In the early 1980s, Atari was owned by Warner Brothers, the same company responsible for classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. At the same time, other cartoon characters were getting into video games, most noteably Popeye and the Smurfs. Therefore it was only logical the famous Looney Toons would take the plunge, with Atari guiding them on the way. Sure enough, starting in 1983, Atari made good on plans to create several games featuring popular cartoon characters, not just from Warner Brothers but from many different studios. The Tazmanian Devil became the first Warner toon to get his own game, Taz for the Atari 2600. Bugs Bunny would have been next, but his game was cancelled in favor of one featuring Snoopy and the Red Baron. In Bugs's place, the Road Runner became the second Warner character, though his path to video game stardom didn't go quite as originally planned.
Road Runner was first conceived as another Atari 2600 title. The game's programmer, Bob Polaro, also happened to be responsible for the unpublished Bugs Bunny game. The industry crash and the end of Atari Incorporated lead to Road Runner getting shelved as well, and also lead to Polaro's dismissal. That could have been the end of the game, but then in 1986, newly minted Atari Games released an arcade game starring the Road Runner. While Polaro did not work for Atari Games and was not listed in Road Runner's credits, the arcade game did bear a strong resemblance to Polaro's original work. This was proven when a 1984 prototype cartridge was discovered, containing Polaro's unfinished Atari 2600 game.
To be sure, arcade Road Runner does have a lot of features not in Polaro's prototype, including pretty much everything introduced after the first level. And of course, success goes a long way in settling such arguments. The Atari Games arcade game was indeed successful, enough to earn ports to the Nintendo Entertainment System and several home computers. Afterward, the game came full circle: Bob Polaro was contracted by Atari Corporation to complete his unfinished Atari 2600 work. In 1989, Road Runner finally became playable on its originally intended system. One could still argue whether it was the same Road Runner that Atari Games published, and in fact Atari Games was not credited in the Atari 2600 game's packaging. Nonetheless, the finished 2600 game was closer to the arcade game than the 1984 prototype.
Ironically, neither Atari Games nor Atari Corp. were affiliated with Warner Brothers the way Atari Inc. had been, and yet both companies became involved in bringing Warner's cartoons into the world of video games. Wile E. Coyote should take note: Not even an industry crash and a company shuffle can stop the Road Runner!