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One Console, Four Titles, Several Sequels, and Lots of Games

A look at how Asteroids, Defender, Missile Command and Pac-Man are represented on the Atari 2600 becomes a fascinating peek into the history of Atari's most famous console.

The Black Label Era

In the early years of the Atari Video Computer System, Atari seemed determined to give each of the new console's games its own unique identity, even those games that originally appeared elsewhere. Ports of arcade games like Pong and Tank, which the console could easily reproduce, were given splashes of color and loads of new features. Maybe this was to show what the VCS was capable of, compared to those "primitive" arcade machines. Maybe it was to encourage more people to stay home and play Atari games. Perhaps in some cases it was to distract other publishers, since not every game was originally created by Atari, nor was every game properly credited to its original source.

Whatever the reason, by the beginning of the 1980s, it was customary for games to look and sound quite different on the Atari, even when they didn't really need to. VCS owners were usually none the wiser, because the console's early catalog consisted mostly of original games, arcade games that had faded into obscurity, and games that were actually improved by Atari's embellishments. This began to change with 1980's home release of Space Invaders. A massive worldwide arcade hit, Space Invaders had engrained itself in popular culture, to the point where any differences between the arcade original and Atari's conversion would be closely scrutinized. Sure enough, Atari changed things up, giving the invaders a new look and adding a lot of game options never before seen. Even with the new changes, the spirit of Taito's arcade game survived largely intact, and the home version was a commercial and critical success. Players decided Atari's console actually could do justice to modern, popular arcade games, even if those games got a bit rearranged in the process.

1981 would test that theory with a host of new arcade conversions, including Atari's own Asteroids and Missile Command, along with Williams's Defender and Namco's Pac-Man. Once again, Atari's programmers turned these games into distinctly VCS entities, but this time the changes weren't so universally accepted. Missile Command fared the best of the four, partly because the frenzied quest to save cities from nuclear armagheddon is nicely preserved, and partly because the arcade game was already as colorful as Atari seemingly wanted their home games to be. Less colorful was the original Asteroids, and the VCS version's expanded palette makes for a rather surreal trip through the asteroid belt. Thankfully Asteroids also plays very well at home, though the same cannot be said for the other two ports. Defender's scenery has been changed from mountains to a cityscape, and the alien invasion is almost unrecognizable compared to the cast of the arcade game. Pac-Man's upheaval is even worse, with a new maze, a new look for Pac-Man and the ghosts, and a new library of sounds that do little to remind players of the original game.

To be sure, there are more than just graphic and sound differences that separate these versions from their arcade cousins. Missile Command is missing two missile bases along wtih enemy bombers and UFOs, Asteroids has fewer asteroids and limited mobility, Defender can track only one displaced humanoid at a time, and Pac-Man skips on the bonus fruits and intermissions. But missing features are a lot easier to forgive when what's left still reminds players of what made the arcade game so great. Missile Command succeeds on that front and Asteroids does almost as well, but Defender is borderline and Pac-Man just about fails completely. Not surprisingly, VCS Pac-Man was the most criticized of the four when released, and Atari discovered they better put a little more care into their translations if they wanted their console to survive in the marketplace.

The Silver Label Era

Fortunately, Atari did exactly what was needed to improve the home arcade experience. In 1982, the company introduced the first in a new library of games for the newly rechristined Atari 2600. These new cartridges looked nicer with their fancy silver labels, but more importantly they offered much better graphics, sound and gameplay. Ironically, arcade technology had progressed far beyond the 2600's capabilities by this time, and so these newer conversions couldn't help but look and sound different. Even so, Atari was ensuring much more effort went into these new releases, and the results were stunning. Ms. Pac-Man is an excellent example. Immediately upon power-up, players could tell this would not be another disappointment the way Pac-Man was. Ms. Pac-Man is actually recognizable as her arcade counterpart, and so are the ghosts. The maze, while not a perfect match, is much more faithful. Audio also has improved, with an intro tune and game sounds that, even if they don't exactly match the arcade, at least are closer to what arcade players remembered. Players even get treated to traveling bonus fruits and an honest-to-goodness title screen, featuring an animated Ms. Pac-Man and her ghostly rivals! Some little things were still lost, most obviously the intermissions, but now 2600 owners finally had a Pac-Man game that was more than worthy of calling itself a Pac-Man game.

By 1984, Atari's programmers had become even more clever and inventive, producing games for the 2600 that rivaled even the titles of more modern systems like the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision. Stargate, for instance: In the arcade, Stargate doesn't look all that different from its predescesor, Defender. On the 2600, however, the two games are miles apart. With a mountain landscape, aliens that all move and act independently of each other, and the ability to track multiple humanoids as they are kidnapped and rescued, 2600 Stargate is a masterpiece that makes the original Defender cartridge pretty much unnecessary.

The Red Label Era

Sadly during this time, a few key missteps by Atari and other home video game companies were overshadowing the excellent titles being released. Store shelves were laden with low-quality games and questionable hardware. Customers grew irritated, and soon were spending their entertainment dollars elsewhere. By 1985, the entire home video game industry had virtually disappeared. Smaller companies were the first to go, but even larger players like Mattel and Coleco eventually gave up and left. Atari limped on, but only after parent company Warner Brothers split and sold off the organization. After acquiring what had been the home division of Atari Inc., new company Atari Corporation kept the 2600 and 5200 game consoles on the market, but also planned on a larger push into home computers. Then, something happened. Nintendo, at the time known only for arcade games like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., offered a new home console called the Nintendo Entertainment System. With strategic marketing, tight control over third-party publishing, and one of the best collections of launch titles in video game history, the Nintendo Entertainment System quickly separated itself from the consoles that came before it, and proved overwhelmingly that there were still plenty of people willing to play video games at home.

Atari didn't take this sudden revitalization of the home market lying down, and soon released their own answer to the NES, the Atari 7800. But at the same time they redesigned and reintroduced the Atari 2600, offering the system as a budget console for price-conscious consumers. With the system's rebirth came a new line of games, titles that continued the innovations of the silver label era. To be sure, not many players were still willing to settle for an Atari 2600 when the legendary Nintendo Entertainment System was also available. Even so, the players that did stick around were again treated to some of the best games yet for the old platform, arcade translations included. Case in point: Jr. Pac-Man. Where Ms. Pac-Man proved the 2600 actually could play a good Pac-Man game, Jr. Pac-Man proved the 2600 could play a good Pac-Man game with all the trimmings. The ghosts actually look in the direction they're going! Now there are intermissions! True, only the intermission tunes are here, without the animations to go with them, but that's still a lot more than the console seemed capable of before. And with all the other "bigger and better" features of arcade Jr. Pac-Man -- more mazes, scrolling playfields and bonus treats that could actually do harm if left alone for too long -- the 2600 conversion proved there was still plenty of potential yet to be tapped, even almost a decade after the console was first released.

The Hacks

While the system never again reached its early 1980s popularity, the Atari 2600 managed to stay on the market for several more years, until Atari finally cancelled production at the beginning of 1992. For the next decade, only the most devout fans still played their 2600's, while the rest of the gaming public were wooed by the new consoles of Nintendo and Sega, and later Sony and Microsoft. Then, as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, two things helped spark new interest in the old Atari. First, home computers became powerful enough to run emulators, applications capable of using the same code as old gaming hardware, including the 2600. Second, as the Internet made the world more connected, websites and forums appeared where people gathered to share their love for those old games, and to buy, sell and trade cartridges and hardware. More and more players began dusting off their old consoles, and even some new players were discovering a love for "retro" gaming. Home computers were also making it very easy to copy and edit old code, and so some players began hacking, changing bits around to see how they could make old favorites play in a new way. This soon led to interest in how some old games could be improved upon. Ms. Pac-Man and Stargate had demonstrated the 2600 really could do justice to Pac-Man and Defender, so why not actually turn those games into better versions of Pac-Man and Defender?

Through-out the 2000s, many 2600 enthusiasts did that and more, producing hacks that featured improved graphics and sound, and sometimes even gameplay. Older arcade translations received much of this attention, particularly Pac-Man. First, Rob Kudla rearranged Ms. Pac-Man into Pac-Man Arcade, changing colors and character designs and reprogramming the bonus fruit to stay put in the middle of the screen. The results were quite good, and a wonderful promise of things to come. Famed 2600 hacker "Nukey Shay" improved upon Kudla's efforts with Pac-Man Arcade Enhanced, adding an extra bit of polish and even recreating the original arcade game's intermissions.

Nukey Shay then produced a second hack of Pac-Man, this one actually based on the original 2600 Pac-Man. This particular hack, dubbed Pac-Man 8K, was more than just an attempt to improve upon the original. The programmer of Atari's Pac-Man had once said he was sure he could have done better had he been allowed to use more than four kilobytes of code for his game. The Atari 2600 was originally designed to allow no more than four kilobytes, but by 1980 engineers were figuring out ways to push beyond this limit. During Pac-Man's development, Atari had resources capable of producing games with twice the capacity, eight kilobytes total. Those resources were dedicated to work on the 2600 version of Asteroids, however, leaving Pac-Man with only four kilobytes. Pac-Man 8K is Nukey Shay's suggestion of how Pac-Man might have turned out had the original programmer gotten his wish. The spirit of the official release is still here, only now with enough extras to make the game actually feel like Pac-Man.

Nukey Shay didn't just make Pac-Man hacks, and he didn't just hack games people considered mediocre. Missile Command, by most accounts already pretty good on the 2600, became an even more ambitious effort thanks to Nukey Shay's Missile Command Arcade. While other home versions could boast several features the original 2600 port lacked, Nukey Shay's hack became the first and only version for any 8-bit system to have three different missile bases! This forced the game to require two controllers to play, which can be tricky without the right hardware, but with other additions like UFOs and bombers, Missile Command Arcade brings the 2600 a lot closer to arcade Missile Command. There are some rough edges, like the fact that the UFOs and bombers don't actually fire any missiles of their own, but Missile Command Arcade is still an impressive achievement.

Meanwhile Robert Decresenzo, better known for his latter-day work on the Atari 7800, made good on Stargate's promise of a better 2600 Defender, creating another "Arcade" title with Defender Arcade. This one is much more fun than Atari's original port of Defender, thanks in large part to the better graphics, sounds and behavior of Stargate. Some bits of Defender are missing, such as the bombers' ability to lay mines in the air, but such details are easily overlooked when the rest of the game is this good.

Some hacks go for more subtle changes. Atari 2600 programming wizard Thomas Jentzsch produced hacks of both Missile Command and Asteroids that change little in each game's appearance, yet still manage to create a much more arcade-like experience. His Missile Command TB offers true analog track ball support, while Asteroids DC+ allows use of the 2600's "driving" controller. These controls match the original arcade games' much more closely than the standard joystick, making Atari's good ports even better. Asteroids DC+ also changes the graphics to bring them just a little closer to the vector graphics of the arcade game.

The Hacks of the Hacks

As long as we're hacking old game code, then why not also tweak another hacker's code when the opportunity presents itself? Robert Decresenzo did just that when he took Rob Kudla's version of Pac-Man and turned it into the very first home port of Pac-Man Plus. Pac-Man Plus, fittingly itself a hack of arcade Pac-Man, got lost in legal tangles between original Pac-Man developer Namco and American distributor Midway, and no official home version was ever released. Thanks to the work of Decresenzo and others, however, Pac-Man Plus is now playable on several different home consoles. Decresenzo's port actually doesn't offer much more than tweaks of the graphics of Kudla's Pac-Man hack, and as a result doesn't have any of the extras that really separated arcade Pac-Man Plus from Pac-Man. There are no "broken" energizers, disappearing mazes, or extra features tied to the bonus fruits. Still, the game does answer the question of what Pac-Man Plus could look like at home, and it helped whet nostalgic players' appetites for more.

The Homebrews

Modern-day 2600 programmers aren't just content with changing other people's code. They have also created (and continue to create) many titles from scratch. Thanks to better knowledge of the system's capabilities, and easier ways to test code before committing it to a game cartridge, these newer titles have raised the standard even higher of what makes a 2600 game "good." Many of these newly-coded titles are completely original games, while others seek to port games never before available on the 2600. A few of these games, however, ponder the question of how good a previously released game could be if a new version were created using today's knowledge and tools. Pac-Man again got plenty of attention here, with not one, but two ports created from scratch. Eric Bacher, later cofounder of homebrew group Ebivision, came first, creating a brand new Pac-Man that looks very arcade like, and surprisingly is stuffed into the same four kilobytes as Atari's official release. Bacher opted not to release his version to the public, however, and instead used what he learned to create a similar yet more original game called Pesco. Those who have been lucky enough to play Bacher's Pac-Man say it indeed ranks among the best arcade ports for the 2600. Several years later, homebrewer Dennis Debro decided he too could create a much better Pac-Man for the 2600, again using only four kilobytes. This time the public did get to see the game, named Pac-Man 4K, and they liked what they saw. Four kilobytes can only do so much, even in the hands of the most savvy programmer, and so some features have again gone missing, but Pac-Man 4K is still an excellent game at any size.

Even more recently, Atari enthusiasts have been creating not only new games for the 2600, but new hardware as well. A group of dedicated programmers and engineers has produced the Melody game cartridge, capable not only of larger games, but more complex games as well. A second processor within the cartridge itself, able to do calculations much faster than the 2600's original CPU, allows for games and game features never before possible on the 2600. One of the first games developed for the Melody was a new take on Asteroids, called Space Rocks, produced by homebrewer SpiceWare. Space Rocks is everything a player could want in a home version of Asteroids: lots of asteroids, all of the weapons of both the original arcade game and the original 2600 home game, plenty of settings to customize the game's look and feel, and beautiful graphics that take full advantage of the Melody's boost in computing power. Space Rocks even adds features from Asteroids Deluxe, the lesser known arcade sequel to Asteroids.

The Hacks of the Homebrews

Naturally, those who enjoy hacking on older game code are often tempted to dig into newer games as well. Once again Pac-Man and its sequels are in the spotlight here, and once again Nukey Shay has been at work. This time, Nukey Shay started with Pesco, and finished with a game called Hack 'Em. More than just a port of Pac-Man, Hack 'Em strives to be as arcade-perfect as a 2600 port of Pac-Man could possibly be. Using four times the memory of Atari's original Pac-Man, Hack 'Em has the same features of other more recent Pac-Man conversions, including a more accurate maze, the same bonus fruits, and arcade intermissions. But Hack 'Em is actually four games in one, offering not only Pac-Man, but ports of Pac-Man Plus, Hangly Man and Hangly Man Plus as well. Unlike the first 2600 release of Pac-Man Plus, this version actually plays like the arcade game, with energizers that sometimes leave a ghost invincible, and bonus fruits that have other mysterious powers. Hangly Man, ported from an unauthorized clone of arcade Pac-Man, is also true to its roots, with the original's altered maze that changes into an open arena later in the game. Hangly Man Plus is actually something of a new game, suggesting what arcade Hangly Man might have looked like had its creators started with Pac-Man Plus instead of Pac-Man. All together, Hack 'Em is a treasure for fans of Pac-Man and the Atari 2600. Only the lack of good intermission music keeps Hack 'Em from being truly perfect.

Then, to add yet another game to his Pac-Man arsenal, Nukey Shay further hacked Hack 'Em into Ms. Hack, creating an even more faithful port of Ms. Pac-Man for the 2600. Since Ms. Pac-Man was already a pretty good on the 2600, the improvements here aren't as dramatic. Still, there is plenty to appreciate, from more familiar mazes to new intermissions. If there is any complaint here, it's that Ms. Hack flickers even more than Hack 'Em, sometimes making the graphics hard to see.

The Grades

The Atari black-labels: Asteroids, B; Defender, B-; Missile Command, B+; Pac-Man, C.

The Atari silver-labels: Ms. Pac-Man, A; Stargate, A+.

The Atari red-labels: Jr. Pac-Man, A.

The hacks: Asteroids DC+, B+; Defender Arcade, A; Missile Command Arcade, A-; Missile Command TB, A-; Pac-Man Arcade Enhanced, A; Pac-Man 8K, B+.

The homebrews: Pac-Man 4K, A; Space Rocks A+.

The hacks of the homebrews: Hack 'Em, A+; Ms. Hack, A.