NamCompendium 4: Pac-Man, Pt. 2

In the Galaxian entry to this ongoing odyssey of chronicling Namco, I mentioned that there would be some additional airtime given over to covering some more unsanctioned ports of the presently considered arcade hit Pac-Man. As it happens, there are three such ports of low birth that I would like to touch upon before we enter the maelstrom of the Famicom and NES versions of Pac-Man.

As best as I can tell (the date was good enough for our own Wiki), the first of these is Crazy Gobbler for the Emerson Arcadia 2001. It appears that Emerson HQ not only assigned Andrew Choi the task of creating Space Attack (illegitimate Galaxian, not to be confused with that Space Attack), but also with delivering their own Pac-Man clone. He not only managed this, but left another dedication in the game’s source code with makes attribution possible. Unlike Space Attack, he did not leave a date to help narrow the potential release window of the game; however, I am comfortable with a “best guess” of around the same time frame as Space Attack, or Q3 1982.

The Arcadia 2001 was not a particularly well suited console for false Galaxian, and Pac-Man also takes a beating here. The ghost count is reduced to three, two of whom have a tendency to travel on top of each other. The sound, while certainly strident, feels distinctly like a late 1970s arcade game. Nevertheless, the game moves at a reasonable pace and the mazes aren’t butchered. Fair cop to Mr. Choi, whose thankless work I am pleased to have highlighted and credited in the Giant Bomb Wiki.

We revisit the Bally Astrocade once more with Muncher. With this Pac-Man clone, we enter a true sort of hell. Muncher, aka Munchie (aka TEST PROGRAMME, aka DEMO) was a clone of Namco’s arcade hit developed by Esoterica and squashed directly by Atari in a court battle. The game was soft-released under a multitude of names in prototype form (Pacmen, No-Die, and even straight up Pac-Man) with various patches and tweaks, and sold/distributed as a newsletter exclusive in 1983 before (as best I can tell) entering some sort of retail launch phase. The game also made the rounds as Bally Astrocade enthusiasts began collecting ephemera around the system in the mid-1980s, as the system’s commercial life ended. Needless to say, I will be leaving a full timeline of this game’s sordid release history to another chronicler of old games with more time and/or sanity to spend than I myself have.

The most interesting thing to note about the Astrocade’s Pac-Man clone is that the system was released alongside the Atari 2600 in 1977, yet the Astrocade version avails itself so much better than the VCS. The most comparable port to the Astrocade version is likely the 5200 release, to give you an idea of what sort of wizardry was at work here. The maze is the correct aspect ratio, the ghosts are all present, the sound is respectable (though the opening jingle is rough), and the game moves at a clip that shames Atari’s first turd of a port.

Finally, a fun bonus before we get onto the actual purported content of this post: Pac-Man on the ColecoVision. AtariSoft, responsible for the development of Atari titles on non-Atari consoles, had put together a prototype Pac-Man no later than 1984. Though never released commercially, the prototype is available if you are interested in looking for such things. It shares many features with the 5200 release, including the perspective of the maze, but is overall a sharper looking port and the music is closer to the arcade original.

The first actual release of Pac-Man for the ColecoVision happened in 2008. Developed by Opcode Games, Pac-Man is included in the Pac-Man Collection homebrew cart. Also included in said are Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man Plus. It turns out hobbyist programmers working on decades old hardware are able to produce some remarkable work on the concerned platforms, and wouldn’t you know it, Pac-Man Collection includes the most accurate port of Pac-Man seen so far in this project. The developer managed to even include the arcade attract screens as well as the cutscenes! Minus the pitch of the music and Pac-Man’s iconic mastication sounds, this is about as good as it gets for console ports of Pac-Man.

And now, at long last, we have arrived at a moment I’ve been dreading since I set out on the good ship NamCompendium: the Famicom and NES ports of Pac-Man.

Fourteen months after the launch of Nintendo’s smash hit console in Japan, Namco waded out into the waters of internally developing ports of its arcade games for home releases. This began with Galaxian in September 1984, denoted with a “01” emblazoned on the cartridge label. Namco would keep up this system of serializing its own works (with a bump or two over time) through the summer of 1986. The second entry into this series, and Namco’s second game on the Famicom, was Pac-Man. So begins a nearly decade long story.

First, let’s consider the port itself. Included here is a reasonably full package: the arcade attract screens, intro jingles, sound effects, four ghosts with appropriate colors, and cutscenes are all present here. The major discrepancies are manifest in the music, owing to different sound hardware; color, owing to the strange non-RGB standard utilized by the Famicom and NES; and the maze’s slight compression on both axes, which lowers the overall dot count. Otherwise, we’ve an entirely serviceable port of what was then a four year old arcade game.

It is tough to get a sense of the critical reception of this port in Japan; Famitsu, at least as a sort of barometer for public perception of games at the time, only came to publication two years after Pac-Man’s release. Nor have I been able to conjure any meaningful sales information about Famicom Pac-Man, though a Wikipedia compilation of all games that hit at least a million sales across the Famicom and NES does not include the 1984 port. It seems somewhat strange, then, that Pac-Man would find itself in a sort of litigation no man’s land between Nintendo and Atari four years after its original publication. My only real explanation, I suppose, is that the game was still Pac-Man, and even eight years after its original release the brand alone had enough of a place in popular memory that it deserved to be made available to as wide an audience as possible.

Recall that Atari had secured from Namco the exclusive rights to publish home versions of their licensed properties. Recall, as well, that Namco had bought Atari’s Japanese division outright and secured the talents of Nakajima Hide, who was basically the sole reason the division had not gone up in flames. Nakajima became VP of Namco in 1978, and it was under his advice that the company opened North American offices in the first place. As Atari floundered after 1982, the company split into two halves: a hardware company (Atari Corporation, and a software company (Atari Games). Namco bought into the latter in 1985, along with Warner. By 1986, Namco President Nakamura Masaya’s professional relationship with Nakajima had chilled, primarily over viewing the investment in Atari as being more beneficial to a company he perceived to be rivals in the arcade industry. The breach was resolved when Nakamura sold Namco’s stake in Atari to Nakajima and Warner. Nakajima resigned from Namco, and became the head of Atari Games.

(Don’t worry, I also hate this. I hate it all.)

Add to this the relationship between Nintendo and Namco. Nakamura personally met with Nintendo President Yamauchi Hiroshi in 1984 and signed one of the first licensing deals for the Famicom. Barring Hudson Soft’s Family BASIC, Nuts & Milk, and Lode Runner, Galaxian was nearly the first non-Nintendo published game for the platform. The original deal provided Namco with permission to publish their titles for five years. Over that period, however, Nakamura became increasingly bristly over Nintendo’s licensing terms. Nintendo absorbed 60% of the sales generated by Namco (and indeed all) titles published on the Famicom, and around the world supply chain constraints impacted the production of titles, further cutting into profits for third parties. Nakamura attacked Nintendo in the Japanese press, and the company focused much of its energy on PC Engine and Sega Mega Drive games in the late 1980s. There was an attempt at litigation on behalf of Namco, claiming that Nintendo’s licensing terms and position in the video game industry amounted to a monopoly, but the suit was eventually withdrawn and Namco eventually did agree to Nintendo’s licensing terms once more.

Across the Pacific Ocean, Nintendo’s market position was also being challenged by an entrenched, recognizable video game company. The aforementioned supply constraints (remember how Zelda II was delayed because of chip shortages?) and stringent licensing terms proved too much to bear for Atari Games, which founded a subsidiary called Tengen in 1987. Tengen secured rights to publish titles on the NES, and was ready to come to market in October 1988. Meanwhile, the company basically duped the United States Copyright Office into handing them schematic information about Nintendo’s hardware-based lockout program. In October 1988, Tengen released three official, honest to goodness, Seal of Quality included titles: RBI Baseball (itself a reworking of Namco’s Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium, scion of a series that will be oh so fun to cover), Gauntlet, and Pac-Man. By the end of the year, the same three games received a second release. So began Tengen’s career in releasing those off-brand black cartridges with reversed labels.

Nintendo and Atari entered into a court battle that lasted for the rest of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s natural life. Atari Games Corp. and Tengen, Inc., v. Nintendo of America Inc. and Nintendo Co., Ltd. was a legal saga which, among other things, upheld the legal right for individuals to reverse engineer hardware under fair use laws. It also found that Atari had in fact defrauded the United States government in acquiring the information needed to perform said reverse engineering, which allowed them to produce the aforementioned unlicensed cartridges in the first place. Nintendo’s threats to blacklist retailers who distributed these unsanctioned titles were slammed by a court injunction on their sales that was upheld in September 1992. This, after Atari had truly gone for the jugular by claiming that Nintendo had violated the Sherman Act and were guilty of unfair competition. It is probably the most significant trial in the history of video games prior to our dear friend Jack Thompson’s career.

(Fun fact: If you search for Jack Thompson to link him in our Wiki, he is described as a person linked to no games)

In the intervening years, Namco had elected to dispense with using Atari as an intermediary to publishing their properties in North America. Namco Hometek was founded in 1990. Hometek published a number of titles for the Genesis, PC Engine, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Game Gear by holiday 1993. It was that November, for reasons unclear to me, that Namco Hometek once again published a Nintendo-approved Pac-Man for the NES. It is this publication, with 1993 as the copyright year, that found its way onto the NES Classic Edition in 2016.

So, to recap: at the end of 1993, a North American branch of Namco published a port of Pac-Man that had otherwise been illegally sold by a company headed by their own former vice president, but only just after it had been legally distributed with Nintendo’s approval, but then only after four years from its original publication for virtually the same hardware. This is it. This is truly the most stupid thing we’ll see in the NamCompendium for a great deal of time. A nine year old port of a thirteen year old game was sold in the last nine months of the original Nintendo’s life. God help us.

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Every version of Pac-Man released for the FC/NES hardware

What really makes this even crazier is that Namco was still happily selling Pac-Man on another Nintendo platform: Pac-Man appeared as part of an inexplicable set of six early titles released for the Famicom Disk System in 1990. It then showed up that November on the Game Boy, and this port was released in February and October 1991 in North American and Europe respectively. This version, while certainly compromised to fit its hardware, manages to have some decent sound for a Game Boy title. Otherwise I found the controls to a bit mushy, and robbing the game of color does remove some of the joy. The maze is also as bare bones as can be, and the default color palette on the Game Boy Advance does it no favors at all.

Worst of all, this is the first version that features particular bugbear of mine: a second mode of play that zooms in the field of view around Pac-Man. While this does provide for a nicer looking game that more closely matches the look of the arcade title, it also only provides vision for maybe forty percent of the maze at a given time. This is a brutal constraint on gameplay at higher levels, when being able to read the maze is crucial for planning routes and evading ghosts.

There was another handheld release around this time. In 1991, Pac-Man became Namco’s first entry into the Sega Game Gear’s catalog (a list that is longer than you may suspect). This version may read as simply the Game Boy port plus color, and that’s because there isn’t much more to it than that. You also have the grizzly experience of using the Game Gear’s directional pad to enhance the experience.

You would think that was the end of these full-on ports, but this is not the case. An astonishing nineteen years after debuting in Japanese arcades, Pac-Man received yet another port. Pac-Man is the only Namco game to appear on SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color, first released in the United States in July 1999. This port includes the same two view field options of the Game Boy and Game Gear ports, and has the distinct advantage of being playable with the NGPC’s awesome digital joystick. It does suffer, however, from markedly worse sound than the prior two handheld ports; the sound of Pac-Man eating the regular pellets is particularly grating, which is probably the one sound you’d hope they got right as you’ll be hearing it a lot.

The final port of Pac-Man (by which, for the record, I take to mean the conversion of the original program into a form that is able to run on hardware that is heterogeneous to its original hardware) came a month later, in August 1999. Pac-Man: Special Color Edition is essentially a Game Boy Color repackaging of the Game Boy release of Pac-Man, colorized, and bundled with a port of Pac-Attack (to be covered in 2057, stay tuned).

Before we delve into the history of just selling dumps of the damn arcade board for all eternity, we have one final release to discuss. The Famicom/NES release of Pac-Man, which is a different game than the arcade release, was itself ported and converted to run on the Game Boy Advance. This entry into the Famicom Mini Series of games first saw release in February 2004. Like all of these GBA ports of Famicom games, the visuals are compressed vertically in a manner that leads to some weird shit. Zelda II had link overlapping the floor tiles, Xevious had oval and rectangle shaped enemies, and in this title Pac-Man is overlapping at least part of the maze one hundred percent of the time. It isn’t great, and honestly at time of righting you are better off running the Famicom ROM on your smart phone if you must play this particular version of Pac-Man. (Note: footage of Pac-Man starts at the 1:30 mark below, but the video linked provides a nice overview of this series of releases)

With that, we now enter the final phase of this treatment: Namco’s twenty-three year history of selling the arcade version of Pac-Man. Unlike other entries in the company’s back catalog, Pac-Man has been a constant feature in iterations of the Namco Museum series. Rather than provide a blow-by-blow for each of these releases, I shall provide myself the mercy of simply listing them for your amusement by order of release date.

In addition to these compilation appearances, Pac-Man also saw discrete releases on Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360 (2006/8/9), the Xbox One (2016/4/19), and the PlayStation 4 (2016/4/20). It is also available in a bundled form on the XBO and PS4 digital store fronts, alongside Dig Dug and Galaga.

But wait, there’s more! Thanks to various modes of backwards compatibility, you can play Pac-Man in all sorts of nonsense configurations! For instance, did you know that if you have a Nintendo DS or DS Lite, you have four possible forms by which to play Pac-Man? Namco Museum, Pac-Man Collection, Namco Museum 50th Anniversary (all GBA titles), and Namco Museum DS can hook you up.

Pac-Man is also playable in two forms on the PSP: Namco Museum Volume 1 (PSX, via PSN), and Namco Museum Battle Collection.

Pac-Man is playable in two forms on the Wii as well: Namco Museum Megamix, and the NES port via the Virtual Console service.

Pac-Man is playable on the PlayStation Vita via Namco Museum Volume 1 on PSN.

You can play three entirely different versions of Pac-Man on the 3DS: the arcade version via Namco Museum DS (backwards compatible), and complied in Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions; the Famicom/NES port, available on Virtual Console; and the Game Boy port, also available through Virtual Console.

If you think that’s nonsense, check out the Wii U. Namco never released the arcade version of Pac-Man to the Wii U natively, but fear not! You can pop in a copy of Namco Museum Megamix for the Wii and get your hookup. Don’t want to fiddle with discs? No problem! Play the NES verison, available on Virtual Console. Not a fan of 1980s hardware? Not to worry your little head, as Pac-Man is also available in two separate compilations (Namco Museum and Pac-Man Collection) via the selection of Game Boy Advance titles on the Wii U Virtual Console. Now that’s some nonsense.

I wish I could come up with something eloquent to say about Pac-Man. I cannot. Not now. I do not want to think about Pac-Man anymore for a good long while after attempting to chronicle its long journey from Iwatami Toru’s pizza date to being available digitally on every game platform available today. Pac-Man is eternal, and shall outlive me. I hope you have enjoyed this foray into studying its history, because the next stretch of NamCompendium shall be covering decidedly less earth shattering games. The next two entries have had fewer releases in total than Pac-Man had releases on the Game Boy Advance. Sounds nice, actually. See you all then.

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