It looks like Emmet/Furla/Oasis Films and Atari are getting together to make movies out of two of the video game company’s best-known properties. Missile Command was released in arcades by Atari in 1980, created by famed game designer Dave Theuer. Centipede was the product of Donna Bailey and Ed Logg, also released in 1980. Bailey was one of the few female designers in the industry at the time, and Logg might be more famous for creating Asteroids the previous year.
The plotlines of retro video games of the 80′s were notoriously thin; the geopolitical climate that would result in ICBM missiles raining down from the sky towards six nameless cities was never revealed in Missile Command, nor was the exact nature of the natural disaster that would create giant centipedes, mushroom-laying fleas, and giant spiders touched upon in that game. So the writers of these films really have their work cut out for them. They’ll have to fire up their favourite arcade game emulator and see if inspiration strikes.
Tron was a 1982 film by Disney that promised to take the growing public interest in personal computers and video games and create a huge box-office and merchandising bonanza around the topic. It didn’t. Some products based on Tron were released in the run-up to its release, stuff like a handheld electronic game by Tomy, some home video games through a licensing agreement with Mattel… the most successful was Midway’s Tron arcade game, which ended up grossing more in quarters than the movie did at the theatres. Tron fizzling at the box-office upon release put a damper on the enthusiasm with which the film had been made.
Twenty-eight years later came the sequel, Tron Legacy. A masterly made continuation, Legacy ramped up the visuals and action to new hieghts, while making the story less about the technology and more about a personal story of father and son. But even as it diverged from the original, it still hit the important beats one expects from a Tron film, and this included an updating of the iconic lightcycles. And now the Shanghai Disneyland Resort has brought the Legacy lightcycles into the real world with a fast-paced and awesomely themed indoor/outdoor rollercoaster ride, where guests mount their cycle and power through neon tunnels and a twisting outside section.
We might have been robbed of a second Tron sequel, but at least there’s some place on Earth where we can finally enter the Grid and race for gaming supremacy. Following is a video of the ride, called the TRON Lightcycle Power Run, in action:
E.E. Smith in front of poster for Destination Moon, 1950
This picture always blows me away. On the face of it, it is an image of E.E. Smith attending the premiere of Destination Moon, a SF extravaganza made by George Pal Studios and released in 1950. Sorry, we’ll get to the Star Wars stuff soon enough, but the ramifications of this photo cause my mind to fly off in as many directions as an asteroid belt.
The 1950′s weren’t exactly known for their level-headed science fiction films, but Destination Moon kicked off the decade with a sober, then-realistic portrayal of man’s first trip to the Moon. Adapted from his short story of the same name, Robert A. Heinlein also worked on the script, and the result was the most technically accurate portrayal of possible space flight on film until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. No Amazonian moon-women, no bug-eyed aliens… just four men going to the moon in a nuclear powered rocket and striving to make it back to Earth safely.
E.E. Smith is considered the godfather of the space opera. A food chemist by trade, on the side he authored books with titles like The Skylark of Space and the later Lensmen, released from the 1920′s through to the 60′s. These would be initially serialized in the flagship SF literary magazine Amazing Stories and become hugely popular. They dealt with stoic heroes involved in vast interstellar space battles, and a gang of proto-geeks at MIT in the early 60′s were so heavily influenced by the vast cosmic conflagrations in Smith’s stories that they created an early computer video game around the premise and called it Spacewar! It was the space opera genre into which George Lucas would also delve, releasing his Star Wars movie in 1977. Also dealing with stoic heroes wrapped up in interstellar space battles, the original trilogy of Star Wars movies would change the shape of film-making forever.
An elegant weapon
Now, let’s take a closer look at Smith’s hands. He is holding a Graflex camera, with a flash attachment. When Lucas created Star Wars, he armed his Jedi and Sith Knights with lightsabers, “a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age”. The prop hilts of these fantastic laser swords were created for the film by using, yes, Graflex flash attachments.
So, this is a picture from 1950 of E.E. Smith, the literary creator of the rollicking space opera genre that begat Star Wars, holding a lightsaber.
July 13th was the 30th Anniversary of the release of The Last Starfighter to theatres. How times flies while you’re saving the universe.
TLS was a bit of bubble-gum pop cinema about young teenaged handyman Alex Rogan, played by film newcomer Lance Guest, spending his days keeping the Starlite Starbrite trailer park together. Denied a student loan needed to attend college, Rogan’s only escape from his plight is obsessively playing an arcade game called Starfighter, installed at the park’s snack bar. With the park’s populace gathered behind him cheering one night, he breaks the record on the game. Later he is approached by the game’s inventor, played by Robert Preston. This man turns out to be a con-man from outer space named Centauri, who wisks Alex away to be conscripted to fight in defense against encroaching tyrants. At first refusing this invitation, an assassination attempt convinces Rogan he might be his world’s, and indeed the universe’s, only hope for freedom. Joining Guest and Preston is 80′s sweetheart Catherine Mary Stewart as Rogan’s love-interest Maggie, along with veteran character actor Dan O’Herlihy as fan-favourite Grig, the lizardly pilot who is part wise mentor and part comic-relief.
Dan O’Herlihy as Grig
Another star of the show is the Gunstar, a lethal spaceship created entirely by computers. TLS picks up the baton where Tron left off, featuring the most CGI in a film up to that point. With 27 minutes of photo-realistic computer effects, the movie helped further the technology down the road towards becoming standard practise in filmmaking.
Robert Preston as Centauri
The movie didn’t exactly burn up the box-office when it was released on July 13, 1984. However, the lasting effect it had on moviemaking technology, along with sterling performances from Preston and O’Herlihy, makes it an important and charming ride through the stars with Alex, Centauri and Grig.
Tron is a movie that either turns people on or off, like the digital gates inside computer chips. Written by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird and directed by Lisberger, it made an attempt to take viewers on a journey into the inner world of computer circuitry. It was released in the summer of 1982, and among various visual marvels was the first feature film to extensively use computer generated imagery (CGI).
Light Cycles race in the grid in Tron
It tells the story of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a computer hacker who sits in a room over his video game arcade, trying to hack into the main computer at Encom, his former employer. He hopes to pull out of their system information that proves that some popular games of his were stolen by co-worker Ed Dillinger (David Warner), who then passed them off as his own and was subsequently kicked up the corporate ladder. With the help of friends and current Encom employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan), Flynn infiltrates the company and attempts to pull the data. During the process, the Master Control Program zaps Flynn with a laser and flings him into the computer world, where he must fight for his life on the gaming grid and interact with the computer program equivalents of his friends.
Yori and Tron in a clutch
Having Disney somewhat over a barrel at the time due to their waning animation department, as well as the poor performances of their live-action fare, Lisberger and the producers had carte-blanche to call in heavy hitters to help design the film; no less than three cutting-edge computer animation houses were used to produce the 15 minutes of fully-rendered CGI in Tron. Syd Mead and Jean “Moebius” Giraud were also drafted to help create the world of Tron and its computer denizens. The film might have an impenetrable story, but at least it looks marvelous.
Looks only get you so far, though. Tron ultimately disappointed at the box office, but you can’t completely fault the film; Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial juggernaut sucked all of the oxygen out of theatres that summer of 1982, asphyxiating such other noble genre efforts as Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tron has definitely generated a cult status for itself over the intervening years, however, and at the very least served as a proving ground for the burgeoning field of feature film computer animation.
1975′s Jaws might not have been Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical film (it was his second; The Sugarland Express, released the previous year, takes that honour), but it most certainly was the first to put him on the map. The story of a resort-town police chief and his battle against a monstrous killer shark, it set the template for the movie blockbuster and kept a huge swath of the public away from their beaches, bays and bathtubs. While nominated, it didn’t swim away with Best Picture; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest flew away with all the big awards at the 1976 ceremony.
Jaws: The Computer Game was released in 1989 for the Amiga, C64, Atari ST and other systems. Made by developer Intelligent Design, Ltd. and published by Screen 7 Ltd., it is a strange mish-mash of strategy and 2-D platforming. Players take on the role of chief Martin Brody, who circles the island of Amity in his boat The Orca, following reports of shark sightings. He can close beaches to prevent attacks, although keeping them closed too long ticks off Mayor Larry Vaughn and can lead to Brody’s dismissal. Both Hooper and Quint from the movie join Brody on his quest, along with a team of six divers who pilot a submersible vehicle into the depths around Amity. The ultimate goal is to collect pieces of a special gun and a cache of bullets, which when assembled can be used to dispatch the fishy fiend.
Jaws: The Computer Game is actually fun to play. Trying to guess where the shark will go lends a bit of strategy, and the underwater parts are competent if a bit draggy and frustrating at times. The colourful graphics help keep things interesting, along with John Williams’ famous main theme from the movie, which lends tension leading up to the titular fish’s occasional appearances. It’s worth going back into the water for this one.
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The perennially movie favourite The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, was up against some stiff competition at the 1940 Oscar ceremony. Both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone With the Wind were pegged to win big, and win they did. Nominated for what was then called Outstanding Production, Oz would lose out to Gone With the Wind for best picture. The wonderful score of the film, by Herbert Stothart, did take home a statue, along with the signature Over the Rainbow taking Best Song.
Over the Rainbow also features prominently in the SNES platform game based on the movie, developed by Manley & Associates, Inc. and released by SETA U.S.A., Inc. in 1993. The game, in fact, takes the song quite literally. There are actual lemon drops from the trees and flying bluebirds to be avoided, while journeying along the famous Yellow Brick Road. Along the way to the Emerald City, gamers will meet and control all of Dorothy’s companions from the film: the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and even little dog Toto as well.
It’s a fun little platformer, with a lot of cute touches, although the stiff control of the characters is a horse of a different colour. Still, its a fun trip down the Yellow Brick Road, even if just for this surreal experience: playing a game based on a movie on a console made by a company who’s most famous creation was itself inspired by The Wizard of Oz: Mario and his Mushroom Kingdom owes more than just a pair of ruby slippers to the movie for its inspiration.
Rocky was a low budget film from 1976, about a local Philadelphia boxer named Rocky Balboa getting a shot at the heavyweight championship. It went toe to toe with heavy-hitters like All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver at the 1977 Academy Awards, and walked off with the Best Picture prize, along with Best Director for John G. Avildsen. The immense success of the movie put a young Sylvester Stallone on the map, and was followed up by no less than five sequels, along with numerous video game adaptations.
We deal here with Rocky Super-Action Boxing for the ColecoVision. It actually covered the ground of the third Rocky film, with the titular hero going up against Clubber Lang, played with verve by Mr. T. As indicated by the game’s long name, it was made for use with Coleco’s complicated Super Action Controllers, which themselves bear resemblance to boxing gloves. There’s no motion-detection though… players control body movements with the large joystick on top of the controller, and throw and block punches with the four finger buttons.
The gameplay is pretty good as far as boxing games of the era go. There’s three horizontal “lanes” which the players can move up and down in, and their position vs. the other boxer regulates whether punches register and can be blocked. This adds a bit of strategy as the pugilists jockey for the superior positioning. The game also offers a surprising amount of variety with the settings: you can play against the computer as either Rocky or Clubber with the CPU taking up the role of the other boxer with adjustable skill levels, and there is even a one-on-one mode where two humans can face each other in the ring. Typically from the ColecoVision, the graphics are also a standout. Everything is colourful and clear, and the boxers are rendered quite well. We even get a referee wandering around the ring, keeping an eye on the proceedings. A player can really get into the role of Rocky Balboa and end up jabbing the air while holding the fancy Super Action Controllers.
Should I say it? Yes I should. It’s a knockout. Even Mickey would be proud, ya bum!
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The film M*A*S*H, released in 1970, was ostensibly about a forward line mobile hospital and its staff who try to keep their sanity intact during the Korean War, but everyone knew it was a thinly veiled metaphor for a different conflict; the Vietnam War, then raging both abroad and at home, with the fatal Kent State shooting of protesting students by National Guard troops happening only two months after the film’s release.
The movie was directed by Robert Altman, who had made a career for himself directing shows during the early days of television. Tapping public angst over the growing morass of Vietnam, MASH exploded onto the screen and helped cement Altman as a counter-culture hero, thumbing his nose at authority like the beleaguered doctors in the film. While nominated for Best Picture, MASH lost the prize to another, more obvious war picture, Patton. It did, however, walk away with the award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Two years after the MASH theatrical release, it was turned into a wildly popular TV show on CBS.
M*A*S*H the video game, however, is merely a shallow attempt at cashing in on the final days of the TV show, which ended its 11 year run in 1983, the same year the game came out. Released for the Atari 2600/VCS, the premise is the kind of pure insanity that would make the show’s recurring psychiatrist character, Sidney, drool: it charges medic Hawkeye Pierce with alternating between piloting a helicopter to pick up sky-diving medics and wounded soldiers, and performing surgeries to remove shrapnel from patients.
It’s easy to see why designer Douglas Neubauer, of Star Raiders (Atari 8-bit computers) fame, used the pseudonym “Dallas North” as credit for this game, which was released by Fox Video Games. This exercise was merely another attempt by Fox at jumping on the VCS/2600 bandwagon by trafficking in product based on a 20th Century Fox property. The company features fairly prominently in this series of posts, so stay tuned for other examples. The game made it to computer platforms as well, with a version for Atari’s 8-bit computer line, as well as the TI-99/4A system.
M*A*S*H is also probably the only video game in history to feature the term “Ferret Face”. So there’s that.
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George Lucas’ movie Star Wars doesn’t require much of an introduction. The science fiction epic was released in 1977 and forever changed the film industry. The fact that it didn’t snag the Best Picture oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony (that honour went to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) the following year is often considered a bit of a robbery. Star Wars buffs can take consolation that John Williams won for Best Score, which also features prominently in the arcade game.
It’s to the great credit of Atari’s Star Wars arcade game that it lives up to the original material. Designed by Mike Hally, it was based off an earlier unfinished game by Battlezone creator Ed Rotberg. Utilizing Atari’s colour Quadrascan vector graphics hardware, the game totally immersed players in a galaxy far, far away… especially if they were playing the sit-down cockpit version. The game covered the action that takes place in the film’s final reel: Luke Skywalker as Red Five, joining the attack against the dreaded Imperial Death Star. Controlling Luke’s X-Wing fighter, gamers fended off a wave of enemy TIE fighters, then swooped down into the famous Star Wars trench scene in a race to deliver the final shot into the exhaust port, then out in time to watch the great conflagration as the deadly technological terror explodes. Then rinse and repeat, as the TIE fighters became more numerous and active, and the surface defenses of the Death Star increased in complexity and difficulty.
Not only did we have detailed and fluid vector graphics, we also got snippets Williams’ aforementioned rousing music score, as well as well-done and dramatic voice synthesis straight from the film. Add to that famed Atari controller engineer Jerry Liachek’s great-feeling flight yolk controller, and you had the makings of an undisputed classic. Atari’s Star Wars arcade game deserves its place as one of the greatest games of all time.
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