An occasional series looking at providing a defence for games that all too often get a bad press…
There was a great article in Retro Gamer issue 179 on the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, its critical panning on release and how today, it is still widely regarded as a “bad game” and a “poor conversion” because it was so different to its arcade counterpart.
In the article, programmer Tod Frye argued that it wasn’t a bad game at all; that at the time Pac-Man was released, the now-accepted principles of a “faithful conversion” didn’t exist. And whilst Atari Pac-Man was different, it captured the spirit of it, whilst working within the technical limitations of the machine.
I have to say, I’m with Todd on this one. My friend had an Atari 2600 and the three games that we played most were Tank (still a great two player game), Space Invaders and, yes, Pac-Man. With little exposure to broader views at the time (this was long before game review mags were a common feature of newsagents’ shelves) I had no idea that many dismissed Pac-Man. All I knew was that I enjoyed playing it and I still associate it with some very happy memories.
I can remember my friend and I spending hours playing the game. It was usually the title we loaded up at the start of our gaming sessions and the one we’d go back to for one last go when we were told it was time to pack up. I can remember my friend’s dad (who didn’t usually play computer games) joining us each time the game appeared, merrily (and badly!) singing Elvis’ “Caught in a Trap” every time a ghost threatened to corner him. Even my friend’s mum (even less keen on computer games than his dad) was known to have a go.
So I guess my question is: can something that brought so much enjoyment to two 10 year olds, which unexpectedly brought the whole family together, be a “bad game”? Surely not. Sure, with the benefit of 40 years of accumulated knowledge, it might be a “poor conversion” in the now—understood sense of the term, but at the end of the day, the primary purpose of a game is to entertain; and for us, it did that in spades.
Perhaps you could argue that we were only about 10 and relatively new to computer games (so the novelty value was higher and we were likely to be more forgiving). You could rightly point out that we had only limited exposure to the arcades, so were not that familiar with “proper” Pac-Man. You could reasonably suggest that I am looking back with rose-tinted glasses and that if I played it now, the flaws would be all-too-obvious. All of those things are undoubtedly true to a greater of lesser extent, but the point is to, us at the time, Pac-Man was a good game that gave us hours of fun and entertainment. How can that be a bad thing?
Whatever flaws it might have had, it was obviously, recognisably, a Pac-Man game. You played a circular little chap who ran around a maze eating dots and running away from (and sometimes chasing) ghosts. I know purists will argue that the colour scheme was different, the mazes changed and so on, but I agree with Todd Frye’s assessment that it captured the essence of a Pac-Man game, even if it wasn’t quite the definitive version people might have hoped for. (After all, do those same people slam the Atari Version of Space Invaders for not being a “faithful conversion” just because it included multiple options and game variants that weren’t on the original arcade game? I think not.)
Accepted wisdom, accumulated over the past 40 odd years, now means it’s almost compulsory to slam games like Pac Man or ET, but I try to judge things on their relative merits and make up my own mind. Yes, it’s a flawed conversion; yes, with the benefit of hindsight, there were some odd design decisions, but it was still fun. More importantly, it was a major part of my childhood and an early gateway to a lifetime of enjoying (sometimes enduring!) computer games. For that alone, I will defend Pac-Man against all-comers.