Pink Comes From Hollywood
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.6 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
NAP welcome brochure
from 1983 Summer CES
Pink Panthers infest
NAP's booth at CES
Pink Panther cartoons at CES
(from Video Games, Oct. 1983)
The Pink Panther on stage
with Second City, 6/4/1983
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
NAP flyer from
1983 Summer CES
Pink Panther ad mats
from the 1983 CES
1983 NAP listing
of release dates
Pink Panther ad
from Probe 2000 catalog
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' RAM chips for the game's delay, even though the prototype shown in June seemed to be working just fine.12 Regardless, Probe 2000 was obviously facing difficulties. The company had barely managed to get a single ColecoVision release – War Room – out the door in October 1983.6 By January 1984, they had thrown in the towel. 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.
Back in the Pink
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
|Atari 2600 Pink Panther Screenshots courtesy 2600 Connection|
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
|Atari 8-bit Pink Panther screenshots courtesy AtariProtos.com|
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. It seems like the gaming public is simply not destined to play Pink Panther.
Some questions remain. Has the last prototype been found? Were the Odyssey² and ColecoVision versions ever developed? (There are rumors that Odyssey² virtuoso Ed Averett programmed an O2 version,17 but these are unsubstantiated as far as I can tell.) Most importantly: will the public ever get to enjoy the games that are known? 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 suspect.
- Trail of the Pink Panther at Internet Movie Database
- Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Home Videogames by Leonard Herman. Rolenta Press, 1994. Page 123.
- Pursuit of the Pink Panther Atari 2600 entry. Digital Press Online Rarity Guide, edited by Joe Santulli et al.
- James Wickstead Design Associates.
- Adventures of the Pink Panther Atari 2600 entry. AtariProtos.com, edited by Matt Reichert.
- Phoenix, page 128.
- "Fall Electronics Review." Video Games, October 1983. Page 35.
- NAP brochure from 1983 Summer CES.
- Photo of NAP booth from 1983 Summer CES.
- NAP Pink Panther ad mats from 1983 Summer CES.
- NAP "New Video Games" sales form, #ODY-118.
- "Input/Output: Odyssey's New Coleco Plans." Electronic Fun with Computers & Games, January, 1984. Page 10.
- "Best brag of all?" Steve Averitt, April 28, 1998. Google Groups archive of rec.games.video.classic Usenet post.
- "Pink Panther Prototype Discovery." Steve Averitt. Reprint of "The Atari 2600 Treasure Chest: Pink Panther" from 2600 Connection issue #24, September/October 1994, pp. 7-8. Edited by Tim Duarte.
- "Pink Panther Prototype." Matt "Tempest" Reichert. January 16, 2006 forum post on AtariAge.com.
- "Pink Panther Prototype on eBay." "Shawn Sr." et al. September 12, 2006 forum post on AtariAge.com.
- The Pink Panther Odyssey² entry. Scott Stilphen. Digital Press Online Rarity Guide, edited by Joe Santulli et al.
- "A Video Game Comedy Caper" performed by Second City, June 4, 1983, Chicago, IL. Distributed by NAP Video Network.
- "Atari VCS/2600 Pursuit of the Pink Panther." Scott Stilphen. Digital Press Collector's Corner.