Phalanx as seen on the main page. From the cover, one expects a Space Western. In reality, Phalanx is just another Shoot 'em Up, only known today for its unusual box art.
Occasionally a game will get away with using beta screenshots on the back of the game box, sometimes these only faintly resemble the finished game. An example of this is the boxart for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos◊ which shows buildings a lot taller than the units themselves, as well as units that weren't even in the final game (although most were added later in the expansion pack or through modding).
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess had the same thing happen as well. One of the screenshots◊ on the back of the box is from a beta version of the game that had a magic meter when the final game is among the few non-handheld installments in the series since the second game (the first to have a magic meter) to lack one. This led people believe that at some point in the game Link would get access to spells, but they were all sadly mistaken.
The Japanese version cover of Mass Destruction, a game where you drive a tank, blow things up and leave smoking craters and debris behind shows a tree which implies peacefulnessnote though, if you think about it, what's going to grow up after everything's destroyed?. The backside is accurate, and the original American version stays true, though.
Kendo Rage. The cover◊ looks similar to Xena: Warrior Princess, but the game is cute, lighthearted, and anime-style. This game was actually the first of a trilogy of games known as "Makeruna! Makendou". The whole story and the characters' names had been rewritten for the American game market.
There are a lot of NES and SNES games with anime-style artwork which doesn't look anything like the American box art. This is understandable, given that most Americans didn't even know what anime was at the time, and certainly not the intended age group for those consoles. For the record, the girl with the big paddle is, in fact, in the game: she's the tennis player boss.
World Series Baseball 2K1 for the Sega Dreamcast came on the heels of the ultra-successful NBA and NFL 2K (the latter being a system mover in its own right), both developed by Visual Concepts, and WSB was presented as a sim-like entry along the other Sega Sports entries. However, the gameplay was actually a port of a Sega arcade game, and left the box in blatant lies. It boasted things like hot zones, scouting reports, and weather changes, neither of which were in the game. Also neither in the game were sim-like gameplay and user-controlled fielding, which among other flaws made the game universally panned, and the series was properly handed off to Visual Concepts the next year.
The US cover for Konami's Suikoden I featured what were supposed to be scenes of various characters from the game; however, they had a completely talentless artist do it, and he rendered them so Off Model that they're all hideous and only one or two are even recognizable as being certain characters from the game. Not exactly deceptive, but inaccurate nonetheless, and earns the US version of the game a position among the most awful game cover arts of all time. They get some points for the inexplicable Bruce Campbell lookalike...
The box art for Power Quest shows five humans all standing side by side. These are supposed to be the game's five playable models, MAX, AXE, LON, SPEED and GONG. They look nothing like that in the game.
Mobile Light Force and Mobile Light Force 2 (better known as Macekred versions of Gunbird and Shikigami no Shiro, two unrelated series) have identical Angels Pose covers that have nothing to do with either of the games in question.
Video games based on college athletics cannot use the image of a current athlete on the cover; it would void their amateur status. So the cover is almost always a standout player who recently completed their eligibility, meaning that you can almost never play as the athlete on the cover of the game box. One game in the NCAA Football series instead shows a mascot. Another edition of NCAA Football has Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard on the cover, who was retired from the NFL at the time.
In Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Lesbian Vampire Jeanette Voerman is a minor character who only shows up for about a third of the game as part of a major subplot. Apparently, that was enough to land her a spot as the sole character on the box cover.◊ In their defense, the developers note their dislike of it, saying it was because the cover art was done by a marketing firm that hadn't played the game and had only various pieces of concept art to go with.
On the NES, Konami usually did good artwork of their game covers that left things just ambiguous enough that it didn't matter. But when they designed the cover◊ of The Goonies II, everything just went to crap. Assumedly unable to afford the royalties for using the actor's likenesses, the artist just drew them all to look like Mark Hamill.
The box art for Advance Wars: Days of Ruin / Dark Conflict really makes the very heroic moral pillar Captain Brenner / Lt. O'Brian look like a villain, due to a combination of the lighting, his beard and hair and his head being in a position in the art befitting of an Evil Overlooker.
The Chrono Trigger cover has Crono, Frog, and Marle fighting a boss. The boss is in the wrong location (in fact, a location that doesn't exist in the game), he's being fought with the wrong party, Crono's outfit is slightly off, Marle's outfit is not even close to her actual in-game outfit, and Marle using a flame spell when she's an ice spell user. And they kept it for the DS release! This is made even more bizarre by the fact that that said artwork was drawn by Akira Toriyama himself, the guy who actually designed the characters and monsters for the game. However, it turns out that it was early promo art before the game had been finalized.
This is somewhat turned into a Cover Drop in the DS version, as there is a fight with that creature, in an area similar to that on the box art in the bonus dungeon...but doing the shown move (Frost Arc) on said monster heals it.
The cover of Spore Creature Creator shows two creatures with embossed, segmented plates running down their torso. These creatures cannot be built, and after the release of the full game there is still no texture that even vaguely resembles an exoskeleton.
The cover art◊ for the Super NES rail shooter Yoshi's Safari prominently features Yoshi, yet Mario is nowhere to be seen despite his own in-game prominence outside the actual gameplay. But then Yoshi is depicted looking back at the camera as if it's Mario.
The box for Half-Life 2 has absolutely no screenshots from the actual shipped game. Some are from early E3 builds of the game, and some are simply creatures in areas they don't exist in the game (a Antlion guard on the beach, for example.) The same goes for the first game. All of the screenshots on the box were from early builds of the game.
The box for Silent Hill 2 features Angela's face, and nothing else, on the cover. Angela is a character that you encounter a couple times throughout the game... but the much more important female character who you encounter far more often and who plays a major role in the story, is Maria, who is nowhere to be found.
The cover of the HD collection does feature a very stylish and creepy image of Maria - but unfortunately, it has nothing from Silent Hill 3 except for the original box art, downsized and included (next to the downsized original cover for 2).
The cover artwork of the Fist of the North Star NES game features a cel artwork from the anime series which depicts Kenshiro sparring with his brother Toki, despite the fact that this was actually based on the second series (Hokuto no Ken 2), which didn't even had Toki in it. Since the game was published years before the anime was even localized for the U.S. market, the people at Taxan just used a random artwork from the series without any regard to the game's content, knowing that most Americans at the time would've not noticed this..
The Japanese cover of Sega's Hokuto no Ken side-scroller for the Master System (the one that was released overseas as Black Belt) features Rei, who is not in the game at all.
Not really cover art (there is no cover art in this case), but the horrific ads for the freemium Civ clone Evony feature busty women imploring you to "Save the Queen", when it is a strategy game, not an RPG (and hence you'll never see them ingame) and, according to those who've played it, there is no queen at all. Later ads didn't even pretend to have anything to do with the game anymore.
The cover of the PC version of Jurassic Park featured screenshots of a different port (either SNES or Amiga)
The cover for the North American version of SNES game Ranma ˝: Hard Battle has an ugly, highly Off Modelillustration◊ of Ranma, Ryōga, and Genma.
Would you ever buy a game with Disney characters on its cover, but not appearing in the actual game? Well, only in the South Korean version of the 1983 Hudson Soft game Dezeni World.
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days features Mickey Mouse in the Organization cloak, which leads people to believe he's a prominent figure in the actual game. Instead, he's featured for one cutscene near the game's end, and doesn't even encounter Roxas.
That scene was also in the trailers, again, hinting it might be important, leading to the Sister Trope, Never Trust a Trailer. The trailer for this game featured a few other cutscenes like this as they were all from the (few) higher quality ones.
SimCity plays mind screws with their covers, usually showing buildings that could never exist in the game. Best example of this is Sim City 4's cover, which shows many of the Asian buildings from Sim City 3000 Unlimited that cannot be built in that game.
Ubisoft's 'Imagine Happy Cooking' proudly displays a very dull housewife to appeal to grandmothers and boring people alike, coming across as a tired lump of shovelware. Surprisingly, the game itself is a very cutesy Japanese-style visual novel complete with friendship meters and gift-giving, and the cooking games are far more well-made compared to Cooking Mama, as you actually cook three-course meals complete with sides, desserts and dressings.
An urban legend had it that Atari 2600's Video Chess was the end result of a false-advertising lawsuit. The original box art for the Atari 2600 game system included a picture of a chess piece. Supposedly, someone sued Atari because there was no chess game available for the 2600. However, according to Bob Whitehead, the programmer of the game, there was no lawsuit.
The back of the box for the original PS2 version of Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex features screenshots of a side-scrolling level involving Coco on her scooter (the only section in the game where she rides a scooter has the camera in front of her) and Crash driving a jeep away from what appears to be his hut (the jeep is in the game but only appears in a jungle).
The covers of all four games in the Wizards And Warriors series featured designs depicting main character Kuros as a barbarian warrior in the style of Conan the Barbarian, complete with flowing locks and obvious huge muscles. In all four games, Kuros always wears platemail and almost always has a helmet. Even when he's not wearing a helmet, either all you can see are his eyes (in Ironsword) or he is seen with short hair, a mustache, and a beard (in Wizards & Warriors III).
The second game, Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II even oddly featured featured male model Fabio Lanzoni (known for appearing on romance novel covers) as he brandishes the title Ironsword, overlapping with Contemptible Cover.
The cover to Deadly Premonition has a definite "ultra gory action/survival horror" theme. It's actually a standard survival horror game that, while it does have a good amount of gore, focuses more on the detective work than the action.
The cover for the original X-COM game, UFO - Enemy Unknown, features a huge bug-eyed monstrosity which does not appear in the game in any way, shape, or form. To be fair, showing something that did would be a subversion of the title.
In the Double Dragon series, it is established that Marian is Billy's girlfriend, who is the Lee brother that wears blue in the games. Yet on the cover artwork used in every version of Double Dragon II: The Revenge, she is shown embracing the one who wears red. Either, Billy doesn't mind sharing his girlfriend with his brother Jimmy, or the artist switched their colors by mistake. Also, Marian is supposed to be dead in II ( although, she does get better in some versions of the game).
Space Station Silicon Valley has a picture of the fire fox on the game cart and instruction manual (he's the only animal in the picture). Although he's one of the most fun animals to control, you only encounter him twice and NEVER play as him, unless you use a cheat code.
Rampant in the cover art of Atari and other early-era video games. The artwork on the box and in the manuals was always way better than the blocky shapes on the screen. Take the cover of Warlords◊, versus the ingame screenshot◊ for instance.
Similarly, Star Wars Battlefront II has an example of this for its space maps. Usually, the Loading Screen shows an image of a battle on the map being loaded along with hints in the upper right. Space maps, unlike most ground-based maps, only allow the player to battle in one era (Clone Wars from the prequels or Galactic Civil War from the originals) depending on the map. In the console versions of the game, Clone War-era space maps only show Galactic Civil War-era ships in the loading screens, and vice versa.
Final Fantasy VII had the back of the box showing screenshots of nothing but FMV scenes with nary a screenshot of the game itself in sight. This led many people to believe that the game would be played in the advertised graphics. Final Fantasy and other games that pulled this stunt had gotten in trouble for deceptive marketing and all game boxes are required to show at least one screenshot of the game itself instead of a cut scene.
The cover of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is only a picture of Lightning, similar to the previous game's cover. Unlike the previous game, however, she is not the main protagonist (who is her sister Serah this time), nor does she play a huge role in the story.
Tomb Raider Chronicles shows Lara Croft in a cat spy suit jumping out of a building shooting at someone with her signature dual pistols. Lara does infiltrate a building in the advertised outfit and the cut scene for the first level even shows her shooting a vent grate off with a pistol, but in the actual game, she doesn't have her pistols, but a limited ammo based machine gun.
Tempo for the Sega 32X has one of the most ridiculous box arts ever. It depicts a mutant with insect antennas protruding from his head, wearing sunglasses and a headset, and holding a musical note in one hand while kicking a red tentacled alien in the face. Anyone who has played the game (or seen gameplay videos of it) knows that the actual game has nothing to do with this. But at least the Japanese box art is accurate and faithful to the game.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Master System and Game Gear has each act introduction showing what hijinks Sonic and Tails will get into...except that Tails isn't a playable character at all and the whole game is about saving him from Eggman.
The box art of Kid Kool depicts Kool as an Elvis look-alike, completely different from his in-game appearance, where he resembles Goemon.
The American box art for Rhythm Heaven gives no clue on what the game is about except for an illustration of a man with a stick and three screaming children. Granted, the stick is a conducting baton and these four are actually in the game, and there are plenty of interesting screenshots and more artwork on the back, but considering DS games are always sold behind a locked cabinet or case, this is your only idea of what the game will be about.
The cover for Catacomb 3-D depicts a badass guy with a gun. The game itself is fantasy and all you use are fireball spells, not guns.
The cover of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time depicts Arbok, Drapion, and Weavile looming over the heros from behind in a very villainous looking fashion. In the game, however, they're just one of the exploration teams that randomly shows up in the guild from time to time and the only thing they do is give you some friendly advice. This is in contrast to the boxarts of the first games, which depicted other Pokemon in a similar fashion, only they did end up being antagonists at some point.
And speaking of Pokémon, the cover of Pokémon Colosseum depicts the legendary Kyogre and Groudon prominently. They made history as the first main-series Pokémon game whose cover featured Pokémon that could not legitimately be acquired without trading. In fact, they don't even appear in the story!
The packaging illustration for the SNES version depicts a stare-off between Haggar and Abigail, with three different images between them of a character vaguely resembling Guy beating up other punks. The original release of the SNES version did not feature Guy.
The American cover for Final Fight 2 features two different depictions of Damnd (traced over from different sources), Cody, Guy and other characters from the first game that don't even appear in the sequel.
The American cabinet for the arcade version features enemies wielding lead pipes (only the player can wield pipes in-game) and the good guys fighting multiple opponents in a wrestling ring (when only Sodom appears in such stage in the game).
The packaging illustration for the home computer ports by U.S. Gold depicts Cody (with dark hair instead of his usual blond) confronting a group of punks in a train with a few bystanders witnessing the action. In the game, the only people in the train besides the player are all enemies.
Not even the Sega CD version is safe from this. The covers for that version of the game are fine, but in the cut-sceneintro: it shows Two.P wielding a knife, Axl wielding a choke wire, and Andore wielding (more like bending) a lead pipe. None of these characters pick up/carry weapons during game play, except El Gado or Hollywood. The latter that actually appears with the correct weapon in the cut-scene.
Particularly way-out example in the case of Superior Software's BBC Micro version of Tempest. As You Know, Tempest was an early vector graphics game, with a claw-shaped blaster firing down a true-perspective playfield. Superior Software's box and ads had screenshots of this, but the main painted artwork was of a dark and stormy night, with church tower in the background and an ominous figure in top hat and red-lined opera cape in the foreground... suggesting a possible breakdown in communications with the artist.
The cover of Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion shows The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland and Hades from Disney/Hercules, and while they are both shown as brief cameos in the beginning of the game, you never battle them or go through any levels based on their respective movies at all in the game.
In fact, on the cover, the Queen of Hearts was replaced with the Mad Hatter in the final release, and he does appear...but not as an enemy like the cover implies.
An unlicensed NES game called Little Red Hood shows the title character kicking a guy in the butt, but in the game, her kick is only good for knocking stuff out of trees and not used as an enemy attack.
On the first Road Rash game, the title card for the track, "Pacific Coast", makes you think you're going to ride along the beach, but the actual track looks more like its out in an open field surrounded by mountains like its somewhere in Scotland or something.
Edutainment Game series Jump Start gives us some examples. The original cover for JumpStart Spanish showed Mr. Hopsalot, who was indeed the game's main character, on the cover. However, somewhere around 2001 or 2002, JumpStart arbitrarily decided that Frankie the dog should be the main character and mascot of the entire JumpStart series. As a result, in 2003, the JumpStart Spanish cover was changed to one that prominently featured Frankie and didn't feature Hopsalot at all...even though Frankie didn't appear in JumpStart Spanish.
Another example (again involving Frankie) can be found in the case of JumpStart Advanced 2nd Grade. All the covers of the game prominently feature Frankie in a cool spy outfit. Aforementioned cool spy outfit appears nowhere in the game, and while Frankie does appear, C.J. Frog and Edison Firefly are the true main characters. Frankie just hangs around headquarters while C.J. and Edison go on the adventures.
The American box of Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland included pictures of several characters from the Kirby anime. The game itself is a remake of Kirby's Adventure, originally released in the early 90s, so of course none of the anime-exclusive characters appear in it.
The first Persona is an odd example. The blurb on the back of the box says "In the near future, mankind has conquered dimensional travel, but the opened door swings both ways. Demons have invaded...". Although it's actually a game about depression, the blurb does make some sense. It either implies that its about a team of devoted scientists or a demon invasion in the style of the main series; you see the scientists who made dimensional travel possible for all of a few minutes, and shortly after you see them, the demon invasion angle is dropped too. But it does feature travel between two dimensions and demons entering the normal dimension, despite the fact that the other dimension was created by the scientists.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, features the main character: Shanoa, holding a long crimson rapier with a twisted hilt. This weapon however, is nowhere in the game, in fact the strongest rapier glyph is still a standard, earthly rapier.
Clive Barker's Undying: In the backcover, you can see images of Patrick fighting a Monto Shonoi in Oneiros (they don't appear there in the game) and a Howler in the manor with the Skull Storm spell (which is acquired after the part of the game with the Howlers).
Rival Turf. The game tries to represent the 2 players you are playing with, but it ends up representing characters you do not play with in-game.
For A Witchs Tale, the shading on the American box art makes Liddell look like she has brown hair. She's a blonde.