I’ve recently been really enjoying RetroAchievements. It’s a site where you can unlock Xbox Live-like achievements for older games, provided you’re using a hacked emulator logged into the site. It’s a novel concept, and it’s a nice excuse to dig back into some of my favorite Atari games and try “mastering” (getting all the achievements in) them.
When I covered Racing the Beam on this blog back in 2020, I mentioned one of the games covered in that book being Atari’s Pac-Man. It’s a great tale of disappointment, one of Atari’s programmers given a mere 4K of ROM to produce the flagship game of the 1981 Christmas season. The results were not pretty, and along with E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, became the poster children of the glut of low-quality games being produced at the time and later symbolized the “game burial” in the Sunnyvale desert where Atari famously dumped their excess stock.
Game reviews of VCS Pac-Man often don’t dissect it any further than “it’s ugly and plays like crap and you already knew that”. But how does it play like crap? What are the little details that make it such a below-average port? Is it playable on its own merits, despite how alien it is to the arcade version? That’s what I’m here to discuss. You might want to wear ear protection.
The surface tension
There’s no way around it. VCS Pac-Man looks unimpressive. For one thing, the board layout is completely different to the arcade version, with the exit tunnels moved to the top and bottom of the screen, and ghosts exiting the ghost pen sideways. There’s far more turns in this maze than there are in the funky arcade one, and thus a lot more opportunities to get sandwiched.
One perennial problem with arcade ports is differences in screen aspect ratio between upright arcade cabinets and TV sets. Arcade games are taller than they are wide, while consumer displays are wider than they are tall. This means you either have to squeeze the game down vertically, display the game on its side (Namco Museum DS lets you do this), or make the board scroll around at its original size.
Modern displays have high enough screen resolution that scaling the game down is usually not a big deal. Slightly older ports often put the game area on the left and the score, number of lives, level, and some artwork on a strip on the right. Newer ports and emulations, like the Xbox Live Arcade version of Galaga, keep the info all on the game screen and fill the sides of the display with artwork.
The Atari, being as low resolution as it is and certainly not having the juice to feature proper emulations, often got ports tweaked to play to the console’s strengths instead. Space Invaders, famously, was a graphical upgrade to the arcade version, featuring distinct alien shapes per row and color, two things the arcade original did not have. Other ports were less successful. Zaxxon featured a 3/4ths pseudo-3D perspective in the arcade and on the Colecovision, but featured an awkward behind the ship view in the 2600 version.
In Pac-Man‘s case, the board layout was completely rearranged to fit horizontally on a TV screen. It’s also mirrored horizontally, as the playfield graphics on the Atari were often mirrored to save on drawing the other half of the screen. This layout is highly repetitive, but theoretically not terrible. The two inner left and right strips, you can clear fairly efficiently by swooping from bottom to top, back and forth, and two passes at the furthest strips with the power pellets will do the same.
Problem being, the board isn’t really optimized for this. Pac-dots in the arcade version were, well, dots, and spaced evenly. The dots in this version are explained away as “video wafers” in the manual, and their positioning and collision is highly irregular. Sometimes you’ll get them as you’re passing downwards, sometimes you have to pass them horizontally completely to eat them. It throws off what could be a decently slick pattern through the board, and that sucks.
Like Space Invaders, the graphics have changed, though less appealingly. Pac-Man now has an eye, but he also does not face up and down. Despite this, you can still be parked against a wall vertically, like in the arcade version, though he’ll simply look like he’s facing left or right as always, possibly confusing you in the process. The fruit has been changed to a blocky “vitamin”, according to the manual (Atari were smooth operators), the maze is a strange orange and blue combo as opposed to the clean black and neon blue of the arcade (because Atari said black backgrounds were for space games only), and the ghosts flicker like crazy.
Of all the graphical oddities, I mind the flicker the least. It’s offensive to the eyes, but ghosts are supposedly transparent anyway, so seeing the background through them makes sense. If you’re wondering the technical reason, the Atari only had two hardware player sprites to work with, and the programmer decided to use one for Pac-Man and the other for all four ghosts, trading which one gets drawn on screen every single frame. This is why you only ever see a single one on screen in my screenshots.
The sound is also…awful. It’s actually the part I mind the most. Pac-Man’s catchy intro jingle has been replaced with this harsh, dissonant, scratchy four note electronic bugle that plays every time you die, almost as if to mock you. Mercifully, it doesn’t after completing each wave (though the game pauses like it still plays, oddly enough). The famous “wakka-wakka” eating noise is a fuzzy, out of tune piano key being struck over and over, and inexplicably, the death noise ascends in pitch, not descends like in the arcade. Listen in if you dare.
The differences inside
Now we get into the meat of why I wanted to write this. If you play the arcade Pac-Man and then the VCS Pac-Man, you’ll find the latter does not play much at all like the former. The famous ghost personalities are nowhere to be found in the 2600 version, “blue times” (the period of time ghosts are vulnerable after you eat a power pellet) never shrink, the collision detection on ghosts is just as bad as on the dots–there’s a lot to unpack here.
As far as the ghosts go, they all act fairly interchangeably, and in fact, usually follow each other out of the ghost pen in a big pack. This is unlike the arcade version, where each ghost exits the pen one after another. Paired with their wonky collision detection (which I’ll come back to), this becomes a real pain in the ass when the boards get fast enough, which is another common Atari tactic to increase difficulty, but nowhere to be seen in the arcade version. They’re like a big nuclear ghost bomb being dropped downwards through the maze by the late game.
Normally, the four ghosts have distinct targeting patterns, or “personalities”. Roughly, Blinky, the red one, gives chase directly to Pac-Man’s current position, Pinky, pink, targets four tiles in front of Pac-Man (thus setting you up for ambushes), Inky, blue, targets two tiles in front of Pac-Man plus Blinky’s position (ambushes and chase when pursued by Blinky), and Clyde, orange, obfuscates, chasing like Blinky when further than eight tiles from Pac-Man, and scattering to the bottom left of the maze when closer than eight tiles from Pac-Man. This writeup on their behavior is fascinating if you’re curious how such a simple game pulled off such effective AI.
As far as I can tell, VCS Pac-Man has no differences in ghost personality. Wikipedia says that two of the ghosts are smarter in their route choices and the other two are faster than the others, but this really makes no difference in practice. I’ve regularly found myself in situations where the ghosts would close in on me in the arcade version, but instead turn down a tunnel and let me through in the 2600 version. They often walk right into me during their blue states, however.
Speaking of blue states, ghosts don’t turn around when you eat a power pellet, which can catch you off-guard if you’re used to setting your sights behind the ghosts after getting one. In the later stages of Pac-Man, the blue times are so short, they’re nonexistent, and this turnaround is all you get to make the power pellets useful. Blue times never shrink in the VCS port, meanwhile. The only thing the later boards do is speed the ghosts up, which makes pursuing them during their blue times basically pointless, as they eventually move faster than you do.
That increased speed basically makes the game unplayable by the 6-7th board (on the first game variation) unless you’re as conniving as Atari was when they put it out. If you move anywhere towards the ghost pen at the start, they’ll get you. I’ve found you have to fake out into the exit tunnel, tricking them towards the bottom of the screen, in order to get some breathing room, and then use your power pellets to let you clear some of the board safely. The very loose collision detection on the ghosts isn’t too noticeable at a slower speed, but by those later waves, ghosts nicking you from around the corner is constant. It’s incredibly unforgiving.
Speed variations in movement are a pretty easy way to tell a lazy port. In the arcade, Pac-Man will always move a little faster than the ghosts if he’s not currently eating, meaning quick movement and patterns are all you need when the maze is mostly cleared out. Ports often miss this and have the ghosts slightly faster than Pac-Man even when he’s not eating, meaning chases are mostly a war of attrition; given enough distance, Pac-Man will get nabbed.
There’s game variations where you can get comically slow ghosts from the first wave, but really, all that does is prolong how you can play until it gets too quick for comfort. Still, I feel it gives you more playtime and a higher score, if that’s what you want (and it might be, if you’re going for RetroAchievements).
One final note that alters the gameplay: you get an extra life for every board you clear, not for reaching 10,000 points. This means that games of VCS Pac-Man, even with the increased ghost speed, tends to last a lot longer than the arcade version, where you can only ever have six lives total, assuming you have the DIP switches or your port set to start you with five. (Scoring is equally strange, “video wafers” being worth a single point as opposed to the ten points per pac-dot, and scores in the four figures being common.)
The silver lining
I’ve spent a lot of time ragging on VCS Pac-Man, and yet, I actually kinda like it. For all the gameplay differences, for all the limitations of the Atari hardware, this port is actually pretty impressive. It makes Pac-Man work on the Atari without tons of special programming tricks or the original game code. It comes up with something that’s still fairly playable, at least for a bit.
Again, setting aside the end product, let me create some context for you. Tod Frye (who looked like Todd Howard in my head until I saw a video of him) was given none of the original design docs or game code for arcade Pac-Man to study from. He insisted on a two-player mode, meaning that half of the Atari’s 128 bytes of RAM had to be taken up just by game state. Atari cheaped out, only giving him 4K of ROM to work with and instead used their power as the leader to bully competing Pac-Man clones like the Odyssey 2’s K.C. Munchkin out of the market, so this Pac-Man was the only show in town.
The Atari 2600, as I outlined in my Racing the Beam review, was optimized for Atari to sell you a Tank game and a Pong game. That’s what the hardware was built for. No frame buffer, two hardware sprites for players, two missile sprites, and one ball sprite. Tank and Pong became Combat and Video Olympics, both launch titles for the VCS, so beyond that, programmers had to get creative with how they fit their increasingly complex games on the console meant to sell you Tank and Pong. Given that mess, you tell me how you would’ve made Pac-Man work.
Still, the results do leave a bunch to be desired. If you’re looking for good maze games on the Atari, I’d highly suggest Lock and Chase from Mattel (seen above) or either Ms. or Jr. Pac-Man, all three of which look better, sound far closer to their arcade counterparts, and give you a much more fair run for your money. There’s also been several attempts to either hack up Ms. Pac-Man or create from scratch a better Pac-Man for the Atari. Pac-Man 8K looks and sounds incredibly close to the far superior Atari 5200 version, and the old Pac-Man Arcade hack is quite solid as well.
VCS Pac-Man stands as a misunderstood little oddity that just happened to be the biggest game in the world when it came out. You can still play it for a few rounds, and it’ll play a bit like Pac-Man! There’s better options for your compulsive maze cleanup game needs, but I’ve still played it way too much these past few days. (I’m missing the 10,000 point achievement needed for mastery. Soon. Soon, dammit.)