I grew up on videogames and comic books in the ’70s and ’80s. As a huge fan of superheroes in my childhood, one of my favorites was — and still is — Captain Marvel. That’s the original Captain Marvel from the 1940s, sometimes erroneously referred to as Shazam, but that’s a whole legal entanglement that we won’t get into here. Anyway, as a kid, I was excited when videogames starring superheroes started coming out — Atari’s Superman and Parker Brothers’ Spider-Man, both for the 2600 VCS, were the earliest examples (as you may know, Parker Brothers also had a Hulk game in the works for the 2600, which went unreleased). But it wasn’t until the NES era that more and more comic book-based games started coming out, and now they’re everywhere.
So imagine my surprise, when scouring the deep web for verboten videogame rarities one late night, when I stumbled across the story of Shazam! for the 2600. It seems that Atari, which was owned by Warner Bros. at the time (who also owns DC Comics), wanted to continue their line of DC Comics-themed videogames that they started with Superman. With Wonder Woman and Shazam! both having had their own popular television shows right about then (this is the mid-to-late ’70s), plans were already in motion to churn out more games to capitalize on that theme. The Shazam! game was actually finished and starting production, but was pulled at the 11th hour before any copies were shipped to stores.
The game was a mulit-screen adventure, where the player starts off as Billy Batson and must speak the name of the wizard Shazam to transform into Captain Marvel, and stop his nemesis Dr. Sivana from blowing up WHIZ radio station by collecting the other members of the Marvel Family, Captain Marvel Junior and Mary Marvel, so they can team up against him and carry him to jail. If Cap is hit by Sivana’s laser beams, he must find Mr. Talky Tawny, his anthropomorphic tiger friend, to regain his abilities. Apparently, Ray Kassar, president of Atari at the time, felt the game was too similar to Superman. The parts were recycled into other cartridges and the labels and packages were destroyed.
However, as one would expect, the loosey-goosey security at Atari allowed a few copies to sneak home with some programmers who wanted to keep the Shazam! game for themselves (not an uncommon situation, given how many prototypes have surfaced from those days), and it was one of these copies that showed up on the underground videogame auction site vBay (which, I would hope, any hardcore game collector would be familiar with, even though we’re not supposed to talk about it). Since Captain Marvel was not a hugely popular character in videogames (let’s face it, he’s only been in two games ever: Mortal Kombat vs DC and Injustice), competition was not that fierce and I managed to snag this piece of lost videogame history for just over a grand.
Unfortunately, the connector pins on the PCB are very corroded, and this copy of Shazam! doesn’t work, so I couldn’t give you a first-hand look at the gameplay itself, and no ROM dumps exist either, so I guess we’ll just have to go by the oral history of the game. A working copy would definitely be my holy grail of game collecting!
Oh, also: April Fools.