Remembering Pac-Man on the Atari 400

Atari 400/800 Pac-Man

The game inside may have looked primitive, but you can't beat classic box art like this.

When I was a kid all I wanted more than anything was an Atari 2600, just like the one my best friend had hooked up to the one television they had in their house. Unfortunately for me, Rachel lived further away than I was allowed to ride on my pink Huffy, so it was only about every other weekend when we’d hunker down in front of the state-of-the-art 20-inch screen playing Combat until her parents came down the split-level stairs to catch Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs on 20/20. Alas, my dreams were thwarted when one Christmas my dad presented my sister and me with our big shared gift that year: An Atari 400 computer. A COMPUTER. Because he wanted us to learn something about this upcoming home computing revolution he’d read about in Popular Science. The computer came with some kind of drawing program that my dad referred to as a “game,” and I dutifully occupied my Christmas drawing multi-colored circles. As much as I tried to hate that computer, I will confess that I did learn a thing or two about programming, mainly because I enjoyed making the computer respond with obscenities whenever I typed the right BASIC command.

I had the sense to save my Christmas money that year and head on down to the videogame kiosk in the local Sears, where I was delighted to find that I could, in fact, buy games for my nerd machine. The first game I plunked down about $50 for (keeping in mind this was some time around 1983 – in today’s dollars, that’s what, like $750?) was Pac-Man. The ride home in the front seat (this was also before seat belts and kids riding in the back until they’re eligible for the draft) of dad’s blue AMC Hornet was torture. I think I even asked to jump out of the car at the traffic light 6 blocks from home because I knew I could run home between the neighbor’s yards faster than dad could get there on solid pavement. My plea fell on deaf ears and I had to wait out those last few blocks before I hopped out of the car in the gravel driveway, cleared the chain-link fence, and sprinted up the stairs to the attic playroom.

The best part about the fact that the Atari was a “shared’ gift was that though my sister was only about a year older than me, her interests skewed toward boys and makeup, whereas my interests were of the ilk to position me for the It’s Academic team I would compete on 5 years down the road. That is to say, the Atari was mine alone. This became especially important after I slammed the cartridge into the slot and discovered that this version was BETTER than the system at Rachel’s! This Pac-Man wasn’t a washed-out blob on a pastel background! The colors were vibrant. The dots were nearly round (round dots – a revolution in home computing, indeed!). There was music, just like the Pac-Man at the arcade up the street that I wasn’t allowed to visit because that’s where the less-respectable girls in the neighborhood went to smoke with the 20-year-old counter jockeys.

I can’t say I know how long I played that day, but I do know it was dark when mom called me down for dinner and I couldn’t move my thumbs for most of that night thanks to the joystick cramp I’d grown to ignore. And I doubt I ever got off the first screen. But I was hooked. I played probably the entirety of the next day, and every day thereafter before AND after school, stopping only to eat and throw something together each night and call it homework. It was around this time that Rachel started figuring out that boys existed and that the way to hang out with them wasn’t to sit in an attic staring at a 15-inch tv screen with poor horizontal hold. But I continued saving every dollar I could get my hands on and soon had a fairly decent collection of now-classic games: Asteroids, Galaxian, even Centipede (with the roller-ball joystick that I think my dad finally chipped in for one day at Sears after he saw how crestfallen I was upon learning that you had to buy it separately). I never was really especially good at any of them (a pinball wizard, I wasn’t), but I could beat my own high scores fairly reliably and that was enough to keep me coming back for a time.

Some time over the next few years, I must have figured out that boys weren’t entirely gross and I started kinda wanting to hang out with them too, which meant less time spent in the dusty attic playing Breakout. Which was probably not an entirely bad thing. It also meant that the precious twenties from Grandma’s birthday cards were destined more and more for the Fashion Bug rip-off up the street. The 400 was at some point upgraded to an 800, and finally replaced by a ColecoVision (a real videogame console, finally!). There was an all-too-brief period in which a boy who actually enjoyed spending time with me also enjoyed playing Jeopardy! on the Coleco (which held what we believed to be the best Easter egg of all time, wherein “Schwarzenegger” was an acceptable answer to all Final Jeopardy questions, as long as you spelled it correctly). Thereafter, the sum total of my gaming experience over the next 20 years consisted almost entirely of watching a succession of significant others unlock all the cheats for the NHL series on PlayStation.

This year, the big family present I picked up was a Wii system, with a 4 and 5 year-old in mind. I was almost nervous about Christmas morning, when the kids awoke to find a Wii controller in each stocking, remembering back to my own thinly-veiled disappointment on that Christmas nearly 30 years prior. I thought for certain that my daughter would cry out that all she wanted was a Snuggie blanket. (A big thank you to the incessant marketing machine that is the Sprout channel; thanks to them she also desperately needs Wonder Hangers.) But after spending a little time designing our personalized Miis, we all discovered that the preschool set likes to box. And play tennis. And do yoga (the Wii Fit was SUPPOSED to be for me, but I find myself waiting in line for it at the end of the day). It’s fun, and probably somewhat good for all of us too. And maybe someday, my daughter will wait on the porch to meet the UPS truck carrying her hot-off-the-presses copy of Wii jai-alai that was advance ordered on Amazon. But for me, that first “running through the neighbor’s yard to get home that much faster and start playing” honor will always belong to a little yellow semi-circle and a few computer-generated ghosts.

By Jo-Ann Melton

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