Updated: Sep 6, 2020
In the current world of 21st century media corporate strategy, it’s common place for a company to create multiple products for a gaming line through various companies or divisions of their own company. Video game characters often appear not only in a hot new video game, but on POP figures, clothing, and other merchandise in various marketplaces. Many games are created during the early development phases with this multi tiered approach in mind. Why just make money off a video game when you can double down on merchandising opportunities.
In 1976, the hot up and coming video game company Atari was bought out by the much older and larger media powerhouse Warner Brothers. Warner’s roots date back to the silent era of film, and had deep pockets and many resources at its disposal. In the mid 70’s Atari founder and President Nolan Bushnell along his team were in the process of developing what would become the incredibly successful Atari VCS or 2600 home video game system. Bushnell was confident that Atari had a huge hit on their hands but lacked the cash to properly market the new machine. Seeking outside investors, Bushnell would sell the young Atari company to Warner Communications in 1976 for around 30 million dollars. Eventually Bushnell would end up getting fired from his own company a few years later. The corporate climate Warner Brothers had brought into Atari was vastly different than the laid back almost what someone might call “Start up company culture” Bushnell had created for Atari originally.
During the following years, Warner Brothers would turn Atari into a juggernaut of a company both in terms of profits and production (At least until 1983-84, but that is a different story). With the long reach of a company like Warners, they sought out venues to create a “synergy” with other divisions in the Warner company. One of the other divisions was DC Comics, the home of famous superheroes such as Batman and Superman. In the early 1980’s DC Comics was going through a bit of a renaissance after struggling against rival Marvel Comics Group for many years. This revival was lead by the introduction of the 1980 comic book The New Teen Titians. Warner saw an opportunity to fill a need with Atari and create a hit for DC Comics.
Atari had a bit of a challenge as the video game industry was maturing in the early 1980’s. With the smash hits of games like Pac-Man (Namco/Midway) and Donkey Kong (Nintendo), companies were able to take characters with minimal personalities but humanistic quality and create a merchandising bonanza. Clothes, notebooks, toys, and cartoons started pouring out for these popular video game characters creating a huge revenue stream for their owners. Atari on the other hand, while having some huge hit arcade games didn’t really have these kinds of characters in their pixilated tool box. While Pac-Man had himself and a wife, along with named ghost characters to create story lines for cartoons and plaster on puffy stickers… Atari had games like Asteroids and Centipede with bugs and space rocks. Despite Atari’s efforts more kids were likely to want to be Pac-Man for Halloween than say, the Asteroid from Asteroids.
The solution was to create characters specifically for marketing and narrative story telling. This would give Atari more control over the narrative of the characters, and allow for future profits with licensing of sed characters. Enter Atari Force, a comic book series originally given away free inside certain Atari cartridge boxes created with fellow Warner Brothers division DC Comics. Atari and DC would go onto produce several other specific game themed comic books for inclusion in cartridge boxes beyond the Atari Force theme as well. These included ones for Centipede, Yars’ Revenge, and the Swordquest series of games.
The first five Atari Force comics came packed inside home versions of the games Defender, Berzerk, Star Raiders, Phoenix, and Galaxian. The comics are considered to be “Mini-Comics” due to their size, so they could easily fit inside game boxes. The comics were written by DC Comics veterans Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. The artists included several DC Comics regulars such as Gil Kane and Dick Giordano. The plot of these comic books is a basic science fiction based story, and often incorporates Atari properties (or licensed ones) into the stories. The “Atari Force” is a space force of earthlings (all from different nations) using the “multi-dimensional” starship named Scanner One. Atari Force’s mission is to look for a new planet for the population of Earth to inhabit, since in the future Earth is facing a huge ecological crisis. Atari in the comic book is called A.T.A.R.I. (Advanced Technology and Research Institute), and the Force is lead by Martin Champion as mission commander (Typical Captain Kirk looking guy), Lydia Perez as pilot and executive officer, Li-San O'Rourke a security expert, Mohandas Singh a flight engineer, and Dr. Lucas Orion a medical officer. There is also an alien creature, named “Hukka” who just seems to make noises. The team was multi-cultural and gender diverse, which was perhaps an attempt to appeal to a wide variety of gamers.
Atari and Warner Brothers were planning to transition the free comic books into both a series of video games and into a series of newsstand comic books in order to profit over these characters. Atari Force and Atari themed comic books would start seeing release on newsstands as graphic novels (somewhat of a new format and concept at the time) starting with the release of the graphic novel “Star Raiders” which was somewhat expanded from the free version given out in the game cartridge version.
This version was illustrated by one of the all time great comic book artists José Luis García-López, who would also become the primary artist for the Atari Force monthly newsstand versions of the comic book series which started in 1984. José Luis García-López was also the artist responsible for approved official DC Comics illustrations to be used in licensed products throughout the 80's, so it’s no surprise he was part of this attempt at creating a licensed property.
The first Atari/Warner Brothers (and one of the few) attempt to bring these characters out of the comic book panel would be the development of the arcade game Liberator. Liberator was possibly developed from the remnants of the proposed Missile Command 2 arcade game, and several other Atari Arcade games that were in development in the early 1980’s. Liberator is often described as a “Reverse” Missile Command, although I personally feel this description is a bit limiting. An Atari Force Liberator themed comic book was included in certain newsstand DC comic books as a special insert on comics dated January 1983 (Comic book publication dates are normally months ahead of when they are actually released on newsstands).
The story and much of the art was reused from the comic book given away inside home releases of the game Phoenix. The title of the story was changed from Phoenix to Liberator, as well as some fo the art.
Liberator uses a trackball controller along with a button for firing weapons, and a shield button. Four space ships initially populate the four corners of the horizontally mounted monitor’s playfield in space. During the first round of gameplay on each level, spaceships fly towards the player and must be destroyed or avoided. After this round, a player attempts to destroy the enemy bases on the offending planet. In the center of the screen a nicely rendered rotating planet is displayed. The player attempts to destroy the enemy bases on the planet (while it rotates) using a cross hair cursor, much like in Missile Command. Unlike Missile Command which uses three fire buttons for the player to choose which base fires to the target, Liberator will automatically decide which ship in the closest to the target to fire. The shield button will protect the fighters from incoming enemies but can only be used four times per planet level of gameplay.
A variety of enemies (of course) try to make the task of destroying the planet bases as difficult as possible and get more elaborate (and smarter) as the game plays on. Some enemies take more than one shot to destroy, and others have weapons which cannot be shot down by your ship’s weapons. Many of the characters from the Atari Force comic books appear in the game, including a nice intro scene featuring “Commander Champion” asking the player to help fight the evil Malaglon Army. Liberator might be the first arcade game that attempts to use comic book style graphics, despite the limitations of 1982 hardware. Most of the visual elements of the game are fairly impressive for the time, especially the rotating planets during the second phase of each level.
Atari had big plans for Liberator including home versions for their line of systems and computers. Atari advertised Liberator to operators and investors as part of the 1982/1983 campaign titled “Atari: The Next Decade” along with the arcade games Millipede (Sequel to the popular Centipede) and Pole Position. Liberator debuted at the AMOA 1982 trade show with little buzz or industry excitement. Liberator seems to have been in instant dud in the arcades, with only 762 upright cabinet versions ever made.
There were no cocktail versions or cabaret cabinet versions of Liberator manufactured. A cabaret version was however planned according to Atari internal documentation, as well as a slightly modified upright cabinet to be built in Ireland for the European market. Compare this to the manufactured run of other Atari 1982 releases such as the hit Dig Dug (20,540 upright machines made), Pole Position (17,270 upright versions) and even the moderately successful Kangaroo (9,803). Only the arcade vector monitor game Quantum (a cult favorite with arcade game collectors) with 500 machines manufactured had a lower production than Liberator in 1982.
Home versions for Liberator were in the process of being developed around this same time as the arcade game, but were never released. It’s possible the coding of these home version was a never even finished due to the game being so poorly received in the arcades. The code of prototype versions of Liberator for the Atari 8-Bit home computer line up have been found, but not accessed… or at least made available to the public. Atari probably just decided it wasn’t worth the time, despite the popularity of the Atari Force comic books.
The arcade version of Liberator is housed in a strikingly good looking cabinet. The cabinet is a reworking of the upright cabinet design used for Asteroids Deluxe. Liberator features a unique marquee with “bumpers” to the left and right side of it. The side art and marquee were drawing by DC Comics artist José Luis García-López, and nicely integrate the classic Atari “Fuji” logo. Even this great looking cabinet wasn’t enough to get players interested in the arcade adventures of Atari Force, and Liberator quickly became a footnote in Atari’s rich arcade history. Despite the popularity of the DC Comics newsstand version of Atari Force, its run would end after only 20 issues in August 1985. Atari had been sold from Warner Brothers and split into two different companies, Atari Corporation and Atari Games. Initially Atari Corporation attempted to distance themselves from video games and focus on home computers. Added to this, Warner no longer desired to use their DC Comics division to help promote a company they no loner owned. With that, Atari Force became a space adventuring force without a home. A DC Comics Atari Force Special was released in 1986, including an award winning short story based on the character Hukka.
The concept behind Atari Force was logical at the time, create a series of marketable characters for Atari. These characters could then be licensed and used for many products and projects over time to create a synergy among divisions at Warner Brothers. Who knows, if Atari hadn’t gotten caught up in financial difficulties and if Liberator had been a hit…. Maybe Atari Force would have become a bigger deal with TV Shows, and even films. Meanwhile in the early to mid 1980’s Nintendo would successfully create a gallery of bankable characters off the cornerstone of the Donkey Kong series of games, but that is a story for a different time.
As a post script to this article, I am actually in the process of making an Atari Liberator cabaret of my own. I'll update the site once I finish the project, which should be done by July/August of this year (2020).
Cassie “The Vintage Arcade Gal”
UPDATE! The documentary is finished, and I have been overwhelmed by the response. It features never seen before developmental material courtesy of The Strong Museum of Rochester New York. Thanks to Todd Tuckey (TNT Amusements), Tony Temple (arcadeblogger.com), and Tim McVey (Man vs. Snake) for their time and input. Additional thanks to Trip Hawkins, Travis Reynolds, Buddy Herron, Jenny Waldo and Catherine DeSpira.