Posted on April 5, 2017
Pac-Man, Electronic Games Magazine, And The Exact Moment Atari Lost The Video Game War
Note: As I discover the 120 or so games on my list of “lost” VCS games from the 80’s, I will spend some time discussing the ones that, in one way or another, mean something significant to me. This is one of those stories.
-Electronic Games Magazine
With those words, I believe, Electronic Games magazine changed the course of video game journalism forever.
The United States Constitution allows for a” free an independent press” because the framers believed this “4th estate” was necessary for a Democracy to grow and flourish. The role of a “free and independent press” should be “the search for truth”. This has been readily apparent to anyone who has read or watched news over the past couple years. At the same time, it has also been said that Democracy also can’t flourish without capitalism. In a free-market, capitalist system, the role of marketing is essential for companies to compete and make a profit for their shareholders. Marketing, by design, is not necessarily truthful. Marketing messages are designed to highlight the positive and downplay the negative of one’s own interests while doing the opposite for competitors. However, what happens the day that said capitalist industry runs smack dab into that free and independent press searching for the truth? What if that industry has been able to operate with impunity for years merely for lack of consumer information? Does an informed public then become their worst enemy?
Here is a good example:
On May 11th, 1982 Electronic Games Magazine published its 4th (June 1982) issue. Inside that issue was the first terrible review Atari ever received for one of it’s video games. That game was Pac-Man for the Atari VCS (2600), and, at least in the public eye, and especially for kids like me, it changed Atari’s fortunes forever.
Part 1: The Video Game Coverage Before Pac-Man
To understand the impact of the Electronic Games review of VCS Pac-Man, I decided to examine video game coverage and reviews prior to May 11, 1982, the day the Pac-Man review was published. My theory was that there was a distinct difference between the way games were covered before Pac-Man (B.P.), and the way games were covered after Pac-Man. (A.P.)
In the B.P. period of video game journalism video games were treated more like “enthusiast toys” than a new entertainment medium. Electronic Games magazine had only published three issues by that time. A previous column by Arnie Katz and Bill Kunkel (the editors of Electronic Games) in Video Magazine named “Arcade Alley” had been running for a couple years prior to that, and by examining those columns I found a very interesting pattern: Most “reviews” in those publications were more “gee-whiz video games sure are cool” than critical. They focused more on the positive aspects of each game, and how they compared to other games or, when appropriate, how they compared to their coin-operated arcade counterparts. Of course they did, this was the first regular column about video games in a national magazine. Not only were the games for the Atari VCS breaking new ground, but the writers of Arcade Alley were pulling double duty: trying to inform the readers about great new games and make an argument for the existence of video games as medium in the first place. Plus, Atari’s early games might look poor with 20/20 hindsight, but at the time of their release, they were ground-breaking.
Here are some examples of how Arcade Alley reported on Atari VCS games, and the positive spin they took on almost all games:
Part 2: Electronic Games Magazine Before the Pac-Man Review
Along with Arcade Alley, in early issues of Electronic Games Magazine Atari’s games received fairly good reviews.
The Winter 1981 issue of Electronic Games said “Missile Command” for the Atari 2600 “represents the most successful conversion of a commercial arcade supergame to the more limited confines of a home programmable system” . They called Air-Sea Battle for the 2600 “an instant classic”. they said the “Breakthrough” variation of Breakout for the 2600 “could easily become an addiction”
In the March 1982 issue of Electronic Games the reviewers called Asteroids for the 2600 “an astonishing success”, and while they were lukewarm “Video Pinball” they ended by saying it would “probably interest most videogamers”
There were no reviews for first party Atari games in the May 1982 issue of Electronic Games, which leads us up to the June issue (published May 12th, 1982), and the all important review of Pac-Man. Alongside the Pac-Man review, EG said of Super Breakout for the 2600 “shines far brighter than any of it’s predecessors”.
So the stage was set. From the eye of the critical press, Atari had not disappointed yet. They had revolutionized the commercialization of video games and were, at the time, the fastest growing company in the history of the the United States. They were the Nintendo of their day. All they had to do was deliver a decent version of VCS Pac-Man, and their fortunes would be solidified for years to come.
Part 3: The Development And Release of Pac-Man
To say Atari “hyped” the release of Pac-Man does not do the hype justice. Never before had a video game had such high expectations. The game was released on April 3, 1982, on a day that Atari called “Pac-Man Day”, although many retailers, like Sears, began selling it weeks before. On Pac-Man day, Atari held events in 25 cities to announce the release. It was the biggest event home video games had ever seen. It was also one of the first times a video game had an actual release-date. However, not everything seemed right. The initial Atari TV commercials for the game did not even dare show what it actually looked-like.
According to Atari: Business Is Fun by Marty Goldberg and Kurt Vendel, The game was designed by Tod Frye as his first game project for Atari. Development was not rushed, and Frye worked hard to get the VCS to re-produce a decent version of a Pac-Man like game.
The problem was, the limitations of the VCS, combined with the overall engineering talent left at Atari in 1981, meant that the pool of innovative engineering ideas was shallower than it had been just a couple years before. Many of the best programmers had left or were planning to leave to form Activision and Imagic, among other 3rd party developers. Maybe VCS Pac-Man was a victim of of Atari brain-drain. Maybe if David Crane (Pitfall!) or Rob Fulop (Missile Command, Demon Attack) or Rick Mauer (Space Invaders) had been around to bounce ideas off of, the game would have turned out better. Maybe if the game was designed using bank-switching, or Frye was not given the requirement to create a 2-player game, he would have had more resources to produce a more faithful version? VCS Pac-Man in an of itself is not a bad maze game. However, under the circumstances, as a version of the coin-op Pac-Man, released in 1982 at the same time Buckner and Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” was hitting the charts, among an unprecedented flurry of events, TV commercials and marketing hype, arriving on Atari’s flagship platform, it was a terrible game. Atari’s “Pac-Man day” was day that would live in infamy.
Part 4: The Press Savaging Of Atari VCS Pac-Man
“Considering the anticipation and considerable time the Atari designers had to work on it, it’s astonishing to see a home version of a classic arcade contest so devoid of what gave the original its’ charm”
-Electronic Games Magazine
The review of VCS Pac-Man in the pages of electronic Games magazine was nothing short of shocking. Never before had I read such a scathing indictment of a game. I was so used to reading reviews that told me how game played, and what to expect, but had very little in the way if criticism.
Yet here was a totally different type of review. The review in Electronic Games showed disdain. It showed hurt. It showed disappointment. It was like Atari had let the whole of the video game industry down by not following through.
The last line of the review said it all:
“Those arcaders who demand that home versions match their coin-op cousins will be seriously disappointed”
-Electronic Games Magazine
Elsewhere, the press was just as critical. It was not until the June 1982 issue of Video magazine and the review of, course, Pac-Man, that any Atari VCS game received an unfavorable review in that magazine :
“Unfortunately those who cannot evaluate Pac-Man through lover’s eyes are likely to be disappointed”. and “…is not quite what electronic game fan expect from Atari”.
The review is actually one of the nicer opinions. Other publications did not pull any punches. In the premiere, August 1982 issue of Video Games Magazine, they described VCS Pac-Man this way:
“Anyone who buys Pac-Man because they love the arcade game with the same name may wind-up disappointed. Other than retaining the basic concept, it bears few similarities to the ‘real’ Pac-Man.”
-Video Games Magazine
The premiere issue of Video Game Player from Fall 1982 called VCS Pac-Man:
” just awful.”
-Video Game Player
The point here is not just that VCS Pac-Man was bad game, or that it got a bad review, but that it represented a sea change in the way Atari VCS games were reviewed by the burgeoning video game press. No longer were enthusiasts and reviewers trying to argue for the inner life of their hobby. They were now looking at games critically and calling out the failures above the successes. It didn’t help that Atari’s Pac-Man game was such an utter dog.
The press had spoken, and Atari’s free ride was over.
Part 5: Reviews Of Atari VCS Games After Pac-Man
After the release of Pac-Man for the VCS, the coverage of Atari 2600 games took a turn for, if not the worse than at least the more critical than the fan-boy slavering they had received pre -VCS Pac-Man. While some games did receive good reviews (i.e. Haunted House, Super Breakout, Star Raiders) , Atari no longer got a free-pass when it came to reviews.
For example, Yar’s Revenge is considered a classic now, but in the wake of the Pac-Man review, no Atari VCS game got a free pass. In the October 1982 issue of Electronic Games, it was called “Far too Static”, even though it was a play on the arcade game Star Castle, and was arguably, a deeper and more challenging experience than that game.
Even when games received favorable reviews, often-times they were still compared to the missteps Atari made in the past. Game reviewers had been as shocked by the terrible quality of Pac-Man as the game players. In the review for Defender in the November ’82 issue, Electronic Games called back to both Pac-Man and Yar’s Revenge to compare and contrast the relative success of their Defender cartridge. While praising Defender, Electronic Games made sure to remind people that VCS Pac-Man was “tremendously disappointing”. They also added insult to injury by reminding readers that Yar’s Revenge was “mediocre” which again, in hindsight, feels like Yar’s Revenge got stuck in the negative coattails of VCS Pac-Man instead of being judged on its’ own merits.
Even six months after the review of Pac-Man, in their mostly positive review of VCS Berzerk from the January 1983 issue of Electronic Games, the magazine spent nearly 1/3 of the text trashing VCS Pac-Man and discussing how it made them nervous about maze games from Atari:
“When Atari announced plans to produce a home edition of the well-known Stern maze shoot-out, Berzerk, skepti-cism ran rampant through- out the electronic ling world. The basic situation — an on-screen hero shoots at computer-directed robots as the arcader moves from room to room — sounded like it might be hard to reproduce, given the limitations of the VCS hardware. Besides, Atari hadn’t done such a masterful job on Pac-Man, its previous attempt to translate a prominent maze game for home-screen play. Those disappointed by Pac-Man (VCS) adopted an under- standably cautious, wait-and-see atti- tude toward Berzerk.”
It seems that Pac-Man was such a monumental failure, that even when Atari made a decent game, they could not shake their first great failure as a video game company.
This even extended to 3rd parties, whose success only highlighted Atari’s failures. In the review for Parker Brother’s version of Frogger from January 1983, another game that garnered a positive review, the author could not help but allude to the VCS version of Pac-Man by writing about how difficult it has been to translate arcade games to the Atari VCS:
“Translating popular coin-op videogames into the home medium, particularly the VCS format, has proven one of the most formidable challenges of this decade. While some games have proven “naturals” for home translation, many have simply defied the programmers’ best efforts to bring them to the 2600 screen.”
Furthermore, while the press was still reeling from the shocking problems with VCS Pac-Man, reviews for games from Activision and Imagic for the VCS consistently gained high praise. Electronic Games called Activsion’s Grand Prix “Spectactular…visual triumph” (June 1992), Chopper Command “one of the most exciting cartridges you’ll ever plug into the slot of your Atari VCS” (September 1982), Star Master “type of video game that really has staying power” (October 1982), Megamania “Activision at its’ whimsical best…not to be missed“, Pitfall! “Incredibly Innovative…unquestionably recommended” (December 1982), and River Raid “one of the best blood and thunder blst-em-ups ever inserted into a VCS slot” (April 1983). The also declared that Imagic’s Demon Attack “should be one of the best selling video games of 1982” (August 1982), and Atlantis as “a Magnificent Video Game” (February 1983).
At the same time, rival systems from Coleco and Mattel were scoring some of the best reviews ever seen in the pages of a video game magazine. In the March 1983 issue Electronic Games called Colecovision’s Zaxxon “the best home video game in the land“. they followed up that review in the same issue with a review of Mattel Intellivision’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons calling it “one of the finest action adventure cartridges“. The next month’s issue (April 1983), the Colecovsion dominated the review cycle with two more games. Turbo was as having “ The most peeper popping graphics ever seen on a home video game“, and of Mouse Trap they said “Chalk up another winner for Coleco“.
I’m not suggesting that Electronic Games Magazine was biased toward newer systems or 3rd party publishers at the expense of Atari. The praise bestowed on Activision, Coleco, Imagic, Mattel, and many others was well deserved. The home video game industry was moving forward, but Atari was stuck in 1983 with six-year old technology in their flagship platform (The newer, Atari 5200 was not the instant success they desired), and a seemingly prevalent idea that marketing and hype could overcome the technical deficiencies in their platform. No where was this more evident that with their E.T. The Extraterrestrial cartridge, reviewed with unfortunate synchronicity, in the April 1983 issue of Electronic Games, right in the middle of positive reviews for the a selection ColecoVision games.
Much has been said about E.T. The Extraterrestrial for the VCS. Some people call it “The worst game ever made”, others blame it for the eventual golden age video game crash. I think that’s giving it too much credit. If you were like me, a 13 year old following the video game industry in the pages of magazines as if it was the most important thing in the world, E.T. was simply “more of the same.” It was not a good game for many reasons: overwhelming marketing hype, high cost of the license, short development time. However that was just indicative, at least in my mind, of Atari at the time. Electronic Games wrote the the figurative “Shit Sandwich” of VCS reviews for E.T. like this:
“Save your time and money. And if E.T. does call home, please don’t tell him about this”.
-Electronic Games Magazine
The E.T. game book-ended nearly a year of bad news for the Atari VCS, while rival platforms were faring much better. Atari VCS games had gone from being “innovative” in the pages of Arcade Alley, to being the butt of funny jokes in the pages of the industry press.
This hit me really hard. to me., my favorite video game company had become an embarrassment, and as an owner of an Atari VCS, to my video gaming friends, I had become an embarrassment by association.
By the Spring of 1983, the zeitgeist had moved away from Atari, and they would never get it back. The message was overwhelming and clear: Atari had lost its way, and their rivals were beating them at their own game.
Part 6: A Community Of Video Gamers
I have to admit it. I bought VCS Pac-Man game even after reading the review in Electronic Games Magazine.
Because I wanted Electronic Game Magazine to be wrong.
I loved Atari. I loved their arcade games. I love the VCS and how it represented “freedom” to me to when I was a 70’s kid and and 80’s teen. I wanted to work at Atari. My dream was to become an Atari game programmer and make the games I had been designing in notes books since I was 9 years old.
I was 12 years old. I’d wanted an Atari VCS since 1978, and finally got one Christmas 1981, and had it for a mere 5 months before VCS Pac Man was released. I loved Pac Man in the arcade, and I just knew Atari would do it justice. How could Pac-Man go wrong? I was a proto Atari fan-boy and though the company would never let me down.
My brother and I bought the game for $35 at Target with money we saved up for months.
“They had to be wrong!” I thought as purchased the game, opened the package, put it in the VCS cartridge slot, and flicked the power-switch.
I recall booting up the game for the first time and thinking “That’s it?”. I was distraught over Pac-Man for the VCS.
Electronic Games was not wrong at all.
It was devastating. After playing magnificent versions of the “big 3” (Asteroids, Space Invaders and Missile Command) on my recently acquired VCS (Christmas 1981), Pac-Man was a total shock.
But to me, Pac Man was truly awful.
I took the instruction booklet to school the next day, and poured over every word, trying to glean any insight or inspiration from the words within. There was nothing. Even the instruction booklet appeared to not understand the game Atari had tried to re-create. I’d stood behind the teenagers at the Guild Drug store for too many hours, watching them play and gazing at the on-screen and on-cabinet illustrations and instructions to know the nuances of Pac-Man. This game had none of them. In fact, besides the most basic elements, it appeared to have a complete lack of understanding of the Pac-Man coin-op game. Atari VCS Pac-Man had “vitamin pills” instead of “fruit”, “video wafers” instead of dots, “power-pills” instead of “energizers”, and the ghosts were all the same color: transparent.
I thought it was the worst game I had ever played on the VCS. In reality, I had no idea what the limitations were of the Atari VCS before I spent my hard earned money on Pac-Man. But afterward, I was certain of them.
My loyalties shifted that day. I knew who was on my side. It was was not Atari any longer, it was Electronic Games. Katz, Kunkel and Worley, the editorial trifecta of the world’s first and best video game magazine had become the de-facto experts on “video games” to me.
They were on my side.
They were telling truth to power.
They were the free press we needed at the right time for us as consumers, but maybe not the right time for Atari.
They made me rethink what I felt about Atari and the VCS. When I re-read the Electronic Games review of Pac-Man, it validated my opinion. All of a sudden, I trusted E.G. more than any other source. I don’t think I was alone in that assessment.
Atari was suspect to me after that. For the first time, but not the last, they had let me down. They allowed their new found focus on marketing overtake their original focus on design and engineering. They thought they could sell me anything. They were wrong. My relationship with the brand would never be the same again.
I felt like I was finally part of something.
I was in the 6th grade when VCS Pac-Man was released. The move from elementary school to junior high was harrowing at best. Friends were falling away like dead flies, older kids on cusp of adulthood were menacing at every turn. Simple and fun things like P.E., assemblies, and lunch became abject nightmares in junior high. In P.E., if someone left a locker open “coach” would make us march around the playground like recruits in Basic Training. Assemblies, no matter the subject, were overshadowed by who you sat with, or around. Hardly anyone cared what was happening on-stage, as it was the social atmosphere of the audience that mattered most, and tended to wear us down. At snack and recess, the only activities were a hardcore version of handball played against the prison-like retaining walls of our tri-level school grounds, volleyball, which was reserved for only-the-strong, and hiding from the long-haired, bearded, 8th grade “burnouts” who felt the need to lock 6th graders in their lockers between smoking bowls and paging through the latest issue of “High times”.
It felt like there was no-where to turn in 6th grade, except the pages of Electronic Games, and my older mentors : Katz, Kunkel and Worley.
In those pages I found my refuge.
I poured every page, every month I received an issue. A different sense of reality hit me than what was happening at school or what Atari was trying to sell through it’s ads and marketing campaigns.
My favorite sections of the magazine were the one with letters from kids (seemingly) just like me, who begged for a response from our editorial heroes. The pages of Reader Response and The Game Doctor, were my first touch point with a larger community of like-minded people. I wrote the magazine at least a dozen letters, hoping to read response in the pages of the magazine.
Bill Kunkel described the the affect this way:
“I think it gave the readers a sense of community. It was the only way they could really interact with us and with one another. And Q&A was, at that point, the nexus for all fan information on the world of gaming.”
-Bill Kunkel, Executive Editor Of Electronic Games Magazine (8bitrocket.com Interview)
The first solid indication that Electronic Games magazine “had my back” as part of this new community of “video gamers” was in a response to letter written to them about their VCS Pac-Man review in their Septemeber 1982 issue.
The writer complained that as magazine if they “could not say anything good about a game, don’t say anything at all”. The editorial response to this letter set the tone of the magazine for years to come.
“The editors of this magazine take strong exception to your closing comment. We feel it is our duty to report both the positive and negative aspects of everything. If our reviewers don’t state their opinions honestly, how can readers trust their judgement when then praise a new cartridge”?
I recall distinctly reading that exchange in the Reader Response section of the magazine and nodding my head in agreement. The Electronic Game VCS Pac-Man review was the first time (I saw) a publication being truly honest about a video game, and their opinion matched mine. I knew it would not be the last time.
Soon after, bolstered by letters like the one from Jim Carem in the October 1982 issue that begged for “More Reviews Wanted” I became a sort of “junkie” for game reviews. Any review I could find, I’d read and ingest. This begat a life-long love-affair with games journalism only subsided in the past few years when good games writing has been mostly replaced by Metacritic, Twitch, Youtube and Podcasts.
Part 7: The Debut of Ms. Pac-Man
About a year after the Atari VCS Pac-Man review appeared in electronic Games Magazine, they printed the following in July 1983:
“Ms. Pac-Man is great piece of work, with all the appeal gamers could want” .
-Electronic Games Magazine
Atari had finally done it. They put their minds to-it, and created a game that was, at the very least, an acceptable version of an arcade game.With their Atari 5200 console failing to light the world on fire, and the stiff competition posed by ColecoVision and it’s near arcade quality game ports, they had their back against the wall. Why was the game so much better than VCS Pac-Man? Ms. Pac-Man for the VCS included far more cartridge ROM (8K) than Pac-Man and used bank-switching, which allowed for greater visuals.
This meant the game cost Atari more than other cartridges, but it was worth the price. According to AtariProtos.com, Atari VCS Ms. Pac-Man was programmed by Mike Horowitz & Josh Littlefield from GCC, the company that programmed the original Ms. Pac-Man arcade game (first as an illegal mod to Pac Man, and then as an official game for Midway). GCC would go on to design the Atari 7800 console, and program the first set of impressive games for that system.
If only Atari had made that decision a year earlier, then, possibly, they would not have seen their fortunes fall so quickly and so dramatically.
I recall buying Ms. Pac-Man only after reading this review in the magazine. In just a single year, I had gone from blind consumer of Atari’s marketing messages, to consummate consumer who used the popular media as guide for my entertainment purchases.
I was very pleased with Ms. Pac-Man. It remains as, one of my all-time favorite Atari VCS game purchases. Playing Ms. Pac-Man on the VCS elicited satisfaction that my old fascination with Atari was not “wrong”, and that they could still make good games, if only they put in the effort. It gave me hope that one-day I too could work for Atari and make video games. Not too long after, I traded up to an Atari 800 computer and taught myself to program games in BASIC. Atari was still in my blood, and it never left.
Part 8: Too Little Too Too Late
Atari’s fortunes were not affected just because they released a crappy version of Pac-Man for the VCS, their fortunes were affected because they released a crappy version of Pac-Man for the VCS and , thanks to a newly established critical video game press, the new community of “video gamers” had the chance know about it before they bought it, and converse about it afterward. A seemingly small detail, but a significant change that led to a whole new way Atari was covered in the press. While some Atari VCS games did receive positive notes after Pac-Man, the damage was done. In the pages of video game magazines after the Electronic Games Pac-Man review was published, there was a general feeling of disappointment and discouragement with Atari products that still exists today. Even though Atari managed to gain back some respectability with solid versions of games for the VCS like Ms. Pac-Man, the damage was done. In less than a year, the Zeitgeist moved away from Atari and toward other platforms and other companies. Ms Pac-Man, however good, was too little too late.
And that’s why May 11th, 1982 will live as the day Atari lost the video game war.