“We’ll always have Iceland, Indy”: Indiana Jones and His Adventures in Video Games

Excavating Indiana Jones
Essays on the Films and Franchise
, edited by Randy Laist, published by McFarland Books, 2020

Founded by George Lucas in 1971, Lucasfilm is the production company famously behind the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movie franchises. Through the successes of Lucasfilm, a wider industrial remit was established. In 1975, Lucas created Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to specialise in ground-breaking digital visual effects; in wanting to move beyond the technological limitations he had while making Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), Lucas went on to form the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979 (Smith 11). Given that, by 1981 the “once-paltry home videogame market had grown to a respectable $1.2 billion” (Montfort 122), Lucasfilm Games was created to be a natural fit within the Computer Division (Smith 12). Founded in 1982, Lucasfilm Games was renamed to LucasArts in 1990; for the purposes of clarity, this essay shall refer to this group as LucasArts throughout. 

Compared to the attention, contracts, and plaudits that ILM were gaining in Hollywood, LucasArts was created with a modest remit as “George was not convinced; he thought it might be a distraction” (Rubin 297). According to LucasArts designer David Fox, “Lucasfilm Games was actually set up so that the parent company could avoid the massive tax penalties it incurred due to the vast amount of revenue generated by the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises” (Rignall). Lucas’ own perspective is that he was “captivated by the idea of interactive technology as a new and different way to tell stories” (Smith 7), but nevertheless, he still insisted that the newly formed division “be the best, stay small, and don’t lose any money” (Schreier).

In a venture described at the time as “the first of its kind between a videogame and home computer maker like Atari and a movie company” (Rubin 298), Atari, Inc., the dominant videogame publisher of the era, gave Lucasfilm “about $1 million”, with a target to “See what you can make”, provided that they had “first right of refusal on manufacturing and distributing” (Smith 12). Yet, despite being created by the profits of their movies, as LucasArts designer Noah Falstein recalls, “We were actually unable to do games based on Star Wars and Indiana Jones for the first several years of our existence because of pre-existing licensing agreements with other companies”, such as Atari (Batchelor).  

Atari

Released at the same time that LucasArts was created in 1982, the first Indiana Jones game, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was a movie tie-in developed and published by Atari for their home console, the Atari 2600. The game is significant in that Raiders is the first example of a movie licensed video game. Notably, while the Indy films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, Atari was owned by Warner Communications, parent company of Warner Bros. Pictures. The box art is adapted from Richard Amsel’s movie poster; the music is a compressed version of John Williams’ The Raider’s March; and while there are whips, snakes, and a fedora, the game is presented as a top-down puzzle-adventure, requiring exploration and experimentation (unusually, Indy was controlled by the player two stick). Created by Howard Scott Warshaw, Raiders was followed by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, another Steven Spielberg adaptation. However, where Raiders had “nearly nine months of development time” (Seppala), Atari had taken so long to acquire the $22-25 million licence that “by the time the deal was made, Warshaw had just five weeks to get the game finished in time for its release at Christmas in 1982” (Lamble, Atari). Overshadowing Raiders, while also being tied to it, E.T. was unfairly blamed for the collapse of both Atari and the early video game industry.

Following the crash of 1983 where “profits from home console games fall by a staggering 97 per cent” (Lamble, 1983), publisher Mindscape released their first licenced game, Indiana Jones in the Lost Kingdom (1985),for the Commodore 64 home computer. Advertising that “Nobody told Indiana Jones the rules. And no one will tell you”, Lost Kingdom is another abstract adventure-puzzle game, this time featuring snow/sand caves, castles, and alien creatures, all untethered to any movie. Lost Kingdom is noteworthy in that it created the “Indiana Jones Quotient” (IJQ), a scoring system that rewards the player for overcoming challenges in a manner befitting Indy himself.

In 1985, a reformulated Atari Games also released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the arcades. The game features sound bites, levels, and promotional artwork from the actual film, to benefit from being released close to the 1984 movie. Based on this cross-marketing success, Temple of Doom was ported to a number of home platforms, but as Mike French defines the moment, “There were quite a number of adaptations made off the original Atari game. Some were made by Mindscape, some were made by U.S. Gold. [….] All of them are disappointing […] flimsy adaptations” (French, Console Version).

Mindscape followed with Indiana Jones and the Revenge of the Ancients (1987). In stark contrast with Atari’s visually and aurally sophisticated tie-in to Temple of Doom, Mindscape’s game is a pc-based text adventure: the game world is explored purely through onscreen text. More significantly, in foreshadowing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Revenge of the Ancients features the return of Marion Ravenwood, with the plot climaxing at a mystical pyramid in Mexico.

The last of the Atari/Mindscape Indy releases form a bookend in early video game licencing case-studies. In 1984 Atari had split into two separate entities, with Atari Games creating Tengen in 1987 to continue to release their arcade games on home consoles. After Mindscape had released their officially licensed adaptation of Temple of Doom in 1988, Tengen followed with their unlicensed, yet identical, version in 1989. After more unlicensed releases and a series of $100 million lawsuits between Tengen (Atari) and Nintendo, it wasn’t until 1994 when they “jointly announced that they had settled all litigation between them concerning alleged patent and copyright infringements and antitrust violations” (Current).   Founding LucasArts employee David Langston describes the period: “We could watch what Atari was doing with licensed things and say ‘this isn’t good enough’, but we didn’t have to do that work ourselves” (McWhertor)…

The full 5,500 word version of this article is published in Excavating Indiana Jones
Essays on the Films and Franchise
, edited by Randy Laist, published by McFarland Books, 2020.

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