August 19, 2012
The Atari 2600 was host to plenty of arcade ports. None of them were able to 100% duplicate the original arcade game due to comparatively paltry processing power, but many were successful to varying degrees. Two games that well highlight the stark differences between landing on either end of the quality spectrum are Pac-Man and Galaxian. Ironically both of these titles are based on Namco arcade games.
The story behind Pac-Man’s development is an interesting one. Having previously obtained the rights to develop home versions of Namco’s arcade games, Atari sought to capitalize on the success of Pac-Man. Tod Frye, a programmer within Atari, was tasked with the game’s development, not with the most capable tools though; reportedly, rather than using a newer cartridge, one with more memory, his work was confined to the smaller cartridge to reduce manufacturing costs. This factor, along with the reduced processing power of the Atari 2600 compared to the Pac-Man arcade cabinet, compromised the game’s quality.
What Frye produced is totally playable, and resembles Pac-Man undeniably, but its differences are negatives. The maze is unchanging, the ghosts constantly flicker, they’re indistinguishable, the sound effects are grating, the game doesn’t have as good a sense of control over Pac-Man, and so on. It went on to be a great seller at the time (a whopping 7 million copies), but it’s a game that nowadays is best left for those with nostalgia or a deep interest in the medium.
Galaxian on the other hand was released a year after Pac-Man in 1983 on the newer, larger cartridge which provided more space for the programmers to work with. The improvements are night and day. Firstly, Galaxian resembles its arcade brethren to a striking degree (considering it’s a 2600 game). There’s a lot happening on-screen, the graphics are vibrant, and the action is smooth and brisk. Both games are of the score chase variety, but Galaxian is a more enjoyable experience thanks to its more appealing visuals and quality gameplay.
Now details surrounding Pac-Man’s development are well-known and easy to find, but not so with the Atari 2600 version of Galaxian. With some digging, I was able to find out that it was developed not directly by Atari, but rather by General Computer Corporation. GCC was initially a company that modded arcade games; in fact, they’re responsible for Ms. Pac-Man, not Namco! Anyways, Atari filed a lawsuit against GCC but later settled and began outsourcing projects to them.
Upon further digging I was able to determine that Mark Ackerman was the project lead for Galaxian and was assisted by Glen Parker and Tom Calderwood. Mark Ackerman also worked on the 2600 versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Moon Patrol before overseeing the development of a few Atari 7800 titles and leaving game development. Now a professor at the University of Michigan, I emailed Mr. Ackerman and got some feedback on Galaxian’s development.
Of note were a few programming tricks that resulted in a better game. Utilizing the random number generator from Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming resulted in smoother gameplay over Pac-Man. A more advanced algorithm was used to reduce the amount of flicker caused by movement – it definitely works! Lastly, Mr. Ackermen devised a way for eight characters to be displayed on screen when, technologically, the system wasn’t capable of displaying more than six. For this feat he was awarded a patent.
Bottom line is this: I wouldn’t be sad if I could only play the Atari 2600 version of Galaxian, not the case with Pac-Man.