Great Moments in Video Game Licensing History: Alligator People and Planet of the Apes for the Atari 2600
Since early days of their history, video games have been used like any other form of merchandising--as the recipients of licenses for popular characters, movies and TV shows for the sake of making money based on name recognition. It didn't matter how limited the graphics and game play options were in early video games; as long as gamers were willing to associate vague shapes, garbled noises and repetitive tasks with famous characters such as Buck Rogers, Dracula, Popeye and Superman, entertainment companies were willing to add video games to their vast inventories of licensed merchandise.
Yet as with most things in the entertainment industry, some oddities were bound to surface in what would appear to be a straightforward system. Case in point: unreleased games based on The Alligator People (1959) and Planet of the Apes (1968) for the Atari 2600. I can understand why Atari, Intellivision and Coleco were looking for new game content to promote their respective consoles in the early days of home gaming, but using licenses as obscure as Alligator People or in decline as Planet of the Apes to develop games doesn't make much sense even by today's standards. Read on for more details about these strange artifacts from video game history.
How Alligator People and Planet of the Apes wound up on the production list of video game developers during the early 80s is not entirely clear. Both are owned by 20th Century Fox, but the reasons why Fox licensed these particular titles out for video game development have been lost over time.
As a movie, The Alligator People was a ripoff of The Fly and was produced to be shown on a double bill with Fly's first sequel, Return of the Fly. It was produced during the later half of what has since become known as the "Atomic Age" of horror--namely, when horror stories depicted atomic radiation either awakening a prehistoric monster (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) or creating a new kind of monster from a pre-existing animal (Them!) or from people (The Amazing Colossal Man). Atomic Age horror films would provide ample amounts of material for video games from the 90s onward, games such as It Came From the Desert and Zombies Ate My Neighbors; however, the unfinished Alligator People game would have been one of the first video game nods to Atomic Age horror cinema had it been released.
A reproduction box for The Alligator People (photo courtesy of RetroGamesShop).
So what is The Alligator People game about? According to the description provided by AtariAge, "You are lost in the deepest part of the jungle. Six of your friends have fallen under the spell of the Alligator People. They are slowly being transformed into alligators and you are the only one in the world who can save them! ... To stop this transformation, you must inoculate each of them with a special antidote that you gather throughout the swamp. You don't have a lot of time! Not to mention, the alligators are chasing you as you attempt to gather vials of the antidote! The longer you wait, the more antidote you need to reverse the effects of the Alligator People!"
Whether the excitement of the game's description carries over to the game itself depends upon how you feel about retro gaming. While the idea of fighting off horribly malformed human-alligator hybrids sounds like a great idea for a horror survival game, the Atari 2600 Alligator People game has players controlling what looks like a giant hypodermic needle to find doses of antidote and shoot attacking alligators. The game's difficulty can be adjusted to add a constantly shifting maze that hinders the players' movements. Click here to read a profile of Alligator People on the AtariProtos site, and you can see an example of game play in the video window below.
For its time, Planet of the Apes was the premiere sci-fi franchise; Star Trek was still building its fan base during the 70s and Star Wars wouldn't appear until 1977. Even though Apes has appeared in movies, novels, comic books, Saturday morning cartoons and toy lines, this franchise never had much success in the area of video game entertainment. The first official Apes game was released in 2001 as a tie-in to the Tim Burton remake; however, if 20th Century Fox hadn't closed its video game unit, the first Apes game would have appeared either in 1983 or 1984 for the Atari 2600. (Then again, it also didn't help that the Apes franchise was largely dormant during the 80s and 90s, the decades where video gaming began to catch on as a viable market for home entertainment.)
A fan-created depiction of an Atari 2600 Planet of the Apes video game box.
In the Planet of the Apes game, players guide an astronaut who is stranded on the titular planet through different locations until they reach the final screen, the remains of the Statue of Liberty. Three types of apes are in the game--Chimpanzees, Orangutans and Gorillas--and they can shoot at, capture and kill the astronaut. Since this game was programmed for the Atari 2600, each location in the game consists of multiple screens and players have to figure out how the screens for each location connect to each other in order to make it to the final screen. Click here to read about the game on the Planet of the Apes Wikia site, and you can see an example of game play in the video window below.
Given how pop culture shamelessly mines older media brands for the sake of making money from nostalgia, producing games based on The Alligator People and Planet of the Apes for today's market would barely raise an eyebrow. Yet to know that these titles were under development as far back as the early 80s, the fledgling years of home gaming, provides us with a glimpse as to how developers were experimenting with using films from previous decades to create fresh content for what was then a new kind of home entertainment.