A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a guy named Marty regarding a news post I’d made about plans for a movie based on the 30-year-old videogame classic Asteroids. I had, of course, ridiculed the idea of turning one of the most story-free games in history into a big-budget film, yet Marty’s missive suggested I was wrong. Did I not know, he asked, that Asteroids actually had an entire backstory already developed?
I paused to consider my reply. A story in Asteroids? I was never a huge fan of the game (nor very good at it), but I’d played my share and I sure didn’t remember anything about a story. My fellow news guys concurred: Asteroids has no story and this Marty bozo was obviously a troll. A polite and well-spoken troll, perhaps, but a troll nonetheless, quite clearly on a mission to churn the waters of internet silliness.
So, I called his bluff. With the most obvious artificial sincerity I could muster, I told him that no, I did not know about any such thing, but that I would be most pleased if he would enlighten me on the matter. And I was pleased, and more than a little surprised when he did.
“Marty,” it turns out, is Martin Goldberg, a programmer, tech writer and videogame historian with ClassicGaming.com. He is currently in the process of co-writing a two-volume history of Atari and assists the current iteration of the company with “classic IP and resources.” He also seemed appalled by my ignorance.
He explained that many of the most popular Atari releases of the early 80s were more than mere games. Through the auspices of Warner Communications, which had acquired Atari in 1976, games including Asteroids, Super Breakout, Missile Command, Yars’ Revenge and others were given the multimedia treatment: Atari released a series of read-along books and audio recordings in either cassette, 45 or LP format and some games included a miniature comic book created by other Warner subsidiaries, including DC comics, that detailed the story even further.
I remained a bit skeptical; I didn’t doubt Goldberg’s cred but it sounded like a third-party cash-in to me. Anything can have a semi-relevant story applied to it retroactively and the primitive nature of those early videogames afforded them a generous latitude when it came to filling in the details. But Goldberg assured me that this was all completely legit.
“This is the real deal, not a situation like Star Wars and Star Trek where authors not directly involved with the franchise licensed or got permission to write stories with the characters,” he said. “Just about all Atari’s classic arcade properties had extensive storylines built up around them at the behest of then-owner Warner Communications, most during the release of the game and some shortly after.”
Naturally, nearly all of this effort was aimed at the home market; the arcades of the day, with their dim lighting, cigarette smoke and cheap girls, didn’t exactly encourage people to spend time contemplating the motives behind their mushroom field duel with an angry Chilopoda. “Most bronze and golden age arcade games didn’t portray a narrative on the cabinet itself – usually just directions on how to play it,” Goldberg explained. “The storyline, etc., was usually done during the design process and/or attached to the home console releases.”
The stories weren’t great literature by any stretch of the imagination; the audio book for Super Breakout, for instance, tells the tale of John Stewart Chang, captain of the space shuttle Adventure, who comes upon a mysterious, multi-colored force field while on a mission.
“Captain Chang gazed out at the dazzlingly beautiful layers of color: Green, purple, blue and red,” the book reads. “What could it mean that nothing appeared on the radar? Was it possible to travel through the field or would he crash and be destroyed? And what about the layers? If he made it through one, could he make it through the next? It was time for a decision.”
Yet Warner’s focus didn’t stop there. While the specifics of why the Yars wanted revenge may be lost to all but the most dedicated of fans, many Atari properties, not to mention the famous Atari logo itself, gained widespread public visibility through aggressive merchandising efforts that went beyond the games themselves and continue to echo in the “collector’s edition” releases that are so popular today.
“Warner, being a media company, pioneered a lot of the merchandising and brand recognition marketing techniques that are today associated with Nintendo and Mario. You had Atari character-related books, magazines, clothing, Halloween costumes, bed sheets, party favors, etc.,” Goldberg said.
“Warner was a master at leveraging its multiple subsidiaries,” he continued. “Atari got a lot of prime product and logo placement in movies of the time (much like Apple does today), such as the giant Atari billboard in Blade Runner, placement in E.T., and of course the overall Atari-themed Cloak and Dagger. This,of course, worked in reverse as well with the game licenses (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Cloak and Dagger, etc.)”
“A lot of people (who think the industry begins and ends with Nintendo) usually incorrectly point to The Wizard as the first major product/film cross-promotion; it was a major promotion for Super Mario Brothers 3,” he said. “However, Cloak and Dagger was actually the first – the entire movie was based around this arcade title and the premise of stolen plans hidden in an Atari 5200 version of it that needed to be unlocked.”
And what of Asteroids? The game is based on the exploits of Captain Jim Stanton of the “Cosmic Space Patrol,” who finds himself confronted by a giant asteroid while on a routine patrol. The Cosmic Space Patrol Ship, Intrepid, battles desperately to destroy the asteroid and save the people of the Gamma Hydra farm settlement in Quad 42, but after engaging the emergency hyperspace drive the ship and its crew are somehow transported 607 years in the past – to the year 1983!
It ain’t Shakespeare, no, but let’s be honest: We’ve all plunked down cash to watch movies built on even less. And it’s not as if films based on meatier games have given us much to cheer about, as anyone who’s seen Wing Commander or Max Payne will attest. Still, the established Asteroids “canon” is pretty thin and legit or not, I have a hard time seeing it as relevant, especially given that almost nobody seems to know this stuff even exists.
But exist it does, and while it may not have any bearing on the planned movie, it’s an interesting insight into the lengths Atari went to in attempting to imprint its brands on the public consciousness. Captain Stanton and his trusty computer assistant Chip Brain may be gone, but for some people at least, they’re not forgotten.
Andy Chalk continues to harbor deep resentment over his parents’ refusal to buy him an Atari system.
(Image courtesy of AtariAge.com)