Pac-Man comes home to Atari players…and gets a bad rap.

February 25, 2012: I finally beat my 30-some-year-old record high of 90,723, game 6. Doesn't the (alleged) cause of the North American Video Game Crash of 1983 look great on a 40-inch Sony Bravia?

February 25, 2012: I finally beat my 30-some-year-old record high of 90,723, game 6. Current high score: 105, 970. It would have been higher, but I had to stop and do some grad school homework. Doesn’t the (alleged) cause of the North American Video Game Crash of 1983 look great on a 40-inch Sony Bravia?

The title says it all, my friends.

Tod Frye’s infamous Atari Video Computer System (or “2600,” if you prefer) conversion of the wildly popular video game to this day is the victim of oral manure. It’s disparaged right and left. It’s understandable why. The graphics don’t look anything like what we’re used to, and the sounds are…well, depending on how you feel, either bizarre or just plain awful. There’s lots of flicker, and even the game play arguably is different. All in all, the Atari VCS Pac-Man appears to have been done in a rush in order to make a fast buck.

…which, actually, isn’t far from the truth. According to the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, Tod Frye designed what we see as a proof-of-concept, just to demonstrate that a Pac-Man for Atari was indeed possible. Frye wanted more time and more resources (specifically, an 8k ROM, instead of the 4K ROM he was given) to build a much more proper Pac-Man conversion. Instead, the honchos at Atari took the (for all intents and purposes…or intensive porpoises…or whatever…) demo and, against Frye’s wishes, rush released the game in 1982. With all the rabid Pac-Maniacs wanting to play the game on their Atari consoles, Atari figured there would be a great deal of consumers who would actually buy the Atari VCS just to play Pac-Man, so more Pac-Man cartridges were manufactured than the number of consoles on which to play it actually existed. Pac-Man became a massive commercial success…but a critical flop. Atari obviously saw this coming — check out this commercial, which obviously dodges the issues many of Atari Pac-Man’s detractors have:

That’s the long story made short. However, I’d like to offer what I take is a rather unpopular opinion: folks, the game ain’t all that bad.

First, allow me to tell my Atari story. Of course, I was among the millions of Pac-Maniacs out there. I would play it at every possible opportunity. During the family’s monthly trips to the Lincoln Mall in Matteson, IL, my dad and brother would take me to Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle, which in its day was quite an amazing arcade — pinball machines, video games (including a lot of cocktail tables), a video jukebox (yes, you could watch music videos on demand!), and at one time, bumper cars. Any game you wanted to play, chances are Aladdin’s Castle had it. My dad would give me a $1 allowance, which would give me four tokens. If I were lucky enough to find a stray token on the floor, or if my brother had any leftovers that he didn’t feel like using, that meant more gaming for me. I would always make sure at least one the games I used my precious allowance on was one of the Pac-Man franchise. At one point the local Kroger acquired a (counterfeit) Pac-Man machine, which once in a great while my mom or dad would give me a quarter to play. But other than the rare occasion I’d play in Kroger and the monthly trip to the mall, my Pac-Man playing was nonexistent.

In 1982, Coleco had released a series of tabletop games whose cabinets were miniature replicas of the arcade games. Naturally, I was dying to get the Pac-Man game. Now, as an ignorant eight-year-old, I thought that those Coleco games were actually COMPLETE replicas, right down to the graphics and sounds; think MAME in a tiny tabletop game. I begged for it for Christmas. (Obviously, I hadn’t actually played it or seen it in action!)

So Christmas rolls around. There was a large box under the tree addressed to my brother and me. We opened it and in unison exclaimed, “ATARI!!!” My parents gave us the Atari Video Computer System, the then-current four-switch woodgrain. (Somewhere in my parents’ house is a picture of my glowing face from the seconds after the unwrapping.) Inside the box we saw that my parents had also bought Pac-Man and stuffed it in. (This was before Pac-Man was the pack-in game…or, Pac-in, if you want me to make an obnoxious pun.) My dad later told me that they had heard from other people that the Coleco tabletop game wasn’t all that great and was notorious for its headache-inducing sounds, so they figured the Atari console would be a much better investment.

And you know what? I played Pac-Man on the Atari all the freakin’ time. I’d play for hours on end. Yeah, I knew it was virtually nothing like the arcade original, but you know what? I didn’t have much of a chance to play the arcade original, so this was all I had. I was such an addict that my usual punishment became, and I quote, “No Pac-Man for two weeks!” And by “no Pac-Man,” my parents meant “no video games,” and by “no video games,” they meant no video games PERIOD — not only was I not allowed to play, but I was also not allowed to watch anybody play; in fact, if I were outside and my brother was playing the Atari, my parents would make him close the windows so I couldn’t watch from outside. Certainly to combat my addiction to Pac-Man, my parents would dish out this punishment for the slightest thing — giving someone a dirty look, cutting my fingernails too short, etc. (This is one reason Butters is my favorite South Park character — I can relate to being grounded all the time…except for me, “grounded” meant having my precious Pac-Man taken from me!)

Even thirty-some years later, I still play the Atari VCS Pac-Man from time to time. In fact, only in the past year did I finally beat my circa-1983 high of 90,723 by going over 100,000 on game 6; I gave up after a short time — partly because of time constraints, and partly because I was getting bored playing the same maze over and over.

Now, back to the game itself…a friend of mine has, on many occasions, said that the Atari VCS Pac-Man in and of itself is not a bad game; it’s just a bad Pac-Man: call it anything but Pac-Man and it’s pretty competent. If you think about it, he’s right: there are so many things different about the VCS version that it’s almost a different game altogether. Let’s take a look at what makes the Atari version different from the arcade version.

Appearance

First off, why the Atari VCS Pac-Man titular character has an eye, I have no idea. And the newly-cycloptic Pac-Man could only face left or right; move him up or down, and he’s still facing right or left. Why? I dunno, but I’m guessing it’s partly due to the rushed nature of the game’s development. The ghosts get a different appearance as well: while in the arcades each ghost had a different color and a different degree of dangerousness, the ghosts on the Atari VCS version are one of two (very barely noticeably slightly different) colors, and all present the same level of danger. And given the rush job of development and the Atari 2600’s limited resources, not all four ghost sprites could appear on the screen at the same time, so to simulate simultaneous presence, Frye had to use a pretty nasty flickering effect to continuously turn the ghost sprites on and off.

Perhaps the most jarring difference is in the playfields. Pac-Man fans were accustomed to a black playfield with a blue maze and white dots and energizers. Well, power up the Pac-Man cartridge on your VCS, and you get a blue playfield with an orange maze, orange dots (or, as the manual says, “video wafers”), and lemon-yellow energizers (called “power pills” in the Tod Frye game). Apparently the bosses at Atari forbade VCS developers from coloring backgrounds black except in space games, which explains the blue maze background. The orange maze is undoubtedly there to make sure it’s clearly visible against the blue background. As for the orange “video wafers,” due to limited resources, they’re simply the same color as the maze. (The latter is also true in the Atari VCS versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man, both of which were much better arcade-to-home conversions.)

Most video game players are aware of the prizes that appear below the ghosts’ pen in the arcade Pac-Man. (Yeah, I know, Namco calls them “fruit,” but I hardly consider a key, a bell, or a Galaxian flaghship to be a “fruit,” so I call them “prizes.”) Gone in the Atari 2600 version are the prizes; in are the “vitamins,” which are multicolored rectangular objects that appear below the ghosts’ pen.

Speaking of the ghosts’ pen, another very noticeable difference is the orientation of the maze. While arcade game monitors were typically arranged in portrait orientation, console games, which are intended to be played on television sets, were — and still are — arranged in landscape orientation. As such, the Atari Pac-Man maze is wider than it is tall, and it’s peculiarly also partly rotated 90 degrees! The tunnels, which on the arcade version are located on the left and right sides of the maze, are located on the top and bottom of the maze on the VCS. The ghosts exit their pen from through the top on the arcade version, but on the right side in the 2600 version.

Scoring

You see, here’s where Tod Frye had it right: the scoring makes a little bit more sense on the Atari 2600 version than on the arcade version. All the scoring on the arcade Pac-Man is in increments of multiples of 10: the dots are 10 points, energizers 50, prizes anywhere from 100 to 5,000, and the ghosts between 200 and 1,600. That all the point awards are multiples of 10 means that there is a useless units digit in the score that is permanently stuck at zero. The much-maligned Atari version’s scoring is mostly the same, but divided by ten — meaning the units digit can be any digit between zero and nine. Unfortunately, though, the most you can score from the vitamin is 100 points, as its point value doesn’t increase as you clear more levels.

Gameplay

The object of both versions of Pac-Man is the same: eat all the dots while avoiding the ghosts, and you can use the energizers/power pills to help you eat the ghosts when necessary. How you actually work to achieve that goal — and the objects that hinder that achievement — are a bit different.

As with the prizes in the arcade version, on the VCS version you get two chances per level to eat the vitamin. In the arcade version, the prize appears after you’ve eaten roughly 70 dots (including energizers), so you can easily come up with a basic strategy to position yourself near the prize as soon as it appears. However, in the Atari 2600 version, it appears that the vitamin’s appearance is purely according to time, making it difficult to gauge when said vitamin will appear.

Depending on how generous the owner of your gaming spot was, the arcade Pac-Man is set to either one, three, or five lives, and you have an opportunity to earn one more life at 10,000, 15,000, or 20,000 points…or perhaps no extra life at all. Perhaps in an attempt to give players a chance of a longer, and assumingly more enjoyable, game, the Atari 2600 Pac-Man gives you an extra life every time you finish a maze; this undoubtedly is what helped me achieve my aforementioned score of 90,723 as a wee lad.

Namco decided to make the original Pac-Man challenging by reducing the amount of time the ghosts are blue (and ergo vulnerable) as you get further into the game, to the point that after the infamous “ninth key” level, the ghosts no longer turn blue. The Atari VCS version is a bit more merciful, in that there’s never a point when the ghosts are permanently inedible. Whether this was an oversight or intentional is unclear, although I’m leaning toward “intentional” because the same is true for the 2600 ports of Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man.

Now, I don’t think it’s ever been determined whether this is a strategic feature or a bug, but something you’ll find in the Atari 2600 Pac-Man that you won’t find in the arcade version is that if you manage to get all four ghosts to go into the tunnel at the same time, they get stuck. They’ll keep trying to escape from the ends of the tunnel, but they’ll never be successful. Meanwhile, Pac-Man can just meander safely around the maze, cleaning up any leftover video wafers, or if there’s a power pill left, Pac-Man can gobble one up, then high-tail it to the tunnel and chomp all four ghosts at once. No such luck in the arcade version!

I think part of the reason is that in the arcade version, the ghosts will reverse direction when you eat an energizer. On the Atari VCS version, the ghosts never change direction. This adds a new twist to the Pac-Man game play. (I can’t help but think that if the ghosts DID change direction, they might be able to get unstuck from the tunnel.)

Perhaps one of the most notable differences in game play is Pac-Man’s speed. One of the most common pieces of Pac-Man lore is that when Pac-Man eats a dot, he moves a bit slower and runs the risk of having a ghost riding his tail. The same is true for Ms. Pac-Man and Jr.Pac-Man as well. However, Atari Pac-Man keeps moving at the same speed, regardless of whether he’s eating. Oh…and no ghosts will ride your tail in the Atari Pac-Man: if so much as a single pixel of a ghost touches Pac-Man, he’s a goner.

And yes, the beloved cut scenes in the arcade version are missing from the 2600 Pac-Man. Obviously, there just weren’t enough resources to include them. (Fun fact: the musical breaks in the 2600 Jr. Pac-Man are actually remnants of an attempt to include that game’s cut scenes. When the developers found that the cut scenes just couldn’t be done, they left the music in.)

One of the most legendary aspects of the arcade Pac-Man is the 256th maze: the split screen. Maze intact on the left, random characters on the right. (I know that Carrington on the No Quarter Podcast said that it’s not a kill screen, but it really is: it is impossible to get past this screen except via the rack test.) Well, no matter how much you want to disparage the Atari VCS Pac-Man, one thing you gotta admit: the programming was a little bit better in that so far nobody’s discovered a bug like this one in that version!

Sounds

Ask any Atari 2600 Pac-Man hater what the first thing that comes to mind about the game is, and undoubtedly that person will talk about the audio. Gone is the “wakka” sound of the arcade version. (Personally, I always thought it sounded more like “whompa.”) Instead, we get a rather stern “Bonk!” sound every time Pac-Man eats a video wafer. (Yes, I took some time to explain why the game isn’t as bad as people say it is, but it does make me cringe to have to type “video wafer” when referring to the 2600’s “dot” analog.)

Also gone is the catchy theme song from the arcade game; instead, we get a weird two-tone, four-note “ready” jingle with every new Pac-Man. Those who were accustomed to the “it’s okay to eat a ghost” alert that went on the entire duration the ghosts were invulnerable were now in for something different: the VCS Pac-Man’s similar alert actually ends a few seconds before the vulnerability is over, meaning you had to watch the ghosts’ color, which changed to a dark pink when the alert stopped, if you could even tell there was a color change.

Finally, the familiar siren that goes on during the arcade Pac-Man and increases in intensity as your current level progresses is gone in Tod Frye’s Atari port; aside from the ghost vulnerability alert, Pac-Man eating video wafers (*cringe*), a vitamin or power pill being eaten, or ghosts or Pac-Man being eaten, the game is silent.

It is rather amusing that the commercial above avoids showing any screens of the Atari 2600 Pac-Man and also denies you of hearing the sounds. (Kind of reminiscent of the trailers for Miracle on 34th Street that tried to hide the fact that it was a Christmas movie, innit?) The following commercial, which aired in Australia, actually does show the game play but couldn’t bear to let viewers hear the sounds:

A Whole New Game

So are you among those who detest the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man because it’s so different from what was in the arcades (and is once again in the retro ’80s arcades that have popped up in the last few years)? Then think of it as a whole new game. In fact, the same friend who said that the 2600 Pac-Man isn’t a bad game but is just a bad Pac-Man once theorized that it started life as a different maze game but was altered to show how perhaps a Pac-Man could possibly be brought to life on that woodgrain treasure so many of us had under the TV. Of course, history has shown that the theory isn’t true, but it’s still an interesting thought.

And that’s why I offer this solution to you, Atari Pac-Man haters: think of it as a completely different game, or at least the same Pac-Man you’ve always loved but with necessary new strategies. To recap how the game play is different:

  • Pac-Man doesn’t slow down when eating video wafers.
  • The ghosts don’t reverse when you eat a power pill. In fact, they never reverse.
  • If all four ghosts try to go through the tunnel, they get stuck.
  • Clear a maze, get a new life.
  • And remember, the “Game Select” switch gives you different variations (although on my cartridge, game 2 and game 6 are exactly the same), and the difficulty switches can make things even more interesting.

Really, give the game another chance, and I especially encourage you to play game 6 for a real challenge. You’ll see that it’s almost necessary for the “new life for each cleared level” feature to be there or else you’d not be playing for very long. And flip the “TV Type” switch to black and white — Pac-Man looks really cool on this setting, and perhaps a little bit closer to the game you know from the arcades.

And if you still don’t like it, then try the Atari 2600 conversion of Ms. Pac-Man, which is pretty universally agreed upon to be a huge improvement, and Jr. Pac-Man, which, dare I say, is probably the finest (non-homebrew) arcade-to-home conversion you’ll find for the Video Computer System.

Or, even better, go to atariage.com and check out some of the home-made attempts to make a better Pac-Man on the 2600. One of the more popular ones, Pac-Man Arcade, is a hack of Atari 2600’s Ms. Pac-Man, which used an 8k ROM; while another popular homebrew, Pac-Man 4K, is a very good conversion using only a 4k ROM.

…and they lived happily ever after!

Well, not really…yes, Pac-Man sold several million copies for Atari and made Tod Frye a pretty wealthy guy, but many were left unsold. All those unsold Pac-Man carts, a good deal of surplus E.T. The Extra Terrestrial carts, and other miscellaneous leftover Atari merchandise ended up being pulverized and buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. But if somehow you never ended up owning a copy of the Atari VCS Pac-Man, never fear, my friend — it’s one of the easiest Atari cartridges to find anywhere. Just check your local retro store, used video game store, garage sales, or eBay.

And for God’s sakes, just have some fun with it.

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About pacmaniax

Sean is a web developer whose obsession with the Pac-Man franchise goes back to 1981, when he first played Pac-Man as an 7-year-old who didn't quite understand that you need to eat one of those big, blinking things first before you attempt to eat the ghosts. For one brief moment, he thought he held the world record for Jr. Pac-Man Turbo in October 2012, but it was actually only the second-highest score on record, and even that ranking only lasted under a day. A music buff, you can see Sean posting not only on AtariAge.com and Aurcade.com as "dauber," but also on various forums that obsess over The Beatles and Brian Wilson. Sean is also cohost of Pie Factory Podcast.
This entry was posted in Atari 5200 SuperSystem, Atari 7800 ProSystem, Atari VCS/2600, Home Console, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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