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Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

Atari 5200 Guy


Out of all the video games Atari produced it seems that Pac-Man for the 2600 has been blamed, almost entirely, for the start of the video game crash that happened during the early 1980's. It is also marked as one of the worst games made in video gaming history. By now most Atari 2600 owners, new and vets, know what this game is like so there really is no need to dig into how the game play actually is. But hopefully this little blog post will put the game in a different perspective to where the game is not entirely to blame. Yes, for a short while this game will get a bit of the spotlight. At least I'm going to try.


As most Atari.IO members here might remember from one of my posts, I received three brand new, unopened, 2600 games for Christmas in 2015. One of those games was an original Asteroids. I opened it up because it felt really heavy and I knew the cartridge and instructions were not that heavy to begin with. Inside was an Atari catalog which was a nice surprise as I love that classic reading material. It gives an idea of what it was like to own the 2600 and what Atari was up to in supporting it. I flip through it and after a couple of pages I landed on Pac-Man. A full two pages! I begin to read it. Almost immediately you can tell that Atari knew this game was not what it should be, let alone who ever wrote the article obviously didn't know how the game was played and what all went on.


Allow me to share the article with you. The catalog was released in 1981 and Pac-Man is stated to be released March 1982. Without further ado..


"Adopted from one of the most popular video arcade games ever created, Atari's Pac-Man*, which differs slightly from the original, is sure to be a hit in your home."


OK. Do you get the feeling here that Atari knew they didn't get this one right from the start? I will admit that they printed a similar thing about Defender in that same catalog and my new copy of Asteroids came with an insert that pretty much said the same thing...but those games were received well by 2600 owners that I am aware of. Carrying on...


"In this engaging game, you guide the PAC-MAN around a maze to gobble up dots for points, while dodging ghosts. In the four corners of the maze are special tablets. When PAC-MAN eats one, he changes color and can then eat the ghosts. But he has to hurry and catch the ghosts before he changes color again, or they'll eat him."


Did you notice a couple of things here? Atari, or someone at Atari, didn't know Pac-Man very well. The writer of this article first treats PAC-MAN like a thing with "the PAC-MAN...". I will admit that the arcade PAC-MAN had just came out in the arcades but was already well known as just PAC-MAN. That's it. The writer also must not have played the game before because PAC-MAN is not the one that changes color from eating a power pellet, or as they called them, special tablets. The ghosts are. After reading that article there should have been warning signs that Atari didn't not know what they were doing with this game. Now let's plug the cart in and see what we get.


Immediately noticeable is the blue maze on a black background from the arcades is missing. What we have on the 2600 is an orange maze on a blue background. PAC-MAN in the game has an eye, and the ghosts, while there is four of them, flicker badly and appear to be similar in color. And missing are the fruits that our lovable character normally gets in the arcade, in its place is a square thing Atari called a "Vitamin".


So...is Atari 2600's Pac-Man really to blame for the starts of the crash? I don't think it is so much the game is to blame I believe it was related more to the hype of Pac-Man being released for the 2600 only to be let down by expectations the public had. I mean up until that point the 2600 did do a decent job at some of the popular arcade games. Asteroids wasn't spot on but that was to be expected. The difference in monitor types meant something else had to be done. Space Invaders, I thought, was really well and is one of my favorite 2600 titles. Defender might not have been exact but what was pulled off is good. Missile Command was good, too. The 2600, and its developers, tried.


Pac-Man on the 2600, while it doesn't look or sound anything like the arcade, is fun in its own way. Maybe this game should have been given a different name. As well Atari should have had more than one developer on porting Pac-Man to the 2600 and picking the better port for a release. In some respects, the 2600's Pac-Man is OK in my book. I would blame Atari for this one, and the crash, for producing more copies of this game than they should have from the beginning. Only a small batch should have been made to see how well it did. After that they would have known what to do.


For what it's worth, Pac-Man on the 2600 is not completely bad and it has survived many decades along with other 2600 titles. As well it is also hard to find a small collection of 2600 games that do not have Pac-Man as one of the games. Play it once in a while and see if you can find things to like about it, while playing it, and see if you, too, can find some good out of it. I did.


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For me personally, Pac Man really hurt Atari's reputation.  After Pac Man, I really had to read a review or try a game out first before plunking down the $30.  Losing the trust of  your loyal audience is never a good thing for any company. 

Listen, we all knew the 2600 had limitations...but this game wasn't even close to the original.  Colors, character graphics, bonus fruits....all so terribly wrong. 

You also mention Defender...and that was another nail in the coffin.  The fact that your ship disappears when you fire was just plain wrong.  At that point, most trust was gone. 

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And as you mention, Pac Man isn't a terrible game.  It is fun.  But so frustrating they didn't even try to get the colors and animations correct.  That's all it would have taken to avoid most of the flak they got IMO.

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Sorry for so many comments...but the lesson here is that product quality is really, really important.  And also treating your talent/staff fairly.  Atari hurt themselves with games like Pac Man, and that's why a lot of people that loved the company have a dislike for Pac Man. 

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I have to admit when I seen this PacMan for the first time I already had the 5200 and its port of our dot munching friend. So I laughed and shook my head in disbelief. It made me like my 5200 just that much more. Today that horrible Pac-Man has really stood the test of time. While it is nothing like the arcade in any way it still gets playtime even if it is for bad reviews. I find myself playing it now and then to try to find some good in it. It does allow for a relaxed style of game play.

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I find that I often feel like I need some "special tablets" after playing 2600 Pac-Man.


One thing that I felt was inexcusable in the 2600 port were the sound effects.  Or, in the case of Pac-Man doing nothing, the lack of one (i.e. no background siren).  Cramming better sound into 2K of ROM may have been a herculean task -- I don't know the programming ins and outs, but I imagine that programming any complex sound just takes that much more valuable code space -- but it was a needed one.


The game would almost certainly have been much better received with sound effects that at least seemed to *try* to approximate the arcade sounds.  I think people would have been willing to give the graphics more of a pass if they weren't stuck listening to the harsh buzz-pops of eating dots, the boooooops of eating "vitamins", etc.

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