Ms. Pac-Man (Arcade)

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Ms. Pac-Man (Arcade)

Postby m0zart1 » October 6th, 2006, 11:43 pm

Ms. Pac-Man Madness!
Back in the day, when the out-of-nowhere hit of the arcades, known simply as "Pac-Man", dominated every mall, restaurant, and shopping center, there was a lot of anticipation for what was going to come next. The gaming industry was too new for the concept of sequels, but a sequel WAS expected. What wasn't expected was that the sequel would be such an improvement on the original game. Yet that is precisely what happened when "Ms. Pac-Man" was released by Midway in 1981, only a year after the release of the original. My first reaction to seeing the game at a local bowling alley was complete surprise, but it didn't take long for it to turn into giddy amazement.

Right off the bat, "Ms. Pac-Man" makes some immediate cosmetic changes to the look-and-feel of its predescessor. Ms. Pac-Man herself is an exact replica of Pac-Man from the previous game, only with lipstick, eye shadow, a bow on her head, and a mole on her cheek. It's almost off-putting to see a Pac-Man character with features, though certainly in a nice way. The sound effects and music have also been completely redone, given a much more feminine touch. The new opening theme is much more melodic and less computo-techno-ish like the last game. The same could be said for the tunes for the three cut-scenes in the game as well. The death blow is now a tumble instead of a turning inside out, and is accompanied by a rolling sound effect. The three cut-scenes in Pac-Man were meant to be comical interludes, but this game reserves them to tell a short story about the relationship between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, the first being about their meeting, the second about their courtship, and the third about their first child. This touch is clearly more on the romantic side, but does have some comic moments, especially in the first two scenes. Because this was the formula of the first game, it really seems to complement that game greatly.

These cosmetic changes are significant, but they don't alone make a great sequel. This game strikes an amazing balance by keeping all the good things about the original game, but improving on them significantly. First, we should deal with what hasn't changed. The gameplay formula of a maze full of pellets to be consumed while avoiding four pursuing monsters remains the same, along with the presence of four power pellets allowing the player character to consume those monsters for a period of time, at 200, 400, 800, and 1600 points for each monster consumed. Pellets are still 10 points each, power pellets are 50 points, and fruit still ranges between 100 and 5000 points. The game starts with the usual three lives, and a fourth one is earned at 10000, 15000, or 20000 points, depending on the settings. And just like the first one, the default setting has Mrs. Pac-Man going slow, with switch settings available to speed her up significantly, making for much better gameplay overall.

Now to what HAS changed, as what really pushed "Ms. Pac-Man" to the head of the "Pac" was the winning improvement made to the winning formula. The original monsters, "Blinky", "Pinky", "Inky", and "Sue" ("Clyde" renamed from the previous game), are all here and run on the same basic strategy algorithms they did before, except that an element of randomness has been introduced. Though it was no easy task, the original game could be mapped to a few patterns that would always avoid the monsters and allow the game to run ad infinitum (at least until it crashed), but not so in Mrs. Pac-Man, as the monsters are now not as deterministic, and change patterns when necessary. This makes for a slightly more unpredictable experience, and makes the game less crackable.

Of course, as improvements go, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Another major change is that instead of one continually repeating maze, there are four unique mazes presented in the game. The maze switches to one of the other four each time one of the cut-scenes is played, giving the game a real sense of change, but also presenting a whole new challenge and less monotony. Each maze also presents a different color scheme, not only for the maze walls, but for the pellets and super pellets. The most startling of these is the third maze, which features dark red pellets, but other colors are blue, yellow, and the original white. In the original game, the bonus items appeared in the middle for a time before it disappeared. Additionally, three of the four mazes have two escape tunnels on each side, instead of one as in the original game.

Even the treatment of the bonus "fruit" has received an interesting face-lift. In the original game, fruit appeared twice per maze in the middle of the board for a time, and then disappeared. This game turns it from a race against time into a full-fledged chase. Twice on each board, fruit will come out of one of the escape tunnels. It will hop along a path through the maze to the other side, and disappear through another escape tunnel. Mrs. Pac-Man has to literally chase that fruit and catch it to gain the bonus points associated with that fruit. Eventually it gets even more challenging, as after all four mazes and cut-scenes have been exhausted, the fruit starts to take on ghostly properties, coming out of one wall, and hopping along through the walls of the maze, becoming much harder for the player to catch and consume before it disappears behind one of the border walls of the maze and into oblivion. Overall, this alteration is a terrific improvement, and one of my favorite aspects of the game.

That "Pac-Man" and "Ms. Pac-Man" can be so different, yet so much the same has to do with the origins of the latter game, an origin I only recently found out about, and that I would guess most people who loved the game still don't know. You might say that "Ms. Pac-Man" was made from one of Pac-Man's ribs, as the game started as a bootlegged hack of the original game. Developers at a company called General Computer Corporation took the original "Pac-Man" game program and hacked into it the new features we have come to love. Titled "Crazy Otto", Midway (which was Namco's American distributor) bought the rights to the game and reworked it into a sequel to "Pac-Man", while retaining the new features. Namco, the owner and creator of the original game, was developing its own sequel to "Pac-Man" which was of a much more altered formula (and which would eventually be released as "Super Pac-Man"). Eventually, legal battles ensued, first between Midway and General Computer Corporation, and later between Midway and Namco, until both Midway and General Computer Corporation ended up giving up rights to "Mrs. Pac-Man" to Namco. I hate the theft of intellectual property, but I am ultimately glad it worked out this way. I love "Super Pac-Man", and it's generally my third favorite in the series, but a "Pac-Man" series without "Mrs. Pac-Man" seems almost unthinkable today, and I am comforted by the fact that Namco is the one which ultimately profited from this game.

While it's my solid opinion that "Pac-Man" deserves its title as the most successful coin-operated game ever made, "Ms. Pac-Man" is certainly Pac-Man's better-half. It was the game that perfected the already near-perfect formula. In fact, this game was such an improvement on the original, that it almost completely replaced it as the game of choice for those same businesses that were almost living off of the income from their Pac-Man boxes for years. Ultimately it didn't replace it; rather, over the years the two have been melded together, until it's as common to see one in a mall, theater, restaurant, or arcade, as it is to see another. While later entries in the series are mostly forgotten except by a few, these two games virtually define it with an unending popularity. When someone mentions "Pac-Man", "Ms. Pac-Man" invariably comes to mind as well, and vice-versa. Thankfully for us, the feud "Ms. Pac-Man" started between Namco and Midway couldn't tear these lovers apart, and the prideful battles being long over allow this union to be enjoyable for us (and profitable for Namco) to this day.

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