Reprinted with permission from the Atari 2600
Panther Prototype Discovery
reviewed by Steve Averitt
1984 was a year of chaos in the videogame world. Companies
which had flourished making 2600 games a year earlier were folding and
declaring bankruptcy. Data Age, Games by Apollo, Mythicon, and many other
game companies dissolved under the pressure of the big crash. A good number
of games released by dying companies right before the big crash were lacking
in originality and depth. Many were just re-hashes of older games. Though
many 2600 games were nothing to get excited about, some 2600 games released
in 1984 were unexpectantly imaginative and significantly better than the
crop of games from 1983. Mountain King (by CBS), HERO (by
Activision), Decathlon (by Activision), Battlezone (by Atari),
Omega Race (by CBS), Up 'N Down (by Sega), and Fathom
(by Imagic) were just a few gems released in 1984 that did not get sucked
into the whirlwind of mediocrity. Some companies, such as U.S. Games,
CBS, and Parker Bros., were planning to produce games for the 2600 which
would have much better graphics than what they had previously made for
the 2600. Videogame magazines contained advertisements for the "upcoming"
CBS game entitled Wings, which featured a "RAM plus"
chip for a wonderful flight/combat simulator. There were also rumors for
new titles like Trail of the Pink Panther (by U.S. Games), The
Incredible Hulk (by Parker Brothers), and Voyage to the Bottom
of the Sea (by Fox). As most of you know, these titles went up in
smoke as the big crash occurred. Well-all but one.
It turns out that when U.S. Games went belly up (Quaker
decided to stick with producing oats since videogames were not panning
out), the rights to the Pink Panther game mentioned above were sold to
Probe 2000/ North American Phillips. At the time, the Probe 2000 staff
were busy manufacturing War Room for the Colecovision and Power
Lords for the Odyssey2 system. According to the March 1983
issue of Electronic Games, Probe 2000 could not release Pink
Panther for the 2600 due to a shortage of ROM chips. For years, it
has been assumed that this ill-fated game never made it to cartridge status,
until a successful venture to a thrift store landed the lone prototype
into the hands of one happy collector-me! Needless to say, recovering
this game years after the crash is about the same as retrieving gold from
a sunken ship.
The cartridge casing is the same as the one for War
Room for the Colecovision, except an addition of two small plastic pegs
that insert along with the circuit board into the 2600. Look at the open
end of War Room cartridge and notice the two holes where these pegs are
meant to be placed. No label is present, and there are no signs of one
ever existing. The printing on the chip states "Engineering Sample"
and "Internal Use Only".
What about the game? Is it any good? I must say that
someone at U.S. Games or Probe 2000 knew how to program the 2600 just
as well as the folks at Activision. The game features three screens of
action and fluid gameplay. The first screen has a cityscape background,
and Inspector Clouseau is on an upper level, walking around and dropping
bricks down to a lower level. The Pink Panther must walk to the left or
right on a floor with chunks missing out of it, which he can fall into.
The object is to catch the falling bricks so the gaps disappear. Missing
a brick causes another chunk to be taken out of the floor. Once the floor
is complete, you can direct the cool cat to the right and begin screen
two. The smoothness of character movement is excellent and comparable
to how well the Smurf moves-bobbing up and down with each step-in his
2600 cartridge by Coleco.
The inspector is well-animated and drawn, and the Pink
Panther is about 25 percent taller than the character in Smurf. He is
possibly the tallest walking or running character in an Atari 2600 game.
With the joystick, you can make the Pink Panther walk, jump, and duck.
Pressing the fire button extends his tail-a more difficult manner to catch
falling bricks which is rewarded with higher points. The fire button would
have been better served had it been a jump button. Diagonal joystick pushing
for jumping to the right or left is sort of a pain, and this is the only
negative aspect of the game.
Screen two has three floors and three elevator doors
per floor. Direct the Pink Panther to one of these doors and press the
fire button to find out if it will take him up to the next floor. If you
choose an incorrect door, a small running bulldog, a flying saucer, or
a lit stick of dynamite will appear. Hurry and try another elevator. Once
through the correct third floor elevator, it's on to screen three.
Screen three reminds me of the swinging vine scene in
Pitfall (by Activision). The difference is that the swamp level
slowly rises and lowers. At the precise time, the Pink Panther must jump
and land on a moving rock, and jump again to grab the long, swinging vine.
Once this is done, turn the Pink Panther upside down and grab the big
diamond located on a pedestal at the center of the screen. For completing
this amazing feat, the game rewards you with a cute intermission. "We're
in the money" plays while the happy cat looks at the diamond and
kisses it. The kiss produces the best "smooch" sound I've ever
heard on an Atari videogame system. The inspector then drops a rope down
and lowers himself to snatch the diamond from the paws of the fuchsia
furball. The game returns back to screen one where the fun begins at a
harder skill level.
Each screen has its own sound effects-crashing bricks,
walking sounds, stretching panther tail, barking dog, sizzling fuse, etc.-and
there's a continuous-play musical score for each of the three screens.
One of these is the famous Pink Panther theme, of course. All the music
is done in two parts and comes off as flawlessly as the music in Frogger
(by Parker Brothers). It's really too bad this game wasn't officially
released for the 2600. I think it would have been a hit-definitely up
there with the best of what was released in 1984. Now we can only hope
that somebody finds a completed Wings cartridge.
Steve is the owner of the sole Pink Panther cartridge.
You can write to him at: AtariAge - Pink Panther Prototype
PO Box 571
Fremont, OH 43420