This week, our managing editor has Ms. Pac-Man fever, and muses on the classic game while reflecting on a few early entries in the Pac-Man series that don’t get much love.
One of the most interesting stories in episode one of the Netflix gaming documentary High Score tells the tale of how MIT students Doug Macrea and Steve Golson created enhancement kits for arcade games, basically modding the system board in order to make arcade games (that players were starting to master) more difficult in order to ensure people continued to pump quarters into the machine.
They had noticed a trend where players were getting so good at games that they were either spending less money (due to them getting less Game Over screens), or were simply no longer playing the game once the challenge aspect fell away.
They chose Mike Horowitz (another MIT student) to do what basically comes down to a mod of Pac-Man featuring different levels, changing the behaviors of the ghosts, and so on. When their previous patch kit of the arcade game Missile Command proved successful (and they came out of a lawsuit with Atari not only unscathed, but employed by them) they boldly told Midway (the manufacturer and distributor of Pac-Man) that they had beaten Atari in court (the suit was dropped on the condition that the three men didn’t sell any more patch kits) and that they would win against Midway. In order to keep the Pac-Man gravy train going, Midway capitulated and Ms. Pac-Man was born.
For all the (rightful) love and acclaim the original Pac-Man gets, there is no denying that Ms. Pac-Man is the superior game. There are four different levels as opposed to Pac-Man‘s one, the fruit now wanders the level (instead of sitting stationary below the ghost’s “home base”), bouncing in from a random exit after a certain number of pellets have been eaten, and the enemies are slightly less predictable. For everyone that wants to call it “Pac-Man with a red bow and some lipstick” (and even the people that made it have said as much), the game is truly superior in every describable way.
True scholars of the game know that the ghosts have “behavior patterns,” meaning—as any programmer already knows—there is a reason for how they move, where they move, and why they move. Blinky, the red ghost, will try to narrow the distance between themselves and Ms. Pac-Man. Pinky is more of an ambush artist, trying to head you off at the pass. Inky is the most non confrontational, “go along to get along” type of the bunch, and will pass up many opportunities to trap you. Meanwhile, Sue, the orange ghost, will move towards Ms. Pac-Man initially, only to chicken out and go rogue when the distance between them narrows.
There is also the matter of the ghosts suddenly changing direction during the levels, how long they remain frightened blue ghosts, and how long it takes them to exit their starting location. It’s a manageable amount of things to consider while playing, and learning the logic behind all these things will greatly improve your skills as a player.
To this day, I never walk past a Ms. Pac-Man arcade cabinet when I see one. I literally don’t think I’m capable. I can’t resist the urge to potentially draw a crowd. Yeah, it’s like that. Ya boy is damn good at Ms. Pac-Man. I’m not Kill Screen good, but I can get to the point where the ghosts start acting extra-bullshitty before I run out of lives. It’s not the only arcade Pac-Man game I love though. Two other entries also deserve the recognition they seldom get.
Super Pac-Man was an arcade game I was obsessed with as a kid. Instead of eating pellets, you navigate levels collecting keys to unlock doors to access fruit, power pellets (still used to turn ghosts blue), and super pellets, which cause Pac-Man to grow immense and also makes him invulnerable to the ghosts. It’s an often overlooked entry in the series, but it’s one of the more engaging arcade games in the franchise.
Jr. Pac-Man follows the adventure of Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man’s son, who first appeared in Act 3 of Ms. Pac-Man when the stork delivered him. This game hews closer to the two main Pac-Man games, as Junior wanders around much larger levels (the screen even scrolls horizontally) eating pellets and avoiding ghosts just like his parents did before him.
In this entry, there are seven different levels, power pellets increase from 4 per round to 6, and bonus items wander around the screen turning regular sized pellets into larger sized ones. This increased the points per pellet (PPP) from 10 to 50, but eating these larger dots slows our propeller-beanie clad hero down making him easier to be caught by the ghosts.
The game also features a star-crossed lovers story involving Junior and a red ghost called Yum-Yum. Both Ms. Pac-Man and Blinky (Yum-Yum’s parent) strongly discourage the two from striking up a courtship, but—of course—that just brings these two crazy kids closer together.
- The orange ghost in Pac-Man was called Clyde, but in Ms. Pac Man they’re called Sue, which—as Johnny Cash has taught us—can be a gender neutral name. In Jr. Pac-Man, our agent in orange is called Tim.
- The Kill Screen is common in old arcade games. Pac-Man has this glitch when you reach level 256. This is because the level counter is set as an 8-bit integer, making 255 the highest possible value. I believe it’s the same reason Link maxes out at 255 rupees in the original The Legend of Zelda. In Ms. Pac-Man, the Kill Screens begin at board 134.
- Ms. Pac-Man, when it was still in it’s “enhancement kit” stage, was called Crazy Otto. Once Midway decided to make it an official Pac-Man game, the characters were swapped out for the characters we know and love today.
- Pac-Man fever is curable.