The pulp art of 80s computer game magazine covers

We look back over the work of Oliver Frey, whose painted covers of magazines like Crash and Zzap 64 in the 1980s and 90s made games look much more exciting than they really were.

The 1980s and early 90s were the glory days of British computer game magazines. Run by young game fans with limited knowledge of publishing, titles like Your Spectrum, Crash and Zzap!64 were brash and were incredibly popular with gamers (like me). At a time before the internet was accessible to most, these magazines were the only way to find out about the latest games outside of regular trips to your local independent games shop – or WH Smith, where games were shoved on shelves in almost random fashion, turning browsing into an adventure all of its own.

The games themselves had graphics that were basic even compared to what we consider 'retro gaming’ today – which sits somewhere between the NES and PS1. Computers like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 'boasted’ resolutions as high as 320x200, and there were limitations on how many colours you could fit in each area of the screen. To modern eyes these games, frankly, looked a fucking mess.

But we knew no better and loved them anyway. Well, we loved our choice of platform – Spectrum in my case – and loathed the others. And the magazines played up to that sense of tribalism, writing about rivals in the same way you’d expect from a Man U fanzine to talk about City.

You couldn’t sell a magazine by putting those graphics on the cover, so most instead commissioned or created lurid, pulpy covers – hand-painted by artists like Oliver Frey (who was also the designer on ZZap, as well as a creator of gay erotic comics under the pseudonym of Zack).

Image: Beach Head II from the August 1985 edition of ZZap!64

Oliver collected his covers – based on games from the barely remembered Beyond The Forbidden Forest to the really rather good Batman – into a book called The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey in 2006, and a new Expanded Edition has just been released. You can pick it up for £19.99 at Funstock Retro.

Image: This artwork was for a feature on joysticks from the August 1985 edition of Crash

While many of these works are undeniably crude, there’s an excitement to them that’s appealing. They helped convinced us that these barely-8-bit games were as thrilling as the films they aped – or were directly based on. They tempted us with images of violence – there’s always someone shooting, or something exploding, or both – though little gore, as the target audience included teenagers. For that reason, there’s usually little sign of pulp art’s usual other go-to pull: women in distress or alluring poses. 

Image: Friday 13th from the December 1985 edition of Crash – proving that resurrecting old franchises was already popular in the 1980s.

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To modern eyes, some of the compositions may look a little odd, but that’s because Oliver has left areas empty to allow the masthead and coverlines to be placed there without overlaying crucial parts of the artwork or making the words unreadable (something I remember well from when Digital Arts was a print magazine).

Image: Beyond the Forbidden Forest from the October 1986 edition of Crash

Image: Golf is not a game that lends itself to the usual explosive art style, so ZZap!64 went for, er, this for a cover based on Leader Board on the August 1985 edition.

Even the most mediocre Bond films had game tie-ins, including The Living Daylights (on the cover of Crash's July 1987 edition).

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Based on the Tim Burton film, Batman for the ZX Spectrum turned out to be a really rather good platform game – rather than the usual quickly dashed off trash that most film tie-ins turned out to be. This was the cover of the January 1989 edition of Crash.

Essentially Rollerball in a game form, Speedball was the game for the Commodore 64 (at least until its sequel came out). It inspired this cover for the Jun 1989 edition of Zzap!64.

Chase HQ was Outrun-with-guns. It's sequel – subtitled Special Criminal Investigation – prompted the cover of December 1990's Zzap!64.

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Robocop 2. Crap film. Crap game.

These archives proved invaluable when writing this story: Crash and Zzap!64.