Pac-Man (Atari 2600)
The Atari 2600 cover of Pac-Man features the titular protagonist and the ghost antagonists.
|Release||March 16, 1982|
|Mode(s)||Single-player, two-player alternating|
In 1982, Atari Inc. released their version of Namco's hit arcade game Pac-Man for its Atari 2600 video game console. Like the original arcade version, the player controls the title character with a joystick. The objective is to traverse a maze, consuming all wafers within it while avoiding four ghosts.
The game was programmed by Tod Frye. The technical differences between the Atari 2600 console and the original's arcade hardware—particularly the amount of available memory—presented several challenges. Given the popularity of the property, Atari produced about 12 million units (which was more than the estimated number of Atari 2600 consoles sold at the time), anticipating high sales.
It is the best selling Atari 2600 game of all time; it sold an estimated 7 million copies, and was the best-selling home video game of all time when it was released. However, critics have considered it among the worst video games of all time, criticizing its controls and visuals. Initially, the port boosted the video game industry's presence in retail. It was followed by Atari 2600 ports of Pac-Man's arcade sequels.
Pac-Man is a variation of the original arcade game, which Namco released in 1980, and features similar—but not identical—gameplay.
The player uses a joystick to control Pac-Man, navigating him through a maze of consumable dashes called Video Wafers, opposed by a quartet of multi-colored ghosts. The goal of the game is to consume all the wafers in each level in order to proceed to the next one in search of the highest possible score. The four ghosts roam the maze, trying to kill Pac-Man. If any of the ghosts touches Pac-Man, he loses a life; when all lives have been lost, the game ends. Each game starts with four lives, and the player is awarded a bonus life upon successful completion of each level, up to a maximum of nine lives in reserve at any given time.
Near the corners of the maze are four larger, flashing consumables known as Power Pills that provide Pac-Man with the temporary ability to eat the ghosts and earn bonus points. When a Power Pill is in effect the enemies turn blue and try to evade Pac-Man. When a ghost is eaten its disembodied eyes return to the nest (center box) to respawn. The blue ghosts turn reddish during the last moments of a Power Pill's effect, signaling that they are about to become dangerous again, and the length of time for which the enemies remain vulnerable varies from one level to the next, becoming shorter as the game progresses. The final consumable items are the Vitamins, which appear periodically directly below the nest.
The game has eight variations, offering two different starting speeds for Pac-Man and four different starting speeds for the ghosts. The ghosts get slightly faster each subsequent round, but Pac-Man stays at the same speed. The console's A–B difficulty switches can also be used to handicap one or both players: in the A (hard) position, the power pills' effects do not last as long.
Differences from the original
Overall the game follows the format of the original, but it differs in a number of key respects, including a landscape orientation of the screen, that the wraparound Warp Tunnel is located at the top and bottom as opposed to the sides. The maze layout and overall color scheme also differ from the original. Pac-Man himself features an eye and he only faces left and right, never turning to face up or down when traveling in those directions. The ghosts' eyes constantly cycle through four directions rather than being fixed in their current direction of travel. The maze contains 126 wafers, just over half of the arcade's 244 dots. The nest from which the ghosts emerge has its entrance on its right side instead of the top, and the arcade's eight distinct and different-valued bonus items (mostly fruits) are replaced by the nondescript single-value Vitamin.
Ghost behaviors are different from the original and dispense with the brief "rest" states whereby the ghosts periodically do not track Pac-Man, but each ghost still features a distinct individual method of tracking Pac-Man, with one pair being "smarter" in their pursuit choices, and one member of each pair being faster than the other. In the arcade when a ghost is eaten its eyes return to the nest and it respawns and exits immediately in its normal (not vulnerable) state, but in this version the eyes remain in the nest until any Power Pill effects expire before they respawn and reemerge.
The scoring for the home version is proportionally identical to the original except that each item is worth 1/10th its arcade value, with the bonus Vitamins as the only variation, being worth 100 points, which is the equivalent of the 1000 point scoring melon bonus item that appears in the 7th and 8th levels of the arcade game. Unlike the arcade version, if Pac-Man loses a life while the vitamin appears, the vitamin may not necessarily be forfeited.
This version does not feature the marquee screen and interstitial animations. Neither does it attempt to approximate the sounds of the original, reducing the iconic two note "wakka wakka" dot eating and bonus gobbling sounds to a single tone clank sound and single beep respectively, replacing the game start tune with a touch-tone phone sounding four-note motif, and dispensing entirely with both the slot machine jackpot type sound signifying earning an extra life and the omnipresent siren sound during gameplay.
The most significant and obvious difference is the constant flicker of the ghosts.
In the late 1970s, Atari acquired the rights to produce home versions of Namco's arcade games. After Pac-Man proved to be a success in the United States, Atari decided to produce the game for its Atari 2600 console. The company believed the conversion would be simple because the arcade's success was attributed to the gameplay rather than impressive visuals. Development took around four months; the process started in May 1981 and finished in September. At the time, Atari projected 10 million consoles were still actively used by video game enthusiasts. Atari decided to produce 12 million game cartridges, anticipating every Atari 2600 owner would purchase the game, while two million new customers would purchase the system to play it; management predicted sales would reach at least US$500 million.
Programming was assigned to Tod Frye, who was not provided with any arcade design specifications to work from, and had to figure out how the game worked by playing it. He spent 80-hour weeks over six months developing it. The finished game uses a 4KB ROM cartridge, chosen for its lower manufacturing costs compared to 8KB bank-switched cartridges, which recently become available. As with any contemporary arcade port, the simple Atari 2600 hardware was a considerable limitation. The arcade PAC-MAN system board contained 2KB of main RAM (random-access memory) in which to run the program, 2KB of video RAM to store the screen state, and 16KB of ROM (read-only memory) to store the game code, whereas the Atari 2600 featured only 128 bytes of RAM memory and none dedicated to video: effectively 32 times less RAM. The Zilog Z80 CPU microprocessor used by the Namco Pac-Man arcade system is clocked at three times the speed of the MOS 6507 CPU in the Atari 2600, but the instruction sets and architecture for each processor are very different, and a 6507 can do more operations per clock cycle (effectively 2 to 1), making 1 to 1 comparisons more difficult than simply comparing clock speed.
To deal with these limitations, Frye simplified the maze's intricate pattern of corridors to a more repetitive pattern. The small tan pellets in the arcade original were changed to rectangular "wafers" that shared the wall color on the 2600, a change necessitated because both the pellets and walls were drawn with the 2600's Playfield graphics, which have a fixed width. To achieve the visual effect of wafers disappearing as Pac-Man eats them, the actual map of the maze was updated as the data was written into the Playfield registers, excluding those pellets that had been eaten. The 2600's Player-Missile graphics system (sprites) were used for the remaining objects, the one bit-wide Missiles were used to render the flashing power pills and the center of the vitamin. Pac-Man and ghost characters were implemented using the 2600's two Player objects, with one being used for Pac-Man and the other being used for all four ghosts, with the result that each ghost only appears once out of every four frames, which creates a flickering effect. This effect takes advantage of the slow phosphorescent fade of CRT monitors and the concept of persistence of vision, resulting in the image appearing to linger on screen longer, but the flickering remains noticeable, and makes each individual ghost's color nearly impossible to discern. Frye chose to abandon plans for a flicker-management system to minimize the flashing in part because Atari didn't seem to care about that issue in its zeal to have the game released. His game also did not conform to the arcade game's color scheme in order to comply with Atari's official home product policy that only space type games should feature black backgrounds. Another quality-impact was his decision that two-player gameplay was important, which meant that the 23 bytes required to store the current difficulty, state of the dots on the current maze, remaining lives, and score had to be doubled for a second player, consuming 46 of the 2600's meager 128 byte memory, which precluded its use for additional game data and features.
Frye states that there were no negative comments within Atari about these elements, but, after seeing the game, Coin Division marketing manager Frank Ballouz reportedly informed Ray Kassar, Atari's president and CEO, that he felt enthusiasts would not want to play it. His opinion, however, was dismissed. The company ran newspaper ads and promoted the product in catalogs, describing it as differing "slightly from the original". To help sales, Atari promoted and protected its exclusive licensing of Pac-Man. It took legal action against companies that released clones similar to Pac-Man. Atari sued Philips for its 1981 Magnavox Odyssey² game Munchkin and obtained a preliminary injunction against the company to prevent the sale of Munchkin cartridges, but failed to stop other games, such as On-Line Systems' Jawbreaker and Gobbler. Several retailers assisted Atari with the release of the game. J. C. Penney was the first retailer to launch a nationwide advertising campaign on television for a software title. Continuing a long-standing relationship between it and Sears, Atari also produced Pac-Man cartridges under the department store's label.
Anticipation for the game was high. Atari stated in 1981 that it had preorders for "three or four million" copies of the Atari 2600 version. Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Simon predicted the sale of 9 million units during 1982, which would yield a profit of $200 million. Pac-Man met with initial commercial success, selling 7 million copies and eventually becoming the best-selling Atari 2600 title; Frye reportedly received $0.10 in royalties per copy. More than one million of those cartridges had been shipped in less than one month, helped by Atari's $1.5 million publicity campaign. However, purchases soon slowed and, by the summer of 1982, unsold copies were available in large quantities. Many buyers returned the games for refunds, and Atari was left with 5 million excess copies in addition to the returns. By 2004, the cartridges were still very common among collectors and enthusiasts—though the Sears versions were rarer—and priced lower.
At release, critics negatively compared the port to its original arcade form, panning the audio-visuals and gameplay. On May 11, 1982, Electronic Games Magazine published its first bad review ever for an Atari video game, saying, "Considering the anticipation and considerable time the Atari designers had to work on it, it’s astonishing to see a home version of a classic arcade contest so devoid of what gave the original its charm". Video Magazine admitted it was "challenging, and there are a few visual pluses", before lamenting, "Unfortunately those who cannot evaluate Pac-Man through lover's eyes are likely to be disappointed". The premiere issue of Video Games Player from Fall 1982 called Pac-Man "just awful".
In 1983, Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games reviewer Danny Goodman commented that the game fails as a replica of its arcade form: "Atari stated clearly in it description of the cartridge that Atari's Pac-Man 'differs slightly from the original'. That, perhaps, was an understatement." Conversely, he stated that such criticism was unfair because the hardware could not properly emulate the arcade game. Goodman further said that the port is a challenging maze game in its own right, and it would have been a success if fans had not expected to play a game closer to the original. That year Phil Wiswell of Video Games criticized the game's poor graphics, mockingly referring to it as "Flickerman", while Softline questioned why Atari opposed Pac-Man clones when the 2600 version was less like the original "than any of the pack of imitators".
The game has remained poorly rated. In 1998, Next Generation magazine editors called it the "worst coin-op conversion of all time", and attributed the mass dissatisfaction to its poor quality. In 2006, IGN's Craig Harris echoed similar statements and listed it as the worst arcade conversion, citing poor audio-visuals that did not resemble the original. Another IGN editor, Levi Buchanan, described it as a "disastrous port", citing the color scheme and flickering ghosts. Skyler Miller of AllGame said that although the game was only a passing resemblance to the original, it was charming despite its many differences and faults.
Ed Logg, a former lead designer at Atari, who never programmed the VCS, considered the development a rushed, "lousy" effort. Frye did not express regret over his part in Pac-Man's port and felt he made the best decisions he could at the time. However, Frye stated that he would have done things differently with a larger capacity ROM. Video game industry researchers Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost attribute the poor reception to the technical differences between the 1977 Atari 2600 console and the 1980 arcade hardware used in Pac-Man cabinets. They further stated that the conversion is a lesson in maintaining the social and cultural context of the original source. Montfort and Bogost commented that players were disappointed with the flickering visual effect, which made the ghosts difficult to track and tired the players' eyes. The two further said that the effect diminishes the ghosts' personalities present in the arcade version. Chris Kohler of Wired commented that the game was poorly received upon its release and in contemporary times because of the poor quality. However, he further described the game as an impressive technical achievement given its console's limitations.
Impact and legacy
Initially, the excitement generated by Pac-Man's home release prompted retail stores to expand their inventory to sell video games. Drugstores began stocking video game cartridges, and toy retailers vied for new releases. Kmart and J. C. Penney competed against Sears to become the largest vendor of video games. The game's release also led to an increase in sales of the Atari 2600 console.
In retrospect, however, critics often cite Atari's Pac-Man as a major factor in the drop of consumer confidence in the company, which contributed to the North American video game crash of 1983. Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton of Gamasutra stated that the game's poor quality damaged the company's reputation. Buchanan commented that it disappointed millions of fans and diminished confidence in Atari's games. Former Next Generation editor-in-chief Neil West attributes his longtime skepticism of Atari's quality to the disappointment he had from buying the game as a child. Calling the game the top video game disaster, Buchanan credits Pac-Man as a factor to the downfall of Atari and the industry in the 1980s. Author Steven Kent also blames the game, along with Atari's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, for severely damaging the company's reputation and profitability. Montfort and Bogost stated that the game's negative reception seeded mistrust in retailers, which was reinforced by later factors that culminated in the crash.
Millions of unsold copies is one of many reasons that led to Atari's report of a $536 million loss in 1983 and the division and sale of the company's Consumer Division in 1984. On December 7, 1982, Kassar announced that Atari's revenue forecasts for 1982 were cut from a 50 percent increase over 1981 to a 15 percent increase. Immediately following the announcement, Warner Communications' stock value dropped by around 35 percent—from $54 to $35—amounting to a loss of $1.3 billion in the company's market valuation. Atari attempted to regain its market share by licensing popular arcade games for its consoles. The revenue from selling these console games did not reverse Atari's decline and the company went further into debt. In 1983, the company decreased its workforce by 30 percent and lost $356 million.
In late 1982, Atari ported Pac-Man to its new console, the Atari 5200. This version was a more accurate conversion of the original arcade game and was a launch title for the console, along with eleven other games. The port was also followed by conversions of Pac-Man's arcade sequels, Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man, for the Atari 2600. Both were better received than Atari's first Pac-Man title and addressed many critics' complaints of Pac-Man, but at the cost of excluding a two-player mode and requiring larger ROM cartridges.
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