In 1984 a movie called The Last Starfigter (from now called TLSF) was released. It was a Sci-fi adventure movie. It was the first movie ever to be made were all the special effects (except explosions and make up) were made on a computer. The computer was a Cray X-MP. This and the fact that space movies were very popular at this time had everyone expecting this movie to be a big blockbuster like Star Wars. This is why Atari bought the rights to make a game based on it. It was going to be released both on home consoles and as an arcade version. The arcade was never finished.
Like I said in the intro it was Atari that bought the rights for TLSF. The production of the game was started in Atari`s arcade division. The original project team was made up of Chris J. Horseman (Project leader), Jim Morris (Project engineer (software)), Jack Ritter (2nd project engineer (software)) and Barry Whitebook (Animation). Ted Michon and Mike Albaugh came onboard on this project later in the development. Prior arcade games to use 3D were only vector games. Atari had for several years worked on a general purpose 3D arcade system, but it was always “a few years away” every time they wanted to use it. An arcade game called I Robot was actually released in 1983, and this game had solid 3D but this game was hard coded and was very different from TLSF. This was actually the first game developed by Atari that was programmed with C). This is where Ted Michon comes into the picture. Ted worked as a consultant for Atari and developed a super high bit mapped system with a polygon fill engine. Atari decided to use this to on the TLSF arcade. They also had to use the
system`s expansion capabilities to implement a math box that could handle the 3D transformations. The programming of the math box was done by Mike Albaugh.
The programming of the arcade was done mainly by Jim Morris. The additional programming with the cave sequence in the game was done by Jack Ritter. You can see a picture of the cave sequence in the picture below. Jack came onboard from Cinematronics.
Jim wrote the game software in C, running on a Motorola 68000 CPU, the first use of this processor at Atari. It was also used several 3d tools that later also were used in other games. TLSF became a pioneer in using the 68 000 CPU. Earlier most games were made with the 6502 CPU. The arcade games Hard Drivin (1988) and Stun Runner (1989) have a very similar graphics with TLSF game, even though other graphic engines were used on these games.
The gameplay in the game was taken right from the gameplay in the movie and scenes from the movie, as was often done with spinoff games. The game was actually very similar to what you see in the movie, at least graphically. The controller on the game was a controller from the Star Wars vector games that Atari made. When Atari choosed to drop the game is was about 75% finished. There was no cabinet for the game, but the game worked and it could be played on a test bench. There were also some simple sound effects for the game.
The reasons behind Atari`s decision to cancel the game so far into production were several. Atari had for some years paid much money to movie companies for the rights to produce games with themes taken from movies. These rights cost Atari a lot of money over a long time. Atari gambled on the movie to become the success that everyone predicted, but this did not happen. The film didn’t fail, but it wasn’t a success either. In the production of the arcade they found out that the machine would have a selling price of $10, 000, and this was a lot of money back in the 80`s. If the movie had been a big success this price could have been defended. The vice president at Atari thought that no one would buy a game for 10 000$. And not long after the project team got the message that the game was cancelled. On the same time Atari was in deep financial problems that were caused by Atari`s consumer division. On the top of all this came the big video game crash. The result was that Atari started to fall and fall, until it was closed in the end. The original arcade division of Atari was shutdown in 2001 when Midway chose to shutdown Midway Games West (Midway had bought Atari Games (Atari`s arcade division) and changed name to Midway West). Prior to this Atari had been sold a couple of times, and the leaders had also been changed more than once. But Atari never became the company it was prior to the crash.
Some ears after Atari cancelled TLSF arcade game, the arcade game Hard Drivin was released. This game sold for the same price that TLSF had (10 000$).
Play the game.
Even though TLSF is long lost you can actually play the game on your own computer. This thanks to the guys behind the page roguesynapse that have made the game available on the PC. Visit their page on http://www.roguesynapse.com/games/last_starfighter.php to download and try the game. If you that want some extra information on the game you can read the original proposition that was rescued from Atari`s archives. Read it on this link:
I wish to thank Jim Morris (www.wolfman.com) and Ted Michon for all information they have
provided me about the game. An extra thanks goes to Jim for providing me with the video from the game.
Written by Håkon Galstad.