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What are the real facts behind Pac-Man’s 2600 development?

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Atari had a rule at the time stating "No black backgrounds except for space games" which was supposedly to minimize screen burn-in.

 

Except as far as anyone else from Atari is concerned, they didn't.  Tod is the *only* person who continues to make that claim.  To that I say, show me some official paperwork from Atari stating that was a rule, or someone else from Atari making that claim.  Besides, it's not the lack of color that creates burn-in, it's the lack of color-cycling.  Think about this for a moment.  Space games were the most-popular genre of games back then.  If a game like Space Invaders (which sold over 6 million copies) didn't cause any burn-in problems, nothing would have :)

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Meanwhile Yars' Revenge was being held up endlessly in play testing because someone higher up didn't want that game released at all. They play tested Yars' Revenge in Seattle against Missile Command (the most popular game at the time) and it came back that players preferred Yars' Revenge. It set a new high record for playtesting, meanwhile they were holding the game back and Pac-Man was released the way it is. What was Atari thinking? For decades there've been murmurs of internal sabotage, but to what ends?

 

I'm still trying to find out what really happened (internally) with Yars' Revenge.  The person who tried to kill it was Steve Wright.  Warshaw has mentioned he knows it was purely company politics behind its delayed release.  Yars was certainly popular enough among other programmers (Owen Rubin was one of the game's early play-testers, and Dave Theurer was contemplating doing a coin-op version of it).  It's possible Howard knows more details about it and simply doesn't want to discuss it.  I never had the chance to ask Wright his side of the story (well, actually I did several times, but never heard back from him).  I know Wright was doing his best to climb up the corporate ladder at the time, but when Yars' came out and became Atari's best-selling original VCS game, that pretty much undercut Wright's credibility.

 

It's also clear from reading old issues of Electronic Games magazine there was a real undercurrent of negativity regarding any of Warshaw's games.  Although the original review they did of Yars' was generally favorable (Oct 1982), it wasn't long before random comments dropped in other reviews starting becoming more critical and negative of the game, starting with the next issue - a review for Defender mentioned Yars was simply a mediocre game.  About a year after that, Yars was again mentioned in another review, for Phoenix (June 1983), this time describing it as a "video sleeping pill".  Well, it did rather well for a mediocre game, selling over 3 million copies and endng up being Atari's best-selling original VCS game.  Years ago, Bill Kunkel started posting on Digital Press' forum, and he and I (as "stonic") went back-and-forth over his apparently unfounded dislike for the game, and for Warshaw himself as well:

 

http://www.digitpress.com/forum/showthread.php?t=7418

 

Long after that, I started scanning in all the issues of EG and found the Yars' Revenge review, which wasn't nearly as negative as Kunkel remembered.  Whether Kunkel was biased with Yars over the fact it wasn't the port of Star Castle (clearly a favorite of his), or whether he had contact with Howard at some point and personally disliked him, I don't know, but he certainly let his biased opinions affect his work.  If I had to guess, it was Wright who was influencing Kunkel.  EG's review of E.T. was all but buried in the April 1983 issue and is all of 12 sentences long - one of which describes the game as looking like it was programmed in 5 weeks (hmm, now how would someone outside of Atari know that?).

Edited by Scott Stilphen

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Aha, here's where things get interesting.  Only someone with insider info would have ever known that Yars' was originally intended to be Star Castle.  I'm pretty sure I never knew that until many years later.  So the theory that the editors of EG held grudges and knew more than they let on is plausible. 

And I can vouch for Yars' being beloved from day 1 of release.  Many of my buddies had it and it was a phenomena for a while. No one I knew thought the graphics were bad.  On the contrary, they were really good.  No flicker.  Fast action.  It's a classic.  There's definitely something going on there with Bill Kunkel. 

 

One thing to remember is that EG magazine was a victim of the great crash.  I remember the magazine switched staffs and fizzled out very very quickly.  So maybe they did have grudges against whoever they thought was responsible. 

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FYI I just asked Dennis Koble about whether or not there were any rules or guidelines against VCS games having black backgrounds, since he was the manager of the CES group circa 1981-82:

 

 

I don't recall there ever being any sort of rule or guideline about the background color for any of the games. In those days very few aspects of any game were codified into a rule or law. There were bounds of good taste and what might not be appropriate for families or kids but those again were left to the discretion of the designer. I am sure marketing would have stepped in in case of anything that might have negatively affected sales or put the company in a negative light but I honestly don't actually remember that ever happening. We used discretion in the making of the games and so I think it never became an issue

 

So there you have it - Tod's manager at the time said there was no rule or guideline about games having black backgrounds.  I don't know why Tod keeps perpetuating that myth other than to offer it as an excuse for his poor design choices.  Just as I'm sure there was no rule or guideline stating games had to offer a 2-player option, or that nobody knew what was important when doing a coin-op conversion...

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Aha, here's where things get interesting.  Only someone with insider info would have ever known that Yars' was originally intended to be Star Castle.  I'm pretty sure I never knew that until many years later.  So the theory that the editors of EG held grudges and knew more than they let on is plausible.

 

Exactly.  Atari never even publicly announced it had licensed Star Castle AFAIK, so only his contact(s) within Atari would have told him that.  Plus, if Atari was that concerned about not using it for a VCS version, they could have released one for the 400/800 computers, but they didn't.  Apparently they didn't care about not having a direct port, since it lead to Yars, and Yars was a major success for them.

 

I clearly remember seeing the ad in Atari Age for Yars and Defender, and immediately wanting Yars.  It sounded amazing from the description, and the artistic rendering of the screen only fueled my interest in having a copy.  As for Defender, I eventually got a copy, but the game had some of the worst flickering of any VCS game, and the fact the ship disappeared completely every time you fired made the game look cheap.  And yet EG's review of the game was so over-the-top in its unbridled enthusiasm for it, I started to seriously question their judgement from that point on.  I've been slowly going through all their VCS reviews in-depth and putting together an article about them, and it's truly astounding how downright awful some of them are.  EG might have been the first US mag dedicated to video games, but it was hardly the best.

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I agree.  I loved EG magazine back then.  But reading it again now highlights that it wasn't as good as what we have now.  I think, too, that they wielded a lot of power in the industry being the first and biggest magazine.  I wonder if their reviews had the power to make or break a given game's sales?  Did the power go to their heads?  Egos got involved?  So many questions. 

I've also been to a Tod Frye talk where he used 2600 Asteroids as an example of an arcade port in which they took liberties with colors, and thus deduced he could do the same with Pac Man. 

 

It's 35 years ago.  He's a human being.  We should just let it go.  Peace to him, I say.  He's a big part of the Atari story, no matter what anyone thinks about 2600 Pac-Man.  I think it's great that he's willing to come to shows and talk about those old times.  There is simply no need to bash the guy for 35 years for it.  

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I'll post a link to my EG article here when it's done.

 

As for Tod/Pac-Man, it would be easy to 'let it go', but he continues making ridiculous statements about it.  And with that latest RetroGamer article, he now thinks of himself as being some sort of trailblazer with VCS Pac-Man?  No, true pioneers don't develop something like a new variable flicker kernel.. and then refuse to use it out of spite because they were on probation (as if to say, "I could have done a much better job.. but decided not to...).  Must be great to have that much of an ego about it after all this time, but the reality is, pretty much any programmer from Activision or Imagic were years beyond him in talent and success.  The real pioneers went on to found their own companies, and became multi-millionaires as a result; they didn't become millionaires from a choice project falling in their lap (happening to be in the right place at the right time) and then end up losing all that money within a few years.

 

Kunkel once made the comment that everyone who was talented left Atari, and all that were left were basically "bums".  I wouldn't go that far, but it was clear that Atari's VCS programmers weren't putting out nearly as many games as other companies. The royalty program Atari (finally) implemented seemed to have the result of making people less productive, which is why Atari ended up using GCC for all their VCS arcade ports - most of which are quite excellent.  Warshaw is a perfect example. In his first 2 years, he made 3 games - all of which were million+ sellers.  For the next 18 months, he released... nothing.

Edited by Scott Stilphen

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Popularity - Frye also stated, "Pac-Man wasn't a particularly big game.  'Pac-Man fever' hit between the start and the finish of the project."   PuckMan was released in Japan in May 1980 and the Midway Pac-Man version in October 1980.  Working backwards, VCS Pac-Man came out late March 1982, and production took a good 10 weeks (2.5 months, so Tod likely finished it no later than December 1981 (since the game's copyright date is 1981 which reflects when programming was completed).  Go back 5 months at most for programming, so let's say he started no later than July 1981.  So since October 1980, Pac-Man wasn't a huge hit by the following summer?  A friend of mine remembers the Tomy and Entex handhelds coming out almost immediately together and Coleco's arriving quite a bit later (all in 1981).  Can't find any release date for Odyssey2 K.C. Munchkin; it was definitely out by January 1982 (it was reviewed in the March 1982 issue of Electronic Games), and possibly a few months before that.  Also, Buckner and Garcia's song was released December 1981 (and the album in January 1982).

 

Just to again refute one of Tod Frye's comments about Pac-Man not being very popular by the time he was assigned to do the VCS version.  In Steve Golson's GDC talk in 2017 about Ms. Pac-Man and the history of GCC, he mentions why and when they decided to make an enhancement kit for Pac-Man, in June 1981:

 

https://youtu.be/rhM8NAMW_VQ?t=18m00s

 

He mentions 2 Pac-Man pattern books, one of which - Mastering Pac-Man - originally came out in 1981 (I don't know which month it was released, but a revised edition came out in January 1982). 

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