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A Debilitating Case of Pac-Man Fever
October 22, 2012 11:24 PM   Subscribe

"The original Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was quite the disaster and though it did sell a few million copies many would argue it was the beginning of Atari's end. And rightly so. Dennis Debro's brand new and properly indie Pac-Man 4k, on the other hand, hopes to make things right by cramming a way more faithful post of the original pill-chomper arcade game to the very same and now very retro machine." (via IndieGames)
posted by Shadax (55 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Anyone can go back and play Pac-Man. Kids these days can pick up an emulator or a retro box and play Pac-Man all they like. It is not hard to play Pac-Man. But only there elders, only the people who were alive in a given place and time, will remember an experience lost to the sands of time: Playing Pac-Man unironically.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:14 AM on October 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


That is pretty impressive!

I wonder, though. How long did it take to write this versus Atari's version? I know that ET was hacked out in like two weeks to meet the Christmas rush - lawyer wrangling took all the time. Wikipedia says the guy who coded Atari's version had six weeks. Not much time to cram all that in there, never mind dump the arcade ROMs and disassemble them to find the exact logic the ghosts ran on.
posted by egypturnash at 12:33 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Around 1982 or 1983 we had the little Coleco table-top version of Pac-Man. And the cereal. And the pillow cases. And the T-shirt.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:34 AM on October 23, 2012


Anyone can go back and play Pac-Man.

But no longer in a smoky bar with an ashtray, a stack of quarters, and pitcher of beer on the table, obscuring the display, as God intended.
posted by three blind mice at 1:15 AM on October 23, 2012 [14 favorites]


I see no compelling reason for him to have kept the dashed-line pellets. To me those were the ugliest thing in the original Atari version -- and that's saying something, 'cos the whole thing looks like something Blinky pooped out.

Though these images are from emulators, Atari Pac-Man, Atari Pac-Man. Note the lovely square pellets in the arcade version. It's a well-known fact that Pac-People prefer the taste of square pellets!

Despite that, it's a truly amazing piece of 2600 programming. I love that there are people still hacking these machines and stretching what's capable on them. Even if they don't feed their Pac-folk the right pellets.

Wokka wokka wokka wokka wokka ....
posted by barnacles at 1:32 AM on October 23, 2012


I see no compelling reason for him to have kept the dashed-line pellets

Those are the narrowest they can be. The playfield resolution on Atari 2600 is only 40 pixels wide (each pixel consisting of 4 color clock cycles), so you get these long 4x1 strips that make up the walls and pellets.

Only the sprites, in this case Pac-Man and the ghosts, can use the smallest 1x1 pixels.

In practice it's a lot more complicated (you can change the color of a pixel as it's being drawn), but that's the basic reason.
posted by LucVdB at 1:53 AM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Racing the Beam is a great little book detailing the how and why of a number of VCS games, including the original version of Pac-Man, with the objective of analysing the merits of the VCS itself as a platform.

I recommend it highly; you will never look at a VCS game the same way again, and it imbues a healthy reverence for Pitfall!.
posted by thoughtless at 2:33 AM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wikipedia has a good article on the original Atari 2600 Pac-Man. I hadn't realised that it's still the largest selling home videogame of all time, despite being something of a travesty and arguably precipitating the 80's videogame crash.
posted by phl at 2:42 AM on October 23, 2012


bicyclefish: But only there elders, only the people who were alive in a given place and time, will remember an experience lost to the sands of time: Playing Pac-Man unironically.

I will tell you right now that this is false, that it is possible to play and like Pac-Man now. It remains a very good game, although one that has a certain flaw to it: it is entirely deterministic, if you play a certain way each time, the monsters always react the same way, which makes patterns possible.

Ms. Pac-Man corrected this, and ultimately became an even more popular game, but the original's vulnerability to patterns probably helped its popularity at the time because it meant anyone, with some knowledge and practice, could master the game. You just had to know where to go and when, and you too could post the high score on the machine.

What is hard to remember is the size of the Pac-Man pop culture phenomenon -- seeing displays of Pac-Man pattern books in bookstores, drawing Pac-Man figures in third grade, Pac-Man Saturday morning cartoons, Pac-Man breakfast cereal. It wasn't just a game, those 16 kilobytes of game code were a gigantic fad. I don't think something as wonderfully simple and elemental could hit it big like that today. I think it's for the same reason it's impossible for novelty songs to become hits anymore: people look down their noses at such simple pleasures unless they can be considered "adult" somehow, which in practice means it related in some way to money or sex. (I'm convinced bronydom is a reaction to this tendency.)
posted by JHarris at 2:43 AM on October 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I hadn't realised that it's still the largest selling home videogame of all time, despite being something of a travesty and arguably precipitating the 80's videogame crash.

It's not, the article says it was the best-selling game up to that time, but a good number of games have surpassed it since. Wikipedia has a list. Super Mario Bros., notably, sold 40 million, and Wii Sports sold 79 million, although they were pack-ins. Mario Kart Wii sold 32 million.
posted by JHarris at 2:54 AM on October 23, 2012


The Colecovision version of Pac-Man was fantastic. The 2600 version, which I played on a borrowed cartridge in my Colecovision's 2600 Expansion Module, was not. But this looks like a real programming accomplishment, something that even the original programmer admits he needed 8k of memory to do.

Ye gods, I am OLD.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:55 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


JHarris, right - I didn't think that sounded correct.

Regarding Pac-Man's classic status, that's well deserved. It's a famous game for good reason. Pac-Man Championship Edition, and especially its 2010 follow-up Championship Edition DX, are fantastic games that hold their own against their contemporaries, and are based largely on the original's gameplay (with a few subtle but important tweaks).

Pac-Man's original designer, Tōru Iwatani, returned to work on Championship Edition - his final farewell to his creation before his retirement.
posted by phl at 2:58 AM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Pac-Man CE is excellent yes, and I sometimes compete in the iPad weekly leaderboard for it, which I've won on a number of occasions.
posted by JHarris at 4:21 AM on October 23, 2012


Looking at the links, I have to say: interesting, yes. But not $25 worth of interesting.
posted by JHarris at 4:25 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


LucVdB: "Only the sprites, in this case Pac-Man and the ghosts, can use the smallest 1x1 pixels.

In practice it's a lot more complicated (you can change the color of a pixel as it's being drawn), but that's the basic reason
"

LucVdB: thank you so much, that's an awesome and informative answer!

I'm still disappointed, but now it's mellowed by a dose of Pac-reality. But seriously, thanks!
posted by barnacles at 5:00 AM on October 23, 2012


Thing is, as shitty as Pac Man 2600 was we still played the thing over and over and over again. What else were we gonna do, play outside? Watch broadcast TV? Drugs? Lego? ALL the Atari brand 2600 games were shitty, except maybe Yar's Revenge. The good Atari games were by Activision (Pitfall, Chopper Command, Megamania, River Raid) or Imagic (Demon Attack, Atlantis, Cosmic Ark).

Be that as it may, this is amazing. Is it simply an issue of being able to spend much more time on it, or has game programming itself gained so much sophistication in the ensuing 30 years that there is effectively more power to be wrung out of the old hardware?
posted by dirtdirt at 5:16 AM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't think something as wonderfully simple and elemental could hit it big like that today. I think it's for the same reason it's impossible for novelty songs to become hits anymore: people look down their noses at such simple pleasures unless they can be considered "adult" somehow, which in practice means it related in some way to money or sex

From what I've seen, the Angry Birds phenomenon is pretty similar to this.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:18 AM on October 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


It boggles my mind that my wife (7 years younger than me, but still) had never played the arcade version nor realized just how much difference there is between it and the Atari 2600 version.

To her, the four-note intro and the flat pulsewave buzzing noise from picking up dots are the sound of Pac-Man ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HL2p2ANFlQ4&feature=youtu.be&t=8s ) rather than the much richer tune and waka-waka sound of the real thing.

Blows my mind.

I had an Atari Pac-Man shirt when I was a 5th grader. Thankfully, I managed to lose it at somebody else's house not long after I acquired it.
posted by Foosnark at 5:28 AM on October 23, 2012


ALL the Atari brand 2600 games were shitty, except maybe Yar's Revenge.

No. Berzerk is an excellent port, so are Asteroids, Phoenix and Space Invaders, Combat and Warlords are rightly remembered as the first really great console multiplayer games, and Adventure is great, holds up today, and is foundational for an entire genre.
posted by JHarris at 5:35 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I still remember the jarring disappointment I felt at 7 years old when hearing the 2600 version's startup sounds.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:37 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


From what I've seen, the Angry Birds phenomenon is pretty similar to this.

Eh. I look down on the belligerent avians if just because they're not as good a game as Pac-Man. (Bad Piggies, on the other hand, is pretty good.)
posted by JHarris at 5:37 AM on October 23, 2012


it's impossible for novelty songs to become hits anymore

A certain Korean novelty-pop sensation/wacky dance craze might beg to differ with you, sir.
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:57 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


In junior high we used Atari Pacman at the club fundraising table. right after the game was released. We set up two 2600s with Pacman and charged a quarter a game. We set a fundraising record that may have stood until the school was closed down last year.
posted by COD at 6:08 AM on October 23, 2012


No. Berzerk is an excellent port, so are Asteroids, Phoenix and Space Invaders, Combat and Warlords are rightly remembered as the first really great console multiplayer games, and Adventure is great, holds up today, and is foundational for an entire genre.

Vanguard as well.

In addition, a number of the better Atari-brand games came out well after the Crash -- Solaris, Stargate, Radar Lock, Midnight Magic, and a Jr. Pac-Man that made its predecessor look sick.

Of course, a good Atari 2600 port is sort of like a novel written by a spider monkey; one sets up the grade curve partly on its quality and partly that it managed to exist in the first place.
posted by delfin at 6:10 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recall that the 2600 release of Pac Man was huge. I think Sears was open late the night it was released. I remember there were articles in the paper about it, the hype was huge. Of course it was terrible, but you didn't have Pac Man on the Intellivision!
posted by Catblack at 6:15 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think I spent just as much time looking for an Easter egg in Atari Pac Man as I spent playing it. Kept holding the power down halfway, flicking Reset over and over again. Nothing. By the time Pac Man was released plenty of games had secret messages in them (most notably Adventure, the original Easter egg, but Defender and Yars Revenge had them too) so I figured it must be in there somewhere. That was the most disappointing part of the game for me.

Unless you include the rest of the game.
posted by bondcliff at 6:23 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


More on Atari's end days (and what it was like working there), previously on the blue.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:28 AM on October 23, 2012


I had the Atari 5200 version, which was great. I remember my parents, who generally disapproved of my videogame habits, staying up very, very late playing two-player pac-man.

The game that I played into the ground on that system was Pitfall II. I recommended it to my brothers, who had colecovision, and it turned out that the entire second half of the game was not in that version, or at least we never found it.

I also loved Star Wars, but once you hit a certain difficulty it didn't get any harder, so I'd just have to turn off the machine in the middle of a game when I was done.

Countermeasure was a game I didn't actually enjoy playing that much, but I used to enter the passcode randomly just so I could see the end sequence, which I thought was amazing.

Oh, and there's a cassette of Pac-Man Fever sitting upstairs right now that I can't actually listen to because I have no tape deck.

/nostalgia
posted by Huck500 at 6:29 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Of course it was terrible, but you didn't have Pac Man on the Intellivision!

Wanna bet?
posted by delfin at 6:44 AM on October 23, 2012


The best Pac-Man game ever was the one on the Nintendo 64 that was multiplayer: the Pac-Man player played on a DS connected to the main N64 unit, and he got to see the whole tile set. The others played the ghosts on a split screen on the TV and only saw a small area around each ghost. What a hoot that was!! The tension when playing Pac-Man was palpable!
posted by Vindaloo at 6:48 AM on October 23, 2012


When I was in college, I remember looking at the specs of the Atari 2600 and having been a long-time 6502 hacker, I was intrigued at what went into the games. Since I'd done a ton of Apple II code which relied on vagaries of hardware and did unusual things just to squeeze a cycle or two out of an inner loop, I was appalled to find out how little you have to work with.

The CPU does almost all the drawing, leaving time at the end of each line (horizontal blanking) and at the end of each pass (vertical blanking) for a little game computation. And you have a whopping 128 bytes of ram. Now count the number of dots on the screen: 148. So he's using 148 bits or 19 bytes to track the dots. 19 bytes out of 128. In other words, he has almost 15% of the RAM committed to dots. Then consider each ghost has an x and a y and a current direction and state (12 bytes, nominally) and pac man has an x and a y and a direction and a mouth state (say, 3 bytes), score (say 6 bytes of BCD), current level (1 byte), fruit (1 byte) - just the basics of this game are consuming most of the scant resources. Will there be any room left for a stack? If not, say good bye to using JSR (aka, subroutines). It's no wonder that the original Atari cartridge looked like crap.

And this isn't the half of it. Watch the post-mortem of Pitfall done by David Crane, the game's designer. Yikes.
posted by plinth at 6:50 AM on October 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


From what I've seen, the Angry Birds phenomenon is pretty similar to this.

It is similar in that it has round characters that make funny sounds that kids like to mimic, accessible one-control gameplay, and a completely abstract "storyline". For many it will be the first video game they ever play.

Still, Pac-Man was a true original -- in gameplay and in the idea that video games could have identifiable characters -- while Angry Birds is largely based on an obscure Flash game. I think the Rovio guys realize this and applaud them for trying new things like Bad Piggies.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:41 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Relevant
posted by lalochezia at 7:53 AM on October 23, 2012


plinth, I'm not sure if the 2600's custom version of the 6502 is even set up to use JSR. I know it doesn't support interrupts.

vindaloo, you're thinking of Pac-Man Vs. for the Gamecube, which used GBAs, not DS, for each player's controller. I have a copy of that somewhere, but considering it needs three GBAs and connecting cables to play properly it has rather a high overhead.
posted by JHarris at 8:17 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh:

and a Jr. Pac-Man that made its predecessor look sick.

Shame on me for forgetting about Jr. Pac-Man! That's one of the absolute best games on the 2600. It's got huge scrolling mazes! Surprisingly faithful to the arcade version, and even harder. It's blazingly fast and a lot of fun so long as you accept you aren't going to last very long.
posted by JHarris at 8:20 AM on October 23, 2012


I recommended it to my brothers, who had colecovision, and it turned out that the entire second half of the game was not in that version, or at least we never found it.

That's actually a special "second quest" map included in the 5200 and Atari 8-bit computer versions of Pitfall II.
posted by JHarris at 8:27 AM on October 23, 2012


delfin, I believe that was a version of Pac-Man made for Intellivision by Atarisoft, which specialized in making excellent ports of arcade games for home computers. Close examination of the game shows that the developers knew their stuff: although the maze is different from the arcade, the ghosts still obey the "one way passages" above their box, and they even seem to respect the scatter and chase modes that were uncovered in the Pac-Man Dossier. The people who made that version probably worked from a disassembly of the arcade code.
posted by JHarris at 8:35 AM on October 23, 2012


Wait, you can actually buy this game and plug into an old 2600???

Oh my god. If I can figure out how to hook the Atari to a modern TV there'll no longer be a reason to leave the house. Screw food! I'm gonna live on ghosts!
posted by Kevin Street at 8:49 AM on October 23, 2012


I won a $25 gift certificate in a Pac-Man contest back in 1982, which sounds pretty cool. Sadly, it was Atari Pac-Man.

But back in the day, way too young for drugs and booze and out for the summer, we'd play any old crap on the 2600 - even the terrible Donkey Kong port with 2 levels got plenty of play. Thank god for Activision - Pitfall, Keystone Kapers, River Raid, Decathlon - they made the console look good.
posted by porn in the woods at 8:51 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is good to note that Activision only came to exist because Atari's managers treated their programmers so badly that they quit and founded their own company.
posted by JHarris at 8:55 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


JHarris: people look down their noses at such simple pleasures unless they can be considered "adult" somehow, which in practice means it related in some way to money or sex. (I'm convinced bronydom is a reaction to this tendency.)

I dunno, a not-insignificant portion of bronydom is an embodiment of this tendency. There's a lot of NSFW pony images out there...
posted by Dysk at 8:59 AM on October 23, 2012


I dunno, a not-insignificant portion of bronydom is an embodiment of this tendency.

It's a derail, but.... No, I find too much is made of this, I'm pretty sure the majority of the community does not generally participate in the making or consumption of those images. That's how I see it anyway, judging from how the core sites of the fandom generally don't cater to that element, and they still have no shortage of material to present.
posted by JHarris at 9:07 AM on October 23, 2012


and it imbues a healthy reverence for Pitfall!.
My god yes. Even at the time, I was wondering how the ^(& they even pulled that off.
I recommended it to my brothers, who had colecovision, and it turned out that the entire second half of the game was not in that version, or at least we never found it.
Wait, there's *more* of the game (I had a colecovision)? Uh oh...
posted by smidgen at 9:36 AM on October 23, 2012


I fully agree with DirtDirt. This was my favorite game. I had Colecovision with the Atari expander (oohhh ahhhh). I still have both and the tv adapter. It was the dumbest game but for some reason I found it fascinating. I think because when you got to the end it was like "that's it???? WTF?" yet you thought it just had to be something else. Something big, grand, spectacular.

Nope, the Sphinx just took your treasure as offerings and you got points. Big wooptie do. Yet I loved it.
posted by stormpooper at 10:14 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jharris -

Yes, you can use JSR on a 6507, but each JSR uses 2 bytes of stack out of your total 128 - in other words, 1/64 or 1.5% of available ram. Crane says they budgeted a max JSR depth of 2, so 4 bytes.
posted by plinth at 10:36 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


bondcliff >> I think I spent just as much time looking for an Easter egg in Atari Pac Man as I spent playing it. Kept holding the power down halfway, flicking Reset over and over again. Nothing. By the time Pac Man was released plenty of games had secret messages in them (most notably Adventure, the original Easter egg, but Defender and Yars Revenge had them too) so I figured it must be in there somewhere. That was the most disappointing part of the game for me.

I didn't go looking for an Easter egg, but I stumbled over an amusing bug. Somehow, by wrenching the controller around rapidly (never found a precise pattern) Pac-Man would cease moving left and right and fly through the walls up and down. Including flying off the top/bottom and reappearing at the bottom/top. Still eating dots and still vulnerable to ghosts. I think I occasionally managed to get him firmly mobile back in the maze as well.
posted by K.P. at 10:54 AM on October 23, 2012


If I can figure out how to hook the Atari to a modern TV there'll no longer be a reason to leave the house

You need this connected to a TV or VCR with an NTSC tuner. I use an old VCR (easy to find one that has a tuner but may not play tapes), and connect the VCR's line out to my TV's line in.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:13 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Activision did have the best games. A few of my favourites: Freeway (2-player) and Frostbite. You can still play Freeway with friends today after a few drinks and have a mostly unironic fun time.

Atari did release a good Pac-Man for the 2600: Ms. Pac-Man. It looks lame and choppy in this video, but it's actually quite playable and smooth. Much better than Pac-Man.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:21 AM on October 23, 2012


Pac-Man on the 2600 was such a let-down... I had been relegated to playing Munch Man on the TI-99/4A which was cool but not quite as satisfying as an arcade Pac-Man machine.

The little girl next door told me about her Atari 2600 and the games she had and I was all like, "You can play Pac-Man at home? The Pac-Man?" How cool was that? Because, y'know, Atari was one of the companies that made arcade machines. And I begged her to let me visit and play.

Then when I finally got to I was like "WTF is this crap?" Such a ridiculously bad version of Pac-Man. I had been under the impression that unless it was exactly like an arcade Pac-Man game you couldn't call it Pac-Man, à la Munch Man. I suspect now that part of the reason she had been resistant to letting me visit was because she knew it was crap and that it would no longer be something to be jealous of once I knew that too.
posted by XMLicious at 12:05 PM on October 23, 2012


Thing is, as shitty as Pac Man 2600 was we still played the thing over and over and over again. What else were we gonna do, play outside?

Play K.C. Munchkin on the Odyssey2.
posted by straight at 12:27 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had the Atari port of Mario Brothers. It had some flickering and the colour of the "wafers" would change depending on what was in a horizontal line with it. Years later, now that I know some programming and have learned about the graphics limitations they were working with, makes sense what was going on. But at the time it was kind of mystifying and hypnotic.
posted by RobotHero at 12:31 PM on October 23, 2012


Munch Man?

Now you're going way back with Ron Jeremy.
posted by stormpooper at 2:22 PM on October 23, 2012


Play K.C. Munchkin on the Odyssey2.

Oh, god, we had one of those when I was a kid, and had "K.C.'s Krazy Chase", which let you make your own maps (a laborious process), and my sister and I made some horrifyingly dumb levels on that thing.
Ucch. What a crappy console. I loved it.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 4:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, watching these videos of people playing Pac-man I keep going SPACE JUMP in my head because they COULD HAVE EATEN THOSE BLUE GHOSTS AND THEY'RE RUNNING AWAY INSTEAD WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM.
posted by RobotHero at 6:02 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I still remember the jarring disappointment I felt at 7 years old when hearing the 2600 version's startup sounds.

I can imagine this very well. It's the theme song of disillusionment.
posted by JHarris at 11:37 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


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