Best Games - Pac-Man
There are a lot of games that I tend to shy away from when I write one of these. Games that are so universally loved, and commented on, that it’s difficult to find anything interesting to add. I could write a bunch of drivel about how the game plays, how it makes retreat an advantageous strategy, or how Pac-Man is the originator, and pinnacle, of the maze chase genre. Probably stuff you already know and probably stuff you don’t need to read again.
That’s fine though. I’m going to cover a different aspect of Pac-Man. This post could apply to so many classic, celebrated, games. The really interesting thing about Pac-Man is that the developers didn’t know what made it good. No one did, at least not until much, much later.
It’s obvious that Namco, and designer Toru Iwatani, knew that Pac-Man was fun. At the time of the games release in 1980 they promoted it heavily to arcade owners. It is telling though, that Namco positioned Rally-X to be the big hit over Pac-Man. If you don’t remember Rally-X I’ll save you having to google it https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rally-X . Rally-X isn’t a bad game at all, but it was nowhere near as successful as Pac-Man. Few things ever were, or will be.
Here is where I’m going to make a slight jaunt into game designer land. I’ll link to an article here that explains how that ghost path-finding and AI system works. I’ll also link to a video that explains the same thing in case you don’t want to read the post.
The ghost path-finding system in Pac-Man is a work of genius on the level of the knight from chess. A very simple set of rules that can be re-purposed and reapplied to dizzyingly satisfying effect. A system that seems restrictively simple but allows for the chaos required to evoke ‘fun’.
I’ve written and talked a lot about ‘fun’ here. I’m pretty convinced that predicting patterns out of seeming chaos is what humans experience as fun. Successfully leading a target when throwing a ball, quickly navigating uneven ground, or even just tossing an object from one hand to the other. All of these have a finite set of variables, but they are far too many to actually calculate while you are completing the task. You have to predict the outcome using only your own pattern recognition skills and your estimations of the systems involved. Even a slow, methodical, game like chess involves an effectively random element, in the other player. You have to predict what will happen next based on what you know of the game and what you know of your opponent. It’s not too surprising that predicting outcomes to potentially random events is also an innate survival skills in humans. We find effective survival fun.
The game system of Pac-Man is a predictable pattern with enough variables to appear random. Since it isn’t actually random, the player can push on the system to affect outcomes. The first time you turn Pac-Man around and see one of the ghosts reverse direction as well the pattern of that registers somewhere in your instinct centers. The ghosts aren’t random, they operate based on rules and you can exploit that. Several people have, and, if done perfectly you can get the highest possible score and break the game. Perfect pattern prediction. You can jump through an example of that here and it is fascinating to watch.
Pac-Man was released almost 40 years ago. People have had a while to pull it apart and figure out how it ticks. But it wasn’t until the release of Pac-Man Championship Edition in 2007 that the original designer of the game figured out how to replicate it.
Ms.Pac-Man, the superior sequel (depending on who you ask) was a conversion of the original and used most of the same underlying systems, and so it was a similarly successful game. Pac-Man Plus was likewise a conversion of the original game with a few minor tweaks. It is less well known, but plays roughly the same as Pac-Man and Ms.Pac-Man. Neither of these conversions were worked on by the original team at Namco and were more or less ‘bootlegs that went legit’ so all of the actual gameplay can be squarely and fairly attributed to the original developers of Pac-Man.
The first real sequel created by members of the same team as the original was Super Pac-Man. Super Pac-Man was a maze chase with mild puzzle elements that, while expanding on the original never really lived up to it either. The players attention is pulled in too many directions and the active threat and the system that you are trying to manipulate are disconnected in ways that aren’t as satisfying. Not a bad game, but not on the level of Pac-Man either.
After that there are a string of strange, occasionally interesting, and sometimes terrible Pac-Man related games. Baby Pac-Man is a half pinball half arcade game hybrid that is mediocre at both. Jr. Pac-Man is another bootleg level development that makes the maze larger than the screen, but doesn’t actually improve it in any way. In fact, not being able to see the whole maze makes the game arguably worse. Pac-Land is a side scrolling platformer that has nothing to do with Pac-Man and isn’t a particularly good platformer.
When the original team came back to try their hand at a revival in 1987 with Pac-Mania, they created a game that worked on nostalgia alone. Pac-Mania shrinks the view-able area of the maze down to a tiny tile of the whole. It evokes Pac-Man, but it is a much more reactive game. The ability to predict patterns and exploit them is hamstrung by the visible play area and the perspective. The developers knew what made a Pac-Man game, but were lost when it came to what actually made it fun.
Lots of people tried to make a new Pac-Man game through the intervening years but they wouldn’t really hit success until Pac-Man Championship Edition in 2007. Less of a ‘Maze Chase’ and more of a snake like game, the object is to build up a long train of ghosts following hot on your heels and then choose your moment to eat a power pellet and turn on all of them. The game rewards quick pattern recognition and path planning, but eventually gets so fast that you would require superhuman reflexes to execute your plans. A tough game, but it activates those fun centers just as well as the original.
Namco and Toru Iwatani had captured the essence of fun with Pac-Man but it took them almost 30 years to do it again without just copying the original. The history of Pac-Man is a good lesson that just because someone creates something successful, that doesn’t mean that they know how they did it, or how to do it again.
Pac-Man remains one of the best games.