Lotsa Spaghetti!

  • Developer: Spectravision/Spectravideo
  • Publisher: Spectravision/Spectravideo
  • Release Year: 1983
  • Available On: Atari 2600
  • Genre: Stealth? Action? Simulation? Can’t say I’m too sure lol

In any video game, the importance of a good hook cannot be understated. Whether that’s through gameplay that injects the player with the right dose of dopamine or a story that engrosses people to the point that they want to seek out others to discuss it with, you need something to keep peoples’ attention. That’s only getting harder with time – people have an infinite number of games fighting for their precious “engagement” and are more willing than ever to crucify a game for dropping even a single frame – but back in the 80s, games had fewer things to worry about. If your game was fun to play, looked good in arcades, and had a good idea backing it, you were probably in fine shape. Anybody who makes their way here has probably heard about the infamous “video game crash of 1983” that happened because too many bad video games were being released or whatever, but don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with a tale you’ve already heard or contribute to a pile of misunderstandings that give the event more importance than it deserves on a global scale. Instead, we’re going to look at a game released right around that crash and see what exactly it’s like and if it deserved to go down with all those “bad games” that tanked the market. History loves to focus on big events and companies making questionable decisions and whatnot, but what about the games on the ground floor mired up in it all that have to deal with the consequences?

I think Mangia’ might be one of the most unassuming games out there, especially for its time period. A lot of games in the 80s relied on violent conflict and actions like jumping and/or shooting (which is still pretty true nowadays in the AAA scene when you think about it…) in order to make for experiences that were immediately engaging, but the developers behind Mangia’ had a different idea: what if we made a game about eating pasta? Yes, you read that correctly, this is a game about pasta! Since this is an Atari 2600 game, it’s still very much about scoring as many points as possible at its core, but this unique framework and the strategies that result from having to work within said framework give it an identity that really stands out compared to other games on the platform. It’s also one I find myself able to identify a bit with, as strange as that may sound. I’m Italian, I love pasta, and my parents have always been the type of Italians that love to give you big servings at dinner, so I know what it’s like to be at an Italian dinner table. It’s like this game was made for me, in a way, and I find that pretty cute. Video games don’t exactly go out of their way to depict the lives of your average Italian family, so even if this one makes the dubious claim that it’s possible to have too much pasta (spoiler: it’s not), I still appreciate it taking on such a mundane concept compared to most video games. There’s charm in this kind of small-scale, weirdly specific bit of semi-realism, you know?

Pictured: Me, age 10 (or however old this kid is)

The developers of Mangia’, Spectravideo, have an interesting (and rather unfortunate, by the sounds of it) place in history, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time despite having done some things so right. They got their start in 1981 as “Spectravision” making games for the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and VIC-20, but their biggest claim to fame was the Quickshot joystick, which is known as the first ergonomic joystick and became a huge enough hit to sell millions and have similar models manufactured for a variety of platforms and computers. They even made a keyboard attachment for the Atari 2600 called the Spectravideo CompuMate, which provided users with a version of Microsoft BASIC that they could do programming tasks on, which is a pretty neat idea! Only a year after they had gotten off the ground, they had to change their name to Spectravideo due to a conflict with OnCommand, a company that created hotel TV systems with interactive functionality like pay-per-view and email, which I can’t imagine was a good thing for their brand visibility. In case that wasn’t bad enough, that pesky video game crash I mentioned earlier happened in 1983, only two years after they had gotten their start making games for the American market! While, again, the impact of this crash is oftentimes overstated in its influence, especially internationally, that’s certainly not to say it didn’t have any kind of effect at all in the United States. I won’t go into it because it’s such a well-trodden subject at this point with resources on it that are way more thorough than anything I could provide, but I do at least want to point it out as a big problem for Spectravideo in particular. Imagine if your primary market suddenly lost interest in just about everything you were making, games, accessories, and whatnot all because it tied to a console that felt deeply “over-saturated” with games? That’d be bad for business! I have to assume this event was an impetus for Spectravideo to scale back on the amount of copies printed of their games because several of their titles developed around the period of the crash like Bumper Bash and Gas Hog now command seriously high prices on the secondhand market. Mangia’ here is actually one of the most expensive games on the platform period, peaking at an average of $1,500 for loose copies in late 2011/early 2012! Naturally, 1983 hit the company hard enough that their shares tanked and they ended up getting involved with millions of dollars of debt and a deal to sell of 60% of their company to Bondwell Holding, but all of this fell through due to being unable to restructure said debt, which resulted in them ceasing operations as they were in 1988 when they were sold to Ash & Newman instead – it’s a proper mess that makes for some interesting reading material, if nothing else!

It’s hard to think of anything more brutal on the platform than watching a child’s stomach explode!

There’s no title screen or introduction for Mangia’. Instead, you get to listen to a brief rendition of Tarantella Napoletana (even if you don’t recognize the name, you probably know it) and then you’re thrown into the fray and ready to begin fighting for your life as a boy at a dinner table. I know, that’s kind of charged language for a game about pasta, but it’s quite fitting when you realize how exactly this game works. You’re not here to sit and have a nice meal with your Italian mother, no, you’re here to prevent her overbearing nature from causing one of two particular problems. She’ll ceaselessly move back and forth, delivering a plate of pasta each time she comes back your way, and if things continue until nine plates of pasta are on the table, it’ll break and cause a mess that can’t possibly be fun to clean up. If you ask me, having such a fragile table is the real problem here! Going to the store to get a better table or telling your mom to chill for a minute while you eat aren’t options here, so you’ll have to do your best to prevent this from happening. You can eat the pasta by grabbing it and then eating it (which requires pressing the stick forward first and then pressing the button so it feels like you’re actually controlling the boy’s arm), and that obviously gets the job done, but only for so long. You see, if you eat too much pasta, the boy’s stomach will expand, and if it expands enough, it’ll explode! That’s some seriously deadly pasta! This boy is clearly trapped between a rock and a hard place, so what’s a player to do?

What would you do if your table broke the moment you placed nine plates of pasta on it? I dunno about you, but I’d be pretty surprised!

Well, luckily for all of us, the boy has a pet cat and a pet dog who are more than willing to help him out with his predicament. The cat (named Frankie, according to the manual) will pop up at the window above the boy every so often and the dog (named Sergio) will walk underneath the table at a slightly slower rate of frequency than the cat. Instead of eating the pasta, you can aim up or down to throw your plate towards either animal, and if your aim is true, they’ll eliminate the problem for you. Thankfully, neither pet has to worry about their stomach exploding, so you can stuff ’em full all you want! Perhaps most interesting of all is that the cat and dog change colors every time they show up; is this meant to imply that the family has an absurd number of pets on rotation beyond Frankie and Sergio, was this just something the developers did to incorporate a bit of visual variety, or is there a technical reason for this that I’m unaware of? I can’t say, so I’ll leave it to your imagination (unless you know something that I don’t)!

Eliminating pasta from the playing field gets you five points regardless of how you go about doing it, so reasons to make use of all three options manifest themselves in different ways. Eating it yourself is the fastest and requires no accuracy, but it comes at the cost of the aforementioned stomach issues, so it’s something you should mainly save for emergencies. You don’t want to burst, but getting a bit closer to that is better than the table collapsing and you losing the game instantly, so sometimes you’ll just have to suck it up (pun intended). Feeding dishes to the cat and dog are the safer options, but they too come with their own skill-based perils to overcome. The cat is closer to you than the dog is, so it’ll take less time for food to travel to it, but the little fella never stays still for long. After it pops up, it’ll hang around for a few seconds before going back outside. The dog is less shy, never hiding once it’s in play and always coming your way like any good dog would, but you’ll have to wait until it’s in just the right position before you fling food at it. The boy throws their food downward at a strange diagonal angle, so it takes a more accurate shot than you might expect at first to actually hit the dog. Factoring travel time with every throw is essential because if you miss your target, mom will swiftly punish you with three dishes instead of one! She’ll also punish you in the same way if she spots you throwing food to either pet, so you need to be precise and calculated to last long here. 

With every piece of the puzzle in play, Mangia’ becomes something of a math problem in the literal sense. You have to take everything into account based on what’s currently going on and make the best decision that keeps the numbers balanced. If you’ve got six plates on the table, you could eat one or two to put things in a less precarious position, or you could wait for the dog to approach for a toss… as long as you can do it without missing or mom noticing! In that situation, you can take on two plates, so you can afford to wait a bit, but the riskier play would clear the table faster. You can’t rush things, though, because every single wrong move adds three plates to the table. If you throw three plates in a row and they all miss the mark, you lose right there and then! The whole game has an undercurrent of subtle tension that so perfectly captures the idea of a child stuck at the dinner table against his will. The child wants to escape and end his suffering, but he also doesn’t want to offend or upset his loving mom, so he has to make the long play and find a way to slowly weasel out of it. Now that’s good storytelling! Even though the game never ends, there’s still a reason to keep the table as clean as possible. Mom is infinitely persistent, but that doesn’t mean she always has an infinite supply of pasta at her fingertips; the number in the bottom right corner is actually mom’s inventory, and once you know that, the game opens up. If you can find a way to deplete pasta faster than mom can put it on the table, you’ll be in control of the situation and the tables will turn. Every time mom puts some pasta down, the counter ticks down by one and every time she catches you or you miss, it goes up by three. If you get it down to zero, mom will just pace back and forth without doing anything, giving you all the time in the world to make your next move. You might be thinking, “shouldn’t the game end there, then?”, but instead of an ending, this is actually the beginning for the true score-chasers out there. Now that you’re in control of mom’s pacing, you can intentionally make a single mistake to have mom bring out three plates, clear them out (without making additional mistakes), and then repeat the process to farm points for as long as you can. This sounds easy, but it absolutely takes practice and especially patience to achieve. If you take a look at a max score video like this one, you’ll see that they’re at it for nearly three and a half hours! I wasn’t able to get anywhere near that point, so I guess you could say I’m better at being an Italian in real life than in Mangia’…

Thankfully, eating pasta doesn’t change the color of your stomach in real life

Mangia’ is both exactly what you see at first glance and more than it first appears. Like the box art depicts (though the box art has more kinds of food!), this is absolutely a game about eating pasta forever in a room with an incredibly annoying beeping sound that you can’t escape, but it’s also a game that requires a methodical approach rarely seen in games of its time. Every game requires plenty of strategy and thought to do well in, but many games of the 80s were fast-paced experiences that expected you to remain on your toes at all times. Mangia’ has a uncommon ebb and flow to it, one that requires fast action mixed in with contemplation and waiting for exactly the right moment to take action. It’s both tense and strangely zen-like in how it demands absolute concentration but also allows you to find your own pace once you have a strong command over its rules. This isn’t a game that’ll convince younger people who didn’t grow up with the Atari 2600 that they’re missing out, but it’s an interesting example of how it was possible to deviate away from expected trends even back then. Most people probably think of arcade conversions, intense action games about killing stuff, and fast-paced shooting games when they look back on the Atari 2600, but Mangia’ feels more like something you’d see as part of Nintendo’s Game & Watch series or even as a game you’d see in one of their many future WarioWare titles. It’s a simple, charming concept that can engage you for hours with its hidden depth if you really enjoy it, which is the kind of game that really highlights the strengths of the Atari 2600. It’s no Warlords, but what is, really?

More Screenshots


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