Saturday, December 14, 2019

Game 123: Pac-Man (VCS)

Read the manual here:

A lot of the games I’ve played for Data Drive Gamers are classics. A lot are also stinkers. This infamous port may be the first classic game that’s classic for being a stinker, and it won’t be the last.

At the heart of Pac-Man’s woes is a technical limitation of the system; the VCS only supports two general-purpose sprites, and Pac-Man needs five. Atari previously overcame this limit in Space Invaders by simply adjusting the sprite horizontal position mid-scanline, effectively making rows of identical sprites, but Pac-Man’s monsters have more complex movement needs; they do not move together in fixed ranks as Space Invaders do.

Atari programmer Tod Frye came up with a solution, but an inelegant one. There’s technically only one monster, but it constantly teleports all over the screen, cycling between four different positions.

Slowed to 10fps

The result is the appearance of four different monsters on screen, but each with a nasty 15hz flicker, as only one monster is visible during each screen draw. This is allegedly why the monsters are called “ghosts” in the manual, a label that’s stuck to this day, although the original monsters looked pretty ghost-like to me.

The manual opens with some almost astounding hubris.

We know that millions of people all over the world just love the PAC-MAN arcade game. We also know that PAC-MAN has traditionally been an arcade game. Well, we at ATARI know all about arcade games. After all, we make some of the greatest arcade games in the world.

As with other Atari games, there are multiple game modes. The box claims 8, though each game also has an alternating two-player variant, so I’m surprised Atari didn’t call it 16. The difference between game modes is the speeds of Pac-Man and the ghosts, but there’s no logical sense to the number order.
  • 1: Slow Pac-Man, jogging ghosts
  • 2: Slow Pac-Man, running ghosts
  • 3: Fast Pac-Man, crawling ghosts
  • 4: Fast Pac-Man, walking ghosts
  • 5: Fast Pac-Man, jogging ghosts
  • 6: Fast Pac-Man, running ghosts
  • 7: Slow Pac-Man, crawling ghosts
  • 8: Slow Pac-Man, walking ghosts

The difficulty switch affects power pill and cherry duration.

I played a smattering of these modes, ending with the manual’s recommended expert setting of mode 6, difficulty A.

GAB rating: Bad

God, this was bad. I know that’s not exactly a revelation – if you type “worst video games” into Wikipedia, you’ll get a list where Pac-Man is among the first, noting its role in the biggest market crash in video game's history. But you have to play it to really understand why it’s so bad. Flickering aside, I can forgive the lame graphics, with rectangular “cherries,” orange dashes instead of dots, uniformly colored ghosts, and a non-rotating Pac-Man sprite, although why they made the background blue instead of black is beyond me. What’s less forgivable is that Pac-Man controls stiffly, doesn’t always obey directions, that the maze is nothing like the original, just a bunch of repeating broken squares without any parts to lose ghosts in, the ghosts have boring movement patterns, and that the sound is utter cacophony, and much worse than having no audio at all. Some of these flaws may have been unavoidable with the system’s limitations, but that doesn’t make this game any more fun to play.

Another big change is that ghosts now kill you if so as much as lightly brush up against them. I suppose I could get used to that if anything else about the game was decent, but it’s still jarring when I’m so used to the arcade version, where clipping partly through the monsters on a tight turn is a common gameplay occurrence, and it’s even possible to pass right through them if you’re lucky or have Billy Mitchell-like timing.

Despite its infamy, Pac-Man was the best-selling game on the system, at 7.7 million copies sold, and ultimately a commercial success, even if it underperformed and failed to meet Atari’s fantastic expectations. Contemporary reviews were unkind. A review by The Book of Atari Software gave it a D+, criticizing its poor controls, flicker, and limited graphics. A capsule review in Software Encyclopedia rated it 4/10, stating serious-minded Atarians who demand their home versions match the quality of their coin-op cousins just may find themselves seriously disappointed.


  1. I remember well when Pac-Man came out for the 2600... ugh! It was awful. Ms Pac-Man offered a much better gameplay a few years later when it came out, I suspect it used the 8 Kb cartridge which was available but felt to be too expensive for Pac-Man. The guy who wrote the game struggled to make it given the extreme limitations of the VCS hardware too... only 128 bytes of memory!

  2. There’s a latter-day version based on the Ms. Pac-Man engine that doesn’t flicker and gets the maze right, to taunt us with what could have been.


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