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Robert Wakelin is a commercial illustrator, born in Wales circa 1953. Although you may not recognise Wakelin's name, if you played computer games in the 1980's and early 1990's then it is highly likely that you have seen some of his work. Wakelin was employed by Ocean Software (who were, roughly speaking, the British equivalent of Electronic Arts during the 16-bit era of 1985-1992) to produce the cover illustrations for a surprisingly large number of their games.

In a sector that had been awash with literally amateur-quality promotional artwork since the early days, Wakelin's work stood out on the shelf and played no small part in influencing all the publishers of the time that they had to take cover art seriously if they wanted to convince the consumer that they were a professional outfit. (Of course, it was no guarantee really, but it was a small but important step in the ongoing process of increasing gaming's legitimacy as a mainstream entertainment medium.)

As Ocean dealt with a broad spectrum of licensed properties (based on movies, comics, coin-ops) as well as home-grown titles, Wakelin's talents were called upon to product images in a wide range of styles. The trademark Wakelin style was a realistic, yet heavily glamourised, paintings similar to the action movie posters of the 1970's: usually involving gun-toting commandos (Cabal, Operation Wolf, Operation Thunderbolt, The Lost Patrol, Midnight Resistance, Combat School), fast cars, or (a firm favourite in those unenlightened times) bikini-clad, sword-swinging barbarian women. Wakelin's illustration for Chase H.Q. is among the best and most memorable of his pieces in this style: a yellow Lamborghini, bullet-holes in the windscreen, careering out of the frame with two moodily-lit Miami Vice-style cops posed above it.

In sharp contrast to the muscles-and-chrome of the arcade licenses, Wakelin also produced more light, cutesy, cartoony work for games such as Rainbow Islands, New Zealand Story and Pang. Wakelin actually took care to model his art style for such titles on the games' original Japanese artwork (or, at least, not to blatantly contradict the visual style of the originals). With NZS for example, you would be forgiven for thinking that Wakelin's cover was an official piece of Taito artwork. (As to why this is a big deal: you may want to compare and contrast, say, Capcom's illustrations for their Western NES releases. See Mega Man and Mega Man II to witness the horrible spectacle.)

The sheer volume of the Ocean commissions was well-served by Wakelin's fast, no-nonsense working style. Each piece would take between five and ten days to complete, from being told the game's name and a rough précis of the subject matter to having the finished piece ready for photographing. Most commonly Wakelin would draft the piece in pencil, then airbrush it and add details with gouache and felt pen. Between bouts of glorified jungle warfare, there was also opportunity for him to experiment with imitating different styles, from 1950's comic books (HighNoon, Beach Volley), to something akin to Robert Crumb (Wizkid). As he remained a freelancer, he also had opportunities to produce magazine covers and comic book work.

Wakelin's work has not always been received quite as warmly as he or Ocean might have wished. His illustration for Athena (an adaptation of the SNK coin-op), with the eponymous heroine represented in typical scantily-clad Amazon form confronting a... well-endowed... Minotaur, caused some irate phone calls from offended parents, who Wakelin insists were guilty of having overactive imaginations. There is also a small possibility that Wakelin might be responsible for some of the 'horrible box'-era (pre-Dreamcast) Sonic The Hedgehog Western promotional artwork.

As Ocean's star began to fade, Wakelin moved on to work for Marvel Comics (where he had also worked briefly at the beginning of his career). Currently he still resides in Liverpool and still does freelance illustration, and is involved with the Arena Art and Design Association.

I discovered in the course of my research for this writeup that Bob Wakelin also performed in the early 1980's with short-lived New Wave band Modern Eon (primarily as a keyboard player, as well as, naturally, designing their record sleeves).






Zero, EDGE and Crash magazines

Surprisingly, as of this writing Bob Wakelin is not listed on the video games database site www.MobyGames.com .

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