Pumpkin’ Playas: More Tricks than Treats

Three tales of terror: A game, a console, and a movie turned into a game

Pac-Man was the hottest arcade game of 1981 and Atari saw an opportunity to capitalise on it with a VCS version…

By the end of that year, people had pumped more money into Pac-Man machines then they had paid for Star Wars tickets, making the game the highest-grossing entertainment product of all time. The idea of a home Pac-Man was a no-brainer. But, unwilling to pay its game developers what they were worth, Atari had been haemorrhaging them to companies founded by former employees such as Activision and Imagic.

One of the few programmers that remained was Tod Frye. Atari had licensed Defender and Pac-Man, and although Frye had wanted to do the Defender conversion, he was given Pac-Man instead. Management demanded that he fit the game into 4KB of ROM, and gave him six months to finish it. These two factors conspired to ensure the game would have limited features in comparison to the arcade original, and that needed optimisations were not completed, such as the mitigation of sprite flickering. But despite internal warnings, Atari management released it anyway, to a chorus of boos.


Despite the poor reception, Pac-Man’s popularity and the relatively slow dissemination of reviews in the print media of the day ensured the game sold like crazy, quickly becoming the best-selling videogame of all time by that point, and making Frye a millionaire in the process, due to Atari’s manufacturing of 12 million copies of the game (they sold 7 million – where’d the other 5 go? Oh yeah, the bargain bin) and in spite of his paltry 10 cent royalty per cartridge sold.

Meanwhile, technology was marching on and the Atari VCS was lagging further and further behind: competitors such as the Intellivision were eating into Atari’s profits and the Colecovision loomed as a potential major threat. Atari needed a new videogame console, and it needed it fast!

It was proposed that the chipset from Atari’s home computer line could be adapted for use in a console. In fact, that chipset was originally developed for use in a second-generation console that never materialised, as home computers had become popular in the late 1970s and they had a higher profit margin than consoles.

And so the Atari Video System X – Advanced Computer System” was born. The new console would have much better graphics and sound than the Atari VCS, and would be better suited to arcade conversions – an area the VCS had severely lacked in. Like the early Atari 8-bit computers, it would also have four controller ports. Its controllers had a numeric keypad, like the Intellivision, but a stick like the Atari VCS. You could even add a trackball!

All of this was really great, except it had two major problems. Firstly, it couldn’t play Atari 2600 games. This meant VCS owners had to have two systems if they wanted to play their existing library of games. Second, while the Video System X used the same chipset as the Atari 8-bit computers, it wasn’t compatible with their software library either! Atari attempted to mitigate this by renaming the VCS to the 2600 and the X to the 5200 – 2600 being the model number (CX2600) of the VCS, and 5200 being “twice as good – and stating that the 5200 was complementary to the 2600 and not a replacement for it.

So, with a limited selection of games and no backward compatibility the 5200 was basically a rich-kids’ toy (“what kid needs more than one videogame console?”) and after its release in 1982 it sold like one – that is, not very well. And so Atari didn’t invest much effort in making more games for it, instead concentrating on making yet more Atari 2600 games. And so it continued to not sell very well. To make matters even worse, Coleco released an adaptor for its Colecovision that could play 2600 games!

In 1983 Atari released a revision to the 5200 that allowed for the use of its own adapter, but that just further annoyed existing 5200 owners. Atari decided to offer an ‘upgrade’ (more of a hardware patch) so that they could use the adapter, but they had to take their console to a dealer to get it done. So many simply didn’t bother.

Behind the scenes, Atari began development of the Atari 7800 (three times the fun, get it?) and stopped making any games for the 5200 (although they weren’t making much of an effort by that point, anyway).

Then, due in part to this whole fiasco, Warners got sick of it and sold Atari to Jack Tramiel.

“The game of the movie” was a popular way for dodgy software companies in the 1980s and 90s to make a quick buck. They would simply purchase the licensing rights for a platform of less interest to the ‘big players’ such as the Sinclair Spectrum, then hopefully one of the larger software houses would release a fairly decent game for another platform that would then power interest and sales in their crappy game (which was usually just a variant on another of their crappy games with different sprites). Crappity crap.

However, videogame adaptations of horror flick ‘Friday the 13th’ had no decent game hidden within their ranks – instead, they universally sucked.

Let’s begin with the Spectrum version. In it, your job is to prevent Jason from killing your friends by leading them to safety. You can use chainsaws, pitchforks and other weapons to try to fend Jason off, but sometimes Jason can masquerade as one of your friends, and if you inadvertently lead him to your “sanctuary” the other campers run off and you have to start over. If you succeed in herding all of the campers and / or kill Jason, the scenario repeats.

UK magazine Crash hated it with a passion, giving it an overall score of 32% and calling it publisher Domark’s “worst game ever”, “the return of that old Domark bad taste and ineptness of production”, and “compelling it ain’t”. Your Sinclair and Sinclair User similarly gave it 3/10. The Commodore 64 version (a ‘port’) didn’t fare any better, garnering a paltry (and tongue-in-cheek) 13% from ZZap!64. It suck-suck-suckity-sucked.

Three years later, Japanese developer Atius said “hold my beer” and released a “13th” game for the Nintendo Entertainment System through publisher LJN. In this version, you play a camp counsellor who needs to stop Jason before he kills all of the children. The game warns you when Jason is about to kill someone and you have to rush there before he does.There’s also enemies such as zombies and wolves to contend with.

Critics hated everything about the game, even the box art (which is, admittedly, pretty bad.) It was too hard. It was too cheap. It was too repetitive. It wasn’t gory enough.

The art sucked.

The music sucked.

The gameplay sucked.

It just plain sucked.

Poor Jason.

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