NamCompendium 18: Pac-Land

Pac-Land

August 1984 (ARC, Japan)

Okay, so. Namco sorta invented the mascot platformer? 

Right, how to couch this? While the company may lay claim to creating video gaming’s first true mascot in Pac-Man, they may lay no such real claim to inventing the platformer. That claim may lie most soundly with Universal’s Space Panic in 1980, with other games to follow which iterated on the concept of jumping between platforms while avoiding obstacles. Early genre success stories like Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (1981), Activision’s Pitfall! (1982), and Software Projects’ Jet Set Willy (1984) provided popular frameworks for dozens of clones and copies. This entire genre would receive its purest statement of intent in 1985 with Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. on the Famicom, itself a “mascot platformer” in that it set an existing successful internally developed property in an entire world of things from which to jump. But the NamCompendium is not in 1985 yet. No, we’re about a year prior to the release Nintendo’s smash hit, and we’re talking about Pac-Land.

Pac-Land is a bizarre game. It is only the third direct sequel to Pac-Man developed by Namco, nevermind Midway’s chicanery. It is nearly unrecognizable from its source material, a platformer from a time before the control conventions of such games had been laid down. Its oeuvre was based upon a cheaply produced western cartoon adaptation of Namco’s most valuable property. It is a game that has aged somewhat poorly, yet it was a huge inspiration to Miyamoto in making Super Mario Bros. a year later. If that weren’t enough reason for consideration, it’s also the next game on my big list.

I suppose the first thing to note is that Pac-Land is not even Namco’s first platformer. That honor goes to Mappy, and if you want to get pedantic about Mappy not having an actual jump button I’d like to introduce you to my friend Steve Pleasebequiet. While Mappy did not have the innate ability to jump via player input, his trampoline jump height was determined by the player and the game was built around navigating platforms to avoid enemy contact. Wikipedia agrees with me. They’re the sole arbiters of truth in the 21st century, according to a friend of mine.

Another odd note is the involvement of Negoro Tsukasa as the game’s designer. There is vanishingly little information on Negoro-san on the English-language Internet. He is credited on various arcade history and Namco enthusiast Wikis with design credits for Pac-Land and 1990’s Dragon Saber. This is so far all that I can venture to say Negoro did with his time within Namco. While Dragon Saber seems to have been a logical followup to Dragon Spirit, Pac-Land’s vision is certainly more singular.

Along with Negoro’s name in the hidden credits for the arcade release are Kishimoto Yoshihiro (programming),  Ono Hiroshi (graphics), and Keino Yuriko (sound). Keino and Ono had already worked together on Dig Dug and Xevious, with the latter having designed original sprites for Pac-Man and Galaga as well. Kishimoto was just settling in at Namco, with this being his first credit. You’ll be seeing his name a lot going forward, evolving into a design and eventual production role within Namco before departing to Koei around 2000. He currently runs a website wherein he rates omurice around Japan

Alright, let’s get this out in the open right now. Pac-Land’s control scheme is bad and the people who devised it should feel bad. Let’s refresh ourselves on basically every single Namco arcade title hitherto discussed here. How would one move a character in a Namco, or indeed in a plurality of arcade games made up to this point? A gated arcade stick, perhaps? That would make sense. Push the stick in a direction, and your character/avatar/ship moves in that direction. A fundamental video game interaction, one that has felt good for nigh on fifty years now. Negoro and company took a look at this interaction and said “Ah fuck it, sticks are for the birds.” They came up with this monstrosity instead:

pacland

You are looking at a war crime. We’ve got digital buttons for left and right movement, and a third button to jump. What’s even more untenable in our present epoch is the jump button is on the left of the control area, so you’re moving with your right hand. What is this Turok madness? To quote one James Rolfe, “What were they thinking?” To play Pac-Land in this form is to either Seth Killian-style cross your arms to experience a normal game, or accept its freak show nature off the bat and roll with it.

Clearing this hurdle, you then get to the game itself. Pac-Land the game is a platformer which reminds me, oddly, more of Eversion than anything else. The world consists mostly of flat-shaded, tilt-shifted cityscape backgrounds which feel a little unsettling. These, as mentioned, are in reference to the Hanna-Barbara “masterpiece” that was the Pac-Man cartoon, a strange feedback loop wherein art inspired by an original work became referenced in later derivatives from the creator. I find the aesthetic poor. Nevertheless, the player must navigate Pac-Man across zones, moving either left to right or right to left as levels dictate. Hindering your progress are fire hydrants, cacti, bottomless pits, and the oddly robotic presence of Pac-Man’s ghostly nemeses. The ghosts here not only harry you by hovering their noncorporeal selves into your path, but have also taken to using various vehicles. You get ghosts in cars, planes, and even UFOs. Lightly peppered through the levels are power pellets, which in classic fashion allow the player to eat/destroy the ghosts on contact for bonus points.

Pac-Land also has a strange momentum mechanic which players must come to grips with to progress past a certain point. Whereas the concept of double tapping a movement button to “change gears” from walking to running is not a completely foreign concept, Pac-Land’s movement is a little more graduated. Keep tapping relative forward to build up speed, coming to a full run after a time. This mechanic is also grafted onto the jumping mechanic; eventually the player will encounter large open pits which cannot be crossed by a single jump. To cross these, the player must jump and then mash on the relative forward button to hover/glide across the expanse. The first time this mechanic is introduced feels like the logical “this player has spent long enough on the game, time for another 100 yen” point in the experience.

The game is divided into “trips” each of which contains four levels. The first three are navigated left to right in standard platformer fare. Upon completing the third level, players are greeted by a fairy (hidden under Pac-Man’s hat the entire time!) who provides the player with magic boots. These boots allow the player to jump continuously throughout the fourth level, wherein Pac-Man must run right to left across a stage to return home to Ms. Pac-Man and Baby Pac-Man.

Pac-Land isn’t necessarily hard. Once you get past the awkward controls, the platforming is basic and learning enemy patterns won’t take too long. There’s also plenty of hidden stuff here as well. Pushing certain objects will provide the player with bonus points, fruits, extra lives, and even a protective helmet which allows Pac-Man to absorb enemy damage to a point. This exploratory aspect is the real innovation of Pac-Land. Moving a character across a virtual space was not new by 1984, nor was the idea of a world full of secrets. But using the mechanics of a platformer to uncover secrets was novel, and it was here that I think the Miyamoto inspiration took place.

There is also a bit of an Easter Egg/inside joke hidden in Pac-Land. The player may find hidden Galaxian ships which give 7650 points upon discovery. This specific number is a goroawase, a Japanese pun based on the various pronunciations of numbers allowed by the dual Japanese and Chinese pronunciations of the nation’s numerical system. 765 may be read as Na-mu-ko. I’d actually encourage you to read the Wikipedia piece on goroawase, they’re nifty.

As much as I strongly dislike the Hanna-Barbara aesthetic of Pac-Land, I can’t deny that the overall presentation is impressive. This was the first of five games to use a new Namco board, simply identified now as the Pac-Land board, and there’s some impressive work here. The music is rich, with Keino having been given a massive eight channels of sound with which to work. The second stage features a massive foreground layer of parallax woods, with player and enemy outlines set behind to create a pseudo-transparency effect. There’s not a ton of animation on anything besides Pac-Man, but in exchange the player avatar has a (relative) ton of frames for running which make his movement very smooth.

There are also the regional differences to consider. Whereas the music is all arrangements on the Saturday morning cartoon stuff, the sprites were actually changed between regions. Japanese Pac-Land features a Pac-Man with a long, goofy nose and solid black eyes. The American/European version, by contrast, has artwork which more closely aligns with the cartoon. This includes changes to Pac-Man’s family members at the end of each fourth level, and the inclusion of pets Chomp Chomp and Sour Puss. It’s also worth noting that the western release had the option to select which of the first five “trips” the player wished to start on.

Now, here’s where I betray my supposed knowledge and expertise on these things: I don’t actually understand where the arcade game starts looping levels. Around level 36 the game starts throwing in strange castle mazes that use the aforementioned foreground layers to great effect, night time levels, and all sorts of enemy gauntlet madness. There’s an arcade longplay on YouTube which plays to level 99. There’s another that is a third the length which describes the game as 32 stages long, yet based on the former it sure seems like there are at least a few more unique levels beyond that point. What I can say is that there’s not really an “end point” to the arcade Pac-Land, itself being a “classic” arcade game built around the concept of high scores rather than reaching some sort of narrative end point.

This point is worth raising because, whereas the arcade cabinet had basically as much storage as Namco saw fit to purchase, the subsequent home releases of Pac-Land had to deal with much more economized cartridge space.

Pac-Land was released for the Famicom on 21 November 1985. Like more than ninety percent of Namco’s games for the system, this never was released in North America. With some of these Famicom titles I can only wonder why Namco didn’t bother, as they were quality titles likely would have sold well amidst the North American NES fever of the late 1980s. With Pac-Land, however, I totally get it. This is the first arcade-to-Famicom conversion that really drops the ball. Namco squeezed and squeezed this game onto 40kb of memory, the largest cartridges available before the introduction of mapper chips in 1986. Pac-Land was never going to fit into 40kb, so cuts were needed.

The resulting cuts to sprite size and detail, sound quality, and level count were severe. Pac-Man is now about the size of “small Mario”, and the sort of chintzy quality of the flat cartoon backgrounds is done a real disservice by the Famicom’s bespoke non-RGB color palette. The game is also now reduced to all of 16 levels, which simply loop upon completion. Jumping through the door to the fairy at the end of each third level, the entire fairy cutscene, and even the return home scene are all truncated or removed entirely. 

The player is also made to contend with the control scheme, which is made all the worse due to Super Mario Bros. having been released for the Famicom two months prior. That game lived and died by its fluid, natural controls. Pac-Land takes this expected input layout and reverses it, with the two face buttons under your right thumb controlling movement while any directional pad input controls the jump. Yes, you can press down to jump in Pac-Land. The silver lining here is that the second Famicom controller actually uses a “normal” scheme, where the directional pad controls movement with face buttons controlling the jump. This does come with the caveat that the ability to pause is gone, as the second controller lacks a start button. Bizarre choices all around. 

Namco’s arcade hardware had far outstripped the Famicom’s hardware specs by late 1985. While later conversions would be handled to varying degrees of success, I feel that Pac-Land was a bellwether for the company: perhaps the platform was better suited for games designed for the Famicom, instead of increasingly hobbled arcade titles.

If Namco’s contemporary arcade hardware had outstripped the Famicom around the time of the system’s North American launch, new console hardware would more or less catch up to the company’s top shelf chips. The NEC PC Engine became the place to play reasonably good home conversions of Namco’s arcade games starting in 1988, when the company would release Famicom and PCE version of Youkai Douchuukii side by side. The move seems like a “dare to compare” campaign or a dunk on Nintendo’s aging hardware, depending on how much you read into Namco-Nintendo bad blood that has already been explored here.

In any case, Pac-Land was already a five year old game when its PC Engine port was released on 1 June 1989. The only other such “golden oldie” style release Namco would do for the platform was their lovingly made conversion of The Tower of Druaga. If that was a smart iteration of a beloved hit, Pac-Land is much more direct. In fact, it’s just about perfect. This port of Pac-Land looks and sounds damn near identical to the arcade version. About the only real changes are the level count, which tops out at 32 before hitting an end state, and the option to play the game normal human controls. Yes, you can easily set this game to use the directional pad to move Pac-Man. Gods be praised!

What’s more, there’s even a second difficulty option to be selected. The levels aren’t hugely modified, sure, but enemies seem more plentiful and move notably faster. The small fairy sprites also convert to little baseball players, a nod to shared staff between the team which worked on this as well as various Famista/World Stadium games. This mode is a nice value-add to the overall package in lieu of replicating every single arcade level, putting a bow on what I find the definitive conversion of the game.

There are those who would disagree, however. Not to say they’d make a case for the Famicom conversion. Gods no. Rather, they’d make a case for the version of Pac-Land released for the Atari Lynx sometime in 1991. This is it, dear readers: the last Namco game ever released on an Atari home console. This version was the sole work of two individuals: Joe Seider, a polymath who is responsible for the programming and art assets; and Jason Stephenitch, who created the game’s soundscape. Seider was working out of the Milwaukee suburbs at the time, doing contract work on Lynx and home computer platforms. He would graduate to full employment with Atari, followed by Black Pearl Software, and eventually down I-94 with Midway in the late 1990s. He was also, according to Internet sources, involved in some stages of development on the unreleased Atari Panther platform. A busy man, this Joe Seider.

Lynx Pac-Land is about as good looking a game as one could want on the platform. The arcade source material’s large flat colored world is a good fit for the platform. Seider managed to add in foreground and background parallax layers, including the woods in the second level. The controls also feel alright here, defaulting to a “directional pad moves, face button jumps” arrangement rather than the farty arcade default. The game is not quite as fast or as well animated on the whole as the PCE version, but for a handheld it’s quite impressive. Easily the most impressive handheld game so far on a technical level.

But that’s not even the wildest part. No, the crazy thing is, from what I can tell, this game also includes the whole damn arcade game. Not just the interstitial cutscenes and hidden stuff, either. This game seems to have a bonkers 99 levels! Imagine playing 99 levels of a platformer on the Lynx! There’s a longplay of this game on YouTube that is nearly two hours long! At a certain point you’re going beyond the platform’s actual battery life trying to see this whole game. All this, at half the overall ROM size of the PCE title (128 vs. 256kb of storage). I can only tip my hat to Mr. Seider. It’s the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice, but for the Lynx.

So, those are the conversions. Now to the repackaging. When I started looking at Pac-Land, I was originally convinced this game’s relatively curt reissue history was due to some amount of embarrassment within Namco. The truth may be more complicated than that, however. It turns out that while the company did make the game, the look was based on Hanna-Barbara’s cartoon and the music essentially is the property of Hanna-Barbara. This, it seems, has put the game into a fun rights territory. Perhaps not as fraught as something like, say, Sonic 3’s music and its purported Michael Jackson association, but nevertheless a consideration when attempting to reissue the game.

As such, we’ve got a short list here. Pac-Land was basically the flagship title on Namco Museum Volume 4, which set a new low bar for the series in the eyes of western critics on its release. America and Europe weren’t ready for Genpei Touma Den in 1997. As always, backwards compatibility digital distribution of the entire PSX NaMu series makes this one playable on the entire PlayStation family of consoles through the Vita.

The next “new” packaging for Pac-Land was in Pac-Man Museum, released in February 2014 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Steam. This collection is a real hodgepodge; you get Pac-Man, both Super Pac-Man board games, the Genesis version of Pac-Attack, a PSP-exclusive arrangement of Pac-Man, the non-DX version of Championship Edition, and Pac-Man Battle Royale. The latter is absolutely the selling point of the collection. All of the older titles play with a gross border, and the menu treatment gives the entire Museum release a strong budget feel. You can also pay an extra $5 for Ms. Pac-Man, to add another layer of strange to this collection. Pac-Man Museum is backwards compatible on Xbox One, meaning you can play Pac & Pal with an Xbox One Elite controller if you’re feeling fancy.

The only other reissue for Pac-Land has been the Famicom port on the Wii U Virtual Console across all regions in June 2014. If you want to play a bad version of an “interesting” game on what is basically a collector’s item console, there’s a $5 way to do it.

That was the end of the story, until very recently. During the creation of this piece, Bandai Namco did something which I have found to be very kickass indeed. The Namco Museum Archives Volumes 1 and 2, aka the Namcot Collection, was released on 17 June this year for all console platforms and Steam. This is a collection of the Famicom versions of twenty Namco published titles in Japan. That’s a weird qualifier. Some of these games were published in North America and Europe by different companies (Mendel Palace by Hudson Soft, originally Quinty in Japan). Additionally, two of these games are “new” Famicom games developed in-house by M2. They are basically NES conversions of Gaplus, a Famicom contemporary which never came home, Pac-Man Championship Edition. They also threw in Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti! Not all of these conversions are zingers, and furthermore if you’re honest you already have them in a folder somewhere on your computer. But I think it is worth rewarding Bandai Namco for taking a stab at this sort of compilation and entrusting M2 with the engineering behind it. Pac-Land for the Famicom is in Volume 2 and it still kinda sucks. But you also get Legacy of the Wizard in that collection, so, hey.

That’s Pac-Land. I don’t love it, but I’ve come to have a grudging respect for the game and as it helped sire the goddamn Super Mario Bros. lineage of games I legally cannot dislike it all that much. Hardly the worst game starring Pac-Man. Hell, not even the worst Namco-developed game starring Pac-Man.

Next up, two new entries in the Xevious series! Wish they’d have given Galaga this much attention!

 

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