My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!

Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!

Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!

Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!

Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!

The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!

And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!

Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!

Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!

And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!

In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!

As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.

The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!

Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.

I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!

Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!

My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!

Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!

Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!

And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time) and probably in my top five on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

In this post I think we’re going all the way back to the June 1991. It’s my brother Phil’s 17th birthday and he’s just unwrapped an Atari Lynx. I’m back from my first year of university, having spent what seemed like weeks in a sweltering sports hall doing exams in mechanics and other awful engineering things. In a few months I’d be off to France for my second year – a decision that confounds me to this day – but in the meantime a huge summer break beckoned, reunited with my school friends, exploring Southern Comfort, being either on or off (I’ve lost track which at that point in time) with the flame-haired Irish girl my former best friend and I had both fallen for on the same night the previous year, and collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s… Which funded, alongside the aforementioned exotic things, seeing Guns ‘n Roses at Wembley, complete with an expletive-tastic Skid Row and the UK premier of Nine Inch Nails. 

That summer had its moments, one way or another (mostly another, the closer I got to leaving for France), and this was very much reflected in my experience with Phil’s Lynx. On one hand, he’s only got the Gameboy killer! I’d not even had it a year, and here’s this all singing and dancing powerhouse with its huge screen running arcade quality graphics. On the other, it came with California Games!

Several years earlier, I’d spent dozens of hours playing Winter Games on my friend Steven’s Commodore 128 and on our Spectrum +2. Not only was this a successor, but it came with all the glamour of The Beach Boys, CHiPs and the hottie in a bikini on roller skates on the cover!

Speaking of which, despite the Lynx being a powerhouse, there was a bit of compromise. Only four of the six events appeared here, sacrificing frisbee and said skater hottie rolling provocatively down a path next to a road. I don’t think we were missing out on too much, and if I remember right she appeared on the scoreboard screen so you could still get your kicks there!

But what you did get was BMX, half-pipe, footbag and the big one, surfing! Actually, they could have compromised on all the events as long as surfing was there. The waves felt like waves, and the controls responded perfectly to them. It looked the part as well – the blue sky, the realistic spray as the wave closed in, and the blond surfer dude just out there having fun in the warm California sun. 

BMX felt very similar, with flipping off the top of waves replaced by flipping and jumping and spinning your way around a great-looking BMX track. Half-pipe, situated right in front of the Hollywood sign, wasn’t quite as responsive, but you eventually got the hang of it and then it could really feel good – big air and big turns could rack up serious points once you puzzled out how to get a bit of speed up. Footbag was a less extreme affair, but you could still get a lot of satisfaction out of putting together a long and varied combo with some carefully timed nudges to the joypad. 

Very recently I played the Atari 2600 version of this, on the portable I got last Christmas (2016). That is a remarkable achievement, with easily the best graphics on the system, and its own version of Louie Louie! It’s very playable, can handle up to eight players, and the footbag feels great. Definitely worth seeking out to see Atari’s original powerhouse in all its glory!

California Games stayed close to my heart for far longer than the Lynx could ever hope to; in fact, Blue Lightning is the only other game I remember playing on it! But even California Games, as much as I love playing it on various systems to this day, can’t hold a flame to my Gameboy. Also known as Lynx killer!

See you next time, but let’s finish with a reminder of America’s greatest cultural export…