Monday, March 12, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Pac-Man (Atari 2600 version)

Although most of these monthly video game features will be about games you would have had to pump quarters into to play, the rise of the home console was an important facet of an earlier generation, as well. And since I can't properly feature Pac-Man's 30th anniversary this year (not that I let it go by completely unnoticed at the appropriate time), celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Atari 2600 home version (which, according to an article in the April 5, 1982 edition of TIME Magazine, came out this very month 30 years ago) seems to be the way to go.

Part of the reason that video arcades aren't as popular today as they were 30 years ago is because players can get a comparable gaming experience from the comforts of their own home as they can can from a dedicated arcade game unit. But back in 1982, the gap between what you'd find in an arcade game and what you could get at home was considerable. A number of compromises had to be made to accommodate then-affordable home console technology. Here are just a few examples:
  • The colors are much less distinctive (perhaps the most obvious issue being that all four ghosts in the 2600 game are nearly the same color—differences, if any, are hard to discern—vs. the four obviously different colors of the original version)
  • Instead of an ever-changing array of fruit bonuses, this version only ever uses a single "Vitamin" icon.
  • This version's Pac-Man can only face left or right, and never up nor down. 
  • The sounds are noticeably inferior when compared to the arcade version (although the sound made when a Pac-Man is caught by a ghost has since become recognizable as a standard "video game sound" in television shows all over the place, including some made much more recently!).
It is worth noting that, in these screen captures, only one of the four ghosts is ever visible. This isn't because the other three have been "eaten" or are otherwise disposed of. It's because the makers of this particular game couldn't figure out how to have four independent ghost sprites on the board simultaneously (a problem that was solved for future 2600-era Pac-family games). The designers worked around this problem by having each ghost strobe on screen one at a time so quickly that it gave the impression of four flickering ghosts on the screen at once. Effective enough, although all that flickering caused a lot of people eye strain (and possibly worse).*

Another oddity of this version of Pac-Man stems from the fact that most video arcade games of the 1980s used a monitor in a "portrait" orientation (that is, more tall than wide) whereas most televisions in people's homes use a "landscape" orientation (more wide than tall). To accommodate this difference, the 2600 version of Pac-Man does a kinda-sorta rotation of the game board when compared to the original game. The tunnels are at the top and bottom—instead of on the sides as in the original—and the ghosts come out of their central "home" via the right-hand side—instead of from the top. Otherwise, the board on the 2600 version—seen here rotated, stretched, and superimposed over the original version—is almost entirely dissimilar to the original board.

It is reported that there were around 10 million Atari 2600 game consoles in use in 1982, and the geniuses at Atari—believing not only that every Atari 2600 owner would want this game, but apparently also that owners of consoles not even made yet would also want it—had 12 million Pac-Man cartridges made. This means that, although Pac-Man was the top selling Atari 2600 cartridge of all time (selling over 7 million copies), there were an estimated 5 million more copies that never sold, and the "poor" sales of the game are often cited as a leading cause of the crash of the home video game market in 1983. The irony of these two bits of data alongside each other is simply astonishing.

I probably sound quite negative about this game, but it must be remembered that I'm writing from the perspective of an adult who can look back with the hindsight of 30 years of history, and history simply hasn't been kind to the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. But when I was a kid, this game was the whole reason I wanted to get an Atari console for my home, and I played it all the time once we finally got it (there's a story behind that, as well, but if I tell it, I should do so in a different post, as it's reasonably long). As ridiculous as the folks at Atari were to make more Pac-Man cartridges than consoles, they certainly had me pegged!

*This news article doesn't spell out that the offending version of Pac-Man was the 2600 version, but it does say the boy was playing at home, which indicates this version with a pretty high degree of probability.

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