Pac-Man 99 to Sunset

Because we not only can’t have nice things, but even the nice things we used to have must be taken from us, Polygon reports that Pac-Man 99, Bandai-Namco’s brilliant battle royale take on the classic arcade game, is shutting down online play October 8th, and the paid DLC and modes will stop being sold even earlier than that.

Pac-Man 99 is part of a trilogy of games with similar concepts on the Switch. Of its siblings, Tetris 99 continues to be playable and its online DLC still available, and Super Mario Bros. 35, Nintendo’s free SMB-based version of the concept, shut down years ago now.

All these games are great, and SMB35’s loss is still keenly felt. I particularly rue it because I was freakishly good at it; I have a screenshot somewhere of the records screen showing a streak of 11 1st place wins.

Pac-Man 99 is really good, and its online mode is free to people with a Switch Online subscription, so please enjoy it while you can.

Dall-E Sucks At Drawing Most Classic Video Game Characters

I had originally scheduled a post on this for a couple of weeks ago, but WordPress gained what I will euphemistically call a personality at that time, and the post developed a “critical error” whenever I tried to edit or view it. I kept pushing it back in the hopes of being able to figure out what was the trouble, but the trouble refused to be be figured out. So eventually I just remade the post.

Whether it’s intentional or not, if you ask Dall-E to depict a number of classic video game characters or elements, it’ll show itself to be surprisingly clueless. Here’s what I got from it:

Pac-Pac

From 2016 comes Pac-Pac, a Pac-Man style arcade game for an unusual platform: the Commodore Plus/4!

The Commodore 64 was famously intended to be a family computer that could also play games. The Plus/4 was intended as more of a business machine, without hardware sprites or the 64’s capable sound chip. It still had 64K of RAM though, and some productivity software included built-into the system in ROM. It could also output more colors than the C64, was clocked at a higher speed, and had a simpler design with fewer chips.

Still though, the lack of hardware sprites was a big limiter for games, which remained a driving factor for microcomputer adoption. Having no sprites, in Pac-Pac, the player’s surrogate character and the ghosts are both drawn on-screen in software, which consumes a lot of processor time. The game still runs at a decent rate though, and is fairly fun to play.

It’s best not to play Pac-Pac like Pac-Man. Despite a superficial resemblance it’s much the different game. The ghosts don’t have different personalities, and don’t coast confidently through the maze, but jitter about uncertainly, and randomly. This makes them generally easier to avoid, but it also means they’re prone to camping in the vicinity of uneaten dots. You’ll find you’ll have to lure them away from the last dots in the maze to get to them safely. You’re more likely to lose a Pac from daring their presence a little too closely.

Unlike Pac-Man there are no energizers, so there’s no way to attack the monsters yourself. On later boards the ghosts slowly get more aggressive, and they move faster. There’s also a timer to force you to go after dots. Eating randomly-appearing fruit replenishes the timer by a bit. There are also Question Mark items that appear in the maze, that can produce good or bad effects. They’re usually good though. The only ways to earn extra lives are by earning 5,000 hard-won points or, occasionally, from a Question Mark.

To play it you’ll probably need an emulator, such as the one from WinVICE. RetroArch can play it with its xplus4 core, which comes from the VICE project.

I am informed that the author of Pac-Pac, Skoro, passed away earlier this year. He made a plethora of work for the Plus/4, as shown by his page on Commodore Plus/4 World, from 2019 to all the way back in 1988. 31 years is a good long while, and I hope that the fruits of his labor will be enjoyed for decades to come.

Pac-Pac, from Commodore Plus/4 World

Kenta Cho’s Paku Paku

Kenta Cho, also known as ABAgames on Twitter and the web, has been at this for a good long while now. He has an amazing way of distilling the essence of gameplay down to its absolute barest essentials. He’s especially known for bullet hell, but my favorite games from him are his many many gameplay experiments. This is one of them: Pac-Man boiled down to its very essence, with the whole maze being a single corridor. It’s Paku Paku:

The single control, any keypress, reverse the direction of travel of Pac-Man’s green cousin up there. The single ghost chases Paku single-mindedly, slowly getting faster. Paku can wrap around the screen at the edge, which causes Blinky to chase them directly. (They’re not that bright.) Eating the large blinking dot that I insist on calling an Energizer makes the ghost vulnerable for a few short seconds. If the ghost is eaten, they regenerate if their eyes made it off the screen. Clearing the whole board of dots instantly produces a new set.

You only get one life, but new games start rapidly. The nearly five minute video above contains dozens of plays. No one gets you over losing and into a new attempt like Kenta Cho does.

Think you can do better? You might! Give it a try!

Paku Paku (Github, browser-playable link)

Sundry Sunday: PAC-TOM

suckerpinch, a.k.a. Tom7, is a regular presenter at SIGBOVIK and no stranger to the intelligent-but-fun video presentation field. This isn’t the first time we’ve posted his work here, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Previously he’s run automated tournaments of extremely stupid chess-playing algorithms, wrote programs to try to learn to play NES games by watching memory, and tried to generalize the idea of uppercase and lowercase letters in order to make hypothetical letters that are more uppercase and more lowercase. Among other things.

This time he tells us of the culmination of a sixteen year project to walk down every street in Pittsburgh. Come for that, stay for the moving Pac-Man costume he makes for himself at the end!

How I Ran the Length of Every Street in Pittsburgh: PAC TOM (Youtube, 32 minutes)

Random Pac

Pac-Man is rightly heralded as a classic, not just the best-selling arcade game of all time at over 100,000 units (even more when you consider every Ms. Pac-Man arcade machine has the elements of a Pac-Man machine inside it), but it’s solidly well-designed. All of its elements come together to produce a solid test of skill and strategy.

It’s not perfect though. The game possesses two major flaws that, in retrospect, made it a little less interesting to play now. The ghosts behave deterministically when they’re not vulnerable, meaning that patterns work against them and turning the game into a test of memorization and execution. And, every level’s maze is the same, which gets kind of monotonous. Tellingly, while Pac-Man was extremely popular for its time, its GCC-made follow-up Ms. Pac-Man had a much longer life in arcades, and it addressed both of these issues with the first game: ghost movement at the beginning of boards is randomized, and it had four mazes, instead of the original’s one.

Random Pac is a fan game, available on itch.io and made by Luca Carminati, that also solves the issues, and a bit more simply: it randomizes the maze for each level. This one change makes the game immune to memorization, and makes each level a kind of situational puzzle, as the player must use the maze layout as best they can to avoid being caught.

It’s not the only change made, but the others are, for the most part, in line with that one. Since the game is much less likely to extend endlessly, extra lives are awarded multiple times, first at 10K then every 50K points, instead of the once, by default, of the original. There are bonus levels in place of the intermissions that can be worth a considerable number of points.

The fruit bonus items that showed up twice during each level of the original game may now appear up to four times per level, which can be worth the majority of the player’s score if they can get up to the 5,000-point Key boards. Getting all four Keys is 20,000 points, which is two-fifths the way to an extra life by itself.

The game increases in difficulty a bit more slowly than classic Pac-Man. I’ve been to the 7th Key level; in the original, on the the 5th Key board, and from the 7th Key on, ghosts no longer become vulnerable when eating an Energizer (a.k.a., a power pill). Vulnerable times kept decreasing in my 7th Key game, but hadn’t cut out completely yet.

Another difference, and I’ll be going into some deep Pac-Man internals here. In classic Pac-Man, ghosts have three states, Scatter, Chase and Vulnerable. If Pac-Man doesn’t eat an Energizer, ghosts periodically enter Scatter state for a few seconds, then change back to Chase. You can tell when ghosts change between these states because they all reverse direction.

In most boards there are two Scatter periods, and the timers, both for entering Chase and Scatter, freeze while an Energizer is active on any ghost. In Random Pac, the timers don’t freeze; Chase and Scatter periods continue even when the ghosts are vulnerable. This makes Energizer timing very useful for decreasing the amount of danger you face: a short way into a Chase period, eat an Energizer and disrupt their pursuit! By the time they catch back up to you after it wears off they may be time for them to Scatter!

In place of intermissions there’s a bonus round that asks you to eat as many randomly moving targets as you can in 35 seconds

Ghost AI seems to be mostly the same, although unlike classic Pac-Man, each ghost doesn’t seem to have a set “home” location. They don’t intend to chase Pac-Man during Scatter, but instead fixate elsewhere on the board. The Orange Ghost’s Chase AI also makes use of its home location, making its behavior much less predictable, although it’s still easily the least threatening ghost.

Random Pac was Luca Carminati‘s first classic game remake. Since then, they’ve made many others, including Tutankham Returns, which we’ve linked to before. They’re terrific!

Random Pac (itch.io, $0)

K.C. Munchkin for Commodore 64

The always great Indie Retro News mentions, from Pretzel Logic, a Commodore port of one of the best Odyssey 2 games, K.C. Munchkin (itch.io, $0)!

Why is this interesting? The machinations of the old old days of video games are so easily forgotten now. K.C. Munchkin was a big seller for the underdog in the second-generation video game sweepstakes, but was taken off the market by court order way back then for being too similar to Pac-Man. Although Magnavox managed to come back a bit with sequel K.C.’s Krazy Chase, they remained a distant third in the market.

The C64 version has multiple modes, including a random maze mode and editor like the original, also has an arcade mode with 96 mazes!

News 8/12/2022: Re-Volt, Pac-Movie, MOS7600

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Graham Smith at Rock Paper Shotgun tells about the return of Re-Volt, an RC Car racing game from the Dreamcast age that many regarded as fairly lackluster, but has nonetheless gathered a strong fanbase. It’s for sale again on Steam and GOG. While the game itself isn’t terrific as it is, fan-made mods that improve it require ownership of the original to function.

At GamesRadar (warning: will harass you to subscribe to their newsletter), Dustin Bailey (which may be a fun pseudonym) lets us know that the Coconut Mall reprise track from the DLC of Mario Kart 8 has been “improved,” in that the cars in the parking lot at the end of it now drive around getting in your way like they did back in the Wii version, and in fact are now even more annoying, doing pointless doughnuts in the lot just to piss you off. And yet, the drivers are Shy Guys, not the system Miis that drove the cars in the original, which in my bulbous eyes is still a downgrade.

Jesse Belinsky at The Verge contributes a personal essay about how the Animal Crossing series helped them explore their gender. They especially note how the pandemic gave them the push they needed, an event which will be remembered for years to come as a pivotal moment in time, I think at least.

Coming soon, just in time for… 2023?! They might have missed this property’s best-by date.

In sillier news, at the Hollywood Reporter, Mia Galuppo tells us that Bandai Namco is trying to get a Pac-Man movie made. Pac-Man’s relationship with media has been a strange journey. In Japan it originally didn’t do especially well, but in the U.S. it quickly set arcade cabinet sales records, partly due to the stewardship and marketing acumen of U.S. licensee Bally-Midway. They commissioned several sequels that were unauthorized by original creator Namco, most of which have been stricken from the records, except, for a time, Ms. Pac-Man, created by GCC as a hack of the original game that would go on to eventually surpass it in lifetime sales. Namco would in turn adapt several aspects of the Pac-Man expanded universe for their own use, notably Ms. Pac and aspects of the first Pac-Man TV show, a pretty dumb cartoon made by Hanna-Barbera back in the period where they’d adapt anything for a buck. Namco made Pac-Land, an important early scrolling platformer, using the characters, music, and art style from that cartoon. In recent years rights issues have caused Bandai-Namco to reject Ms. Pac-Man too, creating a rights-unencumbered replacement character called “Pac-Mom,” which presumably will feature in this movie. All of this is just to demonstrate to you how incredibly twisted and fraught Pac-media has become, and I haven’t even gotten into the second TV show, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, which I’d rather not discuss. I will note, however, that because of Pac-Man’s inclusion as a character in Smash Bros. 4 and Ultimate, the first Pac-Man cartoon show in some small way lives on in Smash Bros’ Pac-Land stage.

Hamish Hector at TechRadar (that’s a different site from GamesRadar, right?) writes that there’s never been a worse time to buy an Oculus Quest 2. Considering that dumps more money into the hated trough of Zuckerberg, I can’t think that there’s ever been a good time.

Image, from Old Vintage Computing, of the box from one of the MOS 7600/1 systems

Jenny List at Hack-A-Day points to a long and interesting post by Cameron Kaiser on good ol’ Blogger blog Old Vintage Computing about MOS Technology’s early entries into the Pong system-on-a-chip market, the MOS 7600 and 7601, which were programmable, meaning, they could run code, and systems that used them. It makes for fascinating reading to my gelatinous brain.

And at PC Gamer, Christopher Livingston relates how the developers of survival MMO Last Oasis decided their genre “sucks,” and reworked it to be PvE instead of PvP.

News 7/18/22: Fall Pac-Dwarf Unity

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Jordan Middler at VGC noted of instances last week where Fall Guys players who had intended only to preview items were instead made to purchase them, and no refunds were offered. Since it became a big affair on social media developer Mediatonic reversed course and promised to refund the purchases, and that their customer support was lacking in this case. But it kind of makes you wonder about the errors that don’t make it big on social media, doesn’t it?

Unity has been in the news a lot lately! They merged with ironSource, a company that once made a malware installer (Jody MacGregor at PCGamer), and their CEO John Ricitiello criticized mobile game devs who had the temerity to not focus on monetization when they made games, calling them (focuses on page) “fucking idiots.” (Ian Walker, Kotaku) That second article, it’s beautiful and infuriating. Since then, Ricitiello has apologized for his statement on Twitter, and that tweet has itself made the rounds by now. As part of the fallout some developers are seeking out other packages, including site-favorite open-source gamedev system Godot.

PCGamesN (I’m too cranky right now to put the superscript on the N) writer Ian Boudreau presents news of the upcoming graphical Steam version of indie darling Dwarf Fortress, and how its trees change colors with the seasons! I seem to remember them doing this in ASCII mode too, but it’s nice to see it with non-terminal eyes. A lot more pictures are on this post on their Steam News page.

Lookin’ good, Blinky

Some fun links are good once in a while, am I right drebnar? Hackaday’s Orlando Hoilett links us to monseley’s Instructables page about an LCD matrix they cobbled together that shows animations of Pac-Man characters, and how you can make one yourself. It’s even set to make the ghost blue when it’s cold and red when it’s warm! Us one-celled organisms have always felt a certain kinship with ol’ Pacs, I tell you.

Arcade Mermaid: Pepper II

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Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at.

Released in 1982, a couple of years after a little game called Pac-Man, Pepper II is a maze game set in a four-screen world. You’re a blobby angel thing called Pepper, obeying an edict from the Powers Above: zip up four screens’ worth of boxes. The box borders are made of un-zipped zippers, and by zooming around each one it’s zipped up and captured, filled with a pattern.

Opposing your efforts are a bunch of roving eyes and a weird pink creature callled “the Whippersnapper.” It was the golden age of arcades, and realistic scenarios were on the outs for a time.

Its box-surrounding play looks similar to Amidar at first, but it’s really quite a different game. Amidar‘s enemies move according to a set and inviolate plan, but the eyes of Pepper II rove mostly randomly, with a slight bias towards chasing you. Amidar only lets you attack your enemies once per board, after you’ve surrounded all four corners, but Pepper gets this power after capturing just one of the corners, or the box in the center, up to five times per maze. This means that you’re invincible a lot of the time! Play carefully and you’re almost always invincible, which is important because you’re really vulnerable when you’re not. There are up to three more enemies after you at a time than in Pac-Man, and their unpredictable meandering means you often get caught right as you’re finishing a box.

Pepper’s world isn’t a single screen, but consists of four interconnected mazes. The arcade manual calls them cubes, and when you clear one you get a little cube icon in the bottom-right corner of the screen, but it isn’t a cube really; there’s only four sides. The game world is more like a horizontal strip. When you go off-screen to the left or right, you enter the next screen in the strip, but if you go up or down you skip ahead/behind one screen. From Screen 1, left goes to 4, right goes to 2, but both up and down go to 3. Enemies don’t have an off-screen existence beyond a few seconds after you change mazes, but your progress on other screens is remembered, so you can solve each maze a bit at a time if you choose.

The best thing Pepper II has going for it is its speed. It is incredibly fast! It makes Pac-Man feel creaky by comparison! Surrounding an energizer box gets you only four seconds of invincibility, but it’s long enough to surround multiple other boxes.

Pepper likes to overshoot intersections, and even with attention you’ll still probably miss them sometimes. When you enter a new maze, enemies enter from the four sides randomly after only a second, and at the game’s speeds this makes them very dangerous at that time. You could start capturing a box, and by the time you’re all the way around it a roving pair of eyes have both entered and moved over into your path. The eyes are not focused pursuers, but their large number and randomness make them plenty deadly enough.

The Whippersnapper is a little special. When you activate an energizer you can destroy the eyes for points, but will just pass through the Whippersnapper. The Whippersnapper exists to prevent you from zipping up tracks randomly. It undoes your work as it moves through the maze! Once you’ve completely captured a box it’s safe and cannot be unzipped, but until then it’s easy for it to mess up your work. It also moves much faster than the eyes.

There’s a couple more nuances to play. If you go back over your own trail you’ll unzip it. There are bonus items you can surround for ever-increasing bonuses as the game continues. The energizer in the center of the board flips between a stronger version that also kills all the enemies on the screen. These play quirks don’t really amount to all that much. Pepper II is a game about careening at full tilt around a board, clearing it piece by piece, and frantically racing between energizers to keep your invincibility going, and the other details tend to get lost in the rush.

Extra lives are awarded at 40,000 and 80,000 points. A good early score is around 50,000. I can regularly break 200,000, clearing two cubes, but the difficulty goes up rapidly from there. Both as you continue in each board and as the game goes on the enemies speed up a lot, and starting with the second cube the unzipped trails turn invisible for short periods.

About Exidy

Exidy was founded by in the very early days of arcade gaming. Some of their better known games include Star Fire, Mouse Trap, and Venture. They were never known for their graphics, although some of their products were among the earliest arcade games to use digitized sound. Many of Exidy’s games made up for their lack of visual flair with strong gameplay fundamentals. Venture, particularly, is a minor classic. Exidy was known to court controversy at times, with games like Death Race, in which the player runs down pedestrians, and the excessively-gory Chiller, where the player uses a light gun to dismember helpless victims in a torture room. Chiller received an unlicensed port to the NES by AGC (“American Game Cartridges”).

Coleco ported Mouse Trap, Pepper II, and Venture to the Colecovision console, where they were met by an appreciative audience. Their port of Pepper II is especially good. It’s very much like the arcade game, just a little slower.

Exidy games from the time of Pepper II tend to have a visual look akin to DOS games played through a CGA card. Pepper II is like this, but it certainly can’t be called slow. It takes sharp reflexes just to get around its mazes.

Homebrew Atari VCS/2600 Arcade Ports

The long-running Atari fansite AtariAge sells a number of carts that run on classic Atari VCS systems that make it do things you might not expect that system could do. Some of the most impressive of these are remakes of classic arcade games that go far beyond what was possible at the time. A number of these were developed by Champ Games. Here are links to a number of videos showing them off, although sone of the may not currently be in their store:

Galagon” – Wizard of WorZoo KeeperAvalancheScrambleSuper CobraMappy (especially this one!)

A few others, not from Champ Games: Aardvark (Anteater) – Venture ReloadedSpace Rocks (Asteroids) – Star CastlePac-ManDraconian (Bosconian)