There’s one person in Mattoon who I know reads the paper that I want to address; if you heard me cursing my head off late Friday night, that was just me trying to beat my high score on Pac-Man. And failing. Repeatedly.
Pac-Man has been on my mind a lot the last few weeks, so with that I bring to you, from the Feb. 18, 1983, Journal Gazette, this ad from 3-D Discount’s sale on all things Atari, featuring, all the way down at the very bottom, Pac-Man, a version of the game notorious for, along with one other game in that ad, almost bringing down the home video gaming industry for good. Think about that for a second. Imagine a world when your annoying grandkid asks for something else besides video games every Christmas, huh?
Before I get to Pac-Man let’s talk for a second about what you see in that ad. First of all, 49 bucks for an Atari 2600 with the two joysticks and two paddles (those are the controllers you see with the round knobs) isn’t a bad deal. Although a close look at the text reveals you have to buy five games to get the deal, one from the “just ok” column, and then four from the “please get this out of our store” section.
I had an Atari when I was a kid, and thus owned four of the five games you see there; Defender was a great game with a somewhat provocative cover image of a young lady with Farrah Fawcett hair and a deep-V top getting zapped by a spaceship; Space Invaders had roughly 1,000 different game variations giving dear old dad his own chance to use every bad word he knew while trying beat the “invisible invaders with fast zig zag bombs” mode; and Bowling, which was…well…bowling. The odd game out was the E.T. Extra Terrestrial video game, the game so bad and so oversold to retailers that it actually did kill both Atari and video games as a home hobby until Mario came along a few years later on a different system.
And then there was Pac-Man. Finally getting a version of Pac-Man you could play on your couch was a big deal back in 1983. The problem? Well, just like E.T., the programmers at Atari, overworked and under pressure to get product out on the shelves in time for the holiday season, had to rush the job and the results showed. Even as a kid I knew they fouled it up big time. How? Let me tell you: Pac-Man never turned his head thus making it look like he was eating power pellets through his forehead; the ghosts flickered so badly you’d get a migraine from playing the game more than 10 minutes; the “escape” paths from the maze were on the freaking top and bottom, not the sides; the “bonus fruit” was rendered on screen as a yellow square that the instruction tried to tell me were “vitamins”; and oh yeah, the famous “wakka-wakka” eating sound was replaced by a harsh metallic report guaranteed to make your mom yank out the power plug and kick your lazy behind outside.
I wasn’t the only person who noticed; American video game buyers nationwide felt ripped off too and within months tons of cheap copies were lying around on shelves and being shoveled out the door by places like 3-D Discount while executives at Atari wiped sweat off their brows and tried to figure out how “Computer Game Company Executive” on their resume would help them after they moved back to live with Mom and Dad.
As mentioned, I’ve had a lot of these old games on the brain a lot lately; I’ve been teaching a friend of mine’s 3 1/2-year old about video games, and I’ve almost got her up to speed. She knows who Mario is and that he mostly jumps on turtles, throws fireballs and has a brother named Luigi who wears green, whom she affectionately refers to as “him’s friend”. She knows Space Invaders because at restaurants I make a grid of aliens out of the jam and jelly packets and she “zaps” them with the salt shaker she moves around. And when she mentioned she’s afraid of ghosts, I figured what better way to help her out with that than by introducing her to the little round yellow dude with a triangle-mouth who’s strong enough to actually eat ghosts…the way she eats pancakes.
So I recently hunted down both Pac-Man and Mrs. Pac-Man, both for my old School Nintendo, weird because there have to be easier ways to go about playing those games today. I scraped up 25 dollars for the pair, and realized that even though Nintendo had versions of all those “old” games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Joust, Millipede, etc., most young kids of the late ‘80s, including myself, let them slide right by because…well…those were the “old” games and who wanted to play those when we had all moved on to “sophisticated” games like The Legend of Zelda. Weird thought, because, again, it had only been about eight years since everyone was losing their minds over Pac-Man.
And trust me, I was most definitely losing my mind last Friday. In a good way. Almost 30 years since little invaders needed to be zapped, that big ape started throwing barrels, and our big-mouth yellow friend and his lady with a bow started gobbling up ghosts; and since all that parental grousing like Harry Reynolds’ fun editorial from the July 12, 1982, Journal about how this new-fangled obsession was going to destroy families; here we are still chasing that eternal glory of breaking a high score. Well, at least I am. And soon I hope, the soon-to-be 4-year-old who constantly asks if I’ve got “Mario” with me in my jacket pocket and who, I also hope, will be o.k. with having her pancakes cut into Pac-Man shapes instead of dull ol’ Mickey Mouse.