Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Wobbly History of Pac-Man: Part 1 - Arcade Edition

In this series of articles, we'll be taking a quick look at the weird and wonderful history of Namco's Pac-Man, from his most famous games to his weirdest spinoffs to some completely bizarre merchandise. If you want to learn more, PacManMuseum.com and Jamey Pittman's The Pac-Man Dossier are a good resource for in-depth information, especially in regard to the original title.

I've always been a big fan of classic arcade games. I love most of the well known classics, but I'm equally interested in more obscure titles that never caught on and completely unconventional sequels to successful games. The Pac-Man franchise features all of the above, and spans over four decades of games, many wonderful, many terrible. We begin with his arcade incarnations.

Pac-Man: A game about gluttony that’s been ported to almost every console and handheld, sometimes to terrible results. Created by Toru Iwatani and Shigeo Funaki for Namco in 1980, Pac-Man is one of the most successful arcade titles of all time, inspiring hundreds of other dot-eating maze games over the decades that followed. In addition, it's known as the first successful mascot-driven game, featuring a character that remains popular and recognizable to this day, even if he's gone through some weird changes. Pac-Man's between-stage hijinks, while not comparable to today's cutscenes, are credited as the first. On top of all that, it's still legitimately fun and challenging, even if I personally prefer some of the sequels.

Toru Iwatani

Almost all Pac games involve running around mazes eating dots, ghosts, and fruit/garbage. Both the game play and its iconic visual design are instantly recognizable and easy to understand, even if "eat big dots to turn ghosts into prey" is a pretty nutty concept in itself. The first game's mazes are simple, its presentation clean and unobtrusive, and its objectives clear. The original Pac-Man features some clever AI design that surpasses anything else in popular games at the time, and learning how each ghost behaves is essential to surviving past the first few stages.

Pac-Man was a huge hit for Namco, and Midway was quick to both license it for Western distribution and create their own knockoffs. Quick is an understatement; Midway released a total of three Pac-Man games of their own in 1982. Players complaining about today's games getting too many sequels should take a look back at how overboard Midway went here. The best and most popular was Ms. Pac-Man, starring gaming’s first well-rounded female hero. Ms. Pac-Man uses the same formula as the original game, but with new mazes and stage design that changes every few maps. Unlike the original Pac-Man, the cutscenes in this one actually tell a story, showing us how the Pac Family came together. Of the arcade titles, Ms. Pac-Man remains my favorite.

Midway's second 1982 title was Pac-Man Plus, which is basically the original game with some cosmetic differences (a green maze instead of a blue one, ghosts that grow stems and leaves on their heads after you eat a power pellet) and ghosts that sometimes turn invisible. The power pellets here don't necessarily turn all the ghosts blue, either; some remain active and aggressive. Junk food replaces the fruits of the original game and eating it is what triggers ghost invisibility. It's a much less interesting game than Ms. Pac-Man, and though it serves as a sort of "hard mode" modification for the original game, it isn't actually very fun.

The final Midway Pac-Man title of 1982 is the strangest: A pinball/arcade game hybrid, Baby Pac-Man. The bottom half of the machine is a simple physical pinball machine, and the top half is an arcade monitor with the ugliest version of Pac-Man to ever grace arcade screens. A half-pinball, half-Pac-Man game should be my dream game, but it's sadly pretty bad. I've only played it a few times (Pinball Wizard in Pelham, NH has a working unit) but my impression is that it's both a bad Pac-Man game and a bad pinball game; there's really nothing to see in it aside from the novelty value. The pinball play field looks nice at least, even if it's extremely rudimentary.

Field image from Internet Pinball Machine Database
The first official Namco sequel is 1982’s Super Pac-Man. The famous edible dots are gone, replaced by fruits which are kept behind locked doors. Players eat keys to open doors, pink Power Pellets to turn ghosts blue and eat them as usual, and green Super Pellets to grow huge and gain the ability to rampage through locked doors. It's much more unique than Midway's sequels, but nowhere near as well designed as the original Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man. Super Pac-Man is a mostly forgettable sequel, but it's always nice to see a sequel that takes risks.

1983 would see two more Pac-Man games, one from Midway and one from Namco. Midway’s Jr. Pac-Man is the classic game but set in much larger scrolling mazes with edible toys replacing the fruit. As the bikes/kites/trash you eat wander the playing field, they fatten up any dots they touch, making them worth more points but slower to eat. Jr. Pac-Man is a fun game, and much better than Pac-Man Plus, but the mazes are so large that they become a little tedious by the time you finish a stage. This is one that hasn't been re-released in any Pac-Man collections so it's harder to find a copy to play, but it's worth checking out if you can.

Namco’s sequel this year was Pac & Pal, in which Pac-Man teams up with a green ghost girl named Miru who steals your treasure. Like Super Pac-Man, the game’s all about unlocking doors, but this time you’re flipping over cards instead of eating keys. Power-ups include a trumpet, a snowman, the car from Rally-X, and more. Each one lets you burp out different projectile attacks at the press of a button. At long last, your enemies can be destroyed by the power of brass. Like Super Pac-Man, it's a fun concept, but not one that's really compelling in the long run. It would have been nice to allow two players to cooperatively control both Pac and Miru.

It’s a close tie for “weirdest arcade Pac game” between Namco's Pac Land (1984), an extremely rough platformer that’s getting resurrected as a stage in the new 3DS/Wii U Smash Bros, and Midway's Professor Pac-Man, a game where players answer really boring multiple-choice questions. In Pac-Land, players wander through ghost-infested towns and forests in search of a giant fairy who lives at the end of a dangerous path and grants you cool new shoes. You jump further by mashing the direction buttons instead of holding the jump button longer as in many platformers. On top of that, the game uses three buttons: one for left, one for right, and one to jump, instead of a joystick. The bizarre controls and sloppy platforming look even worse when you think about the fact that this game came out the same year as Super Mario Bros.

Professor Pac-Man is the rarest and possibly most notorious Pac-Man title. To Midway’s surprise, no one wanted to play a game where you have to identify differences between shapes, and Namco severed their relationship shortly after its release. Trivia arcade games were a minor trend, but I'm not sure what gave Midway the idea that people would be excited to play this kind of game with a Pac-Man skin. I've never actually seen one of these machines, but from watching videos of the game being played, I feel safe saying that I'm not missing out on anything exciting.

In 1987, Namco released Pac-Mania, a traditional Pac maze game with an isometric view of the field. Players can jump over ghosts, which are far more numerous than usual. Since your field of view is pretty limited, it’s easy to get cornered. Pac-Mania has some really fantastic music and some nice pastel graphics. It offers new challenges without massively shaking up the Pac-Man formula, and is easily the best arcade Pac-Man sequel designed by Namco themselves. Though still fairly obscure, Pac-Mania is available on a number of home collections.

The final classic style Pac-Man game released in arcades was 1996’s Pac-Man Arrangement, which was on a multigame machine that also included remixes of Dig Dug and Rally-X. Most people who have played this game probably played it as a port on the Game Boy Advance Pac-Man Collection. It features a couple of different speed power ups, boss fights, environmental hazards to mess around with, and, finally, simultaneous multiplayer. The title was reused for a home game released on the PSP, Xbox 360, and PS3, and while the newer Arrangement shares plenty of elements with the 1996 version, it’s actually a different game with totally different mazes.

Pac-Man never left the arcades, and Ms. Pac-Man machines are still very common. There wouldn't be another new arcade title until 2011’s Pac-Man Battle Royale, a four-player death match game where each player controls a differently-colored Pac-Man. You can get huge with a Super Pellet and eat your friends or block their path and knock them into ghosts. It uses the visuals of 2007’s amazing Pac-Man Championship Edition and, while fairly simple, is extremely fun with four players. It took three years for a home version to be released as part of Namco’s Pac-Man Museum on 360, PS3, and Windows, but unfortunately the home version is a lazy port and features no customization options and no online play. The arcade version tends to be pricey to play, but well worth trying out.

I hope you've enjoyed your first bit of Wobbly History! In future installments I'll take a look back at Pac-Man console games, weird merchandise, and the yellow blob-man's presence in popular culture.

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