Atari didn’t make a special video game just for Superman III

THE URBAN LEGEND OF THE FILM: Atari created a special video game just to be used in a sequence in Superman 3.

One of the weirdest examples of a big-budget superhero movie was Superman 3, who decided to mix a Richard Pryor comedy with, well, you know, a Superman movie. Pryor played Gus, a computer whiz who used a computer program to embezzle money from the company he worked for. When his boss, Ross Webster, found out what he was doing, instead of firing him or having him arrested, he instead blackmailed him into using his abilities to make big bucks. He first has Gus force a weather satellite to create a tornado to destroy the Colombian coffee crop so Webster can corner the market. When Superman foiled this plot, Webster had Gus create artificial kryptonite to use against the Man of Steel.

This temporarily renders Superman evil, though the hero eventually resolves the situation. In the meantime, Webster has built a supercomputer for Gus to use. Webster, his girlfriend, along with his sister, Vera, go to the base where the supercomputer is located with Gus. Superman, of course, hunts them down. This leads to a classic sequence.

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The base with the supercomputer has defense systems, and so Webster accesses a display monitor that will allow him to fire the missiles after Superman who, of course, flies towards them to stop their dastardly deeds. As he targets the missiles, the whole thing is depicted as if it were a video game. It’s a classic sequence…

At the time, Warner Bros. owned the famous video game company, Atari, and Warner was making a big deal out of owning Atari at the time (before Atari sort of took a dive), so a long-running rumor is that Atari created a special video game for this sequence.

Atari was actually working on a Superman 3 video game that never came out…

But did he really create a mini video game for this scene, as some people on the internet might say, like on an online quiz, “The video game ‘played’ by Ross Webster with missiles and Superman was an actual game being developed by Atari in conjunction with the movie. It never came to fruition.” Is it true?

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The answer is tricky, and that’s certainly what the legend was created for.

Steve Wright was director of software development at Atari. He asked Atari to create a video game simulator. herefrom its own website, this is how it was described:

One of the reasons Steve started the Special Projects department was an idea he had for a new game development technology – a game simulator. Programming a new video game was a painstaking job of 9-12 months, then once it’s finally finished and the game has been focus group tested, it may not be a winner. It was a huge waste of time and very expensive resources. By then game programmers had become rock stars and the pay had skyrocketed. Steve’s idea was to develop a rapid prototyping game system where a new game could be developed in weeks, tested and, if found worthy, then and only then assigned to a programmer. Huge concept, but difficult to do with the computers of the time. The Stella graphics chip could push pixels at an incredible rate (for the day) and getting general-purpose machines to replicate that graphics power was a daunting task. Also, coding game logic in 6502 assembler was extremely slow, so a high-level language was needed to make programming game logic much faster. The answer was to take an artificial intelligence computer, the Symbolic Lisp machineand associate it with a Ikonas raster buffer. Steve hired Paul Hughett, an aerospace computer design engineer to lead the project, who chose Lisp as the game logic language because it was an object-oriented language – perfect for game logic. Lisp only worked on Symbolics Lisp’s native computer, so this machine became the replacement for the 6502 processor. The Ikonas frame buffer was, at the time, the biggest and worst graphics processing engine (literally the size of ‘a refrigerator) so he played the role of the Stella graphics chip. Getting the two totally different machines to talk to each other and respond to an Atari joystick took a good chunk of a year. But once complete, a fully playable game could be prototyped in just a few weeks. Atari was now the proud owner of a $200,000 one ton Atari 2600. However, just when he was about to be launched into game development, Hollywood called him.

Well, as hinted at at the end of this article, Hollywood called for help soon after…

Time Warner owned Atari as well as the Warner Brothers movie. In 1982, Warner Brothers was in production on Superman 3 (Christopher Reeve, Richard Prior and Margot Kidder) and director, Richard Lester, wanted a climactic sequence where the evil villain (Robert Vaughn) fired missiles at Superman from a super-intelligent computer, with the entire sequence shown on the computer screen as if it were a video game. Keep in mind that video games were reaching their peak around this time. The late Steve Ross, the CEO of Time Warner, sent a letter to Ray Kassar, the CEO of Atari (the darling of the whole Time Warner empire at the time) asking him Atari could produce the video game images and Ray Kassar delivered the letter to Steve. Realizing that the video game rapid prototyping system being developed in his special projects department was the perfect system for the job, Steve said, “Sure. All I need is a 35mm film recorder”. Suffice it to say that within weeks Special Projects was the proud owner of a new Matrix film recorder with a top mounted 35mm Acme animation camera. Now the rapid prototyping game system consisted of a Symbolic Lisp machine connected to an Ikonas frame pad. connected to a Matrix film recorder connected to an Acme 35mm animation camera. Shooting infographics for filming is commonplace today, but in 1982 it was a very daring concept. The only person Steve could find capable of setting up and calibrating a 35mm film recorder was a young computer animation whiz named Carl Rosendahl who had just started his own computer animation studio named PDI in Sunnyvale. So Steve hired Carl to set up and calibrate his new computer animated film recording system. The system was built and the task set, so Steve and the simulator development team began developing the video game animation for the Superman III movie. There was a trip to Pinewood Studios near London to meet director Richard Lester as well as a chance meeting with Margot Kidder at stewardship. Because the game simulator had just been completed, the animation sequences were produced and filmed fairly quickly. The footage was even shown at the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater in 1983.

Therefore, the answer is really no, because their intention was not to create a game, but rather an animation that looked like a video game. And it wasn’t related to the Superman III video game they were working on.

So why the Superman 3 the video game is not coming out? By Matt Reichert excellent site of Atari prototypes“It was determined that after playtesting by focus groups, the game was not a strong enough candidate for release (i.e. good, but not good enough). Unsurprisingly, newsgroups cited difficult controls as their main complaint.Although a prototype 5200 box has been found, there is no evidence to suggest that Superman III was ever intended for the 5200. In fact, the box number piece (CX-5222) was actually assigned to Jungle Hunt. This may be due to miscommunication with the art department.”

The legend is…


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