Of all the video games that met a premature end due to the Crash of 1983, few have travelled a more up-and-down road than those based on the Pink Panther. The Panther's game was licensed, developed and advertised, then faced extinction as its owner went out of business. But then, it was rescued by another company, spread to additional consoles, and hyped to death at an industry trade show – only to be struck down by chip problems, cancelled, and left to be forgotten. Then, not once, not twice, but several times, out-of-nowhere prototype discoveries propelled the game back into the limelight, leaving rabid classic gamers clamoring to play the Panther game at long last. But somehow, the unfortunate game remains in (mostly) unplayed obscurity. It's just not easy being pink.
The game's saga probably starts in or around December 1982, with the premier of the seventh movie in the Pink Panther series, Trail of the Pink Panther. In the film, the Pink Panther diamond has once again been stolen, and Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is flown in to investigate. Unfortunately, Clouseau's plane disappears, and it's up to a French TV reporter to solve the mystery of what happened to him. In reality, Sellers had died before filming even started, and the movie ended up a mess of new scenes and archival Sellers footage from previous Panther flicks. The movie-going public was less than impressed.1
Nevertheless, a new movie meant a new marketing opportunity, and Quaker Oats (yes, Quaker Oats) jumped at the chance. They licensed the cartoon Pink Panther – star of the animated sequences from the films as well as his own TV series – from MGM/UA for development as a video game character. The game's publishing would be handled by Quaker's Atari 2600 division, U.S. Games.2 Development was farmed out to James Wickstead Design Associates, a small engineering firm based in Cedar Knolls, NJ, which had also created the U.S. Games release Name This Game.3, 4 The game's title, like the movie's, was Trail of the Pink Panther.2
Wickstead Design went to work, designing the first game to utilize U.S. Games's new "RAM/ROM Chip." This advanced chip contained 8K ROM and 2K RAM, enabling RAM/ROM games to feature better graphics and contain more screens than could most 2600 games.4 Jim Wickstead handled the game design, Todd Marshall the audio, and Robbin Daniels the graphics, with Marshall and Roger Booth taking care of the game programming.5
Wickstead Design seems to have finished the game. Unfortunately, this was the time when the bottom began to drop out of the American video games market. U.S. Games filed for bankruptcy in March 1983, and Trail of the Pink Panther and RAM/ROM seemed to be heading for the dustbin.4 However, North American Philips, publisher of the Odyssey² game console, sensed a moneymaking opportunity. NAP already had plans to start publishing games for non-Odyssey consoles under its "Probe 2000" imprint, and quickly snatched up the rights to the Pink Panther (and presumably, the Wickstead prototype) from U.S. Games.6
NAP had hyped its next-generation game console, the Odyssey3 Command Center, at the Winter CES in January 1983. However, by the June CES, Odyssey3 had been abandoned – another victim of the shrinking market. Instead, NAP's focus was on the Probe 2000 line, with Pink Panther leading the way.7 Brochures leading CES attendees to the NAP booth (#508) featured the cartoon cat and the Inspector, proclaiming "We've let the cat out of the bag."8 Once attendees reached the NAP booth, they'd have seen pink everywhere. Pink Panther plushes festooned the booth, pictures of the cat were shown on the walls, a large screen showed his cartoons – a picture from the event even shows somebody wearing a full Pink Panther bodysuit! 7, 9 And the pinkness didn't stop there. After the show, the Second City comedy troupe performed "A Video Game Comedy Caper" for NAP employees. One of the skits featured actors playing Odyssey² game characters – including yet another performer in a Pink Panther suit.18
Advertising flyers (and presumably, the Pink Panther plush dolls) were given out at the show. Marketing materials from the show demonstrate that NAP planned to release Pink Panther games for multiple consoles, including ColecoVision and Odyssey². Interestingly, CES advertisements for the game refer to it not by the "Trail of..." name but as "Pink Panther: The Video Game."10 Complicating matters further, an official NAP cartridge list from June 1983 calls it "Adventures of the Pink Panther," as does an article from the October 1983 issue of Video Games magazine.11, 7 The NAP list states that the Atari 2600 version of the game was slated for September 1983 and the ColecoVision version for December. The Odyssey² version's availability was "To be announced."11
Unfortunately, the end of 1983 came and went, and no Pink Panther games were forthcoming. NAP blamed a chip shortage and "technical problems" with the carts' ROM chips for the game's delay, even though the prototype shown in June seemed to be working just fine.12 In a 2001 interview, former NAP programmer Bob "RoSHa" Harris lent substance to that claim. Harris stated that the company Philips hired to produce the special ROM chips failed in their initial fabrication attempt. NAP simply wasn't willing to pay for a re-fabrication.21 They decided to scuttle Probe 2000 after barely managing to get a single ColecoVision release – Harris's War Room – out the door in October 1983.6 By January 1984, Probe 2000 was no more. Electronic Fun with Computers & Games reported that the other Probe 2000 games (including Pink Panther) had been "permanently cancelled." Interestingly, the article refers to the game as "Pursuit of the Pink Panther," indicating that it had undergone yet another name change since June.12 A Probe 2000 catalog packaged with War Room uses the "Pursuit" title as well. Regardless of what its title would have been, however, the game was not coming out.
The Pink Panther story might have ended there if not for a series of unexpected discoveries. The first happened in 1992, when collector Steve Averitt paid $1.50 for a working Atari 2600 Pink Panther prototype at a thrift store in Columbus, OH.13 It's not clear whether the prototype he found was the one produced by Wickstead or an original NAP creation, but it seems likely that it is Wickstead's. Averitt reviewed the game in the September/October 1994 issue of The 2600 Connection newsletter.14
The player controls the Pink Panther, who is trying to steal the diamond featured in the films. Naturally, the Inspector is trying to stop him. The first screen takes place in a city, where the Inspector impedes the Panther's path by throwing bricks. In the second screen, the Panther must make his way through a series of elevators while avoiding all manner of enemies. Finally, in the third screen, the Panther must navigate a platform suspended over a rising water level, then swing on a rope, Tarzan-style, to nab the diamond. After all this, the Inspector arrives to take back the diamond and the action starts over again.14, 5
Four screenshots accompanied the review, revealing a game that was visually impressive by 2600 standards. Unfortunately, Averitt never made the ROM image available, and he essentially vanished from the collecting community a few years later. Atari 2600 gamers, while disappointed, were hopeful that another prototype would one day surface.
Another prototype did surface sometime around January 2006, but not the one anybody expected. It was not commonly known until then that NAP had created a Pink Panther game for the Atari 8-bit computer back in 1983. Finally, 23 years later, Atariprotos.com editor Matt "Tempest" Reichert located a prototype of it in the hands of an unnamed collector. This game, featuring the familiar theme of the Pink Panther attempting to steal the diamond while the Inspector tries to stop him, also plays out over multiple screens – including a shipyards, a ladder-filled cityscape, a house with multiple doors, and a platform-filled room with the diamond beneath a swinging rope. Interestingly, the game's attract screen shows the "Pursuit of the Pink Panther" title, the same name reported by Electronic Fun back in 1984. Tempest was able to secure photos, screenshots, and even a gameplay movie which he posted at AtariAge; unfortunately, the 8-bit ROM image, like the 2600 version, was not released by the prototype owner.15
But then in September 2006, hope rekindled. An eBay seller, who had purchased a veritable museum of Magnavox/Philips memorabilia, posted an auction containing a binder of CES materials as well as another Atari 2600 Pink Panther prototype. After a series of bids, cancellations and re-postings, the auction finally closed... at a final price of $4,750!16 The information in the auction posting (photos of which can be seen here) revealed many details about how Pink Panther was hyped at CES.19 Unfortunately, the new prototype owner once again elected not to release the ROM image to the general public. However, at least 50 boxed and numbered copies were produced and sold to a small number of collectors, for $85 apiece.19 In 2011, yet another Atari 2600 prototype cartridge was sold, this time for $975.19 The list doesn't end there. In total, six cartridges – two of which have silver "Prototype" Probe 2000 labels – have surfaced so far.19 Despite all these discoveries, the game has yet to see a general release. It seems like most of the gaming public is simply not destined to play Pink Panther.
When this article was first written, it ended here with some unanswered questions: Had the last prototype been found? Were the Odyssey² and ColecoVision versions ever developed? If so, by whom? In 2013, these questions were (partially) answered when a man with the Internet handle "retroren" made a discovery. His neighbor, a former Philips salesman, had a cache of prototype and demo carts hailing from about a 1983 timeframe. Among them were two prototypes of ColecoVision Power Lords I, a version of the ColecoVision game War Room with the early title Satellite Defense, two copies of the Odyssey3 game Flash Point – and Pink Panther.
This Pink Panther was found in an Odyssey² cartridge shell, but turned out to be a ColecoVision game. This was not uncommon for Philips prototypes of this era – apparently they'd stick prototype boards into whatever shells were handy. When powered up, its title screen proudly proclaimed: "The Adventures of the Pink Panther, Written By Randy Green." Suddenly, some of the unknowns surrounding this game disappeared. Not only had it been revealed that work on ColecoVision Pink Panther had begun, it was revealed who did the work! After some hunting, retroren located the programmer and put me in contact with him. I interviewed Randy Green over the phone and learned more about the game. Randy began programming Pink Panther in March 1983 while working for Philips in Knoxville, TN. He was the only developer on the project but was assisted by artist Ed Hensley and musician/programmer Ken Bourque.
Randy revealed that ColecoVision Pink Panther was never completed. The version discovered by retroren, which is dated 1 June, was a demo shown at the Summer 1983 CES. Development continued for another few months after CES, but Philips pulled the plug on the game and Probe 2000 before it could be finished. The "final" version contained two screens and some gameplay elements, but has yet to be discovered. Interestingly, the ColecoVision game contains some similarities to the Atari versions, although Randy says he was not aware of the other versions while developing his game. Once again, the Panther must negotiate platforms and travel though a dock stage on a quest to nab the diamond. Randy couldn't recall if the title "The Adventures of the Pink Panther" was the game's official name; he thought it might have been quickly slapped on for demo purposes.20
One important question remains: what about the rumored Odyssey² version? Randy unfortunately was not able to shed much light on this. He seems to remember that the Odyssey² version was "talked about" at Philips, but couldn't remember for sure if any work was done or who would have been doing it. There have long been rumors that Odyssey² virtuoso Ed Averett programmed an O2 version17, but Averett himself disavowed this when I spoke to him at Classic Gaming Expo 2014. "That was Sam's," said Averett, meaning that the game was handled by the group overseen by Sam Overton, who led the NAP game development team during the Probe 2000 era. This was after Averett had stopped working as a NAP game designer.22 At this point, it's hard to say whether we'll ever know the fate of Pink Panther on the Odyssey².
This already complicated story became slightly more muddled in 2014, when homebrew programmers created an Odyssey² Pink Panther "prototype," complete with a shipyards background and authentic music, as an April Fool's joke.23 Homebrew publisher Videopac Is @live produced a limited run of authentic-looking cartridge copies and distributed them to people who pre-ordered the homebrew game Dark Dungeon in the summer of 2014.24 The joke was revealed almost right away and was in good fun, but be warned: if you see a commercial-style Pink Panther Odyssey² cartridge, it's not a vintage release.
So the Odyssey² version remains the missing pink link in this story, although the final version of the ColecoVision game has not yet been discovered either. But will the public ever get to enjoy the games that have been found? Plans are being made to auction off the ColecoVision demo at GameGavel.com, and some prospective buyers have promised to release binaries of the game if they can acquire it. But will the Atari versions ever see the light of day? At the moment, the answer seems to be no. But somehow one has to think that we haven't heard the last from the famous feline. He has a habit of popping up when you least expect it.