February 9, 2013

Worst Video Game Ever: Pac Man (Atari 2600)

I’ve seen dozens of renditions of the popular maze game revived, re-polished, and injected with hype all over again. The developers behind the various remakes know how old the yellow circle gobbling goblin superstar is, yet they still have it in their minds that it’s okay to re-release the classic. Pac Man will always be a Namco classic, but like many classics of his time, he’s slowly fading away as more realistic experiences are hitting the shelves. Call it a mild form of nostalgia.

But you’re not counting on me to be your video game weather forecaster, are you? No, because if my findings were worth anything, I’d be a bit more concurrent with my news.

This is a gaming flashback. We’re taking this flashback to the days of Pac Man from the Atari 2600. Why? Because it’s regarded as the worst possible video game ever developed. We might be some of the saddest pessimists on the Earth, but dear God that title takes a lot of laziness and crappy decision making in upper management to pull off.

Let’s get straight to it, shall we?

Pac Man was originally an arcade wonder, with millions of kids and young adults nationwide crowding the arcade buildings on the weekends. Pac Man came to prominence because of its simplistic design, yet complex game-play with an emphasis on securing all of the tiny circles that were spread out along the maze like bread crumbs.

For your sake, I hope you knew that.

Atari recognized the games immense success, and pondered the revelation behind porting it to their new 2600 console. They figured that if they could get the same success that they had with the arcade edition, then they’d be in for a successful cash in. Why drive to the arcade when you can walk to the living room to play Pac Man?

The plan seemed sound; Port the arcade version’s code over to a 4KB memory cartridge and watch as the sales sky rocket.

But this was the video game industry in 1981. What that meant was that porting code to different consoles isn’t the worst idea for a popular game character, but porting it the wrong way could spell the worst disaster in video game history.

This is exactly what happened.

At this point in time, Atari projected that around ten million gamers owned an Atari 2600. They ordered twelve million copies of the game, thinking that its arcade success would make its way into the hands of every gamer on the 2600. Not only that, but they also projected that people would actually buy an Atari just to have Pac Man.

And it was here that the problems truly shined.

It was the holiday season of 1981. Assuredly, success would be ensured for Atari whether they ported the game or not. But they only thought of porting the game in September of 1980, setting a five month developing period for the game. On top of a rushed development cycle, the differences between arcade machines and the Atari 2600 were very stark.

The arcade systems used four times more RAM than the Atari, and the processor was three times faster. The resulting aspects of hardware meant that the game couldn’t use rounded edges like its arcade counterpart. With less RAM, they also couldn’t utilize the same colors or even sprite animations as the arcade version. But these are just technical aspects that made a rushed game even worse to develop. What exactly makes it one of the worst game releases of all time?

The answer is in the economics. Remember, Atari predicted that twelve million gamers would buy a copy of the game, with two million buying the console just to play the game. In actuality, only seven million bought the game. This is still very impressive for a video game in 1982, but that didn’t mean the game wasn’t terrible.

Gamers lined up at retailers around the nation for refunds, taking back their money and leaving Atari with five million excess copies of unwanted Pac Man ports.  But it doesn’t end here.

With Atari, who was at that time one of the biggest game developers in the world, taking in excess copies of Pac Man, they had no choice but to sell the games in dollar bins at retail stores. The demand for the game was incredibly low. Not only this, but Atari spent millions to have those games made, only to have millions of copies that no one wanted.

Also being the nation’s main supplier of games, the downfall of their business meant that all of their creations were discounted at startling prices. This is the event known by enthusiasts as the Video Game crash of 1983. For the gamers it was heaven, but for the developers it was a sign of the end. Atari never truly recovered from that event, and eventually stopped trying to make game consoles after their 5200 model didn’t meet sales expectations.

Their studio closed in 1984.

It’s a sad state of affairs to remember, but a lesson in patience and resilience is to be learned from Atari’s mistakes. I can only hope that video game companies of today don’t make the same mistake.

Image Credit: KamiGami / Shutterstock

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