Cloak & Dagger in 1984 starred Henry Thomas as eleven year-old Davey Osborne and Dabney Coleman as “Agent X”, his imaginary secret agent friend (who also looks like his in-movie dad), as they get caught up in a spy caper involving secret plans being smuggled inside video game cartridges.
In this case, plans for a new stealth plane hidden inside a chip within a Cloak & Dagger cartridge for the Atari 5200. It was a film filled with the Cold War’s favorite ingredients — spies and secret plans. And that Atari got a lot of publicity from it wasn’t a bad thing, either, especially in ’83 on the eve of the Video Game Crash in the West.
But it never came out for the Atari 5200. Those were just cartridges with a Cloak & Dagger label with mock up boxes. The game didn’t even start out as Cloak & Dagger. But when it came out in arcades in 1983, it was a great piece of PR for the film that would arrive roughly a year later.
According to this archived email over at Atari fansite, Atari Headquarters, from Dave Comstock (original programmer on Cloak & Dagger home version), the game started out as Agent X under Rusty Dawe. The game cartridge that was supposed to show up in the movie was Donkey Kong, but when someone at the studio heard that Agent X over at Atari was going to be about spies and action, legal eagles descended to strike a deal that would rename the game for its arcade debut as well as spawn a console version for the 5200.
The gameplay remained the same — just the name was changed — in repurposing the game for the film. The screens showing the game in the movie were actually from the arcade version piped into the television being watched by the actors with Rusty Dawe himself playing the game off screen in a bit of movie magic.
The game was a twin-stick shooter like Robotron 2084 — one stick controlled movement, the other controlled shooting. Players would become Agent X dueling against the nefarious Dr. Boom by following him into an underground bomb factory to stop his evil plans. Players could opt to start at the top or as far as floor 9 and go from there, collecting fuses, mine blueprints, and avoiding robots, crushing machines, all the while rushing to the exit on the other side of the screen before the giant bomb in the center goes off — or if they lose all of their lives.
Players can actually shoot the robots (and they’ll shoot back), but points were awarded by picking up unexploded bombs, secret plans showing the way through minefields in later levels, and other bonus items floating along conveyor belts in the bomb factory which also acted as creative obstacles. Of course, there are also bombs on the belts and touching any of them was just a bad thing to do. Conversely, players could also prematurely light the fuse of the huge bomb in the center of the level.
Cloak & Dagger also had an actual ending — if player survived getting to the bottommost level (level 33), they’d confront Dr. Boom (who died with one shot) and have to shoot the defenses around the Top Secret Plans to get them. And then they’d have to fight their way back up (not through every floor, though) to escape back to the surface.
One of the cool things about the game were its early version of the inter-level cutscene. Depending on how well you did, he had a variety of reactions while waiting to get to the next floor whether it was yawning, checking his watch, flipping a coin, or giving the player a thumb’s up. If the bomb lit up in the level you were in and you escaped, the door seam would bubble with fire as you descended to the next level.
The cave levels also had an interesting bit of destructibility allowing players to shoot through rock walls and tunnel their way to caches of explosives and point bonuses. Enemies, like weird giant eyes with deflecting eye beams, and electric sprites floating about, made things even more interesting deeper in. Cloak & Dagger mixed together an interesting variety of gameplay challenges with its levels.
That it never made it back to a console is something of a sad note to the story. As Dave Comstock tells it in his email, a prototype of the game was nearly completed, but because of the events of 1983 and 1984 thanks to the crashing video game console market in North America and Atari’s eventual sale, a lot of projects were scrapped including Cloak & Dagger. When that side of the business was sold to Commodore’s Jack Tramiel who wanted to focus more on Atari’s computer aspirations, the console game side of the businesses didn’t survive the layoffs that followed. Some of those prototypes probably ended up in that landfill in New Mexico alongside E.T..
To add more sad to this story, Cloak & Dagger never came over to a console or even an Atari collection. It’s not the greatest arcade game ever made, but it’s probably safe to say that its terrible timing alongside the crash didn’t help. It mixed things up with colorful levels and challenges, had an early form of cutscene magic, and even an ending making it a self-contained adventure defying the usual endless enemy waves and levels other arcade games delivered. Unfortunately, in the arcades it stayed and it was where it quietly slipped back into the shadows of history like another Cold War relic.