Sure, most of us who grew up with the Atari 2600 realized that arcade ports weren't going to be perfect. Back then, arcade machines were much more technologically advanced than home consoles. Expecting a game such as Asteroids to be a flawless translation on the 2600 just wasn't realistic. Still, Atari cranked out some excellent versions of arcade favorites. While titles like Space Invaders, Missile Command and Asteroids didn't play the same or look as good on the 2600 as their counterparts at the arcade, they were still a lot of fun. The 2600 versions were at least close enough to the arcade favorites to keep people happy.
The same was not true with this miserable impostor of a game that came shipped with a Pac-Man label on it. From what I understand, one Tod Frye is the programmer responsible for that travesty, and he was given six weeks by Atari to cobble together a Pac-Man title. Strangely, the man reportedly received close to $1 million for this awful game, and that's just evidence that the folks at charge at Atari in 1981 were going insane.
Perhaps they weren't going insane. Perhaps they just figured the public would rush out and buy any game that was held out by Atari to be an official port of a wildly popular video game. After all, Atari had the official license from Namco-America to produce this thing, so maybe company officials thought that would be enough to convince people to buy it. Perhaps blaming Frye for this mess is unfair because he wasn't given much time to come up with a decent game.
Whatever the reason for this abomination, Pac-Man is truly horrible and is one of the worst games in the Atari 2600 catalog. This version is so different from the arcade classic that it doesn't deserve to be called Pac-Man at all. The whimsical music at the first of the game is replaced with some horrible mess that sounds rather like a police siren in Europe. The rest of the sound effects resemble a series of tired bleeps and bloops and an annoying "bonk, bonk, bonk" as the sick-looking little Pac-Man munches dots. The ghosts are not different at all -- they're all the same color and have no individual attributes. And, you want to talk about screen flicker? The ghosts flicker horribly and in a manner that will drive you nuts. The graphics and sound, in short, are enough to make one cringe.
The words that come to mind in describing the graphics are "big" and "blocky." Everything is very, very squared-off and bulky, including Pac-Man (a character that's supposed to resemble a pizza with a slice missing when its mouth is open). And, the various fruits which danced around the screen and could be eaten for points are missing in this game, too. Instead, the player gets some immobile block that shows up on the screen from time to time.
As for gameplay, that's different, too. While it was possible to develop a little finesse when guiding Pac-Man through various mazes at the arcade, the impostor Pac-Man in the 2600 game handles in a rather sluggish manner, and requires some very deliberate and forceful pushes on the joystick to steer. And, those old strategies at the arcade don't work here, either. Remember how one could always tell where ghosts were heading in the arcade game? That's right -- the pupils in their eyes would point the way they were going to move. That doesn't work in this version as the ghosts have no eyes. In fact, the little details that were so charming in the arcade version are completely gone. The music and cute cartoons that showed during intermissions between levels are missing. Indeed, this is a very bland port. Atari should have been ashamed of themselves for unleashing this stinker on an unsuspecting public.
I've heard some folks defend this game by claiming that people were expecting too much in this port because of the technical limitations of the 2600. That's complete nonsense. Think about it. Pac-Man is a wonderfully simple game. The idea is to guide Pac-Man through a maze while eating dots and avoiding ghosts. If Pac-Man ingests a power pill, he can eat the ghosts and rack up some points. A new level starts when all the dots and power pills have been eaten by Pac-Man. That's simplicity in itself, and the Atari 2600 was a very good system when it came to simple, addictive games.
Besides, compare this miserable thing to Ms. Pac-Man, on which Atari put together a fantastic game. The sounds in that one are better, the screen flicker is greatly reduced and the ghosts are different colors and have some individual attributes. All of the things that made Ms. Pac-Man so great on the 2600 should have been included in Pac-Man. There was no excuse for rushing this half-baked version of Pac-Man out on the market.
To sum it up, this title is for die-hard collectors only who feel they need it to complete their library of games. There's not just a lot of fun to be had from this awful offering, in fact. If you're looking for a good version of
Pac-Man, go with Ms. Pac-Man and leave this game alone. It'll just frustrate you.