Back around 1982, I was hired by Sirius Software to design and program games for the Atari 2600. Sirius had originally planned to not only develop the games, but to manufacture and publish them. Since they already published computer games on floppy disks, this didn’t seem like an unreasonable leap. But somewhere along the way, they discovered that the publishing side of the cartridge business would require a substantial amount money. So they found a partner who had an abundance of cash and a desire to be a game publisher. All of a sudden, though I was still an employee of Sirius, I was actually designing games for Fox Games, a division of 20th Century Fox. In retrospect, this was a positive event, since the change meant Sirius took longer to go out of business than they would have without a partner.
Soon after I started working on my first game, we were invited to a premier screening of two Fox movies, to see if we wanted to use either for a game. I caught a ride to the theater with one of my co-workers, Mark Turmell, who’d just bought a Porsche. That’s not relevant, but I love to name drop.
One of the movies we saw at the preview, Six Pack, had potential. It was about a group of kids and a crusty racer. While the idea of doing a racing game was fun, this was the Atari 2600, which was slightly limited in it’s graphics, memory, and processor speed. (Though our team leader, Larry Miller, went on to write the great racing game, Enduro, for Activision.)
The other movie we saw that afternoon was so inappropriate for our needs, I want to ease into my description of it rather than just blurting out the details. Remember, we were writing video games for a system that was mostly pitched to kids and families. Okay. The 2600 was a game system for the whole family. Keep that in mind. Ready? The movie was The Entity. If you remember it, you can picture my reaction as I sat in that auditorium, having been brought there for the purpose of finding game-worthy material. For those of you who missed this cinematic gem, it’s about a woman who was repeatedly raped by an invisible spirit. Yup. Can you picture how that would translate into a video game? Mommy — why is my joystick slippery? So that was my first taste of the Hollywood glory. But things got better.
For one thing, Fox had money. Which meant they could afford TV ads. I totally lucked out. The ad for my first game was made by the same genius who made Tron. I’ll be the first to admit that the ad was way better than the game. Though the game did include some nice features, like two-player same-screen co-op (because I love hyphenate words), and a pause switch.
At one point, we were told we could base a game on any movie in the Fox catalog. Yeah — any movie. Take what you want. Being a science-fiction fan, I instantly claimed Fantastic Voyage as my own. For those of you who have never seen the movie or read Isaac Asimov’s novel, the story involves injecting a miniaturized crew and submarine into a human body, so the crew can perform delicate brain surgery. Remember — this is for the Atari 2600. So the artery was represented as a parallel pair of jagged lines. The player’s ship had to blast through clots, bacteria, and other hazards. It could regain health by shooting enzymes, which I represented as tiny keys, in homage to what I’d learned in high school biology. The game got progressively harder, mostly by narrowing the arteries. (I guess that’s better than getting progressively narrower by hardening the arteries.)
My next game was named after Flash Gordon, though the connection was pretty slender. Okay — the connection didn’t really exist, except that the game was set in space. A third game, which I had given some sort of slick name like Alpha Mission, was renamed by Fox after a film nobody had ever seen, Space Master X-7. I wasn’t happy about the name, but I was definitely happy about what happened next, because it gave me my greatest piece of nerd credibility. The game had a bit (okay — eight bit) part in Revenge of the Nerds. One of the characters plays it after they get kicked out of their dorm. The game itself was fairly slick. I was trying to emulate the vector-graphics look from classic coin-op games such as Asteroids. For the 2600, it was a pretty nice piece of programming.
Later on, I had a chance to go in the opposite direction. Absolute Entertainment had put together a simulated video game for the movie, Toys. The simulation was created by merging displays from two Super Nintendos. Eventually, I was one of the programmers asked to help create an actual SNES version of game.
I had another brush with the movies years later, when I was offered the chance to write three spinoff novels based on the Lost in Space movie. This offer was made before the movie was released, and before I escaped from my starving-author years. So I had a bit of incentive to take the deal. But I had a feeling it would not be a rewarding project, so I declined the offer. Sometimes, you guess right.
As for my option experiences with my own novels, there’s not much to tell. I’ve had inquiries, and couple near misses, but nothing has crossed the border, yet, from fuel for my daydreams to cash in the bank. But who knows? If I can get the honor of bringing a classic novel by Isaac Asimov to the glory of the 160-pixel four-color screen, anything can happen.
Guest post written by author David Lubar. He has written numerous books and is also an electronic game programmer, who programmed Super Breakout for the Nintendo Game Boy, and Frogger for both the SNES and Game Boy. As a game designer, he designed the game Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revengefor the Nintendo Game Boy Color. He is also known for his Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series.