Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.
Today’s review is based upon the original arcade Pac-Land included within PlayStation 3’s PSOne Classic re-release of Namco Museum 4, originally released for PlayStation.
When I selected Pac-Land as my next 8-Bit Chronicles subject, I wasn’t sure what to expect: most, if not all, acclaimed Pac-Man games strictly adhere to the familiar “maze” formula (setting aside the famous original, there’s Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Mania, Pac-Man Championship Edition, etc.), and I was hesitant on what a side-scroller would have to offer. Granted, the game enjoys a considerable legacy as arguably pioneering the genre, and it’s certainly nothing as ghastly as Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures (who wants to play a Pac-Man god simulator!?) or Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures (remember this little Eldritch abomination?). This 1984 venture predates the latter in being the first Pac-Man game to be based off a cartoon; namely, Hanna-Barbera’s corny 80’s animated adaption. While developed back home in Japan (as opposed to Pac-Man’s American publisher in Midway), could even Namco take care in navigating around the negative stigma of licensed video games — already proving itself a toxic commodity from word-of-mouth reputation to industry-spanning failure — with their lovable yellow mascot?
Here’s what I wasn’t expecting: a ghost lynch mob targeting the one Pac family in Pac-Land suburbia, their ghoulish prejudice compelling road rage, airplane bombardments, and throwing their babies out the window. This is not a joke; this is not an exaggeration: so strong, so desperate are the ghosts’ seething hatred that they’ll willingly sacrifice their first-born to the street pavement gods (or, in the air pilots’ case: applying them as ammunition) if meant ridding themselves of the yellow menace. Was Pac-Land truly a lovingly-constructed capitalization upon some cheap cartoon, or Japan’s warped commentary on segregated America? (Let us not forget that, much like the original game, Pac-Land features Power Pellets turning ghosts back into vulnerable blue-colored wussies — a well-intentioned power fantasy, perhaps?)
Either way, I was nearly in tears from Pac-Land‘s contextual escalation. Say what you will about suspension of disbelief, yet Namco Museum 4‘s default controls wove it into a hysteric fever dream: in an ill-advised design choice to match the original arcade controls (as opposed to joysticks, Pac-Land only utilized buttons), Control Type A had the Square Button as Move, and the D-Pad as Jump. Disoriented and confused, this clunky set-up reduced poor Pac-Man to a sluggish, drunk-like stupor, leaving him easy prey for ghosts. Thankfully, Types B and D offered more practical controls, but this discombobulated first impression gave rise to an unsettling fear that Pac-Land‘s off-the-wall zaniness would soon ebb, leaving only the husk of a broken game.
Thankfully, once I got my bearings together, Pac-Land proved itself an entertaining romp. The game’s a back-and-forth trek centering around Pac-Man guiding a lost fairy back home — as he dashes through towns, forests, castle mazes, lakes, and mountainous waterfalls, ghosts continue chasing him via pogo-stick antics to an eternal pursuer in Sue, Pac-Man’s murderous shadow. (You may remember her as Clyde’s substitute in Ms. Pac-Man) As he collects fruit and dodges obstacles to the beat of a ticking clock, Pac-Man reaches his goal: a door to the Fairy World, where the Fairy Queen bestows upon a him pair of magical boots bearing the gift of flight. After he zips back home in an abridged sequence, who comes wandering back but the fairy, leaving our hero jogging through day, evening, and night as new obstacles and locales impede his never-ending quest.
Of all the arcade games I’ve covered hitherto, Pac-Land‘s easily the most generous in accessibility; see, all eight “Trips” consists of four levels — three sequential obstacle courses and the race back home — and the game’s kind enough to let players begin from any of the first five. Not once does Pac-Land compromise its challenge: speed-runners gunning for a perfect run can start from the beginning, curious passerby experiment with each trip’s idiosyncrasies and pick out their favorites, and those simply dedicated to finishing the game can save time by starting over from Trip 5. To claim Pac-Land would be as intensive and physics-based as, say, Super Mario Bros. would be wrong, but it’s an inviting playground respectful of all players’ tastes.
I suspect experts with an inclination towards experimentation land right in Pac-Land‘s strike zone; really, I could just cite this superfan’s dedication to mathematically deciphering the calculations for pushable objects between the English and Japanese versions, but observe how it appeals to the platformer genre’s curious malleability; for instance, as we’re frantically dodging swarms of ghost-manned UFO, our desperate may reveal that, in a direct violation of arcade gaming’s “touch-and-you-die” rule, you can safely land on their heads. As we’re figuring out how to capitalize upon that, frequent run-ins with obstacles in static cactuses to malfunctioning fire hydrants reveal that, yes, they can be pushed aside, unveiling goodies in projectile-deflecting helmets or level-skipping warps. All this fascination over cause-and-effects operates to the beat of a ticking clock, and as we’re mentally juggling the benefits and potential consequences of further prodding about, purple Sue acts as an agent of panic, her steadily-but-surely approach leaving us prone to rushed mistakes. Much like Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, we gradually eke out our preferred methods of experimentation and travel as we gradually grow accustomed to its ins-and-outs.
Not that, it bears repeating, that we’d ever rank Pac-Land on that same pedestal, as the game’s landscape doesn’t always respect the mechanics; for instance, the constant emphasis on “run-or-die” doesn’t gel with certain hazards (while the desert’s invisible quicksand may be telegraphed by ominous skulls, I still haven’t deciphered a sure-fire method in getting a running start, securing a landing point on razor-thin cactuses, and then hopping away), and I’m not fond of segments involving gauging one’s jumps; specifically: the lake sections, which involve our favorite yellow globe propelling off a springboard and tapping the Jump button repeatedly in hopes we make it across the lake — a boring momentum-killer often only serving to prolong and highlight our eventual drowning mishaps.
According to The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Vol. 2 — sorry, no online previews, but you can nab some sweet deals on Amazon/Kindle — programmer Yoshihiro Kishimoto found Pac-Man’s animation the hardest nut the crack. As the development team prioritized emulating the show’s look and feel, they recognized this meant superseding the industry standard of 2-3 frames of movement; consequently, the final product presents over 24 frames for Pac-Man himself! Naturally, such an undertaking must be complemented by state-of-the-art graphics; namely, presenting a two-layer system in parallax scrolling (note the forest’s trees potentially obscure Pac-Man from the player — this happens because the “tree” layer runs at a different speed than our avatar’s plane). Made possible by an entirely new arcade board (“Namco Pac-Land”: the eventual host of Metro-Cross and Baraduke) Kishimoto’s inspiration from Konami’s Track-and Field button-only controls instilled confidence Pac-Land could stand out from the arcade crowd.
(And for super tech-nerds, Pac-Land has three separate updated releases in Japan alone; while it wasn’t unheard of for Japanese developers to refurbish their arcade releases (Donkey Kong did the same regarding bug fixes), I was unable to discover any discernible updates no thanks to busted MAME releases. However, comparing the Japanese and American versions does seem to confirm online whispers of Pac-Land‘s running and falling physics being sped up for Western release — any Pac-Land enthusiasts out there willing to confirm this isn’t the Placebo Effect at work?)
Of course, what with Pac-Land being based on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, Namco took extra pains for the American release to aesthetically match the show. As illustrated here, Pac-Man now bears white pupils and his red Tyrolean hat’s retrofitted a regular uh, still-red one, whereas Ms. Pac-Man’s redesigned top-to-bottom; meanwhile, their pets Chomp-Chomp the dog and Sour Puss the Cat replace the fairy introducing each Trip as the show’s theme song trumpets on in all international versions. As it happens, Namco Museum 4 presents the original Japan release — seeing as how the Smash Bros. stage does the same, it’s all but confirmed this is the “canon” iteration. While options would’ve been nice — especially when considering the possible mechanical differences — the American designs are too crass for my liking, and the pets distract from how the fairy drives the storytelling forward.
(While I’m at it, Pac-Land marked Ms. Pac-Man’s first appearance in Japan — recall that the various license entanglements with Midway led the American publisher to create Pac-Man spin-offs of their own, and so here we are.)
Naturally, the game received a deluge of home ports, albeit of, to no one’s surprise, varying quality. From an heavily-downgraded 1985 Famicom conversion to 1994’s near-perfect Sharp X68000 release courtesy of Dempa Softworks, does this decade-long conversion process imply Namco’s efforts to maintain Pac-Man’s relevance into an ever-evolving industry? Regardless, each one’s a fascinating beast, not the least in the glut of European-only releases (egads, that ZX Spectrum abomination!). While the aforementioned Sharp version’s a close contender, many uphold the 1989 Turbografx-16 release as the best conversion, what with the near pixel-perfect graphics and sound, animated sequences after every trip, hidden options/sound test menus, and even an unlockable difficulty mode emulating the tougher arcade game.
Even if Pac-Land’s not the most popular post-Pac-Man iteration — that’d be, unquestionably, Ms. Pac-Man — the game still enjoys a considerable reputation as a pioneer of the side-scrolling genre; today, its blocky buildings and bright colors may be reminiscent of sloppy childhood Microsoft Paint experiments, yet its overall brightness and parallax scrolling were a sight for sore eyes within in the arcade world’s bleak black-centric atmosphere. As it happens, Shigeru Miyamoto of Super Mario Bros. once informed Pac-Man‘s creator Toru Iwatani that Pac-Land’s sidescrolling venture inspired Mario’s NES adventure, and while Mr. Iwatani himself wasn’t involved with the game, he cites it as his favorite Pac-Man sequel, citing its action-game legacy and advances in tech.
For modern audiences, Pac-Land likely strikes a recognizable chord through its Smash Bros. stage. Originally debuting in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, the stage emulates its arcade run by auto-scrolling through several familiar locales (town, forest, waterfall, bridge, and the trip back home), all the while appealing to Smash‘s strict authenticity by cycling through day and night. True to the series’ Japan-first mentality, the stage mostly based on the Japanese version with one exception: an ordinary building at the Break Time demo as opposed to a church. (What, didn’t you know Pac-Man was a devout Catholic?) Alas, scrolling stages have never been a Smash favorite, with its blinding colors often subjected to ridicule; moreover, its Ultimate inclusion is often derided in it supplanting the 3DS version’s more famous Pac-Maze — likely due to that stage’s unique implementation of 3DS mechanics. Rest assured, however, that your resident Smash apologist enjoys frequent Trips throughout Pac-Man’s beleaguered home; if anything, I uphold the 8-Bit Badgers’ no-attack run — a tongue-in-cheek effort to emulate the original game — as an example of Smash‘s wondrous adaptability in action.
Regardless of any mishaps through time, Pac-Land sits comfortably in the Pac-Man pantheon. Any failures on its end to propel Namco’s mascot beyond the confines of orb-eat-orb mazes matter little when factoring its individual contribution to the gaming industry: the birth of dazzling, *happy-go-lucky fantasy platformers molding our curiosity into hardened, calculated skill. 2D platformers as we know it would be defined by a certain plumber just a year later, but even Mr. Video Game himself owes the template to gaming’s first mascot: inquisitive muscle-memory and paper-thin context weaving together into a true interactive *cartoon.
(*One that, I suspect, are ill-suited for young-ins, what with the dark, bigoted underbelly of Pac-Man exposed for all to see. Seriously, what’s going on there?)
Screenshots courtesy of StrategyWiki and MobyGames.