Atari’s Cloak & Dagger: Atari Tries (Again) to Go Hollywood
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
In 1976 Atari struck a deal with media powerhouse Warner Brothers in order to be able to financially support the release of what would eventually become the highly successful Atari 2600 home video game system. This alliance over time would reshape Atari in both good and bad ways. Perhaps accidently however, it did create the first true multi-media company as Atari would go to become the first true corporate video game powerhouse in the USA. This also brought Atari into the umbrella of other Warner owned properties from film, television, and even comic books. This mixing of movie and televisions properties in the early days of the video game industry provided several successes such as Disney/Bally-Midway’s Tron and some interesting failures such as the infamously panned Atari 2600 E.T. cartridge (Which full disclosure, I loved as a kid).
Atari didn’t make its first official arcade movie cross over until May of 1983 when they would release an arcade adaptation of George Lucas’ Star Wars in the arcades. This first-person perspective “on-the-rails” space shooter was a huge success and an instant arcade classic. Thanks to a combination of a great license property, (who didn’t want to fly an X-Wing fighter after seeing Star Wars the first time?) neat wire frame vector graphics, unique controllers, an amazing, dedicated cockpit version of the game, and digital voice samples from the movie Star Wars would capture the hearts and quarters of arcade video game fans for generations to come. Unfortunately for Atari they wouldn’t piggyback off the success of Star Wars with their next arcade movie-tie in offering Firefox.
Released in January of 1984, Firefox was based on the cold war themed action movie of the same name starring Clint Eastwood as he attempts to steal a top-secret fighter plane from the U.S.S.R. The movie was a moderate success at the box office at the time but not so much with critics. Firefox would be Atari’s first and only arcade game based on Laserdisc technology to be commercially released (Several other games exist as prototypes) costing operators $3799 (a stagging $10,500 in 2021 dollars) for an upright version or $4299 (almost $12,000 in 2021) for a fancy cockpit version. The game was ultimately unsuccessful (Only about 2100 total games would be manufactured, compared to over 12000 Star Wars games being produced) not just because of the price tag for operators, but disinterest from arcade patrons and for quickly gaining a reputation as being extremely unreliable thanks to a dodgy Laserdisc player model.
Atari would try yet again in March of 1984 with another movie licensed game, Cloak and Dagger. Unlike previous movie-tie in titles Cloak and Dagger had been in development before the movie tie-in agreement and would become more of a prop in the film rather than an adaptation of the events in the film. Originally titled Agent X, Cloak and Dagger is a multi-directional shooter designed and programmed by Russell Dawe. Gameplay is like other multi directional shooters such as William’s Robotron:2084 with some interesting differences. In the game you play Agent X who is attempting to thwart the evil plans of one Doctor Boom in his elaborate underground lair and bomb factory. Each level is full of evil creatures, lava pits, and a shocking large number of conveyor belts.
Agent X attempts to cross one side of each room to the other avoiding dangerous items and creatures, along with collecting maps which become useful in future levels to avoid mines. In the center of each level is a bomb which acts as sort of a timer to complete the level. A player can use the ignitor button to light the bomb which in turn speeds up the timer for bonus points upon exiting the level. The game also features fun animations in-between levels with a large sprite of Agent X on an elevator doing various activities (such as playing with a Yo-Yo or sweating if you had a close call in the previous level). The final level features a boss fight with Dr. Boom himself on floor 32 (33?) of his compound. Those defeating Dr. Boom are treated to a very quick look at the Top Secret plans Agent X has saved from the evil Dr. Boom.
Agent X was like many games at Atari was in a development and testing phase around 1982-83 at the company. During the phase of development in which the game was being prepped for a possible full release, Universal Pictures reached out to Atari about the possibility of creating a video game for their new film in pre-production called, yep you guessed it Cloak and Dagger. The film Cloak and Dagger is a cold war themed spy film based on a Cornell Woolrich story, The Boy Cried Murder, which had been adapted to several films previously. The film stars Henry Thomas as Davey Osborne (who rose to fame playing the lead character Elliot in the film E.T.), and longtime Hollywood character actor staple Dabney Coleman in a dual role as both Henry’s overworked single parent provider and as the imaginary spy Jack Flack. Davey’s character can be modernly described as an obsessive gamer, deeply involved with both video games and RPG pen and paper style gaming especially ones based around the Jack Flack universe.
Davey becomes mixed up accidently in the smuggling of top secret plans for a stealth bomber when he witnesses a murder and is given an Atari 5200 cartridge of Cloak and Dagger, which by the way, contains a secret microchip that is activated when a player reaches a certain score. Good thing Davey had a 5200 and say, not an Intellivision or this would have been a shorter movie. Due to Davey’s overactive imagination (and writing his name on a softball he drops) the bad guys find out where he lives and has only is imaginary friend of Jack Flack to help him when the guns come out and he runs all over San Antonio Texas trying to get someone to believe him. Overall the film is a pretty good kiddy caper with some decent moments of tension, but it’s not exactly Ronin or Heat. The real star of the film might be the transit system of San Antonio since Davey and his friend get freaking all over town quickly thanks to a bus pass. Retro gaming fans tend to love this movie since it is full of vintage Atari gaming goodness. Several of the Atari home video game titles in the gaming shop Davey frequents in the film never were released including ironically Cloak and Dagger along with home versions of Tempest.
It’s important to mention again that Cloak and Dagger is a unique movie tie-in concept for the time period since it isn’t based on actual events of the film, rather the film was modified to fit the game. When Atari produced its Star Wars arcade game, Star Wars was already a known quantity with a huge public following. Unlike Firefox which was a new movie at the time of the game release, it was also a property that Atari’s parent company Warner Brothers had no stake in. Universal was interested in using Agent X since it was themed somewhat similarly to the spy themes in the script already (which had been written several years earlier). Universal Pictures originally had intended to use Nintendo’s Donkey Kong as the video game cartridge in the movie according to early versions of the script. Universal also gives the original title of Cloak and Dagger several shout outs in the film itself, the Jack Flack character explains while hidden in the trunk of a car that he used to be known as “Agent X”.
On the arcade front of things, the industry was starting to move towards selling conversion kits to operators as a cheaper alternative to buying a whole new game for a location. Atari started producing conversion kits as well for older arcade titles starting in 1983 with the titles Black Widow and Crystal Castles. Although both titles were also released as dedicated machines (It is worth noting however that legitimate Black Widow dedicated uprights are rather rare most are conversions), these kits showed an important shift in the market. Conversion kits allowed operators to switch an unpopular or no longer profitable title into a new game (with the hope to turn in back into a profitable game). These conversion kits were much less expensive than a whole new game since they used the previous game cabinet and monitor which the operator already owned. Conversion kits usually contained a new PCB, control panel, artwork, wiring, and whatever else would be needed to change over the game. Both Black Widow and Crystal Castles conversion kits were specifically targeted and designed for older Atari game cabinet titles. Cloak and Dagger however was a bit of a different situation and presented a new strategy for Atari’s entry into the market of conversion kits.
Cloak and Dagger would only be officially sold as a conversion kit. Dedicated units technically do exist (housed in the same cabinet style as dedicated upright Crystal Castles machines) but were only made for testing and prototyping purposes and never officially offered for sale outside of Atari. Atari wisely marketed Cloak and Dagger as a kit specifically for older titles from rival game manufacturer Williams Electronics. Targeted for cabinets such as Defender,Robotron:2084, Joust, and Stargate Atari was able to tap into a rather large pool of possible arcade game cabinet conversion needs since most of the above titles sold very well and by 1983 might have not been earning as much money for operators as they had in the past. Kits included specific dedicated control panels for the machine (The Defender cabinet uses a somewhat different style than the other Williams titles, and was shipped with a different control panel), PCB, PCB cage, filter board, wiring, side art, marquee, and instructions. The game PCB uses the previous Williams game power supply and audio amplifier.
Specific production numbers of Cloak and Dagger kits from Atari are unknown, I would estimate as few as 1200 kits and as many as 2000 were made. The game is an uncommon title today but is sought after by collectors thanks to rarity and the movie tie-in. Defender cabinet-based conversions to Cloak and Dagger seem more common than any other Williams cabinet. This could be because Williams made over 60,000 Defender games and at the time of Cloak and Dagger’s release it would have been the oldest title out of the Williams catalogue in which the game was targeted towards. Atari seemed please enough with the arcade game to start work on versions for both Atari 8-Bit home computers and for the Atari 5200 video game system. Unfortunately, with the market conditions for home video games in 1984 and Atari’s eventual economic woes the home versions would not be completed or ever see an official release. Today only an incomplete prototype of the home computer version has been located by collectors. In the film Cloak and Dagger even though Davey is seen playing the game on an Atari 5200, the version shown in the film is simply the arcade game, and the product boxes are just mock-ups.
By the mid 1980’s Atari was sold off and broken up into two different companies, Atari Corp. and Atari Games. Atari Corp. would focus on home computers and eventually would get back into home video game systems while Atari Games would continue to produce arcade games up into the early 2000’s. Atari Games would release several games based on movie and television properties including one based on the 1989 Batman movie.
Cloak and Dagger is a unique and interesting title, providing some great outside the box thinking in both gameplay, design, and even marketing. It goes down as the only game the pre broken up 1984 Atari released solely as a conversion kit. The game also showcases a unique way of attempting to tie-in a video game product into a cross media property without producing an inferior product along the way. It’s a shame Cloak and Dagger was released in the year during so many economic woes for Atari, otherwise it might have found more widespread success in a home release. Although the title today might not be very recognizable outside of hard-core arcade collectors and enthusiasts, it is an entertaining and important piece of Atari’s history.
I have been fascinated with Cloak and Dagger as both a game and as a film since I was a kid and first saw it on VHS in the early 80’s, probably rented originally from our local Erol’s Video Store. I remember playing the game once either at an arcade in Ocean City, MD or possibly a 7-11 store and then never seeing it again. I loved the movie as a 11-year-old kid, on a recent re-watching (at 48 years of age) I can’t say it holds up spectacularly, but it isn’t terrible. In the arcade collector community, the game is well regarded and can be expensive and difficult to track down in any variation.
Recently I converted a rather ratty and abused Williams Stargate cabinet to a Cloak and Dagger after successfully tracking down the hard-to-find control panel among other parts and pieces. I used some excellent reproduction side and kick plate artwork from This Old Game, and a reproduction marquee from Escape Pod. The PCB is all original (I now have three sets of PCBs, but only two of the sets are currently working), but the cabinet is wired for JAMMA instead of the original wiring harness. The game would have also originally come with an RF cage and RF filter board, I have three filter boards but no cage, so I decided to make my own PCB shelf in the cabinet and forget about the RF filter. Cloak and Dagger uses a rather unique audio design requiring a separate audio amplifier which can interfere with the monitor if you aren’t careful. One of the advantages to using the original wiring would have been using the original Williams cabinet amplifier that would have eliminated this interference. I was able to work around these issues with a bit of a reworking of the power supply. Cloak and Dagger is a fun and unique game, and I am excited to have it join the arcade. As of posting this blog post it's about 95% finished, and I'll post a You Tube video in a week or two after it is.
P.S. If you wonder what every happened to young actor Henry Thomas, he still acts and has a fantastic part in the criminally underrated film Doctor Sleep that came out a few years ago.