In my last book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, I think I claimed that the first film to commercial videogame adaptation was Death Race 2000, a 1976 arcade game based (loosely) on the 1975 cult film Death Race, in which drivers in a dystopic America circa the then-future millennium score points for people killed. The arcade game was not an officially licensed adaptation, but it was an adaptation nonetheless. It was also reviled in the media as the first example of a controversial videogame.
But In our research for a new book about the Atari VCS, Nick Montfort and I discovered that Death Race is in fact not the first film adaptation in games. That honour goes to none other than Shark Jaws, by Atari. According to our sources, Nolan Bushnell tried to licence Jaws for use in a videogame, but failed. Eager to take advantage of the shark fear hype after the release of Steven Spielberg's popular film, Atari decided to make the game anyway. As the flyer reads, "now you and your locations can cash in on the popularity, interest and profits associated with sharks".
The game is pretty simple. The player controls a diver trying to catch a fish while avoiding a shark. Graphics are raster, and black and white.
Like Death Race, this too was an unofficial game, and in that sense it's not quite right to use the word "license" - and Atari cleverly played up the illegitimate Jaws affiliation by making "JAWS" appear in huge letters on the cabinet, with "shark" in much smaller type beside it. In fact, Atari was so concerned about possible recourse that Bushnell created a whole other company, dubbed Horror Games, to market and sell the game. Ever the clever trickster, that Bushnell. And how times have changed.
Shark Jaws [Arcade Flyers]