With news of the latest iteration of Mastertronic narrowly surviving and beginning anew, my thoughts were turned back to the days of the mid-Eighties when the famous budget company ruled the UK cut-price software market. With most of its games retailing for a pocket money-friendly £1.99 or £2.99, most ZX Spectrum, Amstrad or Commodore 64 owners (as well as many other computers) were likely to have had a considerable number of Mastertronic games on their shelves. And why not, because despite a risk taken with quality, at such a cheap price, it was usually a risk worth taking.
With Mastertronic rarely advertising (they considered it a waste of money as they figured the low price alone would sell the games regardless of any promotional activity) and its games only sporadically reviewed in magazines, the first contact most gamers had with them was the front cover and in this respect the men behind the company struck gold as they discovered two talented - if diverse - artists to decorate its cassette inlays.
"I'd always had a natural ability with a pencil," says Mark Brady who designed the majority of Mastertronic's science fiction-styled covers. "But my real motivation to produce quality artwork came from reading every sci-fi paperback I could get my hands on. I was also smitten by the amazing artwork that adorned book covers back then. As a result, my initial efforts were very much along the lines of this imagery at the time." Mark was 22 and working in a camera shop in Maidstone, Kent when his work came to the attention of the manager of a nearby hi-fi shop. "He suggested I get in touch with an aquaintance of his who ran a small graphic design company in Crystal Palace called Words And Pictures." The company was initially interested in Mark's work for its video cassette packaging ("admittedly low budget" he grimaces) but when it acquired Mastertronic as a client they asked him if he was interested in producing artwork for its more SF and technical games. Mark immediately, and excitedly, said yes.
But while Mark Brady's impressive sci-fi scenes were promoting Mastertronic's more serious games, another talent was soon creating covers that would become even more synonymous with the budget publisher. His name was John Smyth and he first began his artistic career working as a tea boy at an art studio. "I was warned there that my work was 'too imaginative' to fit in the everyday mundane world," says John, "which happily turned out to be true!" With his career slowly expanding, one day he was contacted by the aforementioned Words And Pictures. "My ability to paint realistically - to show form by the effect of light on surfaces and shapes without resorting to a black outline to hold the image together - was relatively limited at the time," he explains. "But my cartooning skills were good." Eventually, with the help of fellow artist Simon Dewey, John would become a more rounded and skilled artist. In the meantime, his cartoon art talents were selling thousands of Mastertronic games.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither artist had a great interest in videogames. "To be honest I had no interest whatsover in the games themselves," admits Mark, "but image-wise there was one called Neutron Zapper which was my favourite. I was given quite some time to work on it - a whole week I think!" With all that time (!) Mark focused on making the lighting as dynamic as possible - something he acknowledges would take a few minutes today with a decent 3D modelling program. John Smyth also admits to no gaming experience: "No, I never played nuffink. Too busy lifting weights, teaching martial arts and playing in bands!" he laughs.
So with no time or interest to play the games themselves, what did the artists have to work on? "Briefs," laughs Mark, "if they could be called that, were basic to say the least. It was generally a case of arm-waving, verbally produced explosions and very rough scribbling on huge bits of paper. But somehow the message got across!" John remembers: "I'd be told the nature of the game, but as I recall the nature of the graphics was pretty basic back then. So it was mainly a matter of using my imagination which suited me fine! And I don't recall every having an artwork rejected - each one was too much fun too allow me to dream of producing second-rate work."
Despite heavy commitment for Mastertronic and fellow budget company Atlantis, John created no other covers for rival companies. "I was pretty well flat out between those two." he says. "And it was the beginning of the industry before smaller companies started getting swallowed up. Those bigger companies understandably installed in-house artists to do covers. And of course it was soon the advent of digital art, which I actually have plenty of time for. It's the vision that is paramount." Mark Brady, simultaneously busy creating book jackets, found life taking diverting him from his artistic talents as a necessary move to Scotland took him away from London where the UK market was centered. Nevertheless he still looks fondly back at the time. "After 30 years or so it's become rather soft and hazy," he admits, "but although at the time it was very chaotic and deadlines were ridiculously short, I suppose it was actually quite fun!" Today, John Smyth still draws (he had a career designing greetings cards at one point) and still plays in a band. "While wearing a t-shirt that reads 'Elderly At Risk'!" he chortles. It's clear from our conversation, John has a sharp sense of humour to go with his images of jocular and rotund characters, galloping around cartoon castles and planets with a seemingly unbridled awareness of the dangers of oversized mice and pistol-toting varmints.
--Between them, John and Mark created virtually all of Mastertronic's videogame covers.
--John recalls being paid £200 per artwork with no royalty option.
--He also never signed his work as it 'simply never occured for me to do so'. Today he signs his artwork with a simple 'jtb'.
--Mark Brady's work is heavily inspired by book jacket artist Chris Foss. "I remember the first time I saw one of his covers. I was about 15 and the book was E.E. Doc Smith's Masters Of The Vortex. I couldn't believe someone could make a photo of a model look so realistic. It took me quite a while to realise it was actually a painting!" he says.
--In 1998, Mark signed up for a 2-year design course that involved extensive use of Photoshop and other software. His current area of artistic interested is in 3D Fractal art.
--Mark has his own website which includes many of his Mastertronic covers. Check it out at http://www.mjb-graphics.co.uk/. For more on his interest in 3D Fractal work, check out his other site http://markjaybeefractal.com/.
My special thanks to Mark and John for their time. For more on Pippo and Jason's Gem (which John designed the covers for) please check out my makings of on this very site.