Cloak & Dagger for ATARI 5200 – The real history behind this cartridge

You’re reading an article located at Kinox – The Emu Scene Dump, one of the most reliable sources for news about the scene (pay us a visit, you won’t regret!). This is a small article that explains the real story behind Cloak & Dagger for Atari 5200. All rights reserved to Alex Rosenberg, its author.

Many die-hard collectors and 5200 fans are aware that a Cloak and Dagger (and, for that matter, Tempest) cartridge as shown in the movie of the same name is sort of a tantalizing preview of the game. What nobody knew, however, was whether Cloak and Dagger existed as a prototype, or if the game code even existed in any form. Alex Rosenberg gave us the definitive answer after an “interview” with Dave Comstock, from ATARI

“Yes, I can answer your question about the Atari 5200 version of Cloak & Dagger.

When Warner Communications sold the consumer side of Atari to Jack Tramiel (who founded Commodore) in mid-1984, I was working on the Atari 400/800/1200 version of Cloak & Dagger. Since the Atari 5200 was basically just an Atari 400 with a different controller, when I completed the home computer version, I was supposed to modify the game to use the “360-degree” 5200 controllers (as opposed to the 9-position home computer joystick).

By the way here’s a little known fact about Cloak & Dagger: someone at Atari actually explored doing an Atari 2600 version of Cloak & Dagger, but very quickly decided that it couldn’t be done, even with major simplifications…

If you’ve ever seen the Cloak & Dagger movie, you’ll know that the cartridge shown in the movie was a 5200 cartridge. Actually, the 5200 cartridges didn’t even exist: it was a 5200 cartridge of another game with a “Cloak & Dagger” label slapped on it. Also, in the game store scenes, there were Atari 5200 Cloak & Dagger boxes shown. Those were also just mockups made for the movie.

But wait a second! Wasn’t the Atari 5200 Cloak & Dagger game actually PLAYED in the movie (and didn’t it look damn good)? Hollywood movie magic! They took the output of the coin-operated game, converted the signal, and piped it to a TV set. So if you thought it looked a lot like the coin-op game, you were right. Another interesting fact: Henry Thomas wasn’t really playing the game; instead, Atari sent down the game’s software developer, Rusty Dawe, to play the coin-op game for the movie! So they showed Henry Thomas furiously working the 5200 controllers, cut to the television showing Rusty’s progress in the game (sometimes even with Henry’s reflection on the screen), and back again. Rusty — er, make that Russell B. Dawe — got his own full- screen credit at the end of the movie for the game design.

Although the rest of the game shown in the movie was taken from the real coin-op game, the spectacular 3D “secret plans” finale of the game was pure Holywood animation: the real game ends somewhat anti-climactically with one of several static, crudely-drawn blueprints. I don’t recall whether Rusty ran short of ROM space or time, but the secret plans weren’t up to the quality of the rest of the game, much less the movie game’s ending.

Oh, and another piece of trivia: the original name of the Cloak & Dagger coin-operated game was actually…Agent X (hence the name of the protagonist in the game and the off-hand comment by Dabney Coleman in the movie that he “used to be known as Agent X”). The game had been under development at Atari as “Agent X” for quite a while, and was nearly completed. The movie studio (can’t remember which one off-hand, but I have the Laserdisc) had the movie under development as Cloak & Dagger. The game cartridge that was in the original screenplay was…Donkey Kong (at the time, the most popular home videogame)! Someone at either the movie studio or Atari found out about the other, “the secret agent recovers secret plans from bad guys” plots sounded like they were made for each other, the deal was signed, and the Agent X game was renamed Cloak & Dagger.

Anyway, back to the layoff. My half of Atari (the half that just released the Jaguar videogame system; it’s still known as “Atari, Inc.”) got sold, and they laid off almost all the game developers who didn’t have experience writing operating systems, myself included. When the layoffs happened, I was close to halfway done with the game. The basic structure of all the levels was done (conveyor belts, boxes, bubbling acid pits, box manufacturers, minefields) and you could move Agent X around, pick up boxes, and die from touching red boxes, being crushed by the box manufacturing thingies (what the hell was they called?), stepping in an acid pit, or touching a landmine (although the death animation wasn’t in yet, so you just turned pitch black).

But none of the enemies was done, you couldn’t shoot yet (although, without enemies, you would only be able to shoot the boxes anyway), and the bomb in the centre didn’t explode (the animation of the bomb exploding in the coin-op game is fast, but it’s actually pretty crude). No elevator scenes yet, either, although since the cartridge was supposed to be the first Atari home computer cartridge to reach a whopping 32K (all previous cartridges had been 16K or less!), there was enough room for many — if not all — of the elevator animations. (If you look closely, you’ll notice that very little of Agent X actually moves in the elevator scenes: an arm, a facial expression, smoke, an arm and a yo-yo, etc.)

In 1983, at one of Atari’s periodic auctions of prototype and no longer needed coin-operated machines (including games like DigDug and Berzerk whose translations to Atari home computers and/or videogame systems had already been completed), I bought one of the original 25 (I believe) Agent X machines. These prototypes, which had been sent to arcades for test marketing, had stereo sound (Atari went with mono sound for the final hardware) and the pre-Cloak & Dagger faceplates. The ROMs were upgraded to reflect the name change, however, so, on the inside, my machine is a real Cloak & Dagger!

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the history and stories. I’d always wanted to finish the home computer version of Cloak & Dagger, but over the years, my free time has almost completed vanished. The Atari 5200 version of Cloak & Dagger, as well as versions of many other classic Atari games — Crystal Castles (which was nearly finished when the layoff happened), Major Havoc (one of my favourite coin-op games, but the home computer conversion was barely started at the time of the layoffs), and Jr. Pac-Man (completed, but not released), to name just a few — were all casualties of the sale of Atari’s consumer business to Tramiel and the resulting layoffs. Everyone who was left immediately switched from developing games (new as well as conversions of coin-operated games) to working on the operating system for the Atari 520ST and 1040ST.

Sorry to dash your hopes about the Atari 5200 Cloak & Dagger…