Shovelling Dirt Into the Grave
Even though successful third-party game makers Activision and Imagic produce some of the better games for the 2600 in its later years, when these game-making upstarts first appeared on the scene Atari saw their grip sliding on the control of the software library for their system, and they start legal tussles with the two companies. Atari eventually loses its case in court, opening the floodgates for third-party manufacturers of games for their systems. Soon everybody and their dog has a game out, and while this does expand the machine’s library of cartridges, little concern is given to their quality. The vast majority of them are simplistic knock-offs of arcade game concepts: maze games in the Pac-Man vein, or platform games a la Donkey Kong. There are 50 companies publishing games for the 2600 in 1983, outfits such as 20th Century Fox, Avalon Hill, CommaVid, MCA, Froggo, ZiMAG, VentureVision, Milton Bradley, Telesys, Sega, Spectravision and Tigervision. To put some of these accomplices to the murder of the early 80’s video game industry up into a lineup for closer identification:
- If you are an aficionado of B-grade schlock movies, you might recognize the name Charles Band. By 1983 he has an impressive resume built up as a film producer and director, including such classic fare as Laserblast, Tourist Trap and Parasite. It is with this pedigree that Band wades into the unsuspecting video game industry in 1983, founding Wizard Games. Game production is contracted out to a development studio started by former programmers at Games by Apollo, which had declared Chapter XI bankruptcy on Nov. 12, 1982. Wizard licenses two notorious horror movies for their first video game products for the 2600: Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s true that the violence contained within the resultant games is blockily abstract, but blocky abstract violence is all the public has at the time in video games, so after whole weeks of development time the games are released and the obligatory controversy generated. With most stores unwilling to stock the games, and those that do keeping them behind the counter on a request-only basis, sales figures are understandably low. Unfortunately, Wizard’s plans for a game based on softcore porn movie Flesh Gordon never hardens up.
- Game maker Xonox is a division of K-tel, infamous TV sellers of “50 Original Hits” music compilations. Their idea of innovation is to sell Double Ender cartridges for the 2600. Sold for the price of a regular cart, Double Enders have two separate 8K games accessible via edge connectors on each end. Early entries for these dual games include Spike’s Peak/Ghost Manor and Hercules vs. the Titans/Chuck Norris Superkicks. The most clever bit of this whole exercise? The palindrome company name, readable any way their cartridges are inserted. K-tel is eventually turned upside down and shaken for loose change by creditors, when it posts a fiscal year loss of $33.8 million and files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late-1984.
- CBS, distributors of the ColecoVision outside of North America, enters the videogame publishing biz via a four-year partnership deal with Bally Mfg. Corp, creating CBS Video Games. This gives CBS rights to available Bally/Midway arcade games for adaptation to home consoles and computers. The cartridges are produced and marketed by Gabriel Industries, the toy arm of CBS, headed by Benjamin Ordover. Adaptations of Gorf and Wizard of Wor are two of the bigger hits from this partnership, both developed by Dave Nutting Associates, makers of one of the first arcade video games. With a name change to CBS Electronics, the company develops 2600 cartridges with the RAM Plus power chip installed inside, adding 16K of memory. This allows games with advanced 3D graphics for the system like Tunnel Runner, as well as the first-person combat flight simulator Wings, a game within weeks of being released when CBS suddenly pulls the plug on their video game division in late 1983. CBS Software is also formed, making games primarily for the Atari 8-bit computers, via a licensing agreement with K-Byte Software.
- Another media conglomerate, 20th Century Fox, throws their hat into the crowded ring with their video game arm, Fox Video Games. Headed by former Mattel Electronics Sales and Marketing Senior VP Frank O’Connell, they crank out 20-some carts into the market. Tagged as Games of the Century, a few are licensed from computer software game company Sirius Software, and Fox also reaches into their own film library for titles like Fantastic Voyage, Porky’s, the Barry Bostwick SF extravaganza Mega Force and a game based on the 1979 smash hit SF-horror movie Alien. This latter tie-in is facilitated by Fox brass taking what amounts to merely a programming experiment to see if a Pac-Man clone can be created on the 2600 without all the flicker of Atari’s lamented version, and then insisting that the little figure running around this maze be given a flamethrower. Voila! An Alien game is born! Fox’s biggest stretch might be a game based on the film M*A*S*H, where chief surgeon Hawkeye Pierce actually flies helicopters around rescuing injured soldiers and skydiving medics. At least he does get a bit of surgery in between flights, Ferret Face!. These last three games are all programmed under contract to Fox by Doug Neubauer, who probably had more fame as the creator of the excellent Star Raiders for the Atari 400/800 computers. The initial price of the MASH cartridge for the 2600 eventually goes under the knife in 1983, from $29.99 down to $14.95. Announcing the price slashing, O’Connell paints it as a good thing for the industry, proclaiming that moves like this will clear out surplus inventory to make room for new games that gamemakers would somehow be able to charge higher prices for. He also expects the enormous software glut to be cleared out within two months. This is a highly optimistic forecast, especially considering the gold-rushing Fox itself is perpetrating on the video game market via their seemingly reckless diving into their media property pool: video game adaptations of Fox works as far flung as the Kenny Rogers vehicle (literally) Six Pack, SF classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, female empowerment tale 9 to 5 and the Lee Majors starring TV show The Fall Guy are some floated by the company. Even a game based on the Robert Redford/Paul Newman classic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is threatened by Fox, but mercifully never sees the light of day. Fox does wins the award for best video game title ever: The Earth Dies Screaming. Another thing that dies screaming is the partnership of Fox and Sirius: the later files a 20 million dollar lawsuit against Fox in the later part of 1983, containing forty counts of breach-of-contract, fraud and lack of good faith charges.
- Board game giant Parker Brothers., having rolled the dice on electronic games such as Merlin in the late 70’s, make their move into the video game market via a series of lucrative licenses. While their releases are made for the Atari 2600, Parker Brothers had originally approached Mattel in 1981, offering to make games for the Intellivision if the company would forward technical specs for the machine to speed game design. Mattel passes on the proposal, so Parker Brothers jumps into the rapidly crowding Atari pool. Their strategy for an early boost in the market is aggressive licensing, including a valuable deal with Lucasfilm to make console games based on the Star Wars franchise. Their first game, released in June of 1982, is based on the second Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back. For their second game, Parker Bros. produces an adaptation of the hit arcade game Frogger. Together, both of these initial 2600 games sell over three million cartridges, helping the company pull in $115 million in sales for 1982. Empire alone accounts for over thirty millions dollars of that figure. Parker Brothers would later release Star Wars: Jedi Arena, and titles such as Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle. The mouthful-of-a-title Star Wars: Return of the Jedi: Ewok Adventure is put in the development pipeline but never released. In 1983 the company is responsible for the highly promoted and anticipated Spider-Man, featuring Marvel’s iconic web-slinging superhero, for the Atari 2600. Parker Brothers also makes the largest bid yet for an arcade game license, paying Nintendo $2 million for the rights to the hit Popeye, plus a promise of $4 in royalties for every cartridge they sell. They also put out product based on Strawberry Shortcake, G.I. Joe and James Bond. Backed by a $30 million ad campaign, Parker Brothers has a slate of 16 new video games, for various platforms, scheduled for release through 1983.
- Quaker Oats, known more for breakfast cereals than high-technology, enters the market via its acquisition of game maker U.S. Games, Inc., later changing its name to Vidtec. The company quickly builds a library of titles by contracting out to game development company James Wickstead Design Associates, of which Garry Kitchen is an employee. There he makes the shooter Space Jockey, probably U.S. Games’ most popular title out of a bunch of other fairly forgettable games. One U.S. Games release, put out in February of 1983, is initially titled Treasures of the Deep while under development at Wickstead, and then renamed Guardians of Treasure by U.S. Games. It is subsequently saddled with the mouthful of a title Name This Game and Win $10,000. It is designed by Ron Dubren and tied to a contest asking people to submit their own title for the game. U.S. Games goes out of business before the contest’s April 30th, 1983 deadline. Garry Kitchen eventually leaves U.S. Game’s JWDA developer partner to join his brother Dan at the greener climes of Activision. Apropos, a popular game from U.S. Games is Eggomania, the action of which closely emulates Activision’s hit game Kaboom!
- Taking a run at matching the crassness of Fox’s pillaging of their TV and film properties. Sega’s sister company Paramount Pictures (both reside under the wide umbrella of Gulf + Western) announce a desire to leverage their video game relations in promoting their media library. While games based on the Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy cop comedy 48 hrs., hilarious parody film Airplane! or SF classic War of the Worlds might seem a bit suspect, Sega really rattles teeth threatening to make a video game based on the Dustin Hoffman/Laurence Olivier thriller Marathon Man. One could only imagine the company making a running sports game and slapping the movie title upon it. And of course, you know…. there’s always Star Trek.
Food products such as Purina dog food, Coca-Cola and Kool-Aid are all also being hawked by shoddy video game tie-ins. On the music tie-in front, America’s #1 rock band at the time, Journey, struts onto the video game stage with Journey Escape in 1982, designed by J. Ray Dettling for Data Age. About the toughest part of the job for Dettling is squeezing in all of the rock band’s iconography into a 2600 cart, especially after spending a lot of the cartridge’s 4K memory opening the game with the spectacle of the group’s famous scarab Escape vehicle breaking through the cosmic egg a la the famous cover image for their rock album Escape. Not only is Journey Escape the first game based on a Rock ‘n Roll band, it also is the first home game that reverses the common trend and moves from the original VCS cartridge by Data Age into a coin-op version by Bally/Midway the next year. A collection of five game stages, the arcade version of Journey Escape does contain at least one saving grace: digitized images of each band member’s head on the characters, facilitated by a process created by Ralph Baer, creator of the first home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey. Unfortunately for Data Age, it ships 400,000 copies of the home game to retailers amid a flurry of promotions and advertising, but only 25,000 actually sell. Due to a stock balancing policy the company has agreed to that every unsold copy of the game can be returned, the rest get sent back and Data Age, on the hook to buy back the unsold games as well as facing high licensing fees from the Journey people, succumbs to Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-1983.