26 March 2008



































The Art Of C&VG

Last month’s The Definitive Frogger left even RG’s dedicated historian Stuart Campbell’s with a brain so broken that he couldn’t face doing any complicated research this month. So we gave him some nice pretty pictures to look at instead.

The magazine you hold in your hands, viewers, is the last of its kind. Now, don’t panic – Retro Gamer isn’t about to close down. (Or at least, if it is nobody’s told me about it. Come to think of it, where IS last month’s pay cheque?) But there’s something RG does, that used to be enormously commonplace, but which no other videogames magazine has done for years. Can you guess what it is? See if you can figure it out before I tell you, which will be in about three paragraphs’ time.

Onscreen it was a generic type-in Frogger clone with an old lady instead of an amphibian, but the illustration turned it into acute social commentary.

Most of the publications you’ll find on the videogames shelf at your local newsagents aren’t “magazines” in the traditional sense of the word at all – they’re glorified sales brochures, produced by people who quite openly see themselves not as the servants of their readers but as extensions of the games industry’s PR sector. (Almost the entire writing staff of one widely-respected current title, for example, resigned a few years ago when they were told by their own management, among other things, that they couldn’t give games published by Sony review scores lower than five out of ten.) By comparison, 25, 15 and maybe even 10 years ago, games mags were primarily a hobbyist affair, written for (and by) a community of dedicated enthusiasts as the only means of sharing information about their common pastime.

Because most game publishers were tiny little companies operating out of someone’s back bedroom or a flat above a chip shop, there were no big marketing departments around to either dazzle reviewers with expensive promotional trips to exotic foreign lands, or bully them with threats of withdrawing thousands of pounds in lucrative advertising in one fell swoop. Combined with the absence of the internet - leading to circulation figures on average two or three times that of a modern games mag, despite the much smaller total number of gamers in existence – this situation led to a relative financial stability when it came to planning the magazine’s budget. So that’s one thing.

Here’s another thing: nowadays, sleek, glamorous, state-of-the-art publications like Retro Gamer take advantage of superb modern screenshot technology to produce beautiful images of games. Whether it’s giant blown-up single shots or lovely pieced-together maps showing entire gameworlds at a single glance, it’s easy for us to show you exactly what a game looks like. Readers (and mag editors) take this technology for granted now, but in bygone times (even as recently as the early 1990s, when your reporter first joined the massed ranks of videogame journalism), things weren’t quite so simple.

Back in those days, publishing was still largely a physical business as opposed to a digital one, and a great many magazines still illustrated reviews and the like by the primitive (and expensive) method of having a photographer point a stills camera at the TV screen while the game was being played, and taking a picture of it. It’s difficult on a technical level to photograph moving images on a TV screen, though, and this method delivers extremely variable results (especially when printed in black-and-white, as many games mags still predominantly were throughout the 1980s), and some publications – one in particular - chose to find a rather more creative solution to the problem.

If you’re a bit slow, or can’t stand the tension any more, or just realised immediately on looking at all the great big pictures splashed all over the place, we’re talking about custom artwork – and specifically that which was found in the UK’s first and longest-running (23 years, until it was bought and closed by a rival publisher in 2004) games magazine, Computer And Video Games.

"Excuse me, but you'll have to leave. If we print a crude racial stereotype like this in the 21st century we'll all be sued."

Once a staple of the videogames journal, hand-drawn and painted illustrations compensated for crude 1980s graphics and primitive production methods, but also helped to give magazines like Crash, Zzap and Your Sinclair the individual senses of character and personality that made them stand out from each other. In the modern world that loss of character has been one of the factors causing sales to plummet, as paper publications fail to cultivate a unique identity that would help give them a selling point over the fast-moving but bland and corporate world of internet games journalism.

But the editors of the 1980s would no sooner have contemplated doing away with custom artwork than today’s editors would try to live without rehashed press-release “news”, pre-supplied “interviews”, generic preview “screenshots” taken from cutscenes, and advertiser-approved “review” scores. (Enough with the “quote marks” – Ed) Artwork was an intrinsic, obvious and non-negotiable part of magazine creation, so before we descend any further into the gloomy abyss of modern mainstream games mags and get all depressed, let’s take a few pages out of our busy schedule to celebrate the halcyon days of the videogames illustrator, and perhaps offer a silent prayer of gratitude that at least one publication (this one, if you’ve forgotten) is doing its bit to keep a tiny, flickering flame alive.

Dorian Cross didn't just do character work. He could also knock out evocative and slightly melancholy space scenes like this.



As videogames journey ever further into the Uncanny Valley (the name for the psychological phenomenon whereby the closer graphics get to photorealism, the more our brain concentrates on what’s wrong with them, in order to prevent us from being fooled by fakes), custom artwork takes us on a trip to the opposite end of the spectrum, where the crudest of all possible visuals leaves space for our imaginations to fill in a scene far more evocative than any graphics card could depict. Take a look at this example from C&VG’s June 1983 issue. It’s the facing page from a type-in ZX81 program called “Cannon Master”.

The black-and-white in-game graphics showed you in command of a few arrows shooting minus-signs at asterisks in a big “U” shape. But thanks to Jon Davis’ illustration, when you actually played the game your mind saw you perched high up in the sky above a dusty, windswept desert canyon, manning huge gun emplacements charged with protecting your army’s vital fuel dumps against a deadly hail of enemy rockets fired by an unseen enemy. The game graphics are just placeholders for the mental image, and your brain fills in the “photorealism” for itself. (If you want to experience the sensation, I’ve personally typed in the entire game and saved it as a file for use with ZX81 emulators - you can download it from the forum of my website at www.worldofstuart.co.uk. Let nobody say we don’t go the extra mile for our viewers here at Retro Gamer.)


C&VG took particular pride in its front covers, and they encompassed a dizzying range of styles in the mag’s first few years. (While illustrations would continue to be used inside the mag right through the 1980s, the cover would be increasingly given over to PR shots of commercial releases from around the middle of 1984. Until that point, the cover would often be devoted to one of the magazine’s own type-in games rather than a retail title.) While a core team of artists – each with their own distinctive style - provided most of the artwork, occasionally the net would be cast rather wider to produce something even more esoteric.

“The Bugs”, drawn by Elphin Lloyd-Jones, were C&VG’s mascot characters, and featured in their own full-page comic strip inside the magazine, as well as cropping up in all manner of random corners elsewhere. This cover from Issue 7 in May 1982 shows them depicted in their full-colour glory for the first time.

The next image, by Stuart Briers for the August 1982 issue, combines the spooky horror skeleton with an obvious homage to the famous Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Psycho”, in the shape of the trademark house on the hill. If you look really closely, you can just make out the malevolent shape of Mrs Bates in the window. (NB Mrs Bates may not be visible in this reduced reproduction.)

Recently seen in tiny thumbnail form in another RG feature, this stunning April 1983 cover wasn’t daubed by one of C&VG’s own brushsmiths. In fact, it was painted around 175 years before the magazine even existed – it’s a detail of “The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory”, painted by the English Romantic artist J M W Turner to commemorate the famous naval victory. The original can currently be seen in the Tate Museum. Luckily, by the time C&VG came to pinch it, the copyright had expired…

John Thompson created this classic Space Invaders theme for the 1982 Christmas edition, which highlights one of the saddest losses of the modern era of mag publishing compared to old-style reproduction. When games are photographed rather than screen-dumped, you capture the scanlines of a TV screen, producing the distinctive “pixelisation” that gives the image an evocative glow. It looks so nice that most emulators for the PC (which displays via scanline-free monitors), actually offer an option to simulate the scanlines to make the games look more authentic.

One of C&VG’s stalwart artists was Dorian Cross, whose caricature art usually enlivened several pages of every issue. For issue 8, just in time for the start of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, he came up with this spectacular 3D sculpture in latex rubber, which predated the eerily similar puppets of Spitting Image by two years.

Apparently, this inventive cover by Linda Freeman made a serious dent in the sales of the October 1982 issue it adorned, as slow-witted readers confused the mag for an actual newspaper and failed to buy it. It’s often credited in the publishing business as the reason people don’t do newspaper-spoof covers any more.

Returning to the nautical theme, the Tony Gibbons cover for Issue 2 also showcases a trait shared only by a very few covers, but which demonstrates the incredible commitment to illustration that early C&VG had. Not only would they commission someone to produce a full-colour original painting for the cover, but they’d also get someone else to draw a reproduction of it to use on the ‘Next Month’ page. Now THAT’S dedication.



My personal favourite of C&VG’s roster of artists is Dorian Cross. His bulbous, cartoony figures carry a very British air of the downtrodden misfortunate, in the tradition of Tony Hancock, Fawlty Towers, Steptoe And Son or (for our younger readers) Mr Bean. The following three images show how he could manage to load atmosphere and pathos even into three of the most basic staple games of the magazine-type-in genre. The ostensibly racing-themed ZX81 game Dodgems is in fact nothing more than a variant of those electronic toys where you have to guide a metal hoop along a wire without touching it:

But illustrated by Cross it’s suddenly imbued with a dramatic backstory, where the hapless driver finds himself at the wheel of an out-of-control racecar (not entirely dissimilar in design to the ZX81) which appears to have left the track and is mowing down terrified spectators. This, you realise, is the human tragedy that awaits if you can’t keep your car on the course.

How on Earth do you make a Yahtzee game seem interesting when there’s nothing more exciting in it than a handful of dice? Well, you could portray it as being played by a scurvy gang of scowling merchant seaman on a dockside. Lose this game and shudder at the all-too-easily-imagined thought of what might befall you if you can’t pay up on your wager.

This is my absolute favourite, though. The “City Bomber” game was an ever-present fixture throughout the entire era of the type-in listing (though it was also released commercially - we’ve pictured Jeff Minter’s version). In it, you pilot a bomber aircraft which is inexorably spiralling out of the sky, and can only survive by literally bombing flat the city beneath it to provide a landing strip.

Given this timeworn concept to illustrate, Cross hit upon with the genius of representing it from the previously-unconsidered viewpoint of the unfortunate inhabitants of the skyscrapers below, gazing up in bemused horror at the catastrophe about to befall them. The detail of the puddle of water trailing from the tiny window-box to the edge of the building is heartbreaking, and not until the release of The Getaway on the PS2 twenty-odd years later would gamers be forced to confront the dubious morality of their actions in such a way.





C&VG was the only magazine in the UK that gave any kind of coverage to arcade gaming, in the form of its monthly two-page column Arcade Action. Arcade owners didn’t tend to want photographers getting in the way of their coinslots for hours at a time, so Arcade Action was almost solely illustrated by custom artwork. Can you identify these classic coin-op games from the C&VG artists’ impressions of them? And just to make it harder, we’ve thrown in a ringer – one of the images is of a home micro game, not an arcade one. (Answers at the bottom of the page.)


When a game was popular and therefore mentioned in several issues of the magazine, C&VG would often hand the job of illustrating it to different artists each time. Which well-known space blaster is the subject of these very different interpretations?


The tragedy of this story is that, as far as your reporter is able to ascertain, almost all of the C&VG artists of the 1980s have disappeared off the face of the Earth. Despite a month of intensive searching, in almost every case I couldn’t track down the slightest trace of them still working in any kind of illustrative field.

The only one who went on to any kind of fame or fortune related to the games industry was Bob Wakelin, who drew for the magazine in the latter parts of the decade and later became very well-known for his work with Ocean Software, but none of the creators whose work appears in this feature could be found working either in games or publishing, with the exception of Bugs creator Elphin Lloyd-Jones (who is, it has to be admitted, by far the easiest one to Google), who now paints and exhibits on canvas in a style not far removed from the English Romantic work of Turner (see Front And Centre), as well as illustrating children’s books and working on late-80s TV cartoon Telebugs. It’s nice to think that at least something of the spirit of the Bugs survived… 



Scramble Moon Cresta Dig Dug Zaxxon
Robotron Jet-Pac (ringer) Congo Tron
Time Pilot Qix Elevator Action Amidar

Round 2: the game is Defender.

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