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Two Demos: Pac-Man vs. Bruce Springsteen

November 20, 2009

“And now you find yourself in ’82…The disco hot spots hold no charm for you” – Asia, “Heat of the Moment”

Inky, Blinky, Pinky...and Bruce?

Ah, the big moments of the 1980s: the Challenger explosion (which was my generation’s “where were you…” moment prior to 9/11); the stock market crash; The TWA hijacking; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the shootings of John Lennon, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Anwar Sadat; the Union Carbide explosion in India; Presidential Elections / Olympics (in the 1980s, they might as well have been the same event); Grenada (WTF!?); and the ghastly advance of AIDS. Every year has a signature political event, save one: 1982. In the United States, we witnessed the beginning and end of a relatively-minor recession, and looked to the burgeoning cable television format for pop-culture escapism. Not that those of us ensconced in the cushion of middle-class disengagement had anything to escape, outside of Lebanon, Iran-Iraq, and the whole England-Falklands morass. “What middle-east crisis?”, we said, as we wheezed along to Jane Fonda’s 20-Minute Workout (hey – those Marlboros won’t smoke themselves).[i]

MTV started its explosion, as millions of Gen-Xers became acquainted with the underrated pastime of calling one’s friends to comment on the videos. Complaining about how often Martha Quinn played Devo became a popular gripe, at least in Barstow, CA. For children sequestered in the school cafeteria, outside of the obvious concerns of second-graders (“What’s with those pesky Brits and their bizarre fascination with a few islands in the southwest Atlantic?”), our biggest areas of discussion centered around the two most awesome things ever: video games and pop music. These worlds would collide in 1982, with the release of “Pac Man Fever” (you can listen here)[ii].

Back in the mid-1970s, when a young Gilda Radner taught us how to laugh, the popularity of stand-up console video games inspired a race between two companies to create a home system that offered more than merely Pong. With a cash infusion from Warner Communications, the Atari Video Computer System hit the shelves in late 1977. While the Atari VCS began to meet sales expectations by Christmas of 1979, the company was waiting for a new phenomenon to capture the public’s attention. Enter Pac-Man.

The Failure

By late 1980, the yellow chomper became a massive phenomenon, leading hordes of people from all walks of life to flood traditional arcades, gas stations, pizza parlors, gun stores, hell, anyplace with a Pac-Man machine. Atari smelled blood: as ColecoVision and Intellivision offered higher-quality ports (the industry term for “home versions”) of other popular arcade games, Atari was willing to pay for exclusive distribution rights. Unfortunately for Atari, their willingness to spend money did not apply to their employees, as several of their top programmers absconded to create Activision. Todd Frye, one of the top holdovers, was pressured to finish the port in time for 1981 holiday shopping, and quickly began a 4 kilobyte demonstration. After threatening to join the rest of the cool kids in the land of Pitfall!, Freeway and Kaboom!, Atari agreed to his 10-cents-per-unit-manufactured demand. While Frye was developing the game, the technology for 8-kilobyte ports became accessible, and he asked the Atari brass for more time to craft a more realistic version. The company execs would have none of that logical nonsense. Americans were so excited about having Pac-Man in their house, thought Atari, it did not matter if the port was a pathetic shell of the real thing. So Frye resigned himself to the release of his “demo” version, attempting to replicate the arcade model as best as 4 kilobytes could (which is quite amazing in its own right, since this paragraph runs over 4K). Missing their December 1981 goal, Pac-Man for Atari was available for sale March of 1982. Predicting that every one of the 10 million VCS owners (and speculating an additional 2 million more purchasers) would purchase the game, Atari manufactured a whopping 12 million cartridges. Oops.

Ignoring Todd Frye’s words was a mistake, as the public’s response was a collective “ugggh!” Even after heavy promotion and deep discounts, Atari was still left with five million cartridges in their warehouse. The disappointment was “like an old man trying to return soup at a deli”, as our favorite Architect/Marine Biologist would say. Were we the collective victims of a grand practical joke / sociological experiment? “What’s the deal with the dumb blue background and piss-yellow walls?”, we sadly asked ourselves. The music, of course, could not fit on the 4K port, so all we hear is a four-note approximation of the formerly adrenaline-raising theme tune. The “wocka wocka” sound of Pac Man’s dot consumption was replaced with a super-annoying “bomp bomp” that could be heard across time zones. Most of the other sounds we loved, like the sirens, were gone. As for game play, the dots were replaced with dashes, or “wafers”, and saw their point value slashed from ten to one. (For a hilariously-earnest demonstration and review, check this out, and while you’re at it, here’s the original TV commercial.) Maze variations stopped at two, and the actual Pac-Man, like some twisted precursor to Beavis, only faced right or left, even when moved upwards or downwards along a column (Ultimate betrayal – the patterns for clearing the boards, which were printed on the sleeve of “Pac-Man Fever”, were ineffective in the Atari version) . If your eyes were still functioning after the clashing color scheme, there were those damn flickering ghosts, which I hold personally responsible for the year’s decrease in standardized test scores and increase in auto accidents. If you were lucky enough to avoid a seizure, the migraine headaches were enough to push you into narcotic painkiller addiction (how else do we explain Air Supply’s four Top 10 hits? “I’m all out of ‘Percs’, I’m so lost without you…”) The failure of Atari’s Pac-Man, coupled with similar underproduced crap like their E.T. port, resulted in the Great Video Game Crash of 1983. Lesson learned – never, ever, ever release a demo as the final product. Or do you?

The Promise

As an anxious American populace returned to the arcade for the Pac-Man that did not exist in their living rooms, Bruce Springsteen was offering dark tales of a forgotten America to his 4-track recorder. Song titles such as “Highway Patrolman”, “State Trooper”, and “Open All Night” tell much of the story. Armed with nothing more than a six-string, a harmonica and that voice, Springsteen placed these ten grand narratives to tape. Countless critics have stated that each song could serve as the shell for a wonderful film, leading Sean Penn to base The Indian Runner on “Highway Patrolman” (Springsteen has yet to return the favor by adding “Aloha, Mr. Hand!” to live performances). The E-Street Band, alerted to the new material, added their signature swagger and embellishment. Two years after reaching #1 with The River, Springsteen was ready to release Nebraska. Or so he thought.

After discussions with engineers and producers, the idea of leaving Nebraska as the spare demos was tossed about. A few listens to “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99” sealed the deal. The low levels on the 4-track recordings required some post-production, yet in comparison to the typical 1982 release, a copy of the finished album sounds damn close to Springsteen’s original master tape. You can still hear the pop of the “p” sound that concludes the line “In a part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop” from “Johnny 99”. While Springsteen was considered one of the industry’s giants, the idea of De-Streeted album with no obvious singles was not initially embraced by Columbia Records. Rumor has it that Bruce sent the finished master to the label, which resulted in such happy talk (let me paraphrase) as “We heard the demos from your new record, and, yeah, great – so when will you finish recording the band, and be ready to release the album?” At the risk of sounding like I’m describing “Chuck Norris The Internet Meme” (rather than the real, increasingly-crazy Chuck), one of the benefits of being Bruce Springsteen is that record labels don’t tell The Boss what gets released, The Boss tells the label. So, enter that foreboding wintry photo from the passenger side.

To give you an idea what was de rigeur in Fall of ’82, we were within a schizophrenic era where the Top 10 was the domain of synthed-out pap like “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” (Chicago); quasi-soul like “Let Me Tickle Your Fancy” (Jermaine Jackson); overproduced mellow country-rock like “Jack & Diane” (John not-quite-Mellencamp Cougar); and Yacht Rock like “I Keep Forgettin'” (Michael McDonald, who definitely was the Andre Dawson of the genre). It took Springsteen-sized balls to release an understated, mostly-acoustic record during a time when stripped-down folk-rock was deader than disco – luckily, Bruce had ’em. And America put aside their Melissa Manchester and Foreigner long enough for Nebraska to reach #3 on the Billboard chart. I remember the Barstow Mall’s “Directory” kiosk – which, let’s face the facts, wasn’t really needed within a 23-store facility – featuring an advertisement for the record on one of its three sides. If Columbia was throwing around ad dollars in small towns located hours away from the LA or Las Vegas media markets, they must have believed in him, too.

To recap, the developer of Atari’s Pac-Man created the equivalent of a 4-track recording, insisted on improving the product, and was rebuffed by his boss. As for The Boss, he created the music equivalent of a 4KB port, was asked to upgrade the product, yet chose to release the original. For Todd Frye, his “demo” was a creative disaster, resulting in critical scorn and consumer frustration. Atari, once king of the hill, now sat on a mountain of inventory that could not be given away. For Bruce Springsteen, his demo eventually served as the subject of a tribute album and live project, and can claim to be one of the select club of 5-star reviews from Rolling Stone. Atari eventually saw the error of their ways, albeit far too late, producing the 8KB port of Ms. Pac-Man which was well-received critically. Springsteen followed Nebraska with Born in the U.S.A., a multi-platinum behemoth that permanently inscribed The Boss into American musical landscape.

[i] Jane Fonda was 45 years old when she wrote and starred in that video. The pre-workout warning says “Do not overexert yourself”, but I gave it a try at age seven, full of bravado, due to a steady TV-diet of GI Joe and the Dukes of Hazzard. As my sisters laughed at my total failure, I had to admit the truth: Jane Fonda kicked my ass by minute eight. 45!?

[ii] According to “Fever” artists Buckner & Garcia, the record companies were suffering, as kids eschewed $8.98 LPs for a few quarters worth of chances at Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. CBS saw Buckner & Garcia as a means to recapture this audience, and asked them to write songs for several other games. “Froggy’s Lament” and “Goin’ Berzerk” are both great, although I would have loved to hear a song about Zaxxon.

  1. November 20, 2009 6:47 pm

    Atari Pac-Man has to be one of the worst ports of all time. Definitely one of the more unpleasant surprises of my young life when I received it for Christmas at age nine, got all excited and then…


    However, for reasons impenetrable even to me, I played *the total hell* out of E.T. Maybe it was the wildly illogical gameplay, maybe it was that it had nothing whatever to do with the movie, but as much as the game bugged me I was bound and determined to solve it, and solve it I did, repeatedly. Why? You got me there.

  2. Tony Mendocino permalink
    November 21, 2009 12:15 am

    For reasons that elude me, E.T. ages quite well. When confronted with an Atari, I’d grab Crystal Castles, Joust, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Realsports Baseball, ET and Pitfall.

    The Kool-Aid Man game: Does not age well, neither does Journey Escape, which could have been awesome. Sorry Steve – I stopped believin’.


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