In the modern era, people have gotten spoiled with the perfect quality of home console ports of arcade games. In fact, these days many console ports of arcade titles are better than the arcade originals. Just look at Soul Calibur on the Sega Dreamcast for proof of that. However, Atari 2600 owners didn't have that luxury. For all the talk of "saving quarters," 2600 owners had to be willing to overlook major differences between the ports and the arcade originals. Some home versions were good enough to stand on their own; some weren't. Then there was Pac-Man.
Back in the early 1980s, Pac-Man was everywhere, thanks to the phenomenally successful arcade game. Among other things, there were plushies, cereal, a Saturday morning cartoon series and even a Top 40 pop song ("Pac-Man Fever"). When Atari got the exclusive rights to port Pac-Man, blocking Mattel and Coleco and forcing them just to create copycats, it was one of the biggest coups of the era. One would naturally think that Atari would pull out all the stops to create a faithful rendition under those circumstances. Unfortunately, developer Tod Frye was given only 2 kilobytes to use for the game, and it was all downhill from there.
Please excuse the history lesson, but I had to keep all that in mind while looking at the 2600 port to keep the assessment fair. I am extremely familiar with the arcade original, and I know the Atari 2600 was incapable of matching it. My concern was whether the port could stand on its own. Simply put, it couldn't.
The maze is blocky and boring. It reeks of lazy design. The maze layout doesn't kill the game, but it doesn't do it any favors, either. I could forgive Pac-Man not being a perfect circle; few Atari 2600 games could make a circle that wasn't a jagged mess. However, not even programming Pac to turn his mouth up or down is just lazy. I have no qualms about the dots becoming wafers, and I can even forgive the fruit in the middle becoming a two-tone square "Vitamin." Their roles were faithfully handled. I can even forgive the escape ports moving to the top and bottom of the screen rather than remaining on the sides.
What I won't forgive are the ghosts. Because of RAM limitations, each of the four ghosts can only be on screen one frame at a time, creating a horrible case of flicker that can provide headaches in minutes. Also, anyone who had played the arcade version knows the distinct AI patterns of Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde. Since 2 kb wasn't enough to provide multiple AI routines, all four ghosts have AI that feels like a mix of Blinky (furiously chase Pac-Man) and Clyde (aimlessly wandering around). Since all four ghosts are colored the same, I guess having four distinct AI's wouldn't make sense. All the same, the ghosts are the primary thing that keep the Atari 2600 port from standing on its own.
The sound design is serviceable enough, though I miss the "wakka-wakka-wakka" of the original. The limited sound effects are decent enough and unobtrusive. The one exception is the four-note tune that plays at the start of each turn. It's so loud and scratchy that I have to check to make sure my ears aren't bleeding.
For all the talk of "bringing the arcade home," the Atari 2600 was incapable of delivering arcade perfect experiences (save for Pong). I could accept imperfection if the resulting port was still fun. Pac-Man lost all the appeal that the arcade version had, and it wasn't enjoyable enough to stand on its own merits. I could accept that the circumstances weren't ideal for Tod Frye (too short a development calendar and too small a cartridge), and at least the game is functional. However, this port is simply not fun. At a time when you could get a faithful port of Pac-Man on your smartphone, don't waste time with this one. It may not be as bad as its reputation suggests, but it's bad enough.