Octopussy: the James Bond videogame that never was

James Bond should have made his videogame debut with an Octopussy tie-in, but then it mysteriously disappeared...

The year 1983 saw James Bond seemingly at war with himself. First came Octopussy, which saw Roger Moore embark on a new adventure involving a travelling circus, a Faberge egg and a villain wielding a deadly yoyo. Meanwhile, Sean Connery returned to the role in Never Say Never Again, an independent Bond film featuring Blofeld and his terrorist organisation, SPECTRE.

Neither film would be remembered as the high watermark in Bond’s long career, but Octopussy ultimately emerged as the victor, with a box office take of $183.7m versus (the more expensive) Never Say Never Agains $160m.

Octopussy should, in fact, have marked James Bond’s first foray into a new medium: videogames. Announced by Parker Brothers in 1982, Octopussy would have been 007’s first tie-in, with plans to release it on some of the biggest systems of the time, including the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision II.

Then it simply vanished.

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In the early ’80s, Parker had made the jump from the board game market to videogames, and rapidly became a major player through its acquisition of arcade game licenses like Frogger and Q*Bert, as well as such enormous properties as Star Wars and Spider-Man.

brochure published in the early part of 1983 shows just how much clout Parker had at the time; showcasing the range games it had on the horizon, it introduced no fewer than four games based on Star Wars. As well as the shooterEmpire Strikes Back, there’s lightsaber-based competitive game Star Wars: Jedi Arena, Return Of The Jedi: Death Star Battle, and Return Of The Jedi: Ewok Adventure.

Tucked away towards the back of the brochure is an entry devoted to something called James Bond 007 As Seen In Octopussy. “Take the train ride of your life with Agent 007 in this fast-moving action video adventure,” a marketing blurb reads. “A deadly knife-thrower and some trigger happy gunmen are on your heels as you battle across the top of a speeding train. Think fast – and act even faster – as you try to avoid their attacks without being knocked off the train.” 

A single screenshot gives an idea of what the game should have looked like: a blocky re-enactment of one of Octopussy‘s most memorable action sequences. It looks and sounds remarkably like a game released by Japanese studio Hudson that very same year; Stop The Express, programmed for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, saw a spiky-haired hero run along the top of a train, avoiding bad guys and ducking to avoid the obstacles roaring overhead.

Parker was clearly prepared to give the game a big marketing push. Full-page adverts appeared in comics and magazines in 1983, including issue 74 of the American sci-fi publication, Starlog. One, full of tongue-in-cheek “quotes” from bogus movie critics like “Vincent Can’tbe”, promised knife throwers, lasers, karate kicks and the touted the inclusion of a warbling, 8-bit rendition of the James Bond theme tune. 

Parker’s brochure pegged Octopussy‘s release inthe summer of 1983 – coinciding, logically enough, with the film itself – and, according to the website Atari Protos, the Octopussy tie-in was even shown off at “various game shows.” (One user on Atari Age’s forums even claims to have played Octopussy at the Electronic Fun Expo in 1983.)  

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So if such a lucrative game was all primed for launch, with all that expensive advertising to boot, what on earth happened to it?

Weirdly, a Bond game did emerge from Parker Bros in 1983 – just not the one billed in its brochure or magazine adverts. James Bond 007 is essentially a run-of-the-mill, side-scrolling shooter which takes its inspiration from several Bond movies – Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, The Spy Who Loved Me– but not, it should be noted, Octopussy. The train-surfing action of the Octopussy tie-in was nowhere to be seen.

One of the people who worked on James Bond 007 was Joe Gaucher. Gaucher was its lead programmer and designer at a company called On Time Software, and he provides a rare insight into what went on behind the scenes. According to his account, Parker had originally approached a Florida-based studio called Western Technologies to create the Octopussy game, but they “never finished it.” And that, Gaucher says, is “why Parker Bros came to my company [On Time Software].”

As a result, it was James Bond 007 which became the first ever videogame based on the franchise, and not Octopussy. Looking again at the original box-art for the game which did emerge, it’s easy to see that it’s been modified from the earlier prototype art for the unreleased Octopussy

Octopussy wasn’t the only unreleased Bond game from Parker, either. Game designer Charlie Heath had, according to this forum post, worked at Parker between June and October 1983. During his brief tenure, he’d worked on another Bond prototype based on Moonraker. Programmed for the Atari 2600, it took its inspiration from the film’s climax, where Bond’s trying to shoot down disease-carrying pods before they enter the Earth’s atmosphere:

“…you’re in space orbiting earth in the space shuttle, chasing bio-terrorist pods to shoot them down before they break up in the atmosphere, while your shuttle and the pod are being buffeted about by re-entry,” says Heath. “You see something that looks a bit like a spinning earth bobbing about at the bottom of the screen.”

Unfortunately, Heath’s prototype didn’t pass muster with his employees at Parker. Instead, they wanted “…something that was more along the lines of Pitfall – [a] little guy running around with various spy gadgets.”

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That Pitfall-type action game sounds remarkably like the aborted Octopussy project. Ironically, what ultimately materialised as the first ever Bond game was, once again, a shooting game.

James Bond 007 was released at a time when the Atari 2600 was bombarded with a slew of games from third-party publishers – some good, many bad. The sheer number of games released around 1983 contributed to what proved to be the American videogame industry’s boom-and-bust year.

When the bubble burst, leaving Atari’s stock tumbling, several of Parker’s titles never made it to launch – the company’s1983 brochure contains several unreleased games, among them a fantasy adventure based on Lord Of The Rings (called Journey To Rivendell) and a game based on The Incredible Hulk. Within two years, Parker had been merged with toy manufacturer Kenner.

In the case of the Lord Of The Rings game, some of these missing games have resurfaced years later. But despite the reports that the Octopussy game was in a finished enough state to be played, the code hasn’t yet surfaced. Heath states that his early Moonraker prototype remained with Parker when he left; “It might be buried on a backup tape somewhere at Parker Brothers,” he says, “but more likely the tape was reused for cereal inventory or something like that.”

Similarly, the elusive Octopussy may be recovered from a dusty archive somewhere, but for now, it remains a tantalising footnote from one of the games industry’s most turbulent years.

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