Even in the simpler early days of video games, the movie tie-in game was a common occurrence. Horror was surprisingly well represented at this time with the late 70’s and early 80’s seeing Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Jaws, and more star in oversimplified fare. The tale of John Carpenter’s Halloween video game debut is a strange one though.
Halloween was released on the Atari 2600 in 1983 by Wizard Video (Yes, the same one behind the VHS release of a host of video nasties), five whole years after Micheal Myers first stalked his way around Haddonfield. The general objective of the game is for the player, cast as a babysitter, to protect the children in their care from The Shape, who has invited himself in for a spot of murder. The screen is split into two and the babysitter can move between screens via doorways (as can Myers).
To score points, you had to find a child and escort them to the other side of the house without The Shape butchering either of you. If he did, you lost one of your Jack-O-Lanterns (basically lives). If you got lucky, then you could get hold of a weapon to fend off The Shape for a short time, though the appearance of retaliation is somewhat ambiguous as Myers just tends to wander off hurriedly like he forgot a previous engagement rather than look injured or stunned. Naturally, things get tougher and tougher as you progress.
It sort of sounds like Halloween, doesn’t it? But already there’s something a bit off. Almost like a license was draped over the top of a pre-existing game.
If there was anything that confuses the situation further then it’s how that license is applied. With the exception of the game’s box art using the iconic movie poster, the game itself never makes reference to any of the characters from that film. That bizarrely includes Micheal himself. The cartridge only had a sticker with ‘Halloween’ written on it in plain text too. The classic John Carpenter theme song does make the cut at least and is a pretty good stab at it given the technical limitations. It’s especially cool how it kicks in anytime The Shape appears on screen, brandishing his knife.
Despite being incredibly tame to look at, Halloween courted plenty of controversy for its subject matter. After all, having a game that sees kids killed off in an age where games had yet to have that watershed moment, where they were seen as more than children’s playthings, was never going to go down well regardless of what you did or didn’t see.
Wizard Video Games had already caused a stir earlier that year with a game based loosely on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where players could go around offing victims as Leatherface. That game’s biggest crime was that it was wholly unpleasant to play beyond any implied grisliness.
Halloween on the Atari 2600 doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny 35 years on. It wasn’t the greatest game to begin with really. To its credit, you can at least say it did convey the panic of being chased by a seemingly unstoppable entity, even if that entity is unrecognizable as one of the most iconic killers in cinema history.