Jr. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

Of the three Atari 2600 Pac-Man games, Jr. Pac-Man is definitely the member of the Pac-Man family you’ll want to bring home. With its more elaborate, scrolling mazes; improved AI; and faster gameplay; it finally brought the excitement of the arcade to the 2600.

With Ms. Pac-Man, Atari redeemed itself following the disappointment that was the 2600 port of Pac-Man. The game was closer to the arcade original, played at a faster pace, included additional mazes, and was just more enjoyable overall. Still, sacrifices were made when porting the game, leaving room yet again for improvement. Enter Jr. Pac-Man.

Unlike Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, playing Jr. Pac-Man was an entirely new experience for me. By the time this was in the arcades, Pac-Man was not a huge draw for me (plus, I lived in a small town, so access to the latest coin-op was rare). If I ever knew about this game, I had forgotten about it, which made finding it recently on the 2600 a real joy.

Unlike Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man finally provided a vertical maze. Instead of the entire maze being onscreen at all times, the screen scrolls vertically as the player moves (which is somewhat strange because, from what I have read, the original coin-op had a screen that a screen that scrolled horizontally, as the mazes were wider than they were tall). The game plays much faster than its predecessors and feels much more like an arcade experience. Also, the game is much more difficult when compared with Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. Often when I died in previous games, it was partially due to the fact that I was getting a little bored and was lackadaisically wandering around the mazes. The quick pace of Jr. Pac-Man always keeps me focused, as the ghosts are relentless and the AI is better. Even more than in Ms. Pac-Man, the ghosts seem to exhibit their individual characteristics, with the red ghost almost always on the pursuit and the orange ghost . . . not so much. Additionally, the mazes are more complex, with more corners to navigate, which seems to work to the ghosts’ advantage as they try to corner the player. With regard to sound, I cannot comment on how arcade-accurate the music and effects are, but I will say that they are pleasing and appropriate.

My only gripe with this game is the character. For some reason, I don’t like controlling a Pac-Man wearing a little beanie, and I don’t like that the fruit has been replaced by tricycles and other juvenile fare (why is he eating a tricycle?). It’s a minor complaint, and I’m not so sure why I am more willing to accept the other incarnations of Pac-Man I have previously reviewed, but I would much rather to have this be an updated and improved version of Pac-Man. It doesn’t ruin the game for me, but it certainly doesn’t add anything, either.

Of the three Atari 2600 Pac-Man games, Jr. Pac-Man is definitely the member of the Pac-Man family you’ll want to bring home. With its more elaborate, scrolling mazes; improved AI; and faster gameplay; it finally brought the excitement of the arcade to the 2600. Now, if there were only some way to get rid of that beanie . . .

Highly recommended

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Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

After the let-down that was the Atari 2600 Pac-Man, it must have been a relief to finally get a port on the VCS that was true to the arcade and a blast to play. Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 still holds up today. Certainly, there are later ports for other consoles that are superior, but for those of you who still have your six-switcher hooked up to the tube, Ms. Pac-Man is a good bet for some arcade fun.

Ms. Pac-Man happens to be one of my favorite arcade games of all time, though it took more than two decades after the game’s initial release for me to truly fall in love with our little bow-topped coin-op pellet muncher. Most Friday nights while I was pursuing my Master’s degree, a group of English grad students would gather at a bar called The Granville. Though I did not always join my fellow students on Fridays, I put in an appearance now and then, sometimes even showing up several Fridays in a row. Between games of pool, competitions on who could hold a lit match the longest (a contest that was, sadly, of my creation), and other little bits of drunken revelry, I would always make sure that I spent at least a few minutes with the bar’s one arcade machine—Ms. Pac-Man. Every time I went to the Granville, I would put my Jack and Coke aside for a moment and make sure that I set the high score on the machine. It became a ritual, and it wasn’t a real trip to The Granville unless I walked away that night knowing that my initials topped the high scores.

Later, some misguided fool replaced that Ms. Pac-Man machine with a Golden Tee cabinet (why are these all over the place, by the way—I never see anyone playing them). Without my beloved coin-op to play, I turned to my consoles for a Ms. Pac-Man fix, but I had only one port: Ms. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.

As I stated in my previous review, though I don’t believe the Atari 2600 Pac-Man is as bad as it’s made out to be, it is not a great game and becomes monotonous quickly. But what about Ms. Pac-Man? Was it yet another sloppy port that not even multiple Jack and Cokes could make fun?

Fortunately, Ms. Pac-Man does a much better job of capturing the original game than Pac-Man. The game moves at a faster pace and the graphics are truer to the arcade original, as are the sounds. As with Pac-Man, though, changes were made. Once again, the aspect ratio of the game has been changed to better suit a television. The ghosts still flicker, but not nearly as badly as they did in Pac-Man. The intermission scenes have been removed. However, these are all acceptable changes, since the game plays well and, as opposed to Pac-Man, is actually fun! As I played the game, I wanted to keep improving and get to new screens (which made me realize how much of a failing the lack of additional screens was in Pac-Man). Plus, I appreciated that the ghosts again have noticeable patterns of behavior, with Blinky (or Shadow, if you prefer) being relentless in later stages, running down Ms. Pac-Man whenever he gets the chance.

After the let-down that was the Atari 2600 Pac-Man, it must have been a relief to finally get a port on the VCS that was true to the arcade and a blast to play. Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 still holds up today. Certainly, there are later ports for other consoles that are superior, but for those of you who still have your six-switcher hooked up to the tube, Ms. Pac-Man is a good bet for some arcade fun, with or without the Jack 😉

Recommended

Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

Even though I do think that Pac-Man for the 2600 does not deserve the reputation it has, I still cannot recommend it. It might be worth a few plays to satisfy your own curiosity, but there are too many better Pac-Man games available.

We begin our week of Pac-Man reviews with Pac-Man for the 2600, a port of the arcade classic that is notorious for not only failing to capture the experience of the original, but also (often mentioned alongside E.T.) for contributing to the video game crash of 1983. So, how horrible is this game that it managed to upset scads of Atari gamers and bring the video game industry to its knees?

Relatively speaking, it isn’t that bad.

Granted, the complaints about Pac-Man not being faithful to the original are warranted. There were many sacrifices that were made to bring the game to the Atari 2600, and each of these removed the game further from the source material. The game board was changed to fit the aspect ratio of televisions, so it lost the vertical layout of the original. The sprites for Pac-Man and the ghosts are simplified, with Pac-Man being much blockier and the ghosts being monochrome. Additionally, the ghosts constantly flicker, which is not aesthetically pleasing. Apparently, this was a result of only one ghost being rendered at a time, so any one ghost only appears onscreen one out of every four frames. It makes sense, then, why there is no flicker when the ghosts move together (e.g., when they exit the box in the middle). You will also notice when you play that whenever Pac-Man eats a ghost, he will face to the right, even if he was moving from right to left.

Other differences between the Atari 2600 version and the arcade include sound differences (it’s strange to start a game of Pac-Man without that all-too-familiar intro music), behavior differences of the ghosts (e.g., the ghosts exit the central box from the side and not the top), and speed differences. This last difference is perhaps the most disappointing when comparing the Atari 2600 to the arcade. Pac-Man feels like he’s taking a leisurely pace through the maze, which makes the game feel very ho-hum.

All of this considered, though, Pac-Man can be enjoyable. Certainly, it does not provide the experience of the original, but taken on its own and compared with other Atari 2600 titles, the game fares well. It reminds me of when I saw Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. After anticipating the newest installment of a beloved childhood series, the movie was a huge letdown; however, had this not been a Star Wars game and been saddled with the expectations set by the original trilogy, I would probably have considered it an above-average sci-fi flick. If people had not been anticipating the console release of the arcade smash Pac-Man and expected what the arcade game provided, I think that this game would not be remembered so harshly.

Now, even though I do think that Pac-Man for the 2600 does not deserve the reputation it has, I still cannot recommend it. It might be worth a few plays to satisfy your own curiosity, but there are too many better Pac-Man games available, including Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600, both of which I plan to cover in upcoming reviews.

Not recommended

Haunted House

Haunted House, taken out of context, is not a remarkable game. It will not likely hold your attention for long, even with nine different difficulty settings. What makes Haunted House noteworthy are its links to the survival horror genre, as it introduces some survival horror devices that were used to great effect in more recent genre entries.

Tracing the origin of horror video gaming may not be as simple as one might think, in large part due to some ambiguity over what actually constitutes a horror game. Is it enough to include horror archetypes (e.g., vampires and zombies as in the Castlevania series), or does the game have to present an atmosphere of fear (as in Silent Hill)? If the latter, do we need to consider the era in which a game was released? As movies have shown, what may horrify at one point in history can seem benign and comical later (consider the monster movies from the ’50s or even the slasher movies from the ’80s).

Some attempt to get around these questions by dividing horror into sub-genres, such as survival horror. Generally, Alone in the Dark is credited as the first survival horror game and Resident Evil is credited as the game that made this sub-genre popular; however, even this can be contested, as the Gaming Historian does in this video. He claims that 3D Monster Maze, a game that has the player traversing a three-dimensional maze while fleeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex, is actually the first 3-D survival horror game. It is an argument that isn’t without merit.

The same year that 3D Monster Maze was released, Atari released Haunted House. While not three-dimensional, and thereby unable to stake a claim as the first 3-D survival horror game, Haunted House is arguably one of the very first survival horror games to be released.

Note that is said, “arguably.”

In Haunted House, you guide a pair of eyes representing the player through the four stories of a mansion while avoiding bats, spiders, and the ghost of Zachary Graves, who was once the reclusive owner of the property. You are given an unlimited supply of matches at the outset of your journey and nothing else. Matches are necessary to find the pieces of a magical urn (your purpose for entering the house in the first place), the master key, or the scepter, which protects you from harm. On all but the easiest setting, the matches are also your only way of seeing where you are going, as they provide a circle of light around the eyes. You must find the three pieces of the urn (which reforms as you find each piece) and escape the mansion before you are scared to death nine times.

Given the premise of the game, consider what we typically consider survival horror. In these games, the character tends to be placed in an area surrounded by monstrous/evil enemies (spiders, bats, and a ghost, in this case), starts with limited resources (you begin only with matches here), has a limited inventory (Haunted House only allows you to carry one item at a time, so no running around with the scepter while picking up urn pieces), and must complete some task to escape the nightmare (here, you must assemble the urn and make it back to the entrance to the mansion). On more advanced settings, the enemies in Haunted House can chase you from room to room, and all that you can do is run and hope to lose them before being killed.

It is interesting to see tactics used in this game that would return in later survival horror games. The idea of only seeing what the matches illuminates reminds me a lot of the Silent Hill games, where often you are only able to see by the flashlight you carry. Also, the fact that you can only run from enemies and not attack is very reminiscent of the Clock Tower games.

All this considered, Haunted House is an Atari 2600 game from 1981. Obviously, there are technological constraints to the game that weren’t an issue as hardware improved. You aren’t likely to feel afraid while playing Haunted House, though you may become panicky when pursued by an enemy, as with no means of defense, you will have to flee in the dark (your match will be blown out when the enemy appears, and you can’t relight it while the enemy is still onscreen), often resulting in you running into a dead end or opening a door where another monster lies in wait.

Without a sense of terror from Haunted House, some may take issue with including it in the horror genre; however, most aren’t likely to be frightened by any of the old Universal Studios monster movies, for example. If we consider these movies a part of the horror genre, then it seems like we have to do the same with Haunted House.

Haunted House, taken out of context, is not a remarkable game. It will not likely hold your attention for long, even with nine different difficulty settings. What makes Haunted House noteworthy are its links to the survival horror genre, as it introduces some survival horror devices that were used to great effect in more recent genre entries. Just as a movie like Nosferatu is interesting as a piece of horror cinema history, Haunted House is worth experiencing for its contribution to video game horror.

Recommended for its historical significance only

Note: Atari is releasing a downloadable Haunted House game soon to Xbox Live, WiiWare, and the PC. It seems to share some gameplay mechanics with the original, so it would be interesting to compare the two once it is released.