Friday, June 22, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Super Pac-Man

In last month's video game feature, I mentioned that Mario was "the most famous videogame character of all time," and I stand by that assertion. However, in 1982, this was not yet the case. Mario didn't really hit it big until the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System (in 1985) started promoting his character with every console sold. In 1982, Pac-Man was still the videogame character du jour. In 1982, Pac-Man not only started to hit the home console market, but had his own Saturday Morning cartoon show (Mario may have been a part of Saturday Supercade, but he wasn't even the featured star of the segment he appeared in), had a top-ten Billboard single, and Super Pac-Man — the third game of the Pac-Man arcade franchise — was released (we'll deal with #4, which also came out in 1982, in a couple of months).

At first glance, Super Pac-Man looks like a simplified version of Pac-Man. The maze isn't as complex, and there aren't as many items to have to eat, while the standard four energizers remain on the corners of the board (these are invisible in the image above because, as with the original game, they flash on and off, and that particular shot was simply taken during an "off" instant). As before, eating one of those energizers will turn the ghosts blue and vulnerable to being eaten by Pac-Man. Fruit remains a part of the game, although with an increased role, actually taking the place of the standard dots that populated the original Pac-Man board (but still changing after every board). But there are a few additional twists that make that apparent simplicity become more complicated quite quickly. The first of these are the keys scattered across the board, which must be eaten to open up various parts of the maze before Pac-Man can enter them.

The main change, however, comes from those two yellow dots near the center of the screen. You may have guessed from the preceding screenshots that these dots change size, growing and shrinking rapidly back-and-forth. When Pac-Man eats one of these dots, he becomes "Super Pac-Man" and grows to twice his normal height and width (too large, in fact, to actually fit within the maze properly, although the Super Pac-Man character seems not to be bothered by this). Super Pac-Man cannot be killed by the ghosts (who appear in a squashed form while Super Pac-Man exists) and he moves right past them as if they're not even there (I suppose that the idea is that you're flying over them). Also, Super Pac-Man is able to eat right through the doors that would otherwise require a key to open them, and is capable of extra speed at the touch of a button. Like the standard energizer, this mode is only a temporary one, and the end of the time is signified as Super Pac-Man flashes between white and yellow a few times before resuming his normal Pac-Man size. Super dots and energizers can be combined, not only granting you both powers at once, but also prolonging the time before you revert to normal.

Like the original Pac-Man game, there is a bonus that appears in the center of the screen. In this case, however, it is a star that must be eaten while the two blocks on either side of it flash between several other icons. If you're very lucky, when you eat the star, the icons on either side will match, thereby increasing your bonus (if you really want to see unmatched icons, you can click this link).

Another new feature of Super Pac-Man is a timed bonus stage. No ghosts, and you get to be Super Pac-Man for as long as the time lasts. But even with the extra Super Pac-Man speed, it is a challenge to get all of the items (donuts, in this case) cleared away before the time runs out. If you do, of course you will get points corresponding to how much time remains.

Super Pac-Man contains an oddity that, I think, is unique among Pac-Man games in the fact that you can actually enter the ghost haven in the center of the board. I usually only do this as Super Pac-Man (it's safer, after all), but you can actually enter as normal, vulnerable Pac-Man... if you dare!

Sadly, this game is considered among the least successful of the Pac-Man franchise of the 1980s. A couple of the reasons aren't too hard to guess. While the extra speed feature in "Super" mode is nice to have, it can result in making it hard to control the character through the maze, and the oversized icon messes with your hand-eye coordination as you try to maneuver through those bends and turns, making things doubly difficult. Suffice it to say, Super Pac-Man didn't do so badly that Namco stopped making Pac-Man games. But I'll get to the next game in the series in due time....


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