I was browsing through a book shop the other day when I came across a volume that got my nostalgia glands throbbing from just one look at its cover. The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey is a celebration of the artwork of one of the most famous individuals in the eighties computing scene, and I found myself rushing to the counter to purchase it in less time than it takes to boot a Commodore 64.
Oli Frey painted numerous covers for eighties computing magazines, including Crash and Zzzap!64, and I remember the excitement of seeing his artwork on newsagents shelves, hinting at the possibilities of what delights the games inside would hold. Frequently, of course, the artwork was much more exciting than the games themselves, but Oli’s covers showcased the enticing hidden world to be found in games, something intoxicating to a wide-eyed youngster.
Looking back at the above picture of giant Amstrad CPCs descending on an unknown planet, the disconnect between weedy eighties computers and a display of awesome power seems ludicrous. But I lapped up images like these at the time – they reflected my own excitement and the feeling that we gamers were at the cutting edge of technology. Even if it was an Amstrad.
Oli Frey’s most famous picture is probably this one – the cover of Crash issue one, in which a terrifying alien has Space Invaders for eyes. It didn’t really have anything to do with what was inside the magazine, it was just meant to be an exciting image that was vaguely game-related. This was a surprisingly common theme in early games magazines – often the cover wouldn’t necessarily relate directly to the content.
Here’s another famous Crash cover of King Kong munching on a Spectrum. Again, there was nothing about King Kong in the magazine, Oli just wanted to create a cool image. And I think you’ll agree he succeeded.
I love Oli’s detailed paintings for Christmas specials, which usually featured the magazine’s editorial team. A few years back, Retro Gamer commissioned Oli to paint a similar Christmas-themed cover for their magazine, and I believe he’s done a few of them since.
This is one of my favourite of Oli’s paintings – his idea of what a realistic Lemmings would be like if it featured people. I think this image appeared on a SEGA magazine in the late eighties. I love the use of perspective, but it also captures what appealed to me about Oli’s work – there’s a dark undercurrent that made video games seem dangerous, forbidden and exciting, even if they were mostly blocky pixels shuffling around on a black screen.
It’s a shame the hand-painted magazine cover has died out: they’re so much more distinctive than highly polished modern covers. Hand-painted covers were still fairly common well into the nineties, and I remember TOTAL! used them quite often, but they gradually disappeared as digital artwork became easier to create.
Oliver Frey is still making art, and you can order some of his iconic images via his website: http://www.oliverfreyart.com/. I’d also recommend ordering The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey if you have any love for retro gaming, it really is a wonderful trip down memory lane.