Earlier this month, the artist Bob Wakelin sadly passed away. If you were gaming in the eighties or nineties, you were undoubtedly familiar with his work, if not his name. Bob illustrated a big chunk of the games published by Ocean, notably producing some stunning art for movie tie-ins like Highlander (one of his favourite covers, according to this Eurogamer article).
But Bob was amazingly versatile, easily able to flip from realistic drawings of movie stars to achingly cute cartoons, as in the excellent cover for The New Zealand Story. You can see a selection of Bob’s work below, taken from a very good Bob Wakelin retrospective over on Digitiser 2000.
For me, however, Bob’s best cover was undoubtedly the bizarre illustration for Wizkid by Sensible Software, an Amiga sequel to Wizball.
The cover was inspired by the work of cartoonist R. Crumb – although as an 11-year-old, I was a bit too young to get the reference. All I knew was that it was wonderfully odd, with Wizkid affecting a strange, laid back bounce, idly eating nuts while all sorts of crazy shenanigans went on in the background. I mean look at it – there’s a cat reading a newspaper on the toilet while a wolf looms behind it, and a pink elephant being blasted out of a cannon. Meanwhile, odd-looking penguins hop nonchalantly through the scene, reminding me simultaneously of the adverts for Kia-Ora and Um Bongo, two staple lunch-break drinks of my youth (click on the links to see the vids). Both adverts seem spectacularly inappropriate in hindsight, but I can still recite them word for word. And on a similar theme, now that I’ve read R. Crumb as an adult, the cartoonist seems a spectacularly unsuitable inspiration for the cover art of a game aimed at children.
But cat-on-a-toilet aside, there’s nothing at all offensive about the Wizkid cover – and today I can appreciate just how beautifully Bob aped Crumb’s style when creating it. Yet as a child, the cover was more than just an excellent illustration, it was a window into the game’s world, a picture of what it SHOULD have looked like if the graphics could have just been a bit better. In the eighties and nineties, the cover art of games was much more essential than it is now – it gave you a reference point for your imagination, a realistic depiction of what all those fuzzy sprites and wobbly lines were trying to achieve. Indeed, I would regularly consult the cover art while waiting for Wizkid to load, imagining the world he inhabited.
And on that point, the cover does an admirable job of depicting things that actually happen in the game. It turns out that toilets and penguins and elephants are pretty essential features. In fact, memorably, you have to flush a toilet to unblock a volcano at one point (it’s a very weird game – check out my review from a while back).
Indeed, the Crumb-like cover does a fantastic job of giving a feel for what the game is like. It’s a knockabout, wacky, acid trip of a game, delighting in nonsensical occurrences, thinking nothing of throwing in a digitised barking woman and an explosion of gold coins called – and I kid you not – the ‘golden shower’.
Interestingly, the Wizkid cover is utterly different from that of its prequel, Wizball, which was also done by Bob Wakelin. The Wizball cover is far more serious, and Wizball himself looks positively scary, but then the game was also far more serious and straight-faced. I love that the different cover art styles for the two games so beautifully reflect the completely different trajectories that each game pursues.
Sadly, when Ocean re-released Wizkid, they strangely covered up a lot of the excellent artwork with a brown paper surround. A very odd choice. It looked quite cool in its own sort of way, but I always regretted owning this version of the game rather than the clean original. I’d happily buy a framed print of the original artwork.
In fact, sod it, I’ve done just that. A moment ago I paid a visit to The Attic Bug, which worked with Bob for many years and has a range of his prints for sale. I can’t wait to get this wonderful artwork on my wall, where it deserves to be.
UPDATE: And it’s arrived!