For Over 40 Years, I’ve Wanted to Play That Cool-Looking ‘Killer Shark’ Arcade Game Briefly Seen in ‘Jaws’

image from the 1975 movie
© Universal/Screenshot:
A young man plays the electro-mechanical arcade game Killer Shark in a scene from Jaws

Like a lot of people, I have a “bucket list” of things I’d like to do before I shed this mortal coil. A number of items on this list are probably similar to those other people have, like wanting to travel to certain places.

But also on that list are more offbeat (some might say “weird”) and nostalgic sorts of things that I hope to experience/try at some point.

One of these experiences has been on my to-do list for over 40 years, ever since I watched the broadcast premiere of Jaws on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie in 1979, and it’s a thing that I’ve been reminded of wanting to do each of the many times I have watched Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller since. And that is: to play the Killer Shark arcade game that is briefly shown in the movie.

The game pops up near the end of a scene at the Amity Island beach on the Fourth of July where we see throngs of people heading toward the shore, blissfully unaware that the shark they thought had been killed is actually still out there. It’s a cool set-up scene, and what made it even cooler for me as a kid (and what I still love) is the little beachside arcade. It is here that Spielberg zooms in on the screen of one game a young man is playing: Killer Shark.

For a few seconds, we see this guy aiming the game cabinet’s light-gun at the screen and firing it at a shark that seems to have been created by light projection.

For a long time I had thought Killer Shark was a traditional video game, but it was actually an example of an electromechanical game created by Sega in the early ‘70s (there does appear to be an actual video game off to the side in this scene; I believe the yellow cabinet that some other kids are gathered around is Computer Space, which became the first arcade video game when it was released in 1971. So, a nice bit of early ’70s arcade history just in this one scene!).

The more I’ve read about electromechanical games since learning of their existence, the more fascinating they’ve sounded, almost like hybrid “missing links” between pinball machines and the true video games that would begin to dominate arcades just a few years after Jaws premiered. So, if it turns out that I can’t ever play Killer Shark, I’d love to at least try one of the other games of that sort.

But Killer Shark does look pretty sweet in that scene. Every time the guy hits the shark with his light rifle, the shark looks like it explodes into a cloud of blood and “dies,” before relentlessly coming back toward the screen once again.

Here’s a lucky real-life person playing a bit of Killer Shark in recent years and giving us a nice look at the game, which seems intense:

This little sequence is a clever addition to Jaws. It not only reflects the movie’s theme and shows that Spielberg unsurprisingly had his finger on the pulse of the pop-culture that younger people were into at that time, but it also offers a fun foreshadowing of the film’s climax, when Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), who walks past this guy playing the game as he’s focused on beach protection, finds himself facing down an actual killer shark with an actual rifle, firing away as it closes in and trying to blow it up — except if he loses, he can’t just drop in another coin and try again.

It seems like Killer Shark would have been something tailor-made to appear in Jaws, but it was actually released by Sega in 1972, so it was not specially made for the film, just a nice enhancement to it (I’m not sure if any product placement money or licensing of the game was involved).

On a related note, there was an actual video game that did come out following Jaws, later in 1975, one that again seems like something officially tied in with the movie but which wasn’t.

That was Shark JAWS, released by an outfit called “Horror Games,” which was actually a shell company name created by good old Atari in the hopes of avoiding a lawsuit from Universal, which produced and released Jaws.

image from the cover of a 1975 flyer for the Atari arcade video game "Shark JAWS." It shows a picture of the game cabinet, surrounded by green-and-blue circles, at the top of which is an illustration of a large, black shark, just above the title of the game, "Shark JAWS."

© 1975 Atari, Inc./Image from Internet Archive

Along with not-so-subtly hiding behind the “Horror Games” name (I mean, Atari’s name is clearly listed in the promotional flyer for the game), Atari looks like it also tried to avoid any legal action of using the title “Jaws” by calling the game “Shark JAWS” and still heavily emphasizing the JAWS part, with the “Shark” part in front of it listed in very tiny type.

It would have been easy for anyone happening upon this machine, after seeing that massive “JAWS” plastered on top alongside images of sharks and learning the game’s concept, to assume that it was, in fact, tied in with the blockbuster movie. That’s surely what Atari was hoping for — all the positive association with Jaws and none of the legal hassle.

It seems like that worked; the game appears to have been relatively successful, and I haven’t read of any resulting lawsuits against Atari (Universal’s lawyers may have been too busy focusing on other Jaws-like movies that were popping up and making sure they weren’t too close to the OG shark attack film).

Shark JAWS does look like something I also wouldn’t mind playing one day. It seems pretty simple; you control a SCUBA diver who has to collect fish before being attacked and killed by a shark (the game’s promo flyer hypes that this “1-player underwater video terror” game has “realistic sound effects — diver screams when attacked by shark”).

Things got a little meta when this game that tried to cash in on Jaws‘ success ended up making a movie cameo of its own, and in a film that itself was playing off of Jaws (albeit certainly one of the better “killer-fish movie” ripoffs of that era): Within the first 10 minutes of director Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), one of the movie’s main characters, played by Heather Menzies, is seen intently playing Shark JAWS at an airport.