Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Pac-Man - The Grandaddy of Them All
A shardless yellow circle shapes the video-game world as I would come to know it.


I can speak of hundreds of experiences I've had with video games, but it's not every time out that I can discuss my time with what's considered the game--a magnum opus so transformative, so monumental, that it influenced the entire future course of the video-game industry. Its distinctions hold so much weight that mere words don't seem to capture the full measure of their impact. Consider its contributions: It popularized the maze-game genre. It gave birth to the idea of game companies turning their title characters into mascots and building around them. And it inspired countless clones across arcades, consoles, home computers and every other form of digital entertainment--some created respectfully but most nothing more than shameless, poor-quality ripoffs pumped out by both big and small development houses in an attempt to garner the attention of consumers who had been entranced by Pac-Mania.


It invaded all segments of society: Hanna-Barbera produced a cartoon show about it. Bands made billboard-topping songs celebrating its existence. Plush toys lined the racks of all retail outlets. There was even a breakfast cereal! I remember it well because General Mills advertised it using a number of goofy commercials that all had a variation of the same musical theme, and they'd play all morning long while I was enjoying my favorite cartoons, which included the video-game-themed Saturday Supercade and Pac-Man's own. Pac-Man was literally everywhere I looked.

Image credited to www.retrorobotreview.com.

Before Pac-Man's release, arcades were dominated by the likes of shooters, racers, and sports games; while these represented the genres upon which the foundation of video games was built, the oversaturation of derivative driving games, space-themed shooters, and Pong clones caused the arcade scene to grow stagnant. The arrival and subsequent popularity of Pac-Man broke up the monotony and helped give prevalence to like maze-style games, character-driven platformers, and other creative works exempliary of what I mean when I say "arcade games."

Pac-Man was a game that entered my consciousness before I even knew what it all meant. It started during the summer of 1981, when I was three years old and my immediate family went on vacation to Florida; while I don't remember all of the details, other than that we were there for a week and visited Disneyland a few times, the trip occurred during a period of my life when I was still developing declarative memory--a phase during which my brain could only capture fractured images. I remember, for instance, being suddenly pushed from behind into the deep end of the hotel's indoor pool by a previously friendly kid whose father had to dive in to save me from drowning; my lasting images of the event include the man's face and his torpedoing toward me while I flailed helplessly and sunk toward the bottom.

Less traumatic are those scattered memories I have of my first visit to an arcade hall near the hotel's lobby. I remember following my brother into this large, noisy room where stood all these giant wooden cabinets that encased screens I could barely see; their control panels were so beyond my reach that I had to stand one of those multicolored storage bins you would always find laying around the corner of any arcade. I have no specific memory of what I played, but I remember laying on eyes on this fairly new arrival whose cabinet was bright yellow and featured a demonic-looking, bug-eyed blob being menaced by an angry blue ghost. I had no idea what this game could possibly be about, but I was sure to remember its name.

Even though there would have been little chance of me being able to recall the experience, I regret not giving the original incarnation of Pac-Man even one token's worth of attention; even a broken memory fragment would have been appropriately cherished, and the event, itself, would have made a fine entry in my Memory Bank résumé. I wouldn't know the true, authentic Pac-Man arcade experience until at least two years later.

No--my first more-personal run-in with Pac-Man happened somewhere else.


When I found the cartridge in my brother's magic box, the name and image on its front side were instantly familiar to me. It was the game I'd seen in that arcade in Florida (though, its more-spherical, cheery interpretation of the Pac-Man character was much less frightening)! Maybe it's because I was in my still-formative years, but I remember liking it a lot; the younger me never felt like I was playing a "bad" game or moreover some abomination whose fallout was about to level an entire industry. I had no grasp on what aesthetics were or that gaming machines had disparate specifications, so it didn't matter to me at all that the game was hastily produced and didn't quite resemble the original work.


Even today I hold the opinion that it was an OK 2600 game and nowhere near as guilty as those on the long list of hall-of-shame software like those wretched porn games, the abundance of mediocre Pac-Man and Space Invaders clones, deceptive reskins of popular games Megamania and Demon Attack, and other cynically conceived and poorly developed titles. While I admit that the 2600 version of Pac-Man is a poor-facsimile (with lines instead of dots, cream-filled squares in place of fruit, and a maze design that couldn't hope to replicate the arcade's due to dissimilar screen resolutions) and too technically limited to be called anything but a glitchy mess (hell--I can't even capture screenshots in which more than one ghost appears), it was better than nothing and as close to the real thing as I was going to get. 

I look at it like this: If the arcade version never existed and 2600 version was Namco's original's effort, Pac-Man might have been instead regarded as a highly inventive, redefining console game!

Stop laughing.


Fortunately, I eventually did make the acquaintance of the genuine article--the true form of the pizza-inspired do-gooder. Pac-Man machines lingered in arcades long after others from its era vanished, and I had more than a few tense, anxious romps through its simple, unforgettably oppressive blue mazes. My experiences with it were typical: It was Pac-Man. I collected as many dots I could, always taking the same path (first looping around the lower mid-center passages before heading up the maze's right side), while pretending that I had the ghost monsters' patterns all figured out right before they managed to corner me. Then I had to do that thing where you point toward the machine with your open palm and hold a "can you believe that?" expression, just so the other arcade-goers understood that the game was cheating (yeah--that had to be it).


Pac-Man wasn't a game you "finished"--you held on for as long as you could, dodging death with excited, jumpy thrusts of the joystick and doing your best to survive those nerve-wracking later scenes whence the Power Pellets became ineffective. I'm not sure if I was interested in setting a high score, or simply making farther than last time, but something about the game compelled me to keep trying. "Just one more quarter," I'd say before dumping in four or five. That's what I call the perfect arcade game.


What little there was in the way of music was wonderfully catchy, including the game-opening jingle and the short, snappy tune that played during the regularly timed cut-scenes. But what made the game stand out amidst the arcade cacophony was its very ambiance, which could be picked out from even afar; when I think of Pac-Man, among the first things to come to mind are the sequenced noises that came to envelop me as I stood in front of the machine, whether it was the wacka-wacka sound of Pac-Man chomping on pellets, the sudden, urgent shift in tone whenever the ghost monters were under duress, or the deflating twang of Pac-Man meeting his end. The sound effects were every bit as iconic as the game itself.


While Pac-Man had successful follow-ups like Ms. Pac-Man and the influential Pac-Land, the series hasn't since produced a single landscape-altering game or anything close. The name Pac-Man, instead, has become purely associated with failure. I find it more than sad that Pac-Man and friends never recaptured any of that same success in the next three decades, and I think it's an absolute shame that the character has been slotted as a relic of the "now-passé arcade era." That's no way for a legend to be remembered--the character treated as if it were an infectious disease (think of all that sighing and whining that went on whenever someone even suggested him for Smash Bros.). I can't put too much blame on Namco for mishandling the property, though; the company was in reality a victim of the game's success, stuck trying to iterate on something that was already perfect. 

It's not even that Pac-Man has been in "bad" games; it's that Namco's releases have wildly varied in quality, creating the perception that Pac-Man isn't even all that important to the company that once heralded him as its main mascot. I thought the first two Pac-Man World titles were great, for instance, but then its creators simply farmed out the third installment to the less-than-reputable Blitz Games, with obvious results. It seems to be a curse with Pac-Man: Namco establishes a well-imagined template but can never muster up enough creative energy to sustain it.


Still, the original Pac-Man's popularity endures even through eras of cynicism, hard-edged games, and bloated budgets. You're still likely to see vintage Pac-Man machines in whatever arcades you can find--including any of those party-themed establishments--and people of all ages recognize it and gravitate toward it. Until, say, 2010, sound effects from the 2600 version could still be heard in movies and television shows, used to approximate the sounds of whichever video-game system was being played. While that may point more toward studio executives being desperately out of touch, it is direct evidence that Pac-Man resonates even with people who don't love video games. It's a name people associate with medium, itself, which is the ultimate sign of affection. In terms of notoriety and transcendence, only Mario can compare.

I, too, continue to enjoy Pac-Man to this day. I head upstate four or five times a year to visit my father, whose house has a game room as occupied by a pool table, a slot machine, and a Pac-Man 25th Anniversary Edition arcade unit. Always chief among things to do before I leave is to plug the machine into that long extension cord and spend some time trying to make it to the third cut-scene without losing a leaf (a feat made very difficult thanks to the agitating Blinky and his superior cognizance). I still hold the machine's high score (something around 600,000), but let's just say my means for reaching that number aren't exactly kosher. Shhhhhhhhh.


I played it on the 2600. I've sampled the NES port and several other middling recreations. And I even owned one of Coleco's cool miniature Pac-Man machines (until my brother predictably broke it). But nothing beats the original arcade game, which will always retain the seductively alluring qualities no other version of Pac-Man can match.

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