NamCompendium 3: Pac-Man, Part 1

Pac-Man

22 May 1980 (Arcade, JP)

At the risk of falling into a very well worn trope of valedictorian speech writing, Giant Bomb’s Wiki system establishes video games dating back to 1960. Between that final year of the Eisenhower administration and the spring of 1980, there had been a steady march of progress in the broad realm of people using electronics, often paired with electromechanical components, to amuse themselves. It is possible to chart this growth from Spacewar to Pong, to previously covered arcade progenitors like Breakout and Space Invaders. Video games had a twenty year history by May 22, 1980. I think their continued relevance owes a great deal to Pac-Man.

It is difficult to write about Pac-Man without leaping straight into hyperbole. But what else is there to do with it? How many other video games spawned Billboard Top 10 songs? How many golden age arcade games are as fervently kept in circulation? More than any other game this project will touch, Pac-Man represents a singular event in both the history of video games and the larger history of Namco. That arguably the most important game in the company’s history arrives so early in this project is daunting, but I shall do my best to cover the game itself and the hydra-headed means by which it came to home platforms.

Though categorized for some time as the archetypal “maze game”, Pac-Man has come over time to be understood more as a game about controlling territory. Maneuvering Pac-Man through pill-strewn neon courses is not only a means of collecting points, but also benefits the player by providing faster movement in aisles emptied of their dots. That added maneuverability can come in handy when attempting to outrun and, upon collecting power pellets, turning on the ghosts that harry you during play.

The aforementioned ghosts are the defining feature of Pac-Man. Hard coded with different behavior patterns, each pursue you in such a distinctive manner that they were given descriptive character names. Blinky (called Oikake in Japan) stalks the player directly, Pinky (Machibuse) attempts to entrap the player indirectly, Inky (Kimagure) triangulates Blinky and Pac-Man’s positions, and Clyde (Otoboke) will only pursue the player from a certain distance. The interplay of these four antagonists leads to what proved to be a solvable game (in its original incarnation; Pac-Man is notorious for being one of the most bootlegged and modified arcade games of its day). To those unwilling to devote the time to memorizing the arcana of the Cherry and Apple pattern, learning the hiding spots in certain mazes, and other sundry “pro strats”, however, the game may be boiled down to several decisions of different immediacies and scopes. Do I turn left or right? Do I eat this power pellet, or save it for later? Do I stay in this maze to chain ghosts for points, or scramble to get out? It requires short-term reactions as well as some near-term strategization on behalf of the player.

A game with this level of decision chaining would have probably not become a cultural touchstone throughout the world, but here’s the real secret sauce: Pac-Man is also incredibly easy to understand. There are no physics. There is no external knowledge required. Most importantly, there are no buttons needed for play (beyond the one or two-player select). Toru Iwatani may have found the kernel of Pac-Man in some food related anecdote, but his genius was to make a game which at its core was so simple that anybody from any walk of life could have fun with it. And it worked! Pac-Man paired a straightforward game design with identifiable, even cute character designs and created a game that appealed to women and men, thus arguably doubling the potential market for his game.

Did I mention it was also the first game to use cutscenes? Have I told you about that Buckner & Garcia song yet? Or that it spawned the first mascot character in the industry’s history? To the latter point, the success of Pac-Man in popular culture was pre-destined to wrap around to its natural conclusion in the form of home game versions of the arcade hit. There are so many stories to be told here. Before really drilling down, I must pat myself on the back for leaving off microcomputer ports from this project. I have provided some information, such that I could find while researching the console ports, to the associated articles of early Namco arcade games on the Giant Bomb Wiki. My focus, however, remains on the consoles.

As mentioned, Pac-Man arrived in Japanese arcades on 22 May, 1980. Bally-Midway would distribute the arcade cabinet in North America beginning in October of that year. In April 1981, Atari Inc. made a previously mentioned licensing deal with Namco that made them the sole distributor of home versions of Pac-Man. As was the case with Galaxian, they were outgunned by a third party. Philips released the Ed Averett developed K.C. Munchkin! for the Magnavox Odyssey2 that very year. The game deviates from Pac-Man in certain aspects, but one would need to be willfully blind to not see the game as a clone.

Atari agreed, and entered into perhaps the first significant legal case in video game history, the pluckily titled Atari, Inc. and Midway Mfg. Co. vs. North American Philips Consumer Electronics Corp. and Park Television, d/b/a/ Park Magnavox Home Entertainment Center. After an appeals process, a Circuit Court Judge agreed that Munchkin! constituted an infringement on the Pac-Man copyright and halted manufacture of new copies (retailers were apparently allowed to sell through existing stock). This decision was reached on 2 March 1982, though Philips would file an appeal to the US Supreme Court that was ultimately rejected in October of that year.

The timing of the Circuit Court decision in Atari’s favor should have been auspicious, as it aligned with the release of their home grown, fully sanctioned and non-infringing release of Pac-Man. Unfortunately, this release was the 2600 version of Pac-Man.

Part of an apocryphal one-two punch combination that burned down the North American console market, the Atari VCS port of Pac-Man was the sole work of a programmer named Tod Frye. A young programmer at the time with only one credit that I can find prior to this work (a port of the text game Tanktics to the Apple II), Frye was tasked by Atari management to create a home version of Pac-Man as the ink dried on their licensing agreement with Namco. To say nothing against the capabilities of Mr. Frye, it is worth noting that the company had essentially tasked a journeyman programmer to port an incredibly complex game to a system that was designed to play Pong. To add pressure, he was also given a deadline of September 1981. This would give Atari six months of lede time to manufacture the millions of cartridges it planned to sell in 1982.

Driving another screw through Mr. Frye’s thumbs, Atari snubbed his request to be provided with double the cartridge memory for his Pac-Man, leaving him with four entire kilobytes of space. One means of conserving space on the cartridge: electing to forego a system to manage sprite flickering. This, combined with his adherence to Atari company policy that the only games allowed a black background should be space games, led to the distinctive horror of the VCS Pac-Man’s visual oeuvre.

As Tod Frye was contractually guaranteed ten cents on every copy of Pac-Man sold, the game made him a millionaire. He would go on to work on titles in the SwordQuest series, developed an unreleased version of Xevious for the 2600 (to be covered in the year 2075 at this rate), and eventually wound up working with Trip Hawkins for The 3DO Company. As for Atari, the first legitimate home port of Pac-Man made them a gross of money. They company declared April 3, 1982 “Pac-Man Day”, with costumed Pac-Man appearances in cities across the United States. The game’s May 13 release in the United Kingdom was kicked off with a party at the top of the London Hilton. By the cold, ruthless, unfeeling, inhuman calculus of Atari management, Pac-Man for the 2600 was the coup of the century.

For critics of the time, however, the game was shit. It remains shit. It is a ghastly version of Pac-Man. Magazines of time decried the differences in gameplay from the arcade version, the severe degradation of visuals, the lack of music and cutscenes, and a litany of other minutiae that added up to a miserable game. Retailers slowly began to return unsold inventory back to Atari, who buried them in the middle of the New Mexico desert alongside 1982’s other mill stone, E.T.

Is there a cautionary tale buried in the 2600 port of Pac-Man? Several tales, even? Perhaps. But perhaps none sticks out more than this: if you are in a management position and are genuinely concerned with the final output of a project, you should listen to your project team (even one man teams) and do all that is reasonable and prudent to meet their requests. Otherwise you may wind up with flickering ghosts on a blue background with atonal sound where ought to have existed one of the true treasures of an entire medium.

Atari managed something of a mea culpa in October 1982. In that month, the Atari 5200 home console was released in the United States. It launched with Super Breakout as a pack-in game, and six titles were available for purchase at launch (including the previously covered Galaxian). Among them was a very good port of Pac-Man. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said is the perspective of the game is compressed down into landscape and the sound falls short of the arcade original. Otherwise the game looks, moves, and feels like the genuine article. It is a shame the console was such a dud commercially, as this was easily the best home version of Pac-Man to date.

The only credit I have been able to turn up for this port is to one Alan Murphy, a graphics designer and artist. His resume also includes the aforementioned 5200 port of Galaxian, Gauntlet, Gauntlet II, and Hard Drivin’ for arcades, as well as an unreleased 5200 port Xevious to be discussed later. Mr. Murphy has some chops. His later credits include work on the Genesis and Game Gear, including the deliciously bad Awesome Possum Kicks Dr. Machino’s Butt, 2001’s Frequency, and the 2009 feature film Van Helsing. Full props to Mr. Murphy, who has been doing graphic work since before I was born. Extra credit for working on the Gauntlet IV for the Genesis, which was an installation in my family home growing up.

I would like to say the next release of Pac-Man (and the final release covered in this NamCompendium entry) has a nice, simple history. It does not. On May 2, 1983, Mattel filed suit against Atari. Their charges amounted to concerns over trade secrets being passed by former Mattel employees, among them one Michael Winans, to their new corporate overlords at Atari. Winans is of interest to us here, as he was the chief programmer for Mattel’s Pac-Man competitor in the arcades, Lock ’n’ Chase. He worked under Russ Haft, another former Mattel employee who, in July of 1983, formed a research and development group in Venice, CA that was tasked with making ports of Atari properties (and their licensed properties) to the Mattel Intellivision. While I do not have the results of the Mattel suit in front of me, the rest of the record is a little clearer. Atari formed a new publishing sub-label, AtariSoft, in late 1983. On October 24, they held a presser in New York to show off four new port jobs from this outfit: Galaxian for the ColecoVision, Defender and Centipede for both ColecoVision and Intellivision, and Pac-Man for the Intellivision, programmed by Mr. Winans.

The Intellivision port comes with its own share of issues. Sound is off pitch from the arcade original, the perspective is in landscape opposed to the original portrait, the power pellets are somewhat strangely placed, and Mattel’s home console really struggles with the level start jingle. It is also a slower game compared to the 5200 version, and features fewer dots. Nevertheless, it is miles beyond the 2600 port (though the red and pink shades used would probably make Jeff Gerstmann weep).

Were it so simple. The game sold well enough that Mattel purchased the entire outstanding inventory of cartridges after Atari stopped distributing the game, and when that stock ran out in the mid 1980s Mattel arranged a sweetheart deal; they bought the rights to the Intellivision game from Atari, the license to distribute from Namco, and released the game under the Intellivision banner. Hence, the game has two separate serial numbers and two separate publishers on the same console. Such was the fervor, almost half a decade after its initial release at this point, for the ability to play a good version of Pac-Man in the home.

And that’s where this long belated entry into NamCompendium shall stop, because things get even more stupid from here. Next time, the rest of Pac-Man’s sordid port history. We’ll be talking about the Famicom release, more Atari, introduce Tengen into the mix, and even explore SNK for a bit. Pac-Man Fever has only just begun, baby.

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