Why am I reviewing this game? You've probably already heard the lore surrounding this infamous port of Namco's beloved arcade classic. Well, it's an important gaming memory for me, because it's the first truly bad game I can remember playing. As a child, I thought most games were good, and yet it wasn't entertaining even then. I wasn't the only one. It was a major disappointment for fans of the arcade game and is often cited as contributing to the 1983 Video Game Market Crash. Though my feelings towards it have softened somewhat over the years, especially after I learned more about the story behind it, it's not one I'll ever have fond memories of playing.
Admittedly, Atari 2600 games were never quite the same as their arcade counterparts. But some games like Missile Command, Space Invaders, and Asteroids captured some of the magic of those machines. Pac-Man is a worst-case scenario: Development was entirely by one man (Tod Frye), who had no prior experience with the arcade game and had to deal with converting it to much less powerful hardware in a span of only six months. The result only vaguely resembled its source material.
One of the biggest problems with the limited technology was the inability to display all four ghosts on the screen at once, so they were programmed to appear every four frames, causing them to noticeably flash and blink. A strange Atari policy that mandated only space games could have black backgrounds resulted in the playing field being a nasty shade of blue. Pac-Man's chomping animation is blocky, he can't face up or down, and while he is depicted as having eyes in most official artwork, the one he acquired in this game isn't doing him any favors.
The sound effects are even worse than the graphics. A shrill whistle replaces the iconic arcade introductory tune and is followed by a neverending barrage of loud "banging" noises as Pac-Man consumes the dots. Strangely, the sound effects have achieved an iconic status of their own, as they were often featured in TV shows and movies when "video game sound effects" were necessary for a scene. I am uncertain of the reason for this, except possibly that (despite its poor reception), it sold over 7 million copies, and so they were readily available.
If I could cite the one thing besides the audio/visuals that hurts this port more than anything else, it's Pac-Man's inability to move quickly through corners. This throws off the entire feel. Being faster around corners than the ghosts is a critical component that made the arcade Pac-Man *work*. In 2600 Pac-Man, you have to slide completely into a corner before turning. It's awkward, and it leaves you no chance to escape ghosts that are eagerly pursuing you. Pac-Man's hit box is his entire sprite, so if just one pixel of a ghost touches him, he dies, unlike in the coin-op where it was possible to get away if a ghost was closing in.
Even without comparing it to the arcade version, it doesn't stand up as a game of its own. The layout of the maze is simplistic and boring, and nothing is added on consecutive rounds, except speeding up the ghosts. It feels claustrophobic - you're trapped in a box of neverending one-note gameplay.
Though it may deserve it, I still feel guilty about being so hard on it because it's such an easy target, I don't blame the developer considering the circumstances, and much has already been said. But the most positive thing I can say about it is that (unfortunately) I've played games that are worse. It proves that the execution of a good idea is just as important as the idea itself in making a good game.