Atari 2600 Pac-Man: a reflection and review

This is the big one. This is the review I’ve been both anticipating and dreading since I started this blog. Atari VCS Pac-Man is simply the most notorious game of the pre-crash era – a testament to corporate shortsightedness and hubris. It is really hard to bring anything new to the table when it comes to this game – virtually everything that can be said about it has been said. Debates about the game rage on the Internet to this very day, and like most things generally considered “bad” it has its share of defenders.

Just about everyone agrees on one thing, however: 2600 Pac-Man bears only the most superficial of resemblances to the arcade classic. From there, your mileage may vary. For some, it’s simply an abomination. A source of First World childhood trauma. The first tile in a game of dominoes that would send an exciting era spiralling into oblivion. For others, it’s still a fun game that stands on its own merits – just forget about how it compares to arcade Pac-Man and enjoy it. My own opinion is somewhere in the middle, but I must admit hedges closer to the abomination side.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about the world of video games in 1981 for a second. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell likes to tell these nice stories about how everyone loved video games back in the day and how groups of well-coiffed businessmen would gather in arcades and try to beat each other’s high scores. I’m not saying that never happened, but here on Planet Earth video games were considered by the majority of the adult population to be a scourge on the morality of youth at worst and a bottomless money pit at best. Just about everyone, however, agreed that it was a fad.

Unfortunately, this opinion did not end with worried parents and modern-day Luddites. It extended right up to the corporate headquarters of the companies that actually ponied up the dough to make the damn things. Atari under Nolan Bushnell focused on innovation, which meant big hits happened less often but when they did they were huge. The likes of Ray Kassar and his fellow Warner Bros executives wanted to have as many hits as quickly as possible – innovation could wait (this article on Gamesutra is pretty enlightening about the state of Atari in that era).

I’m not saying everyone at Warner Bros fPacMan_AtariGameelt like that, but in a world where we consider corporations legal persons, we can come to some conclusions simply by their actions. I think most tech companies saw the potential of home computing and took it seriously, but saw games as a means of normalizing electronic devices – be they computers or consoles – in the home. Video games themselves, however, were a fad like Pet Rocks in the ‘70s and hula-hoops in the ‘50s; they had to get in, make a mint and get out before the bubble burst. Little did they know that it would be that very attitude that would make their sentiment a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And so was the world in the era in which 2600 Pac-Man came to be. We all know the story from there: the impossible schedule programmer Todd Frye had to work with, the vast overproduction of the cartridge, the twin disappointments of E.T. and Pac-Man in a single year, the crash that happened as parents everywhere put up their hands and said:

“Enough! Every other game I buy my kid is a piece of crap they get bored with after a couple of hours. And now you want me to buy a NEW television game like a Colecoviddy or Atari farty-two something? I bought our colour TV back in 1967 and it still works fine. I bought this Atari thing just a couple of years ago and it’s already out of date? Forget it. If I buy anything like that it’ll be a computer that will at least be useful for the whole family.” (Yes, they literally said all that in unison – people agreed with each other more back then.)

The release of Pac-Man came with some benefits tech-wise. The response to Pac-Man drove a sea change in the quality of Atari’s arcade ports as they went on to make some notably accurate translations – including Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Galaxian – within the system’s limitations. It drove them to develop new technologies that stretched the capabilities of the VCS beyond what anyone thought possible, extending the life of the system by several years.

A fair question to ask, though, is whether Atari 2600 Pac-Man should have been released at all – why not just focus on getting out their next-generation system, release Pac-Man for that and let the 2600 fade away? Well, here we’re thinking about the video game industry from a 21st Century perspective. For all the reasons noted above, that logic would never have flown in 1982. As far as Atari was concerned, waiting until 1983 to deliver a fully-realized Pac-Man for a system that could handle it was out of the question. So this is what we got.

OK, so let’s talk about the game itself. There are a few things about the game I can forgive, such as the awful colour scheme, the escape tunnel at the bottom of the screen, “video wafers” instead of dots and vitamins instead of fruit. On a good day I can even forgive the flickering ghosts depending on how close I am to a migraine setting in. The one thing I can’t forgive is the maze – there wasn’t even an attempt here to duplicate the arcade game’s maze. It looks like all they did was take the maze from Dodge ‘Em and cut some pieces out. And that’s frustrating because the maze as it is causes you to turn so . . . many . . . damn . . . times. That combined with difficult control and unforgiving collision detection makes Pac-Man a tedious chore to play.

The irony of all this is that the ridiculous maze, the unresponsive controls and the collision detection are the only things that make VCS Pac-Man challenging. If Todd Frye had fixed those faults the game would have been dead easy. As it is, you pretty much need to get to the third stage of variation six before the game speeds up anywhere close to that of the arcade original. The ghosts have no AI whatsoever, so forget about any tricks you learned in the arcade based on their personalities.

For those who say that 2600 Pac-Man is still a fun game, I kind of agree. I can’t deny that I have had some fun with the game over the years. But there are so many maze games for the 2600 that are clearly superior; they may not be licensed Pac-Man but they are still better at what they do. The obvious ones in this category include Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man, but there’s also Mouse Trap, Alien, Jawbreaker and Lock ‘N’ Chase. None of these games have nearly the amount of flicker that Pac-Man has. All of them control much better as well.

There will always be those who hate Atari 2600 Pac-Man. There will always be those who love it. But putting aside nostalgia and excuses, I cannot give it any more than a D+ — a far cry from the worst 2600 game ever made but nowhere near the best.

More Info: Pac-Man on AtariAge. For current listings of Pac-Man for sale on eBay, click here

5 thoughts on “Atari 2600 Pac-Man: a reflection and review

  1. When I was 7, my mom brought me home a plastic bag with 25 Atari 2600 games. By this time Nintendo was already out for 4 years and Atari was the ultimate hand me down. I played all of the games I got. Pac-Man I enjoyed for what it was. Even as a 7 year old, I realized “whoever made this game did a bad job”. Pac-Man does not even change directions when he moves…. lame!.

    I did not get to play the arcade pac-man until 1991 at a local arcade. When I played that I thought “Geez if they tried harder it could have been great on the 2600.” Following that revelation, I grew to hate Pac-Man on 2600 and everyone made fun of me for having the game.

    I did not get to play ms pac man on the 2600 until 2 weeks ago when I bought more Atari 2600 games from a used video game store. My thoughts were now this is how you do pac man. Everything that pac-man should have been was present in Ms. Pac-Man. Even today, Ms Pac Man holds up really well. I only paid 2 dollars for it haha.

    I can still hear baak paat baak, do, doo, dooo, doooooo! in my head and laugh at the brown log of satans poop chute known as pac-man on the Atari 2600.

    I have been enjoying your blog, keep up the awesome reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “…there are so many maze games for the 2600 that are clearly superior…”

    That always bugged me the most.
    For me, Pac-Man shouldnt be on of those maze games. It should be THE maze game.
    And the fact that Atari failed to deliver still hurts. Argh!

    Liked by 1 person

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