Friday, July 1, 2022

Game 323: Pac-Land

Buy Pac-Man Museum, which includes a slightly modified version of Pac-Land (sanitized of disputed IP's Ms. Pac-Man and Baby Pac-Man) here:


 

Pac-Land represents a missing link between Konami's Track and Field and Nintendo's seminal Super Mario Bros... maybe? The two games could hardly seem less alike, with little in common but the side-scrolling perspective that had been used hundreds of times before either of them, but it is widely understood that Track & Field directly influenced Pac-Land, even if the only sign is Namco's strange decision to borrow its arm-breaking button-mash controls in a precision-demanding platform game.

It is not difficult to imagine Pac-Land's influence on Super Mario Bros. either. Side-scrolling platforms had been done before, and were typically "runner" style games that emphasized jumping over and avoiding obstacles more than navigating platforms, like Moon Patrol, B.C.'s Quest for Tires, Jungle King, and arguably Smurf Rescue and Pitfall!. Pac-Land more or less fits into this category as well, but distinguishes itself from them in a number of ways that seem to anticipate things to come:

  • 32 levels split into eight "trips," each with four levels corresponding to a particular biome offering a sense of progression (e.g. city->forest->mountains)
  • Greater emphasis on precision platforming, in certain levels
  • Inertia-based physics, allowing Pac-Man to run at multiple speeds which also affect his traction and jump trajectories, and allow a degree of mid-air trajectory control
  • Ability-granting power-ups
  • Obscure secrets and mechanics, thankfully none of which are needed to progress but will help boost your score


All that aside, it's of an interesting note that in the interim years between the original Pac-Man and Pac-Land, the franchise had a regional split. Namco's own follow-ups, Super Pac-Man and Pac & Pal, were massively overshadowed in the U.S. by distributor Midway's Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus, and Jr. Pac-Man. Pac-Land, you could say, converges these branches, as it is once again in the hands of Namco, but takes its artistic direction from the U.S. properties, especially ABC's Saturday morning cartoon series.


Pac-Land, like Track & Field, has no joystick, instead requiring you to tap buttons in order to attain full speed, and although the physical demands are less intense than the former game, its marathon length makes it just as wearying. Pac-Man has three speeds - a walk, performed by pressing and holding the "run" button corresponding to the direction, a jog performed by double-tapping and holding it, and a full run when tapped repeatedly. Tapping the reverse direction button while moving will slow him down and eventually stop and reverse direction. Jumping height is determined by how fast you are running when you hit the jump button, and does not care how long it is held, but unlike many early arcade platformers, your speed (and therefore trajectory) can be adjusted midair with the movement buttons, and this is crucial for making tricky jumps in later rounds.

At first I played Pac-Land's U.S. version, and I played it quite a bit too, managing to complete the first four "trips" on a single set of lives, though I afforded myself pause breaks between stages. 

Then I learned that the original Japanese version has some gameplay differences along with aesthetic ones. Most crucially, the U.S. version appears to be about 20% faster!


 



I opted to replay using this version, which had some ups and downs. The lower speed meant less arm strain in maintaining Pac-Man's stride, fewer cheap deaths from running headlong into ghosts or traps coming off-screen with no time to react, enabled me to make riskier maneuvers through the gauntlets of obstacles and enemies, and, if I'm not mistaken, avoided the occasional deadly input drop. Overall, the Japanese version feels more balanced.

On the other hand, this leisurely pace de-intensifies the experience, and even the sped-up U.S. version already wasn't the most thrilling game on the market. The early levels became kind of boring to play, though this could just as well be attributed to my over-familiarity with them.

The U.S. version also features an exclusive level select option, but only for the first five "trips" out of eight. It's the latter four where Pac-Land gets really nasty, so the inability to start on one of them could be irrelevant or sorely missed depending on your approach.

And frankly, Midway's redesign of Pac-Man himself is better. Especially the hat choice.

 

My best attempt at a fair playthrough got me to trip 6, and I've recorded the video.

 

To play through the rest of the stages, I simply used an unlimited lives cheat. Save states under my usual rules proved boring, and I think the resulting death-filled video better illustrates Pac-Land's cheap nature than a quantum immortality playthrough.

 

Trip 1


Pac-Land begins innocuously enough, presenting nothing more challenging to jump over than harmless fire hydrants. Landing on the hydrants spawns point-scoring cherries. The ghost Sue will pursue you relentlessly, but so slowly as to be nonthreatening as long as you don't dawdle, giving a new player plenty of time to figure out Pac-Land's somewhat odd controls. Before long, the hydrants give way to deadly oncoming ghost traffic, but with their simple patterns and slow driving speed, they aren't much threat. Yet.

Most of the ghosts can be safely jumped on and even ridden, but not Sue.

Power pellets, as usual, turn the ghosts blue and vulnerable to being munched. One secret I discovered is that if you can corral five or more ghosts in the same spot before eating, Sue included, and then eat a string of them ending in Sue (who can be distinguished from the rest by not having a hat and some other properties), you'll score a hefty 3,200 point jackpot on her plus whatever you get for the rest of them, and you'll also spawn a pickup that refills your timer and gives you a further point bonus based on whatever you had left.

If you run out of time, you don't die instantly, but Sue will speed up and almost certainly kill you if you aren't very close to the exit.


Next you have airplane-flying ghosts who drop little ghosts on you. There is a way to unlock a helmet powerup that protects you from them, but the method is so obscure that I never bothered with it on the grounds that I'd have never figured it out on my own.

A church, not seen in the "World" version, marks the city outskirts.


Round 2 opens with a desert where you hop over cacti, and then contend with UFO-riding ghosts whose parabolic patterns offer slightly more challenge.


The forest comes next, and its canopy can obscure pogo-stick bouncing ghosts whose erratic bouncing patterns are trickier to avoid. Stumps also litter the path, are sometimes concealed by the foreground trees, and you'll need to time/aim your jumps over them so that you avoid the pogo ghosts.


Round 2 in the mountains has you cross moving bridges and later a collapsing bridge while ghosts fly overhead the whole time.


These springboards caused me a lot of grief early on, but the slower Japanese version is more forgiving. To get maximum air, which you'll need most of the time to clear the pools, you'll need to approach them at full speed, jump pretty close to the very edge, and, very importantly, never stop tapping the forward run button. Cherries mark the minimum safe trajectory, and going at the absolute maximum speed will overshoot them, but I'd rather overshoot and miss the cherries than risk undershooting and miss the pool.

A power pill on the other side, collected with good timing, yields five snacks and some big points.

At the end of every third round, a fairy queen gives you magic boots for the return trip.


The fourth round is an abbreviated version of the previous rounds, played in reverse, but now you can perform mid-air jumps, making the platforming a lot easier. Ghosts spawn more aggressively, and the long stage duration makes running out of time a credible risk, especially if you go out of your way to collect all the fruit.

How convenient, these cactii got taller!

Nearly there.

No place like home!


Trip 2

Even though it may look it at first, Pac-Land's "trips" are not merely repeating loops with a higher difficulty.

Round 5 has you leave the city again, and a palette change suggests something happening later in the day. The ghosts spawn much more aggressively than before, and there are some new tricks - namely fire hydrants that shoot water at you, and some of the ghosts now drive double-deckers.


Round 6 is mainly a series of springboards and pools, but there's a new theme right after.


This half-constructed bridge is full of precarious ledges, leaky fire hydrants, and splashing waves to knock you off them. Unfortunately, Pac-Land's controls are awkwardly suited for precision platforming. Far too often, I'd find myself on a narrow platform, try to back up a bit to give me more running space, only to drop right off the left side.


Make it to the end and you get the magic boots again for the return.

No need for springboards here!

Trip 3

Round 9 skips the city and begins in the desert, where after some ghost bombers and springboards, a nasty trap awaits newbies.


There's quicksand around the skull and I guarantee it will kill any player unaware. You've got to hit the ground running and on the right spot and keep mashing the run button to not get sucked under - and even that doesn't always work - and also pray you don't run headlong into a randomly-moving ghost on the other side.


Round 10 is a nighttime forest level. Nothing new here.


The mountains beyond have, after a series of collapsing bridges, moving cloud platforms. These threw me off at first but can be crossed without much difficulty if you take it slow and do most of your jumps from a standing position, using mid-air speed adjustment to cross the distances.

Pac-Man Flappy Birds his way back home in the return trip.

Trip 4

This begins in the city once again, and there's a notable difficulty spike.

By riding the fire hydrant spray, you can parkour the rooftops and avoid some of the ghost traffic below

...but not all of it

The next round is a whole new biome and theme!

 

This castle level has no enemies except for Sue, but instead challenges you to solve a maze of keys and locked doors, and your main threat is running out of time. This isn't too bad if you don't overly concern yourself with not wasting keys or missing fruit, but it's a long level and you don't have a lot of time to spare.

More precarious scaffolds await on the other side.

A chokepoint delays Pac-Man's return. Running out of time here is a real threat.

Trip 5

This is the halfway point of the game, and things start to get really difficult.

 
Oh come on!

A collapsing bridge is the hardest part of round 18.


The castle maze returns for round 19, but now the outer wall obscures your view, showing only Pac-Man's own cone of vision. Cool effect? Yes. Annoying as hell? Also yes.

Huh. Where are all the ghosts?

The return on round 20 is weirdly devoid of ghosts for most of it. But eventually, possibly after going out of your way to collect a few scattered apples, you realize something. This trip is so long that you can't avoid running out of time! Once this happens, you've got to beeline home at full speed before Sue gets you.


Trip 6

This was the furthest I could make it honestly in the Japanese version. I had to use save states to progress past round 23 here.

The city has its usual tricks and traps, just more of them.


Wait, is this Pitfall?

Death by airplane collision if I jump now, death by Sue if I wait for Clyde to pass.


I'm so dead.

Of course, caution can be deadly too.


The return trip is mercifully easy in comparison.


Trip 7

I had to use an unlimited lives cheat to reach and progress from these last two trips. And they pose an actually interesting challenge, but you're just not going to pass these without memorizing much of these levels. It makes me wish that Pac-Land offered the ability to continue, and not just to start on Trip 5 like the US version does.


The forest at night. As always, foreground trees can conceal stumps and spoil your attempts to duck under the pogo ghosts.

Now this is unfair. A springboard launches you into ghost-infested air...

...over two screen-widths worth of quicksand. Good luck, because skill won't save you.

Narrow platforms give little leeway for avoiding ghost planes.

I almost swear this jump isn't possible.

If obstructing topiary wasn't bad enough, now you've got darkness too.

But the return trip isn't too bad.

Trip 8


The final trip starts off cruelly. You must ride a ghost's plane to get across the lake, and if you miss the first time, not only do you forfeit a life, but it will be harder on subsequent tries. Your jumping height being tied to running speed doesn't make it any easier.


Eventually the way is dotted with cloud platforms, which wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that some of them are spaced too far apart to cross with a standing hop, and the controls for "slow down so you don't careen off the right edge" and "walk right off the left edge" are exactly the same.


One last castle maze, and this time the keys are rare. You really do need to worry about not wasting them, and may well still get stuck and run out of time.


The penultimate stage is a bridge level, and it's horrible, combining narrow ledges with nonstop water jets and the most aggressive ghost planes yet.


The final return is just one big flight over a lake, and it's not too bad as long as you aren't overly concerned with missing the fruit. Try to catch 'em all and you run a big risk of death and restarting the entire level, which has no checkpoints.

And that's all the levels. Beat this one and it loops back to trip 5.


At just over two weeks, this is possibly the longest amount time I've spent yet on an arcade game. This is partly because of my decision to replay the Japanese version (and I can't imagine the horror of trying to finish the later levels in the quicker US version), but owes much to its epic length.


GAB rating: Above average. Pac-Land, once you get a grasp on its often slippery controls, is a pleasant experience, at least for the first few trips before things get nasty, and it anticipated, if not outright pioneered, many elements of the sidescrolling platformer as we'd soon come to know it. Its 32 levels show impressive variety and little obvious repetition, and continuously delivers new gimmicks and even one-off set pieces right up until the end. But it never quite reaches the heights of excitement or inspiration needed to reach the ivory deck. The most interestingly designed levels are, sadly, also the most unfairly difficult ones, demanding memorization and a precise execution that its own controls just aren't equipped for. The US version, owing to its even less fair difficulty, gets knocked down to average.

The next game, concluding the summer of 1984, gets back to good old Infocom interactive fiction, which I figure will be a light snack compared to Pac-Land's extravagance.

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