A Chat with Bob Wakelin, the Artist Behind the Most Iconic Game Art of the 80s
This is the man responsible for the most cherished and often disturbing game covers of the 1980s.
Image: Bob Wakelin
Way before we had intense horror experiences in modern video games, our doses of shock and awe were mainly reserved for the frequently beautiful and hideous pieces of art plastered on the boxes of 80s games. Whether out of admiration or disgust, you should thank British artist Bob Wakelin for all those great memories.
Some admire them out of pure nostalgia, while others are just perplexed at how games were sold back in the day, but the fact is that old school video game covers have been puzzling players ever since they started hiring artists to summarize the gameplay in a single illustration. In the early 80s, Wakelin was hired by Ocean Software, the game company that finally figured out how to make decent game adaptations of movies. He was able to work with dozens of games that were massively produced throughout the high and the low that era's games.
We were curious about the life of a developer from 30 years ago, so we talked to Wakelin about drugs in the industry, shitty box art, boring seasoned players and what's wrong with gaming today.
Motherboard: First of all, what's the favorite piece of box art you've created in the 80s and what is the one you hate the most?
Wakelin: This varies depending on the mood I'm in. A lot of my favorite pieces were made for really shitty games like Highlander. If a game was garbage they'd ask me to really go to town on the illustration... I'd like to point out that I didn't always know the game was going to be absolute crap!
I think my favorite piece at the moment is Operation Wolf. It features a friend of mine as the hero and we had a lot of fun doing the photo shoot. I like the way it directly addresses the viewer by pointing a gun in your face. There are a few pieces I really hate, but Parasol Stars always makes me shudder down to my boots when I think of the hours I spent drawing those horribly cute little bastards and their pals—also, I really struggled to get a layout that worked on that one. Gift From The Gods is dreadful, too.
You've mentioned before that in the beginning it seemed like you were doing around three covers a week for Ocean. How was working in the industry in the 80s? How was even possible churning out so many games repeatedly?
In the early days I was working with another guy so we could split the chores, enabling us to get more work out—then his stoner lifestyle caught up with him and we had to part company. In the early 80s I wasn't really aware that there was much of an industry so it was a job just like any other. It was a fairly chaotic time where you got asked to work on a project and then got left alone to just do the work and turn it in when you'd done. Almost unheard of today.
I was always curious to know about the drug habits of game developers in the 80s. Did you get to use them to either keep up with the workload or just to have fun during the process? What was your favorite drug back then?
I smoked cannabis by day and drank beer at night. I lived in the inner city and many of my friends were unemployed ex-punks and people who liked to live, for want of a better term, "alternative" lifestyles. My studio flat was a good place for them to hang out while I worked. We would listen to music, drink coffee and smoke large amounts of cannabis.
It was a purely social thing—in a way, my life was just one long social gathering as I would move on to the pub with a different set of friends after I'd finished working for the day. I have no idea what games developers indulged themselves with as I didn't really know many at that point.
What was the kind of feedback you would get about your work at the time?
The only feedback I received was from one of the owners and the art director of Ocean Software, which was usually enthusiastic and positive. Obviously, the kids buying the games liked what they were seeing but I was older than them and there wasn't a fan network, so I didn't get any feedback at all from the public—not that I cared one way or the other as long as Ocean liked it and they paid me on time. I didn't know any other game box artists at the time because I lived in a self-contained little world in Toxteth, Liverpool.
People seem to glorify the box art style from the 80s, but you don't seem to agree with them. Why you despise so much of the work done in those days?
I don't despise it, I just didn't give a shit because it wasn't in my sphere of interests. Some of it I liked, but those images meant a lot to the kids and I wasn't a kid. My interests were noisy music, getting stoned, reading books and comics, drinking and sex, not game box art done by other people.
So are you still surprised people like your earlier work?
I was initially surprised but now I understand it. A bunch of kids got attached to the images that represented their favorite games, grew up, and still remember the excitement they felt when they first got their hands on that little box. I get the same feeling from old comic book covers. The image almost has a taste and a smell as well as a visual impact.
What were your best memories working for the games industry in the 80s?
The best part was delivering the art and getting appreciation for what I'd done. And then going out for a nice lunch and several bottles of good beer with the art director, who I really liked. (Having said that, I liked anyone who would supply me with free food and beer.)
How do you see the games that were made then to the ones that are being released today?
I only really enjoyed playing games on machines in pubs. I'm not a gamer so my comments don't mean a lot. However from the outside looking in, the games industry seems to have followed the mainstream movie industry: everything looks too slick and polished with very little room for a wild card or something genuinely crazy or just plain odd.
The original developers came from all kinds of backgrounds and had many different interests, which informed the kinds of games and wild ideas they came up with. This generation only grew up with games, games and more games and the product seems to be increasingly safe and bland.
A lot of the box art you created directly references action movies. Why do you think there was an obsession with the whole action genre in the gaming industry in the 80s?
Action movies were the only kind of movies that got any kind of box office in the 80s and a lot of games seemed to reflect those cinematic interests, therefore, so did my box art.
Which of your original arts do you think represents the zeitgeist of gaming in the 80s the most?
Probably Wizball. It's my most popular illustration even though I don't think it's that great. Who am I to argue with all those seasoned gamers?