ATARI'S ARCADE ADAPTATIONS
Like many children of the 70s who upgraded from PONG, the Atari 2600 VCS (video computer system, hah!) was the thing to have. Though some folks think today's video games are pretty expensive, it's hard to believe that that Atari retailed for a fairly stiff $140 and $30 a game, which was pretty damn expensive in 1979 dollars.
You had to choose your games wisely. A few magazines would give you a clue, and word of mouth helped a little, but you were often taking a big chance when you tried something new out. Hell, I remember saving my paper route money for a month to buy DEMONS TO DIAMONDS, which ended up being one of the all time worst I had ever purchased.
Atari's Missle Command contained one of the early videogame "Easter Eggs". When you picked Game 13, and let all the cities explode with "0" points, you'd get to see the initials of the game's designer, "RH", in the ruins of the far right city. My friend William and I heard of something like this, and actually took the time to write to Atari and ask them for the secret, which they happily gave to us.
But when there were adaptation of arcade games, you at least could dream that you'd be getting something great. Atari did a phenomenal job with it's version of Space Invaders. Not only did it duplicate the look and gameplay of the arcade, but there were 112 different versions of it, which was pretty damn good. Their versions of Missle Command and Ms. Pac-Man were done quite nicely, as well.
But the success in taking arcade hits, which are laughably primitive by today's standards, and adapting them into Atari versions was typically a no-win situations. The limited memory and processing power made for some pretty laughable results.
Donkey Kong, which was made by Coleco, had their heart in the right place, at least, but the game just didn't quite cut it. The sound effects were mind numbing and when you made it to the top, you didn't even get the satisfaction of saving the girl, you were just sent to the next level. And that giant tomato with legs is supposed to be Donkey Kong, in case you're wondering.
Perhaps the worst and most shameful arcade translation would have to be Atari's Pac-Man. The arcade game was the most popular arcade game of them all, and when Atari announced that it would be releasing a version of it for their system, the public was drooling for it. I still remember a news story which showed several customers waiting to buy the entire system, just so they could play the game.
ATARI FUN FACT: Todd Fry, who programmed the Atari 2600 Pac-Man earned over $1 Million on the game, thanks to a newly instituted royalty system at the company. By contrast, Rick Mauer, who programmed Space Invaders just a few years before, earned a meager $11,000, even though Atari sold more than $100 Million worth of the cartridges.
The problem was that Atari cracked the whip across its programmer Todd Fry's back resulting in one of the most rush-jobbed and shitty translations of all time. Granted, developers only had about 4K of memory to work with at the time (almost the amount of space to type this paragraph, by today's standards), but nothing was right about this game, as you can see above. The colors didn't match, the gameplay was horrible, and the sound effects were like some sort of Chinese Water torture beating into your skull with an incessant "DONK DONK DONK DONK" with every dot you ate instead of the pleasant "WOKKA WOKKA WOKKA" you had grown accustomed to in the arcade version.
Another problem with Pac-Man was that Atari's limited power wouldn't allow more than 1 ghost to appear on the screen at any given time. This obsctacle was overcome by flickering 4 different ghosts alternatingly so that the illusion of 4 chasing you was present. As you can imagine, it just made an ugly game even uglier.
With Defender, Atari managed to take a game with 8 different buttons and make it work with one button and a joystick! To fire your smart bomb, you had to land your ship and hold the button down for a second. Luckily, when you fired your laser, your ship disappeared and you couldn't get killed!
The "flicker problem" was never more annoying than in Atari's version of Defender. I remember speculating with a friend how Atari would adapt a game with 8 different buttons to a system that only used a joystick and a single button, but they made the best of what they had to work with. The biggest flaw, however was that when you pressed the fire button, your ship would disappear to allow the laser-bolt to take the same graphics plane on the screen. Since the game allowed you to do non-stop rapid-fire, you could effectively never get hit by enemy missles by merely hitting the button repeatedly. My buddy William pre-ordered a copy of this for $40 at San Lorenzo's Denevi Camera, if you can believe that.
William was also one of the "lucky" people to order Crazy Climber from Atari Age magazine for a whopping $50! The arcade game (one of Nintendo's first) used two joysticks at once while you moved the climber's arms and legs up and down to scale the side of a skyscraper. It was never released in stores, which makes the cartridge quite rare, as collectors still pay $125 or more to find a copy.
Atari plugged along with more arcade game translations like Dig Dug, Centipede, Kangaroo, Joust, and more (thumbnailed above) but in most cases, the limitations of the system made them laughably bad. Stung by the sucky Pac-Man, most customers weren't as eager to throw down $30 or more on new games. Parker Brothers did a pretty nice Frogger translation, CBS did a fairly cool Wizard of Wor, but most attempts to make the arcade classics playable at home were not met with much success.
In 1982, Colecovision debuted with a thunderclap. While Atari's 2600 was held back with 128 Bytes of RAM, and 4K of ROM, Colecovision sported a "huge" 4K RAM, and 16K ROM. Their Donkey Kong was amazingly close to the arcade game, and though it omitted the "Pie Factory" stage from the original, it was pretty dead one. Coleco even made Atari versions of their own games to increase sales, but as you can see from the pictures below, it merely made Atari look crappier than ever.
Zaxxon for Atari and Colecovision
Burger-Time for Atari and Colecovision
Obviously as time went on, technology professed to the point where today's gaming systems make even Colecovision look bad. I'll certainly always have a special place in my heart for Atari, though. In its early days, we didn't think it was bad at all. Hell, it was a huge step up from PONG, so there was no reason to complain.
In fact, the biggest fun were the totally original games designed for the system by Atari and other programmers. Activision's Kaboom, and Pitfall! are still some of the most fun games ever made, by anyone's standard. And I can't even begin to fathom how many hours I wasted playing Adventure.
There's a great program called "Stella" which you can download from ATARILAND for free that plays all the old Atari games right on your computer. And as the games are all about 4K or less, you can download the entire catalog in 4 different sections HERE.