Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari 2600)
Without it we might not have had: A never ending plague of awful games and the 1983 video game crash.
What did it pioneer? Bad movie tie-ins.
Not really much for me to explain on this one; even if you’re not much of a gamer you already know the score. Video games based on “family friendly” movies are just plain bad news whatever way you look at it. It’s a soul crushing fact of life that we all have to deal with on a daily basis. Occasionally we’ll get a lucky break and “Animated Animal and Friends III: the Video Game!” will stay exclusive to the DS and Wii where it’ll be out of sight to most of us, but more often than not it’ll come out on just about everything from the PS3 to the Commodore 64, thus ensuring absolutely no escape from its loathsome visage. Either way it’s almost guaranteed to sell a metric shit-tone of copies, and purely due to an association with an over-hyped movie combined with the unrelenting nagging power of children who think talking animals are the BEST THING EVER.
It might seem humdrum now, but back in 1982 Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600 ticked all those check boxes before they even existed; a console game of extremely dubious quality that managed to sell really well by riding the success of a popular movie. So yeah, it basically set a cast iron president that hundreds of games have followed to the letter ever since. Hey, I never said these games all pioneered something GOOD.
What was it? Mind-bending
Hmm… how to define Raiders of the Lost Ark? Okay, I’m sure at some point nearly every gamer has experienced this: Your playing an adventure style game like Zelda or Tomb Raider or something along those lines and suddenly you get stuck at a particularly perplexing puzzle. In equal parts frustration and desperation you start trying every combination of item, tool, ability and button press that you can think of until you’ve done just about everything possible in that given environment. Eventually, just as you’re about to give up on the game entirely, you stumble upon the correct solution. A solution so abstract and illogical that you can only conclude it was developed by someone with a very tenuous grip on reality OR was included in the game purely to sell strategy guides to burnt out gamers.
Okay, you remembered that experience yet? Right, now imagine an entire game based around it. Congratulations! You just imagined Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m not really sure I can define its madness anymore specifically with words alone, so instead I’ll show you a nice little video guide from ‘82 that should help you understand what I’m on about.
Bet that puts that whole “water temple thing” into perspective.
Why was it forgotten? It’s hella old and got overshadowed by the “achievements” of it’s protégé.
I think it’s more than fair to say that a lot of the people reading this article were probably quite young in 1982, if indeed they were born at all. I think it’s also fair to say that anyone of any age would have found Raiders of the Lost Ark totally bewildering in every imaginable way, so it’s not really that surprising it failed to make much of an impression on gamers as a whole. Mind you it was hard for any Atari 2600 game to stand out back then as the video game industry was on the verge of collapse due to a gigantic influx of low quality titles that flooding the market. It’s a situation that eventually resulted in a sort of dark age known as the “video game crash of 1983” where most major publishers went bankrupt and video gaming industry just ceased to exist in the west for a number of years.
Raiders of the Lost Ark’s significant contribution to the crash was dramatically overshadowed by the game it made possible, Atari’s E.T (also for the 2600) a game so catastrophically awful that it’s often credited with instigating the crash in the first place, thus becoming a major subject of popular culture. But while E.T may well have been the herald of that particular apocalypse, all it was doing was following the template Raiders of the Lost Ark had proven to be profitable. That said, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that Raiders actually had a much more direct influence on E.T than that.
Just like today, getting a licence to do a movie tie-in was extremely expensive even in the 80s, so to design Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari had to choose someone they could trust to pull it off on the cheap. For that they looked to a man named Howard Scott Warshaw, designer of the genuinely well received Yar’s Revenge which is often considered the best game of the Atari 2600 era. After Howard’s subsequent “Success” with Raiders he was then select by Atari to do another movie-tie in project, one that had cost Atari over $45 million (adjusted for inflation) to licence.
The deadline was tight: only six weeks, and Howard would be working on the whole thing on his own. But no one was worried, Raiders of the Lost Ark had proved it didn’t matter how bad your game was as long as you slapped a movie name on it. In fact Atari were so confident about Howard’s E.T. game that, under the assumption people would want to buy it multiple times, they actually built more cartridges of it than there were Atari 2600 consoles in the entire world. I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this…….
For all that it made possible I think Raiders should be remembered. Mainly so we can teach future generations to hate it with a fiery passion, but remembered all the same.
Where are the developers now? Thankfully for us, not making games anymore.
After being a major contributing factor in the collapse of an entire industry, it’s unsurprising Howard didn’t really do much game designing from then on. However he did manage to do a very wide range of other stuff including (but not limited to) writing a guide book about an obscure Philippine gambling game, a self-help book on how to do well in collage and directing a documentary about the BDSM scene in San Fransisco. Truly a Renaissance man if ever there was one, as this little amusing quote I found while researching for this article (i.e. reading wikipedia) illustrates:
“People worry I might be sensitive about the ET debacle, but the fact is I’m always happy to discuss it. After all, it was the fastest game ever done, it was a million seller, and of the thousands of 2600 games, how many others are still a topic? Another thing I like to think about is having done ET (consistently rated among the worst games of all time) and Yars’ Revenge (consistently rated as one of the best) I figure I have the unique distinction of having the greatest range of any game designer in history.”
And so ends our little journey into the obscure. I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these overlooked progenitors even if you knew about them already! However these 5 games only represent a small proportion of what’s out there. So now I pose a question to you: What other influential games do you think have been unfairly forgotten by the masses at large? Please comment and spread the word, I’d love to hear about them!