Prior to the universally-regarded flop of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600, few films got the video game treatment. The movie-game business didn't pick up steam until 1982, around the release of Disney's cyberspace adventure film Tron. Tron spawned a handful of video games that found great popularity in arcades, popularity that Atari and Mattel's Intellevision found a hard time matching.
This list is the result of the recent excavation of Atari — we wondered, what was the precedent for movie-based games prior to this flop? Of the games listed below, some found the success that E.T. did not, while others failed to impress critics at the time — and only one can claim the title of being a wholly-licensed movie-based video game.
Death Race, 1976, arcades: Death Race, published and developed by arcade game specialists Exidy, was based on the 1975 cult film Death Race 2000. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic America in which citizens get their kicks watching a deadly coast-to-coast road race. In this top-down racing game, players run down on-screen gremlins that turn into tombstones on the road that they then must avoid. Death Race was the first video game to spark the violence and games debate, at the time earning the ire of major news outlets including NBC and CBS as well as the National Safety Council.
Tron: Deadly Discs, 1981; Tron: Maze-a-Tron, 1982, Intellivision: Mattel published two games based on Disney’s science fiction film Tron just one year apart. The former is a score chaser, while the latter is puzzle-based. An Atari 2600 version of Maze-A-Tron was initially in development, but the port became so radically different that it was published as a new game entirely. Since its debut with Deadly Discs, Tron, with its cyberspace war and glowing neon couture, has continued to spawn video game properties; in 2010 the live-action sequel Tron: Legacy spawned Tron: Evolution, while the universe and its characters have been featured in numerous games in the Kingdom Hearts JRPG franchise.
Adventures of Tron, 1982, Atari 2600: This souped-up version of Tron: Maze-A-Tron was a bit like Donkey Kong, in which Tron would climb up a set of platforms to catch floating objects and avoid enemies.
Fantastic Voyage, 1982, Atari 2600: Somewhat delayed, this game is based on 1966 film of the same name, which is based on a Jules Verne-esque short story by American writers Jerome Bixby and Otto Klement. This vertical scrolling shoot em up adapted the meat of the movie's premise for its gameplay; players in a tiny spaceship swimming through a human body's bloodstream.
Alien, 1982, Atari 2600: One in what would become a long line of video games attempting to capture the essence of Ridley Scott's space horror movie. Alien for 2600 is a Pac-Man clone based on the 1979 film in which players had to find xenomorph eggs — the dots — while avoiding Alien Drones — the ghosts — in a maze. Players can collect symbols that makes the screen flash and replaces dots with spaceships and planets, as well as use a flamethrower to ward off aliens.
King Kong, 1982, Atari 2600: A game based on the film of the same name. It was essentially a Donkey Kong clone; players were tasked with rescuing a damsel in distress from the giant gorilla.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1982, Atari 2600: Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first ever movie licensed video game. Based on the Indiana Jones action flick of the same name, Raiders tasks players with exploring a handful of areas looking for key items needed to reach a final room containing the Ark of the Covenant. The game required the use of two controllers — one to control Jones and use items and another to select and drop items. Raiders was released the month before E.T. and fared better with critics. It was developed by Howard Scott Warshaw, who also created E.T. for Atari.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1982, Atari 2600: The first officially-licensed Star Wars game and the second game overall after toy company Kenner's standalone toy Star Wars Battle Command. In the game, players control Luke Skywalker in a snowspeeder as he races along the planet Hoth, battling Imperial AT-AT walkers. As players progress, the difficulty level ramps up. The game was, again, more well-received than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Which brings us to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Christmas 1982, for Atari 2600.
Despite E.T.'s critical failure and Atari's attempt to wipe away all traces of it, developers soldiered on in pushing video games based on current popular films. While the Tron games carried the bulk of the popularity wave, Atari's widely-praised 1983 Star Wars arcade game seemingly strengthening publisers' convictions on movie games.