William O’Hara (Gettysburg College)
Collaboration, Communication, Cancellation: Sound and Music Development in Atari’s Film-to-Arcade Adaptations
In the early 1980s, the Atari corporation collaborated with several major studios to create games based on popular franchises, resulting in both commercial successes (like Star Wars, 1983) and infamous failures (E.T. the Extraterrestrial, 1982). Drawing on archival research conducted at the Strong Museum of Play, this paper examines the process of soundtrack development in three Atari arcade titles: Return of the Jedi (1983-84), Gremlins (1984-85), and The Last Starfighter (1984-86). Development documents from each project reveal the challenges of creating blockbuster adaptations, including the need for secrecy and the competing interests of the engineers, marketing executives, and studios.
Sound and music posed a particular challenge, since film scores are often one of the last elements added during production, leaving a tie-in game’s soundtrack full of placeholder assets; sound designers were often shared among projects, or left to speculate about the sounds and dialogue that might appear in the finished movie (as in Gremlins, which went into projection before the movie was filmed). The developers of ROTJ, meanwhile, compiled detailed wish lists of sounds and dialogue samples, drawn from a film that had already been released; the featured speech samples taken from prominent action scenes, but its sound effects were created by Atari. And some adaptations failed: The Last Starfighter was redeveloped as Star Raiders II (1986) after its movie tie-in flopped. Gremlins was cancelled before reaching projection. From these three case studies, we gain insight into the interorganizational collaborations behind multimedia franchises, and the uncertainties that often plagued their development.
Source: Bardic Knowledge