This ad captures the optimism and hope we all had for the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man. Just like your first experience at the arcade, Atari’s Pac-Man would be “love at first bite.”
In retrospect we know what happened when the game was released. People were disappointed. They wanted something closer to the arcade experience. What they got was much simpler and it felt rushed. Still, for most people, this would be the only way they could get even close to the arcade experience. And despite what many will tell you now, a lot of people were very satisfied with the game.
I could play the game for hours and would get into a Pac-zone as I cleared level after level. Plus the game was simple enough that I could enjoy it with family members who traditionally did not play video games. Yet, here they had an opportunity to get in on the pac-craze that had swept the nation. No, it was not perfect, but it was the option we got.
It was only years later, when I would get into discussions with people about Atari that I learned people had negative feelings about the game. From there, the idea has spread like a virus. Time, of course, does not help. What I missed out of in my small childhood world was the rampant negative press around the game. They did not find love at first bite.
On May 11, 1982 Electronic Games Magazine published its first bad review ever for an Atari video game, saying “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”. Video Magazine admitted it was “challenging, and there are a few visual plusses,” before lamenting, “Unfortunately those who cannot evaluate Pac-Man through lover’s eyes are likely to be disappointed”. The premiere issue of Video Games Player from Fall 1982 flatly called Pac-Man” just awful.”
Playing the game now, you are missing the context of the era. You did not have many options and generally most people who owned an Atari knew they were not going to get an arcade experience at home. The game was very playable for its time. Now it just looks like a silly pale jumble of giant dots. Easy to snicker at and hard to understand.
Why the negative reviews? It feels like we were at the tipping point with Atari. It had been out for years and people were ready for the system to improve. After all the hype around games, and the system not improving. We finally got a backlash. It makes sense that it would revolve around such a high-profile title.
To sum up my experience with Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. It was not a great port, but it was not a terrible port. Everyone complained because the expectations were too high. Personally, I really enjoyed the port and I really like this ad. For me, it really was love at first bite (again).
For more information about Pac-Man, including my feelings about the Atari release, check out the Retroist Pac-Man Podcast.