Happy National Pac-Man Day (Or How I Loved The Atari 2600 Version Of Pac-Man)

Hello Arcaders!

Happy National Pac-Man Day!

First things first- this won’t be a Pac- bashing. Most reviewers will make this game out to be the beginning of the end for the “golden age” of games and the “video game crash”.  There was so much more involved than one game. The big reason was oversaturation of product from 2nd party companies that just couldn’t make quality games and compete in the market- let alone the companies that weren’t in the industry to begin with- I’m looking at you, Ralston Purina…

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At the publishing of this article, it Has been 40 years since the release of the Atari VCS version of Pac-Man. And- it is the most divisive game of the early 80s. (more so than even E.T.)

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Why?  Everyone knew what to expect. Pac-Man, ghosts, dots, maze. They got those, but not the way they expected.

So- how did we from this-

To this-

There is a very good reason for it- I’ll let the Atari programmers explain.

In 1976, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell had sold the company  to Warner Communications to get investment into the VCS’s development. The dynamic of the company shifted overnight- programmers weren’t being compensated well or even being recognized for their programs. But, after a few significant incidents- a few top programmers left Atari, and founded Activision and Imagic, and Warren Robbinet created the very first Easter egg in the game Adventure, and the tour de force that was Howard Scott Warshaw- creating Yars Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark- things were about to change.

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Let’s move ahead to early 1981. Tod Frye took on the challenge of Pac-Man – and became the first top paid programmer. Frye had programmed the Atari 8-bit family version of Asteroids, the Swordquest series (Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and the uncompleted Airworld), Save Mary, Shooting Arcade and Xevious for the Atari 2600. If anyone was up to the task- he was.


From Wikipedia-

Frye, who was not provided with any arcade design specifications to work from and had to figure out how the game worked by playing it. Tod Frye had just five weeks to complete the conversion. The company had learned from its earlier mistakes and promised Frye a royalty on every cartridge manufactured. he has stated in the past- “he had became Atari’s first rich programmer” ( some have said millions).

The finished game uses a 4KB ROM cartridge, chosen for its lower manufacturing costs compared to 8KB bank-switched cartridges which had recently become available. As with any contemporary arcade port, the simple Atari 2600 hardware was a considerable limitation. The arcade PAC-MAN system board contained 2KB of main RAM (random-access memory) in which to run the program, 2KB of video RAM to store the screen state, and 16KB of ROM (read-only memory) to store the game code, whereas the Atari 2600 featured only 128 bytes of RAM memory and none dedicated to video: effectively 32 times less RAM. The Zilog Z80 CPU microprocessor used by the Namco Pac-Man arcade system is clocked at three times the speed of the MOS 6507 CPU in the Atari 2600 – though the Z80 typically does less work per clock cycle.

To deal with these limitations, Frye simplified the maze’s intricate pattern of corridors to a more repetitive pattern. The small tan pellets in the arcade original were changed to rectangular “wafers” that shared the wall color on the 2600; a change necessitated because both the pellets and walls were drawn with the 2600’s Playfield graphics, which have a fixed width. To achieve the visual effect of wafers disappearing as Pac-Man eats them, the actual map of the maze was updated as the data was written into the Playfield registers, excluding those pellets that had been eaten. The 2600’s Player-Missile graphics system (sprites) were used for the remaining objects; the one-bit-wide Missiles were used to render the flashing power pills and the center of the vitamin. Pac-Man and ghost characters were implemented using the 2600’s two Player objects, with one being used for Pac-Man and the other being used for all four ghosts, with the result that each ghost only appears once out of every four frames, which creates a flickering effect. This effect takes advantage of the slow phosphorescent fade of CRT monitors and the concept of persistence of vision, resulting in the image appearing to linger on screen longer, but the flickering remains noticeable, and makes each individual ghost’s color nearly impossible to discern. Frye chose to abandon plans for a flicker-management system to minimize the flashing in part because Atari didn’t seem to care about that issue in its zeal to have the game released. According to Frye, his game also did not conform to the arcade game’s color scheme in order to comply with Atari’s official home product policy that only space type games should feature black backgrounds. Another quality-impact was his decision that two-player gameplay was important, which meant that the 23 bytes required to store the current difficulty, state of the dots on the current maze, remaining lives, and score had to be doubled for a second player, consuming 46 of the 2600’s meager 128-byte memory, which precluded its use for additional game data and features.

So- it all came down to… money. Atari Paid millions for the license to have the first home version. They contractually had to pay Frye on every cartridge. More money out of their hands at the time. They wanted it out as fast as possible. and to cut the fat further, they restricted Frye to only 4k of ram, instead of the standard 8k that they were using on most games at the time.

Frye has stated that he had the kernel programmed in 4k- with a black background- and it was a much better game.

In 2006, Kurt Howe had taken a version of Frye’s code and assembled it in 8k… and it’s so much better. He added a black background ( a feature that Frye fought hard for- but the executives at Atari were against- they were afraid it would cause burn in.) The Programmer even added better ghost animations, Pac- Man actually moves in the proper direction, bonus fruits look like fruit, and more! Frye was right- this one would have raced off shelves faster!

Take a look for yourselves.

But, I digress.

I think the big problem I had with the early reviewers- a mock up screenshot had gone out a month or so before the release of the game. The mock ups always looked like they were done with cutouts made of construction paper. It was pretty cool. I always dug that.

Check out the ghosts- I always liked how they were put on an angle- instead of straight. like they were floating.

Awesome. Anyway, I think at that moment in time, we knew it wasn’t going to look like the arcade game. the 2600, like the NES after it, was designed for a specific type of game- Bronze age games. What’s a Bronze age game?

Games made before 1979 are typically considered Bronze age.

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And- it could do those just fine.

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A game like Pac- Man… a Golden age game, with more detailed animations with multiple sprites, a large color palate for the time, and and an actual  theme song and multi sound channels… was never going to be accurate at the time- even without the restraints that were in place.

OK- let’s get to Pac-Man Day!

From the Pac-Man Wiki-

Atari National Pac-Man Day was an event held on April 3rd, 1982 to promote the release of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. Pac-Man and Blinky mascot costumes appeared in various major cities across the U.S., handing out items such as hats, t-shirts, and stickers to children, as well as taking photographs. No subsequent Pac-Man Days followed in 1983 onwards, but it can be presumed the holiday always takes place on April 3rd.

So- let’s say you are the largest video game company in the world. You just obtained the rights to the biggest arcade game ever, and you’re making the first home adaptation- on a console that was 5 years old.  How do you help sell it?

By declaring a national holiday of course!

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Those ads started MONTHS before release. And- it worked. Hook, line, and sinker. On me.

A friend in my neighborhood worked at Crazy Eddie. If you lived in the New York City area…  you know…

A neighborhood friend’s dad worked for them in the city. He had told him a few weeks before the release on March 16, 1982, he would be getting 10 extra cartridges in his store- for family and friends to purchase. Lines were going to be big that day to get a copy- so good luck getting one. There was just enough for everyone in the neighborhood to get one. I chipped in my $21.00 (His dad’s store discount on the game.)

We paid our money a week before release. That was a long week. I was in school on the release date. I thought the week was long, that day was longer. I got home, there, on the kitchen table- in a Crazy Eddie bag, was the first home version of my favorite game- ever. I grabbed that bag, and ran down the stairs to the family room TV- where my VCS was hooked up. put the cartridge in, put on my radio headphones, (The big honking kind with the antenna coming out the right earpiece)  and… I was playing Pac-Man at home. I didn’t have anything negative to say at the time. Yeah, it looked different. but at that moment- I was actually playing Pac-Man without leaving the house. That was a big deal to kids back then.

Those sounds- they never leave your conciseness.


For the last decade or so- our vision has become jaded by better and greater everything- polygon count, better and more realistic sound, Hi-definition picture. But, the simple fact of the matter is, what we have now- owes a great deal of gratitude to what came before it. Whether it was good or not-whatever rumors and stories persist- people still loved this game. And I was one of them…

…Until I got my Atari 400- and was introduced to the Atari computer version of Pac-Man.

I mean- COME ON! look at that game!!!!

But- Those memories… of that moment… It will never be taken away.

Thanks, Atari VCS Pac-Man… I still love you.

And yes- that’s me in my original satin Atari National Pac-Man Day Jacket. In front of a Pac-Man machine. At DisneyQuest. You’re Welcome.

Keep Playin’ Like It’s 1981.



One comment

  1. Great article Ray! 👍😀

    Interestingly enough the 2600 version also holds a good memory for me because that exact version was my first exposure to the game and everything Pac-Man related. My folks, my sister and myself had just moved from New York to Florida and since my NES was in the moving boxes I didn’t have it on hand to play, but my cousin had the 2600 so he showed me what it was and this game was the first one we played on it. Being already spoiled on the NES it did take a little getting used to but I got the gist of it. Some years later I saw the Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga cabinet at a Pizza-Hut and I never looked back. Then many years later I saw the G4 Game Makers/Icons episode about the character and then at the Blue Box I played the original, and the rest is history.

    To give credit to Frye, he did the best he could given the constraints he had, and thanks to Kurt Howe we know now how the game would have looked had they gone with the 8K cartridge as well as been allotted more time than just the few weeks Frye had.

    And talk about a cool memory when you finally got your copy. 😀🤓 It may not have been the same version, but like you said, who cared? It was Pac-Man! 😃

    Liked by 1 person

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