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Ms. Pac-Man

Videogame Classics

Reviews of the greatest video games of all time, from classic to modern games.

This ongoing series of reviews offers entertaining insights into those great games and consoles that we love.

1981 - GCC and Bally Midway - Released in arcades
Hat Trick - video game classics

Videogames of the Damned

Daniel Thomas MacInnes' videogames blog, offering commentary and reviews on classic and modern games.

The spirit of "independent game journalism" lives on!


July 21, 2005

If you asked me to name the greatest videogame of all time, I'd probably say Tetris. If, however, you asked me to name my absolute favorite, it's Ms. Pac-Man.

I've probably spent more money on this game than all the other ones combined. A few quarters here, a few quarters there. Keep that up for a quarter century and you'll wind up with a hell of a stash. That could be the plot to a really, really slow caper movie.

The thought has also occured to me that I've poured more money into Ms. Pac-Man than I have into college. Now there's a winning decision. I still don't have that English degree, student loans are piling up, I'm stuck working at a bank in the ghetto, and I'm struggling to find an editor willing to publish some crazy book about classic videogame essays. But at least I can capture the high score at any bus station or laundromat I walk into. Yeah, that's a fair trade; the kind that make parents shake their heads and blame one another for the botched contraception.

I often wondered what happened to those teenagers back in the '80s, who would play arcade games on cheap television shows for days straight until they would finally pass out. What did they do with the rest of their lives? Did they really put their game-playing talents on resumes? Education: Stanford. Experience: Passed out after playing Asteroids for three days straight. Objective: to kick your ass on Ms. Pac-Man. But what I really want to do is direct.

Lucky dogs. You know this is how the dot-com boom happened. That and the XFL. Admit it.

Back during the first videogame fad of the early 1980's, video arcades were literally everywhere. These machines were practically a license to print money, and they were found not only in arcades, but restaurants, laundromats, sports stadiums, bowling lanes (what do you call those places, anyway?), bus terminals, airports, novelty gift shops, and various Mom-and-Pop tourist traps. Those days are, of course, long gone, but that little yellow ball with the bow is still there, lurking about.

To this day, every single laundromat I walk into has a Ms. Pac-Man machine somewhere. And, yes, most often when I see one I put another quarter into it and have a quick spin. At this point in my life, I'm far beyond playing the game for endurance; I've memorized the patterns and strategies ages ago. What I prefer to do is simply play until I break the current high score or pass 100,000 points, whichever is greater. Maybe I'll keep going until I've seen all three intermissions and all four mazes. It largely depends on my mood, and whether or not I need those quarters for the dryer.

Out of all the Pac-Man sequels and spinoffs from that era, I think Ms. Pac-Man is the best. It took what, at the time, was the greatest videogame ever made, and made is almost feel obsolete. There were game sequels before, but they all felt like minor upgrades, usually offering nothing more than a simple variation (to this day, I still don't know the difference between Space Invaders 2 and the original). This was the real deal - a game that in expanded the scope of the original, stretched it.

Nobody ever really minded moving Pac around one maze, because it was the next evolutionary step in games. But the Ms. came in with four mazes, each one completely different in design, requiring different strategies and new approaches, and all with the same number of dots. You have to change your tactics every three levels. For 1981, this was revolutionary. It remains the gold standard for gaming sequels, and probably always will.

I think these mazes are a masterpiece of design. If nothing else, they're terrific just to look at. Bold, full of bright colors and iconic characters - Ms. Pac and the Four Ghosts (sounds like a Motown group, doesn't it?). It's like chomping your way through a collection of early Mondrian paintings. I really cannot overstate this enough; most of the later Pac-Man games suffered from weaker mazes, or as was often the case, only one maze. How does somebody go back to a single board after this?

Now, dear readers, for the big surprise. How many people know that Ms. Pac-Man is the product of hackers? True story. The game was created by programmers at General Computer Corporation as a Pac-Man hack called Crazy Otto. They were so impressed with the quality of the game, they pitched it to Bally Midway, who were Pac-Man's American distributors.

Midway was growing impatient for a sequel to the biggest-selling videogame in history, so this prospect was the perfect answer to their prayers. They bought Crazy Otto, changed the character sprites appropriately, and christened the game Ms. Pac-Man.

After the game became hugely successful, Namco caught wind and promptly brought Midway and GCC to court. Both American companies handed over game's rights to Namco to avoid trouble, and the Ms. became a part of the official Pac-Man canon.

This wouldn't be the last time Namco clashed over unauthorized sequels. Midway would later create Baby Pac-Man (featuring a mini-pinball table), Junior Pac-Man (with its large scrolling mazes and brilliantly devious monsters), Professor Pac-Man (a trivia game to cash in on the Trivial Pursuit craze), and Pac-Man Plus (which I once called, "the black sheep of the family") - all without permission, which resulted in Namco dissolving their relationship.

One final note from me. Ms. Pac-Man has been ported to nearly every computer and console system ever made, and I honestly don't think there has ever been a bad translation. Every home version, while different from the arcade in their own unique ways, had succeeded in capturing the magic. Even the Atari 2600 had a superb version, which only makes their trampling of the original Pac-Man even more square.

There's no other videogame I can say that about. Have I yet mentioned that this is my all-time favorite? Ms. Pac-Man is the finest American videogame ever created.