took an unusual approach which, to my mind, was actually a pretty good idea. One of the main selling points of Replay, from GT Interactive, was that you would actually get the game in its original packaging. Although there would be a yellow Replay-branded sleeve for the box ‘on the shelf’, once you got it home, that gaudy monstrosity could be removed and discarded altogether, leaving only the original packaging for you to proudly display, like the kind of person who buys games for their recommended retail price.

Unlikely as it might seem, budget labels of the 90s are evidently a niche interest, the memory of which no-one has expended any effort towards preserving in any detail. I had feared that evidence of this ‘fake box’ scenario would be thin on the ground, and it is. However, the series’ initial tagline: ‘The world’s greatest games in their original packaging’ has been captured and uploaded to Mobygames, although the only example I can find in English is for a pinball game called Balls of Steel (‘Pinball on Steroids!’) which I do not recall ever being dubbed one of the world’s greatest games.

Meanwhile, scans of the German box art (‘Unsere besten spiele in ihrer original-verpackung’) also confirm that Flight of the Amazon Queen and Total Annihilation, two games that I remember owning, were also released in the ‘removable sleeve’ format. I’m reasonably certain my copies of Quake, and possibly Carmageddon, were from this range too. GT published The Ultimate Doom and Duke Nukem 3D in the UK, and these were also fairly high-profile releases on this label.

Eventually the ‘original packaging’ gimmick was ditched altogether, and you just had to make do with the yellow box, which was, as previously noted, not particularly attractive. However, there did some to come a point in the late 90s when PC budget labels seemed to shift from a ‘cheap doesn’t mean low quality’ type approach, to one that seemed to acknowledge that the likely target market just wanted the games to be as cheap as possible. However, during the full-size cardboard box era, printed manuals etc. were still provided.

The Replay range didn’t last much longer than the 90s, and neither did GT Interactive itself, which got folded into Infogrames. (Speaking of which, in the early 00s DVD era, there was an Infogrames ‘Best Of’ range, which offered cheap copies of Unreal Tournament and Driver (with PDF manuals), which are still in my collection. But then Infogrames started using the Atari brand (the legal history of which seems far too complicated to go into here) and so the budget line became ‘Best of Atari’, although I don’t think I ever bought anything with this box art).

Activision’s 90s budget range was known as The Essential Collection, and to start with aimed for a classical/framed artwork style of presentation, in the mould of The White Label. My recollection was that my copy of Interstate ’76 came from this range, although the jewel case that’s still in my possession would suggest otherwise. It definitely was an Essential Collection release, though, as were Mechwarrior 2, Spycraft and Earthworm Jim. The range later rebranded to feature rather indeterminate blue packaging… I had Hexen II from this era (later donated to Stoo at some point in the 00s).

This blue packaging wasn’t dissimilar to that later adopted by the Psygnosis budget range, the Argentum Collection, the first iteration of which used a grey and purple design inspired by the colours in the Psygnosis logo. My copy of Wipeout, which I still have, comes from this range (with the jewel case showing signs of the kinds of issues that once plagued PC gamers, particularly during the bumpy mid-90s transition from DOS, with two hastily-added stickers warning that the game is ‘Not compatible with Windows ’95’ and that the ‘Sound will only work with Creative Labs Sound Cards’). Fellow PSX conversion Destruction Derby, along with Discworld and Ecstatica were also among the games on offer, with their sequels securing a later release during the blue box era.

Hexen II aside, I think I pretty much held onto most of the games from these various budget ranges. Although I’m not sure where Quake is, or whether that was even mine in the first place. (My Dad, uncharacteristically, rather enjoyed Quake in single-player, so it might actually have been his).

As we mentioned last time, the appeal of random compilations started to wane into the early 00s, and it seems likely that publisher-based budget labels went the same way, particularly for those with a limited number of big-name titles to re-release. Instead, this kind of thing became the preserve of specialist budget publishers like Xplosiv and $old Out, which more or less abandoned the notion of classy presentation in favour of just hoovering up as many games as possible and flogging them to the consumer with the manual on CD in cheerily generic packaging.

NB: All scans sourced from Mobygames.