THE STORY OF... PAC-MAN ON ATARI 2600
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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.
■ 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.
» The Atari 2600 was no stranger to big arcade ports, thanks to releases like Space Invaders.
» [Atari 2600] The 2600’s maze was created using blockier, lowerresolution ‘playfield graphics’ mirrored across the vertical axis.