For many years, I’ve wondered if there exists an original painting behind the iconic cover of the European version of the C64 game Sid Meier’s Pirates!. The image of two battling ships, with a tropical jungle as foreground and a purple frame that enfolds it all, has been etched into my reference of the romantic piracy era of the Caribbean.
Little did I know that I would eventually discover it’s source.
Questions about who created famous C64 covers have been handled before on this blog, for example Dungeon Master and Defender of the Crown. The traces of the cover of Pirates! led me to its graphician, Michael Haire, who I interviewed last year.
At that time, we concluded that the US and European cover was not illustrated by the same person, which only helped making the mystery more mysterious. In this article, I will try to outline our conversion about Pirates! and I’d also like to reveal a decisive set of details that literally made me fall backwards of astonishment.
To make a very long story short: Sid Meier’s Pirates! is a beloved game that was one of the first to introduce open world gaming, depending on how you define it, by offering a non-linear gaming experience that is different each time you play.
The ships you met at sea, the war declarations that changed the political situation, and the choices you made in dire times – they all affected your adventure which was unique each time.
Pirates! was more a pirate simulator than a game – and such titles were unusual in 1987. This is why this game still lingers as a respected title and still claims a position among the Top 5 when C64 fans choose their favourites on the platform.
In the US, the cover with a band of fighting pirates was made by a Rebecca Butcher, who is unknown to me still – I have tried to track her down, but failed. Who she was and how she got involved in Pirates! is still a mystery to me.
In Europe, a cover was used that stood out because it was not showing fighting people, but two ships – typical of its era – that battled next to some kind of tropical island. The illustrator is not Rebecca Butcher, according to the graphic maker of Pirates!, Michael Haire – instead, MicroProse UK supposedly acted on their own when creating the cover, and I’m thereby interested in finding out more about how that cover came to be. And perhaps, perhaps even localize an original painting or at least a creator behind it.
The following are short excerpts from a one hour interview with Michael Haire in November last year:
So …how did the game cover evolve? What were your thoughts regarding a cover that would properly sell the game?
I remember we were not overly happy with the first cover, the single pirate – the one that Rebecca did. We wanted something more photo realistic, and so she did the second cover with the pirate fighting his way on the deck of a ship.
That one was pretty popular, but then we had a change of management and they decided that what people would want to see were photographs of guys in costumes, and so they replaced the illustrated guy with the dude that looks like he’s from a porno mag.
But …what about the cover with the two battling ships?
Ahm, yeah – but that’s the cover from the game in England. They pretty much operated on their own – so that cover is not done by Rebecca Butcher, I can tell you that.
How did you get involved with Pirates! in the first place?
I got in contact with Bill Stealey, one of the founders of MicroProse, through a contact of mine and I was the first artist MicroProse ever hired. Stealey wanted to build a team of professional game makers so they flew me out there to talk to Sid [Meier] and the others to get going.
At that point, Sid Meier was sort of a one-man-band; he did his own graphics, he did pretty much everything. He was not too sure he wanted anybody else messing with his stuff at the time, and even though he wasn’t as good as me, he still knew what he wanted and did some pretty clever things for these early stages.
But for a long time, I was the only artist there – but we hired some more people as the idea of teams started to take off. MicroProse and Electronic Arts were among the first companies to assemble teams that involved developers, graphic artist, sound artists, and the like. Teams like that were not a common thing back then.
So you felt the pressure from Sid Meier?
Ahm, yeah a little bit. Because he’s a brilliant guy and really funny; and just really, really talented. I think he really turned the company around, because the initial interest was military simulators, and although we had some major hits with Gunship and the like, his real interest as a kid was with pirates. So he pursued that interest and wanted to make a game where he could be a part of that pirate life.
How long was development time for Pirates!?
I think it was around nine months. Sid did all the programming, Arnold Hendrick was assisting with game design, and a guy named Alan Roireau being our Head of Quality Assurance – he was our playtester for it. So it was not a big team; our celebratory dinner was a table for four at the Rusty Scupper – which was the closest thing we could find that had some kind of pirate theme. It was located in Cockeysville at the time, some 20 minutes north of Baltimore.
From where did you get inspiration for the images and animations?
Well, a part I really enjoyed was the research part where we looked at different books about pirates, like Treasure Island and those books – and historic and costume books to see what characters would wear. Sid always thought that the C64 original version was the best, because it had the most ”Disney look” of them all; not too dull and realistic but with 16 bright colors that did not aspire to be ultra realistic, but just fun. We did win some awards for the graphics in Pirates!, so I guess other people concurred with that view.
Where you also involved in the game design?
No, most of the early stuff was all Sid’s ideas. Partly because he was Sid Meier – but he obviously needed help from Hendricks with research and such, but Pirates! as such came out of his head, pretty much. He sort of knew what he wanted and we had about nine months to complete the game, so I don’t think we deviated a whole lot from his original ideas.
The ships, the sea and the clouds that are showing the way the wind blows, and the dynamic map of contemporary Caribbean – all that was Sid’s work. We did not have a lot of time to experiment with stuff, but had to move things along pretty fast.
And moving towards the cover art – who did create the Pirates! logo?
I created the logo for the intro screen within the game, and I’m pretty sure that the creative services created a logo for the cover out of that. In those days, we were used to creating things as they came along – so that just happened, I guess.
Our PR/marketing department consisted of two people, so everything was a combination of efforts, so to speak.
But the Pirates! logo in the European version of the cover is quite different – was that also created by the ”creative services” of MicroProse UK?
Yeah, I guess. I haven’t talked to the UK guys in ages. Most of them split off and formed their own companies, I can’t remember who would even know about that stuff today …It was a weird relationship; we would do all the design and then they’d still do whatever they wanted with it, once it crossed the Atlantic.
Michael Haire could not give me the answers I needed in order to find the creator of the European cover, but he did provide me with great scans of the US covers. My intention was then to find some people who had worked with MicroProse UK during the 80s or early 90s, and try to find some people at the marketing and communications department who would perhaps know more – but that was easier said than done.
Through some extensive googling, I was able to track down a few names that I emailed. The fastest answer came from Drew Northcott, who had claimed on his résumé that he belonged to the graphics department on MicroProse UK from 1991 to 1996:
I was art manager at Microprose [UK] but that was for in-game artwork. The covers were handled by the ”creative services” department of the marketing team. It was run by a woman, but I can’t remember her name. I’ve asked a couple of hte marketing guys I’m still in touch with to see if they can remember.
By now, I felt that I had come to an end of that road. MicroProse US did not seem to know that much about what MicroProse UK was doing. And finding people at MicroProse UK who had worked with covers was hard; partly because the task had probably been assigned to an external agency and partly because people simply did not remeber stuff that long ago.
At that time, I decided to halt my investigation and turn my focus to other things; this was in February 2015. Later that spring, I once again turned to the mystery with the Pirates! cover, but from a different angle. Instead of desperately trying to track down people to talk to, I turned to the cover in question. I scanned it in high resolution and began meticulously search the illustration for details and clues.
Then it suddenly hit me …
The largest ship on the cover – a galleon to be exact – has a crest on its prow. The more I gazed upon it, the more I felt that I had seen it before. Then I suddenly realized – it’s a deer. A golden deer.
A GOLDEN HIND.
If you know about Sony’s game series, Uncharted, and its third installment, Uncharted: Drake’s Deception, you may recognize the fact that Sir Francis Drake – Great Britain’s first circumnavigator and also Queen Elizabeth’s favourite pirate – became notorious through his travels in a ship that was called Pelican, but was later renamed The Golden Hind.
I talk about this myself in a historical analysis (in Swedish) I made for the game in question, back in 2012.
The crest, or figurehead, itself was found by Drake and his party when they investigate a secret laboratory that had belonged to Queen Elizabeth I and her astrologer, John Dee. A short clip from the game itself can be seen below.
Could the creators of the cover of Pirates! have gotten their inspiration from the main character from a totally different game much later, namely Sir Francis Drake from Uncharted? And was it really on purpose that the crest of this ship was nerely identical to the one used in Uncharted to illustrate the Golden Hind?
The only way of finding out was to investigate what Sir Francis Drake’s galleon, Golden Hind, looked like in reality. This proved to be the simplest part of the whole tale. The thing is that reality’s Golden Hind was saved to the afterworld in a part of London, called Deptford, for almost a century after Drake’s adventures, before it simple rotted away. This vessel was thereby the very first example of a ship being maintained for public display because of her historic significance, and we can assume that it was copied on drawings and paintings several times. This is why we, with great certainty, know what the Golden Hind actually looked like.
And even more so – a replica of the Golden Hind itself resides, in full scale, at Pickford’s Wharf in London. The likeness with the ship on the European cover of Pirates! is not just striking – it is complete. That ship on that cover is the Golden Hind. Many British historians must have seen this before – why has no one written or even mentioned anything about it?
To further erase all doubt, I checked additional instances of the Golden Hind. You may, for example, buy small replica kits of the ship at online stores, such as Guinea Hobbies.
The Spanish company, Occre Kits, are known in the model kit world for their beautiful wooden models of authentic ships, and offers a model of the Golden Hind that may very well be sold straight off as the ship from the computer game, Pirates!
If you further want to elaborate on the looks and atmosphere of the Golden Hind, there are plenty of clips on the web – most of them includes poor acting of pirates. This serene little movie of how life was onboard the ship is more to my liking.
So …why is the Golden Hind on the cover of Sid Meier’s Pirates!? And who put it there? The questions grew in number as I found more clues and months passed while I tried to think of answers.
My thought was that someone at MicroProse UK creative services must have decided that the cover should consist of battling ships, rather than fighting men. Since nobody today seems to remember who made that decision, or even created the artwork, we may deduct that it was not preceded by any important or significant discussions. Most likely, this is the result of an external agency getting a task, and had it done. No more, no less.
That the Golden Hind happened to stumble into the image may be a mere coincidence, more than anything else. Whoever made the decision probably wanted ships typical from the era; the galleon is that kind of ship. There was not Internet at the time, so whoever did the cover probably had to go to a library, a marine museum, or any other institution or photo database with old British ships.
A reasonable conclusion is therefore that the ship on the cover is an illustration that derives from another illustration or painting of the Golden Hind. That the crest is still there is probably an overseen mistake – why draw the Golden Hind and not make a point about it? So, I needed to look for paintings and illustrations of the Golden Hind – both on the web and in books.
Since my time, as well as others’, is limited and filled with lots of other tasks – I could not devote that many hours a week to a fruitless hunt for something that perhaps not even existed – but methodically, I had some help from arty friends and finecombed the web until I quite recently hit jackpot.
There – on the fantastic world wide web – I finally found an image that could fit. I had found an image of the Golden Hind that looks exactly like the European cover of Pirates! Even the sailor in front of the jib is there.
These two ships are almost identical. The British flag is exchanged with a Jolly Roger and the sail in the prow looks more stretched than in the upper illustration. The cover has also added more waves in the water in front of the bow to indicate more action. The angles, however, of the two ships are exactly the same, and to me it’s clear that the cover image has been copied from the upper one – or both of the images may be copies of a third original image or painting of the Golden Hind?
The above illustration is made by Bruce Friesch, and I naturally contacted him immediately after my discovery. My first question was if he also is the creator of the game cover, and my second question was if he knows who bought his original illustration. He anwered me the very next day.
I did not create the art or image on the game cover. A long time ago I created a painting from a Golden Hind replica ship image as a base reference which looks like the art on the game cover used the same image. The painting has been sold a long time ago and I do not know the buyers name.
Bingo. Bruce Friesch used an image of a replica of the Golden Hind. Perhaps MicroProse UK used the very same image to create their cover? And perhaps the image I was looking for was in fact a photo or an illustration of the replica of the Golden Hind that sits in London today? In that case, the circle would be complete and there’s a valid explanation to why the replica and the ship on the cover look the same – they are the same!
My next thought was to check whether there exist more images that have used the same original image for reference. Since I had used Google Image Search extensively, it was now narrowing down my searched quite well. Among the thousands of images of the Golden Hind on the web I did not have to search in many pages until I found exactly what I was looking for.
Bruce Friesch’s illustration and the cover of Sid Meier’s Pirates! are both copied from a photo of the replica of the Golden Hind when she sails the English Channel. This ship can actually sail for real, and the people in the crew are ”real” seaman in that they are actually there in the photo – and not something Friesch or MicroProse have added.
The photo was taken by Gordon Gahan, a famous American photographer who passed away in 1984. He’s mostly known for his photos in National Geographic during the 70s and 80s, which brought him on many travels around the world. In October 1984, his helicopter crasched during a photo session on Virgin Islands and both he and his assistant got killed in the accident.
The shot of the Golden Hind is part of a job he did for an article series in National Geographics from February 1975, on pages 216-253. This issue can be found at eBay, and one of those is actually on its way to me as we speak.
So …the image that stands as the foundation for the European cover of Pirates! is found. I did not discover any old painting that was hanging in some French medieval castle collecting dust, but a photo from National Geographic – and in top of that, shot by a world famous photographer.
But this does not answer my original question; who created the cover itself?
Someone has made the decision to use the Golden Hind for reference. Someone has done the work of drawing the ship and its details too – details that are so skillfully made that I did not originally realize that this was not a unified picture from the beginning but parts taken from other works. Someone has also gone through the trouble of creating a new logo for the European version.
Perhaps I may come back another time with that particular part of the mystery. Or perhaps I need help and will get it unexpectedly now when this article is published.
Maybe even you have some information that can further shed some light on this?