videogame his­tory when he Pro­gram­mer Tod Frye made of Pac-man. BUT nearly 40 de­signed The atari 2600 ver­sion re­cep­tion in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence, The game’s years later, That The Past are still chas­ing him and ghosts of

Retro Gamer - - PAC-MAN -

i n early 1981, Atari as­signed a bril­liant, for­merly home­less, high school dropout to one of its most im­por­tant games ever – the home ver­sion of its mega-hit Pac-man.

Pac-man’s pop cul­ture in­va­sion be­gan a year ear­lier, when an army of lit­tle yel­low dot-munch­ers stormed the ar­cades, pool halls and con­ve­nience stores of Amer­ica. The wildly-pop­u­lar ar­cade game smashed de­mo­graphic bar­ri­ers around the world with its ap­proach­able, non-vi­o­lent game de­sign. Play­ers of all ages and walks of life were drawn to one of the first char­ac­ter-based videogames. Pac-man was a gen­uine phe­nom­e­non, sell­ing an es­ti­mated 400,000 cab­i­nets world­wide. The game also spawned a mer­chan­dis­ing bo­nanza, with the char­ac­ter’s im­age em­bla­zoned on bed­sheets, drink­ing glasses, T-shirts, stick­ers, ce­real, a Satur­day-morn­ing car­toon, and even a pop sin­gle.

Atari was bet­ting gamers would play Pac-man at home, too, when it ac­quired the home videogame rights from Pac-man’s par­ent com­pany Namco. The ar­cade game’s pop­u­lar­ity guar­an­teed that it would come to liv­ing rooms on the pop­u­lar Atari 2600, the home con­sole.

The job fell to pro­gram­mer Tod Frye, who was re­garded as a bril­liant, but undis­ci­plined, soft­ware en­gi­neer at Atari. In high school, he cut classes – hid­ing in a closet to smoke pot and pro­gram on a Wang 3300 com­puter to pro­duce a text-based ad­ven­ture game with the player cast in the role of drug dealer. “I wasn’t drawn to ath­let­ics,” he re­mem­bers. “I wasn’t drawn to act­ing. I was drawn to pro­gram­ming. It just found me.” Tod could look at code and see “a prob­lem to be fixed”, and writ­ing code of­fered him “a god­like power to make things right, to bring order to chaos – to cre­ate some­thing that wasn’t go­ing to be there if you didn’t make it”.

Tod dropped out of high school in his ju­nior year, and his fa­ther kicked him out of the house. Re­bel­lious and home­less on the streets of Berke­ley, he pan­han­dled un­til find­ing work on a con­struc­tion crew, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a mas­ter car­pen­ter. Later, a high-school friend helped him get an in­ter­view at Atari, and Tod re­turned to the only call­ing that had cap­ti­vated him. He be­gan work as a game pro­gram­mer in 1979, at one of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s hottest com­pa­nies.

His ini­tial projects in­cluded a hand­held

Break­out game and the Atari 400/800 ver­sion of As­teroids. Like many oth­ers, he en­joyed the free­wheel­ing cul­ture of Atari, where em­ploy­ees mixed the busi­ness of game pro­gram­ming with chem­i­cal plea­sure. On fel­low pro­gram­mer Howard War­shaw’s first day, Tod in­tro­duced him­self by light­ing up a joint in his of­fice and invit­ing Howard to smoke with him – only “the good stuff”.

Tod also show­cased his odd­ball side. He earned the nick­name of ‘Arf­man’ for bark­ing like a dog as he roamed the halls. The tall pro­gram­mer would lit­er­ally scale Atari’s walls, too, plac­ing a foot on each wall of the nar­row hall­ways of the com­pany’s Sun­ny­vale head­quar­ters, then can­tilever­ing his way down the cor­ri­dors sev­eral feet off the ground.

Track & Field

■ Atari pre­served the fast-paced ex­pe­ri­ence of this Kon­ami clas­sic on the 2600. The game chal­leng­ing both with the stan­dard joy­stick, and us­ing the pack-in ar­cade style con­troller. Much like its ex­cel­lent Olympic cousin, De­cathlon, Track & Field is as phys­i­cally de­mand­ing as a clas­sic con­sole game gets.

dou­ble dragon

■ Credit to pro­gram­mer Dan Kitchen for even at­tempt­ing this pop­u­lar ar­cade game near the end of the 2600’s life­span. It has two-player ac­tion and mul­ti­ple lev­els, but the game is crush­ingly dif­fi­cult be­cause its cru­cial spe­cial moves have been dis­tilled into awk­ward com­bos on the 2600’s sin­gle-but­ton joy­stick.


■ Some ar­cade trans­la­tions are too am­bi­tious for their own good, and this par­tic­u­lar Atari 2600 port sheds too much of the orig­i­nal’s charm. In try­ing to pre­serve Ram­page’s sig­na­ture two-player may­hem, the 2600 con­ver­sion fal­ters with poor col­li­sion de­tec­tion is­sues and a weak graph­i­cal style.


■ Atari man­aged to cap­ture the fre­netic pace of the ar­cade in this Atari 2600 coun­ter­part, and it plays even bet­ter with Atari’s Trak-ball con­troller. The graph­ics are a sig­nif­i­cant step back­ward from the ar­cade orig­i­nal, but the pure and com­pelling game­play al­most makes up for that loss.

star wars: The ar­cade game

■ It’s al­most shock­ing how well this iconic space shooter looks and feels on the Atari 2600. The colour vec­tor graph­ics and im­mer­sive cock­pit cabi­net are miss­ing, of course, but the 2600 does a fine job of repli­cat­ing the dog­fights and trench run from the ar­cade orig­i­nal.

» [Atari 2600] The 2600’s maze was cre­ated us­ing block­ier, low­er­res­o­lu­tion ‘play­field graph­ics’ mir­rored across the ver­ti­cal axis.

» The Atari 2600 was no stranger to big ar­cade ports, thanks to re­leases like Space In­vaders.

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