Atari Pac-Man’s role in the Video Game Crash of 1983

The video game crash of 1983 was a significant event in the nascent video game industry. For myriad reasons—some unintentional, some due to arrogance—developers drove their own medium into the ground, taking paying customers with them.

Many people lay blame for the crash at the feet of a single game: E.T. for the Atari 2600. While E.T. was a bad game, if any game deserves blame, it’s the port of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.

E.T. was a disappointment, for sure

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was one of the highest grossing films of the 1980s. Despite having a creepy, wrinkly brown alien for a main character, the movie was a hit with children and adults alike. Steven Spielberg knew he had a winner on his hands, so it wasn’t long before Atari purchased the license to develop a video game based on the movies.

At this time, licensed video games weren’t common. Execs learned early on that it was easier to tap into an existing intellectual property, especially one as popular as E.T., than it was to create something new. This is a mindset that still holds true in both the video game and movie industries.

Atari executives treated programmers as if they were disposable. Anybody could make a game, they reasoned. It takes no effort or skill at all, they thought. Why couldn’t Howard Scott Warshaw, one of the most skilled game developers at the time, make a game based on E.T. in five weeks? Any monkey can do that! It’s thinking like this that led to the creation of Activision, the first third-party game developer, after four Atari programmers left the company.

Warshaw did his best, and the game shipped in time for Christmas 1982, but ultimately the game failed to even approximate the magic of the movie. And nobody understood why the game failed. Just listen to this interview with Spielberg. Spielberg may be a legendary film director, but at least in 1982, he understood nothing about video games.

Much has been written about E.T. 2600, probably too much. Just take one look at the game and you know that something is off:

Atari 2600 E.T. screenshot

Warshaw’s role in the crash was mitigated in the excellent 2014 movie Atari: Game Over, but that still leaves us with the question of which game most contributed to the crash. Sure, E.T. was bad, and a lot of kids were disappointed on Christmas day. How could they or their parents have known any better? It’s not like there were gaming magazines or websites to give them a heads-up. The television commercial for the game only shows 1.5 seconds of gameplay!

The difference between E.T. and Pac-Man is one of numbers: whereas E.T. 2600 old 1.5 million copies, a respectable number even by today’s standards, Pac-Man 2600 sold 7 million copies, out of 12 million printed! (see Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games)

Pac-Man: the most popular arcade game ever

Arcade games have been around for 40+ years now. That’s almost half a century: kind of remarkable to think about. However, arcades peaked in popularity in the early 1980s, right before the crash. After the crash, and with the rise of ever more sophisticated home consoles, arcades never duplicated their previous success.

A few games stood above the rest, producing hundreds of thousands of units. Estimates are that Pac-Man (1982) was the most popular arcade game ever with more than 400,000 units created! Pac-Man was so different than the other games at the time. The game wasn’t focused on violence, killing, war, or destruction. It was about eating, and featured kawaii characters and stunning audio.

Atari learned early on that if it could port quality arcade games to their home consoles, they would have a leg up on competitors like the ColecoVision and Intellivision.

Atari hit pay dirt when they got an exclusive deal to port Pac-Man to the 2600. The most popular arcade game ever, now in a convenient home version? Sign me up!

Unfortunately, the 2600 was vastly underpowered compared to the Pac-Man arcade game. Corners had to be cut, and it shows. Check out this video of Pac-Man 2600 gameplay:

Notice anything, uhh, different?

First, the obvious: the colors aren’t as vibrant, the pixel count is lower (so Pac-Man doesn’t look as round), the pellets are bars, and the music and sound is considerably degraded. The biggest problem, however, concerns the ghosts.

Watch the video for 10 seconds. See how the ghosts are constantly flickering, materializing and dematerializing at will? Tod Frye, the designer, faced a difficult programming challenge. The 2600 wasn’t powerful enough to have Pac-Man and four ghosts appear on the screen at once. The solution could not be to reduce the number of ghosts: what would Pac-Man be with only Blinky and Inky?

Instead, only two ghosts appear on the screen at once. Two ghosts appear in one frame, then the next frame the other two ghosts appear, and back and forth. Maybe if the game flicks through the frames fast enough, players won’t notice that only two ghosts are on the screen at once!

But you notice it the instant it happens. You might not understand why, programming-wise, the game was made this way. You only know that it’s wrong.

Atari downplay’s Pac-Man’s deficits in the promotional materials

I’ve long known the story I’ve recounted thus far. Reading about Pac-Man and Atari, and seeing these games in action, helps in understanding the role these games played in the video game crash. However, this story really came together when I actually bought a copy of Pac-Man for the 2600, box and manual and all! I found it on eBay for $10, quite a steal, I believe. When I opened the box and read through the materials, I found even more evidence to condemn Pac-Man.

From the box, and by looking at the cartridge, Pac-Man looks okay.

Pac-Man Atari 2600 box

Pac-Man Atari 2600 cartridge

Okay, on second thought, maybe there is a problem. Just compare the box to the cartridge for a second. The ghosts and maze are the same in both, but look how differently Pac-Man is rendered! Honestly, the Pac-Man on the cartridge looks a lot better than the “pie with an eye” on the cover. Of course, this doesn’t look like the Pac-Man we know today, the guy with the big doofy grin and big red boots. But then again, even the Pac-Man on the original (American) cabinet didn’t look like the Pac-Man we know today:

Pac-Man arcade cabinets from America and Japan

American cabinet on the left; Japanese cabinet on the right. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

See that little goofy yellow guy underneath the blue ghost? The yellow guy with the big red eyes? Yeah, that’s the cartoonized version of Pac-Man as he originally appeared in America.

Discrepancy between the box art and cartridge art aside, the Atari 2600 depiction of Pac-Man is at least some improvement on the original American cabinet design.

And that’s where my praise of Pac-Man 2600 begins and ends.

One design choice I never understood about Pac-Man 2600 was the use of “video wafers” over pellets. Was the Atari also limited in how many dots it could display on the screen at once? The instruction book at least tries to explain what these video wafers are:

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 2

The instruction book is a charming little document that does its best to sell you on the merits of Pac-Man 2600. The designer of the book, however, ran into an interesting problem. The instructions include screenshots of the game, but we know that the game can’t display four ghosts at once. How does the instruction book handle this? Simple: show a screenshot with all four ghosts anyway! Maybe kids will be tricked into thinking all four ghosts are really there! It’s not the game’s fault you only see two ghosts at once: it must be your eyes!

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 3

Look closely at the two ghosts on the right that I’ve circled in black. See how they are tilted slightly to the left? This is what I think happened: somebody took a screenshot of Pac-Man, and naturally, only two ghosts were displayed. So the designer copied two ghosts and pasted them onto the screenshot, as if to fool us.

Their image manipulation, unfortunately, wasn’t that good. The ghosts are clearly turned, and considering how low the resolution was on the 2600, there’s no way pixels could be rotated like that.

The instruction book gets better from here. The book contains four more screenshots, but they are all exactly the same as the first, image manipulation errors and all:

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 4

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 5

More than the instruction book, I really enjoyed the small advertising pamphlet that came with the game. This mini-catalog features 45 current and upcoming Atari games. Some of them actually look pretty good! But notice the advertisement for Pac-Man:

Pac-Man 2600 catalog ad

“Adapted from one of the most popular video arcade games ever created, which differs slightly from the original…” What an understatement! When you read between the lines of the promotional material, it seems clear that the fine people at Atari knew that Pac-Man 2600 was no good, that it could never live up to the standard set by the first one.

And hey, there’s our friend “tilted ghost screenshot” hiding in the corner of the ad!

The hubris was astounding

Okay, so Pac-Man 2600 is bad, from the game itself right down to the promotional materials. But it was the best-selling Atari game ever, by a long shot. That’s gotta count for something, right? Even today, many developers work on games their entire career and never get close to approaching the 7 million sales mark.

What really gets me, though, about this whole debacle, and this is one of my primary reasons that Pac-Man contributed most significantly to the 1983 crash, is the hubris Atari showed in how they marketed the game.

The game I purchased was a little battered, but there’s one last gem hidden on the box, and that’s the original price tag. My copy in particular was sold at J.C. Penney. Look at that price for a moment:

Pac-Man price tag $37.95

$37.95.

In 1982.

According to the U.S. government’s inflation calculator, this is equivalent to $93.58 in 2015 dollars!

Can you imagine paying that much for a game today? At the time, Atari games were selling for around $20: still expensive, but more in line with what top-shelf games cost today.

Not only was Pac-Man a bad game, but Atari and retailers gouged consumers, selling them a vastly inferior product to the arcade game everybody loved. Now I’m sure not all 7 million copies sold at $37.95. After word got out that this game was stinker (along with virtually every other home video game at the time) stores cut game prices dramatically, often selling Atari cartridges for $2-3. Retailers had so much useless product to get rid of in 1983 they ended up burying 700,000 games in the New Mexican desert.

One last relevant point about Pac-Man and the 1983 crash. Pac-Man 2600 was released in March, 1982. E.T. 2600 was released December, 1982. The way I see it, Pac-Man primed the pump for the crash, disappointing virtually every Atari 2600 owner—7 million owners, to be exact.

For many kids, this was the last time they bought an Atari game. Can you blame them? Their parents just plopped down $38 on a garbage game. I don’t know about your childhood, but my brother and I didn’t have very many video games. The ones we had, we had to play for months and months before getting new ones. And now they had Pac-Man to hold them through the spring, summer, and fall of ’82.

But 1.5 million loyal customers gave Atari one more chance. Christmas 1982 arrived, and they bought E.T., hoping, just hoping, that this time, things would be different.

E.T. may have been the final nail for many gamers, but Pac-Man 2600 was the coffin.

Game on,
Dennis

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