Ms. Pac-Man might just be the finest Atari 2600 game in existence. Yeah, I said it. Also, at one time, I could lay claim to being the best in the world at it.
In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish.
So with news of the Atari 2600+ breaking this week, it got me thinking about my smaller Atari 2600 games collection.
The Atari 2600 is often held up as a “classic” system, but a system that relatively few people play, because the claim is that the games are not all that interesting in a modern context.
Some of them, frankly, do not hold up at all, because the 2600 was infested with a lot of junk games. It amused me somewhat to note that many of these garbage titles were ones that Atari claims are now compatible with the Atari 2600+… but I digress.
If you want playable retro, so the argument goes, you must start with the NES/Famicom or equivalent systems. Sure, Atari was important back in the day, but it’s no good now, that argument goes.
I think that argument is dead wrong.
Yes, the Atari 2600 catalogue has its stinkers, but it’s also got some code that was incredibly well done, not just for its time, but for all time.
Like, for example, Ms. Pac-Man.
A bit like the Millennium Falcon, Ms. Pac-Man may not look like much, but… well, you know the quote, right?
The original port of Pac-Man on the 2600 was a notoriously rushed and bland affair that saw your Pac-person swapping pellets for what I still swear are Weetbix.
For its superior sequel, Atari produced what I genuinely think is the best and most playable game on the system. Yeah, I said it, and I’ll point that it’s opinion, and I’m happy to discuss your takes in the comments below.
But still, what Ms. Pac-Man manages in just 8K is pretty darned impressive. There’s been plenty of Atari remakes in the years since the 2600 stopped production — astonishingly, fact fans, that was in 1992, let that sink in — with Pac-Man a notable favourite to improve.
EAT EVERYTHING, SCORE POINTS, REPEAT.
As far as I can tell, there’s been nothing like that level of interest in improving Ms. Pac-Man, because it’s already pretty darned great.
So what does it get so right? While clearly it’s limited by the technology of the Atari 2600, it presents the essential score-chasing gameplay loop of Ms. Pac-Man cleanly and smoothly, even for the PAL version that I’ve got.
Is it perfect? Hardly. There’s still considerable flicker, the music is limited to the shrill tones of the 2600 and quickly becomes jarring… but most of that doesn’t matter when you’re in the flow of the game, chasing ghosts or nimbly escaping them through the game’s changing maze structures.
It’s one of those games you absolutely can put just about anyone in front of and have them start playing and chasing high scores almost immediately.
Speaking of high scores, I can’t ignore the fact that I did make that claim about being a world champion at this game.
It’s true, albeit not recognised to the level I might like it to have been.
Back in 2010, I was idly browsing the web, and specifically Twin Galaxies and its high score tables. Yes, I know, contentious organisation, King of Kong and all that and more besides.
What we really need is a game from the ghost’s perspective. Must be pretty horrifying, because you get killed, become a ghost… and then get killed again and again and again.
But anyway, there I was, idly looking at what I’d need to do to claim world champion status on various games I have passion for… but maybe not the requisite skill.
Now, back in 2010, Twin Galaxies already recognised that PAL format games ran at a different speed to their NTSC counterparts, so comparing scores across them wasn’t fair to either side of the equation.
Also, Twin Galaxies is US-based, so they had a lot of NTSC scores, but very few PAL ones. I checked Ms. Pac-Man, and the high score (at that time) for PAL copies was 21,290.
Which, frankly, is a stupidly easy score to beat. So I did that. However, Twin Galaxies wanted more. They wanted proof, which is fair enough. I grabbed a nearby video camera, pointed it at a screen, and, well… this:
Boom. Instant world champ, right?
I submitted the score via email with a link to the YouTube video, and eventually someone from Twin Galaxies got back to me and said they would only accept a high score if I sent them a video tape.
A PAL videotape, that I’d have to mail across to the US at my expense, hope it arrived, hope they had a PAL-capable player and… yeah, nah, that wasn’t going to happen, even though I really did beat that high score by a fair margin. It wasn’t even a particularly flawless try at it, being honest about it.
But I’m nothing if not determined, so eight years later, I had another crack at it:
This was more about seeing where my skills were at than a serious attempt to be clear. Still, this is a game that I like, and while the petty types at certain high score establishments don’t recognise, I still do like to think of myself as a former world champion.
Full credit to the current high scorer at 95,570, which is a very solid score. I might have a crack at that when I get a spare moment — hopefully Twin Galaxies has updated its acceptance methods since 2010…
How to play Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 2600) now
The news of the Atari 2600+ got me thinking about what that kind of system needed to succeed, and it’s not hard to work out what that might be.
Like any games system, it needs games, and the problem that “Atari” has these days is that the games it owns the IP rights to is a small bunch that it’s endlessly recycled and re-released.
I mean, if you want the best way to play those games, go grab a copy of Atari 50, highly recommended by, well… me.
For whatever it’s worth, Ms. Pac-Man is listed as being compatible with the new Atari 2600+. Make of that what you will.
But for titles like Ms. Pac-Man — published by Atari back in the day, but not an Atari owned property — it’s a heck of a lot more complicated.
Actually, the rights to Ms. Pac-Man are especially complex, which is why you’ll almost certainly never see it released in a retro compilation or similar. Just unravelling the rights would cost a fortune in lawyer’s fees, and then you’d have to work out who was going to buy it, and what else you might bundle with it, and whether you needed to scrub out the Atari logos and… you get the idea. It’s not going to happen.
But if you want a physical copy of Ms. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600, that’s a pretty easy order to complete. Loose copies go for around $5-$15 on eBay, and even boxed copies only cost around $40 or so.
My own copy is one I’ve obviously had for many years; I think it was part of a job lot of Atari 2600 games I bought quite cheap back in the day.
It’s clearly seen better times and I’d like to state for the record that I didn’t punch that hole in the label; it was like that when I got it. In some ways astonishing to think it still works 41 years after publication; I have many games — mostly disc-based — that are markedly newer that refuse to work at all.