Wherefore Pac-Man’s Split Screen?

I did a search of the blog to make sure I haven’t posted this before. I’m really an obsessive tagger, and it didn’t show up under the tag pacman, so I think it hasn’t been seen here before. Let’s fix that now!

It’s a video from Retro Game Mechanics Explained from six years ago, and it’s 11 1/2 minutes:

Here’s a terse summary of the explanation, that leaves out a lot. Like a lot of 8-bit games (the arcade version uses a Z80 processor), Pac-Man stores the score in one byte, making the maximum it can count to 255. Since it doesn’t use signed arithmetic, it doesn’t use the high bit to signify a minus sign and so flip to negative at 128.

As an optimization, Pac-Man’s code uses the depiction of the maze in the video memory, itself, in the movement of both Pac-Man and the ghosts. If a spot has a maze wall tile, then Pac-Man can’t go there, and the ghosts won’t consider that direction when moving.

At the start of every level, the game performs some setup tasks. It draws the maze anew, including dots, Energizers and walls. One of these tasks is to update the fruit display in the bottom-right corner. It was a common design idiom at some arcade manufacturers, especially at Namco, at the time to depict the level number with icons in some way. Galaga shows rank insignia in the corner; Mappy has small and large balloons and mansions.

Pac-Man’s code shows the bonus fruit for each level, up to seven of them. If you finish more than seven levels, only the most recent seven are shown. If you get far enough eventually this will be just a line of Keys, the final “fruit.”

The code draws them from right to left. There’s three cases (the video goes into much more detail), but generally it starts from the fruit of six minus the current round number, draws it, counts up once and moves left two tiles, draws that one, and so on.

An interesting fact about Pac-Man’s graphics hardware is that the screen doesn’t map as you might expect to the screen! A lot of arcade games have weird screen mappings. Most consumer programmable hardware will map characters horizontally first vertically second, like a typewriter*.

In Pac-Man, the bottom area of the screen comes first in memory, starting at memory location hex $4000 (16384 decimal), and it doesn’t go forward like an English typewriter, but is mapped right to left. The first row of 32 tiles comes at $4000, and the second row is $4020. Then the playfield area is mapped completely differently, in vertical rows going down starting from the top-right of its region, then the next vertical row is the one to the left of that, and so forth to the left edge of the playfield. Then comes the score area at the top of the screen, which are two final rows mapped the same way as the bottom area, right to left.

From the video, this chart shows how Pac-Man’s screen memory is mapped.

When Pac-Man’s score counter overflows, it breaks the check for the limit for only drawing seven fruit, and causes it to draw 256 fruit. This is why the tops of keys are drawn beneath the upper-halves of the fruit at the bottom of the split screen. It also breaks the tile lookup for the fruit.

As it continues writing its missourced fruit tiles in memory, it goes back in memory each time to draw the next fruit, and after the fruit section of the display it keeps going to the left, into the area where Pac-Man’s lives are displayed, then it keeps going and overwrites half of the maze tiles. Then Pac-Man’s lives (and any empty spaces that indicate the lack of lives) are plotted, overwriting fruit after the first ones drawn and obscuring some of the memory corruption.

Since the game’s actors use that data to decide where to move, and where dots and Energizers are placed, it means they can move outside the bounds of the maze, and that there won’t be enough dots for Pac-Man to eat to complete the level. That’s what makes it a kill screen: if Pac-Man loses a life, a few dots will get placed in the maze as the fruit are redrawn, but it’s not enough to bring the dot-eaten count to 244, which triggers the level clear function.

If the fruit-drawing loop didn’t stop at 256 (another artifact of using 8-bit math for the loop), it’d go on to clobber the rest of the maze, the score area at the top of the screen, then color memory (which has already been clobbered by the palette-drawing portion of the loop). Then, going by a memory map of the arcade hardware, it’d hit the game logic RAM storage, which would probably crash the game, triggering the watchdog and resetting the machine.

The visual effect of the split screen is certainly distinctive, enough that since Bandai-Namco has capitalized on its appearance at least once, in the mobile (and Steam and consoles) game Pac-Man 256. I’ve played Pac-Man 256: it’s okay, but, eh. It’s really too F2P unlocky.

* Yes, I just used a typewriter’s operation as a metaphor for something a computer does. It didn’t feel acceptable to use another computer thing as the comparison, since ultimately the reason they do it that way is because typewriters did it that way too. I guess the fact that it’s English reading order would be better to use, but I’m really overthinking it at this point.

Pac-Man in Three Patterns

PacStrats on Youtube has a video that gives three patterns that will take a casual player all the way to the kill screen at level 256.

I say casual because this doesn’t attempt to produce a “perfect” game, of 3,333,360 points. This is because it doesn’t attempt to eat all four ghosts on every Energizer while that is possible. It actually ignores the ghosts when they’re vulnerable. There are patterns for that on PacStrats too, but you’re not going to be able to do it by memorizing just three patterns. You can really push your personal limits, and that of your free time, trying to get better at video games, and most of us have a point where we have to say that’s enough, and then go and read a book/buy groceries/have sex/something else. The three patterns in the video below are a nice middle ground.

It isn’t easy to devise a Pac-Man patterns, and it’s much harder to come up with a small number of patterns that cover all the levels. Patterns work because the movement of the ghosts is completely deterministic, depending on how Pac-Man moves. If you can move Pac-Man with frame-perfect accuracy, then the ghosts will oblige you by always responding in the same ways. The frame-perfect requirement is eased up a lot by the nature of Pac-Man’s motion. So long as you don’t reverse directions or delay, Pac-Man can only change direction at intersections. So long as you have the joystick, or whatever ludicrous controller setup you’re using, pressed in the direction you want to go next three frames ahead of the turn, your gluttinous circle’s progress will be on track for that pattern.

So, if you try to perform a pattern and it doesn’t work, what went wrong? Most commonly it’s because you hesitated at some point, failing to make a turn at least three frames in advance. Sometimes that’ll be okay, but two of the ghosts, Pink (Speedy/Pinky) and Blue (Bashful/Inky) use the direction that Pac-Man is facing in their AI calculations, and that can change much more rapidly compared to his location in the maze. Even being a single frame off in your timing can produce a situation where Pac-Man will be facing a direction that will cause them to take a different path at a choice. Also, some of the motion of the ghosts is determined by the amount of time that’s elapsed in the current level, and if Pac-Man’s in a subtly wrong position then it can be disastrous later on.

The periods over which the patterns are good are the first four levels (Cherry to second Orange), levels 5 through 20 (first Apple through to 8th Key) and from 21 onward (9th Key to the kill screen). The actions of the ghosts are not the same throughout the run of each pattern. The second pattern, in particular, works over so many levels mostly because its creator, through trial and error, happened upon a pattern that’s good for so much of the game. Because the travels of the ghosts will be different on different levels, it’s important not to get spooked because they are moving differently than they did on previous levels. So long as you move Pac-Man through the patterns assuredly, without delay, and at least three frames in advance, then he’ll clear the boards in succession for as long as you care to keep going, until level 256, where Pac-Man’s All-You-Can-Eat buffet closes its doors.

Unfortunately, PacStrats has made their pattern video non-embedable, so if you want to see these patterns in action you’ll have to click through to the video’s Youtube page.

Beat Pac-Man Using 3 Simple Patterns (Youtube, 20 minutes)

The 10th-Key NES Pac-Man Scatter Bug

I already shown it off on Mastodon, but I’m so pleased with getting this bug on video that I’m re-reporting it here! First, though, some background.

Still the definitive resource on the design internals of Pac-Man.

I’ve been looking into the various home computer ports of Pac-Man lately. One of the better ones is the one for Famicom/NES, probably because it was made in-house at Namco, which I presume because while it’s by no means perfect, it has ghost AI that much more closely matches Jamey Pittman’s definitive Pac-Man Dossier than the others. This is a bit more important than the other ports because, due to the relative familiarity (that is to say, inexpensiveness) of NES emulation at this point, Famicom Pac-Man is often put in compilations, especially in dedicated consoles, instead of the arcade game. In point of fact, the Namco Museum Archives Vol. 1 that’s available for various consoles uses the Famicom versions of all its games, not the arcade, and Pac-Man is one of the included games. To tell the difference: if the score, fruit tally and lives are to the right of the screen, instead of above and beneath it, and Pac-Man looks a little too big to fit in a maze passage, then what you have is an inferior home conversion.

How is it different? Well:

  • The sound of Pac-Man eating dots is much worse, for starters, it never fails to bother me.
  • More substantively, the ghosts have slightly different constants in their chase routines: it’s slightly harder to fake out the Pink ghost (Speedy/Pinky), and the Orange ghost (Pokey/Clyde) gives up the chase a little more reluctantly.
  • The timing for scatter periods, relative the speeds of the ghosts, is a little off. Scatter periods are usually slightly longer.
  • The speed of the game as difficulty increases is also a little off. In the arcade, the First Apple board (Level 5) marks a noticable increase in Pac-Man’s speed, but it seems to happen around the Second Orange (Level 4) on Famicom. Yes, that’s how much of arcade Pac-Man and its port that I’ve played-it could be subjective, but maybe it’s not.
  • The bug that affects Pink’s and Blue’s (Bashful/Inky) AI when Pac-Man’s facing up doesn’t exist here.
  • When ghosts enter Scatter mode, they don’t reverse direction. This makes the game easier (one less sudden reverse to throw you off) and harder (no obvious indication that the ghosts are scattering, and one less thing to throw them off from immediate pursuit).
  • As the game advances in difficulty, in the arcade, on the 4th Key board (level 17), the ghosts won’t turn blue and vulnerable when you eat an Energizer, and instead will just reverse direction. And from the 6th Key (level 19) on, the ghosts will never turn blue again! NES Pac-Man instead gives them a very tiny bit of blue time, about a half-second’s worth. It never reaches a state where the ghosts become completely invulnerable.

And at last, the bug which I have confirmed. On the 10th Key board (Level 22), and every level thereafter, the ghosts will start out in an unusually long Scatter period. Their usual habit is to emerge from the box in the center of the screen and move to a corner of the screen, and circle there for a few seconds. Pink goes to the upper-left, Red (Shadow/Blinky) to the upper-right, Orange to the lower-left, and Blue to the lower-right. This period is called a “Scatter Mode” in the Pac-Man Dossier.

In most levels, presuming you don’t lose a life, the ghosts will enter Scatter Mode at exactly set three times: from the start, about 25-or-so seconds in, and about 30 or so seconds after that. These periods are usually five seconds long. There are some minor details I won’t get into-you can read the Dossier for those. These periods are lifesavers for intermediate Pac-Man players playing without patterns, as they are the only really safe ways to access the bottom passages of the board without getting trapped or wasting an Energizer.

Each Scatter Mode is only supposed to last five-to-seven seconds, but on Level 22 and after, all of the Scatter Modes last around 20 seconds. Here is the bug in action, demonstrated in Namco Museum Archives Vol. 1:

Why would this board be different from the others? In the arcade, the 9th Key (Level 21) is the maximum difficulty the game reaches. Any pattern that works on the 9th Key level will work for the rest of the game, all the way up to the kill screen on Level 256. It seems that, on the Famicom/NES version, after that level the game may not have data for the level to follow? But I haven’t looked at its code to know for sure. Maybe I should make that a future project.

Game Finds: Pacman’s Sky

We love it when we find weird and unique indie games to tell you all about! Our alien friends to the left herald these occasions.

It’s one of those games that was made to fulfill the promise of a pun in the title, but turns out to be fairly interesting in its own right.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Randomness plays way too much of a role in your success, although that could also be said of No Man’s Sky, honestly.

Pac-Man is stranded on a maze-like planet. The maze wraps around vertically and horizontally, but there are no helpful tunnels here to slow down the ghost pursuit, for the screen is always centered on Paccy. There is an escape rocket in the monster house, and the way inside opens up when you’ve eaten a sufficient number of dots. I wouldn’t bug out immediately though; as you eat dots, and also ghosts made vulnerable by the consumption of randomly-placed Energizers, you fill up a fuel meter in the upper-right corner of the screen. You want it to be as full as possible, especially in this first maze, where the game is still fairly easy.

For you see, when you enter the rocket, you blast off into a 2D universe of other planets, and you need fuel to travel between them. (A bit of advice: the rocket’s thrust is always to the right! Press up-arrow to go forward, and up and down to steer.) Use the map in the lower-right to pick the next planet to crash onto, and explore a new maze. You don’t want to run out of fuel! Although you have a total of four Pac-Lives, if you run out of fuel in space, you lose regardless!

You’ll soon find that most planets are much larger than your starting world, and the game sends in a number of ghosts proportionate to its size! You could end up fleeing from nearly two-dozen ghosts! Fortunately, there are new colors of ghosts in the mix, and none of them are as avid a pursuer as the classic hues, although their meanderings will often block escape routes.

Your goal is to collect Cherries, which are sporadically scattered throughout the planets. You want to eat at least 10, then launch with a full fuel tank, and then press the Space Bar to warp out of the universe, and the game.

As I mentioned up top, randomness plays a huge role in your success. Cherries are placed completely randomly: you might find Cherries in the starting maze, you might find a planet with four Cherries on it and all you have to do is find them, but many planets will be Cherry-less. The best strategy is to scout each planet you visit for Cherries as quickly as possible, snarf up the ones you find while refilling your fuel tank with dots, then quickly evacuate and move on to the next planet.

Some tips:

  • If you return to a planet you’ve already been on, it’ll be in the state that you left it! This usually makes it harder to refill your tank since there’s fewer dots, so get what you can and launch again.
  • To help you avoid revisiting planets, I suggest targeting particular planet colors first.
  • Energizers are placed randomly, and like Cherries, some planets don’t have any.
  • Ghost vulnerability times are roughly on a par with those of the first maze of the original game, but with so much more terrain to travel through it’s usually highly difficult to make a clean sweep of all the ghosts, even if there’s only the normal four.
  • The class ghosts have largely the same personalities as in the arcade games: Red chases you directly, Pink looks in the direction you’re facing and tries to get in front of you, Blue seeks to be on the other side of you from one of the Red ghosts, and Orange sometimes loses interest in attacking you when you get close.
  • The new colors have ghosts that try to lurk behind you, ghosts that try to travel in straight lines regardless of what else is happening, ghosts that just bumble around, and even ghosts that just try to get away from everyone else, Pac or ghost.
  • Like arcade Pac-Man, the ghosts periodically enter “Scatter Mode,” and give up the chase for a few precious seconds. Unlike the arcade game, the ghosts don’t reverse direction when either entering or leaving Scatter Mode. Your only clue to the behavior change is them turning away, or turning back towards you. That makes them a little less predictable.
  • Beware! Once in a while you’ll find a ghost that, instead of the usual blue eyes, has an Among Us visor. These ghosts will be one of the other colors, and the same personality as that color, but when you eat an Energizer, not only do they not become vulnerable, they also speed up greatly! If it’s one of the more vicious colors (Red or Pink), this makes eating an Energizer extremely dangerous!
  • Ghosts become dangerous again the moment they reform from their eyes in the home. If you’re venturing in to get to the rocket, and a pair of eyes rushes in behind you, you can easily lose a Pac without having much control over it. This happened to me several times, it’s worth being wary of.
If you want to play in the universe of this victorious game, you can enter this seed at the title screen. It had one planet with four Cherries!

Pacman’s Sky (itch.io, $0)

Cam’s Pac-Man Fun Page

From the linked page. Piranha is one of a whole category of Pac-Man bootlegs that try to obscure their origin.

I’m considering writing more on the subject of the male-gendered Pac, which I assume is a mere matter of social custom among the Pac-People since they have no genitalia or clothing. Pac-Man bootlegs, in particular, are bizarre and wonderful, even if they often aren’t very fun to play.

But Cam has a nice page devoted to Pac mutants. And these old Geocities-style pages need much more love these days, so for now I’ll link to them. Have a look!

A little remarked-upon aspect of these Pac-legs is how their character name is strictly determined by how many letters long it is, so that they can fit on this screen in the same amount of space that PAC-MAN did.

Names For Bootleg Pac-Man Ghosts

From a bootleg made by “SegaSA / Sonic.” Appears to have no relation to the Sega we know, or its spiny progeny. One of the few bootlegs that gives Pac-Man himself a nickname.
From a bootleg made to work on Moon Alien hardware. These are the “alternate” official names for the ghosts. Are they direct translations of the Japanese ghost names? Those are remarkably ugly ghost colors: hence, this remark.
These boring names are from “JPM bootleg,” I assume that is its maker.
From NewPuc2, Set 2. The best bootleg names I’ve seen so far, by a wide margin, even if they have nothing to do with their colors or personalities. I can almost forgive the misspellings.

Dan Fixes Coin-Ops Repairs a Baby Pac-Man

Over on Mastodon, Dan Fixes Coin-Ops has been documenting an epic quest: the repair of a Baby Pac-Man machine.

It’s one of the non-Namco Pac-Man spinoffs that Bally/Midway released in the wake of the original’s extremely high popularity. I’d like to remind readers that while Namco has been the sole beneficiary of Pac-Man’s heights lately, the original game, at first called Puck-Man in Japan, was not popular there. The spin-offs, console ports, handheld games, trading cards, stickers, clothing, cartoon show, Christmas special, breakfast cereal and unnumbered other items, that was all Bally/Midway’s doing. Toru Iwatani created and designed it, his team made it into a game and cabinet, Namco released it in Japan to middling success, and from there Bally/Midway got behind it and turned it into one of the most gigantic video game hits there’s ever been, a machine that at one point had one hundred thousand units.

Now, I’m not going to deny that their effort led to some erasure of knowledge of Namco’s existence at the time. All those Pac-Man machines and spin-offs mentioned “Bally Midway Mfg. Co.,” with nary a mention of Namco. But it’s undeniable now that erasure is happening in the other direction: a search over the History page on official Pac-Man website has no mention of Bally at all, even though the page acknowledges that the game was “a major hit in the United States.”

Some of that success leaked back to Japan and fueled some Namco-made sequels: Super Pac-Man, Pac N Pal, Pac-Land, Pac-Mania, Pac-Man Arrangement and eventually Pac-Man Battle Royale and Pac-Man Championship Edition, and more recently things like World’s Largest Pac-Man and Pac-Man Battle Royale Chompionship.

Bally/Midway made their own sequels. One of those, Ms. Pac-Man (created by GCC), came to eclipse the original in popularity, but in addition to their licensing of Super Pac-Man and Pac N Pal they made Jr. Pac-Man (also from GCC), as well as Professor Pac-Man and this game here. The one Dan Fixes Coin-Ops repaired. Baby Pac-Man.

Baby Pac-Man is a game that only could be made by Bally, because it’s a video game/pinball hybrid.

Bally, together with the company that would buy them, Williams, is arguably the greatest pinball maker there’s ever been. Up until around 2000 (a heartbreaking year) they made wonderful machines like The Addams Family, Twilight Zone, Attack From Mars, Star Trek: The Next Generation and quite a few others. In 1982 though pinball was in a slump while video games had reign over arcades. The decision to make a game that connected one of the greatest arcade games of all with pinball must have seemed obvious. (It wasn’t their only attempt to capitalize on their golden license with a pinball table, witness Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man, which I’m informed was released eight months before Baby Pac-Man.)

The combination of an arcade video game and pinball makes for a unique experience. It also makes for a game which breaks down even more often than your standard arcade game, as the thread notes: there’s three computers in the thing, and it’s subject to all the typical arcade game problems, all the typical pinball problems, and special problems with the portions of the machine that connect the two halves together.

The thread begins memorably:

In case y’all were tired of hearing about popular Fediverse people making bad decisions, just thought I’d let y’all know I bought a 1980’s hybrid pinball/videogame tonight

I bought a god damn Baby Pacman

Like this isn’t for a client, I’m not working on it to earn. This game COST money. This is my game now, I paid for it and it lives in my house. I’m not gonna get to give anybody a bill.

This is such a perversion of the natural order of things. I’ll probably route it one day, but for now this is an arcade machine that I SPEND money on!

It’s taken me a little while to get it into the house and have a chat with the mate who sold it to me and let the littleun have a go and put her to bed and fix a couple things and have a go myself so I’ve not been catching up on my notifications, I saw some questions so I’ll do a little thread on it over the next couple of days

I cannot stress enough that you should not buy one of these things

Folk who like 80’s pinball want stuff like this or Haunted House and you shouldn’t buy a Haunted House either

These are games for pinball techs or people with money to hire pinball techs or very close friends of pinball techs

Except Baby Pac-Man needs you to be friends with an arcade tech too.

He finally got it working after three months of work, and what a journey it is. He did it for love of the game: while Baby Pac-Man is dissed in some circles it’s a genuinely interesting game. But to like it, you have to abandon the relatively lenient expectations of classic arcade video games. Pinball is inherently unfair, and that unfairness oozes out and coats even the video portion of Baby Pac: the ghosts don’t waste time in coming after you, and you start with no Energizers: you have to earn them in the pinball portion, which for the most part you can only visit once per life/board. You can return to the video portion temporarily though by locking the ball in a scoop.

Here is the full thread (to date) in Masto Reader, which is a Mastodon version of Threadreader. It takes maybe half a minute to collect the posts and present them though, so to read the whole saga you’ll have to be a little patient.

An interesting video about Baby Pac-Man (although with some bad sound) District 82 Pinball’s here (12 minutes), which covers the tech and gameplay:

And Joe’s Classic Video Games’ demonstration (25 minutes):

Dan Fixes Coin-Ops: Baby Pac-Man Repair

District 82 Pinball’s Baby Pac-Man play and tech tips (Youtube, 12 minutes)

Joe’s Classic Video Games on Baby Pac-Man (Youtube, 25 minutes)

Romhack(ish) Thursday: 21st Century Roguelike Pac-Man

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

It’s another romhack post that’s really not a romhack, but kind of pretends to be one. Gridlock’s 21st Century Roguelike Pac-Man (which I’m going to call 21CRPM) at first looks a lot like the arcade classic, but then becomes something really, really different.

It becomes so different that the game it most brings to mind isn’t Pac-Man but Frog Fractions. It keeps piling on the play mechanics, in a way that the game makes apparent is meant to be humorous, but also sort of, kind of works. I mean of course it’s me saying this, 饾柍饾梺饾柧 饾柉饾柧饾棆饾棇饾棃饾棁 饾柖饾棃饾棈 饾柂饾柧饾棄饾棈 饾枴饾柡饾棁饾梹饾梻饾棁饾梹 饾柈饾棁 饾枲饾柣饾棃饾棊饾棈 饾柋饾棃饾梹饾棊饾柧饾梾饾梻饾梽饾柧饾棇, so maybe I just like that sort of thing. Although the way it’s the most like roguelikes, permadeath, making you start completely over after losing, is possibly the weakest part of it. I had to start over a lot.

You start in the middle of the normal Pac-Man board, in a field of dots, and the ghosts roaming around as usual. It’s not exactly like classic Pac-Man; ghosts can catch you much more easily on corners (you’ll get caught this way frequently times before you adjust), and the AI is a little different. The Red monster, Blinky/Shadow/Akabei/Oikake, can actually turn right after coming out of the box, and move up through the paths above it.

Also, eating the Energizers in the corners doesn’t make the ghosts vulnerable. Instead, Pac-Man can shoot the dots he eats at the ghosts to defeat them, and while an Energizer is active his shots are stronger. Pac-Man must be facing into a corridor in order to fire, meaning he must often be running directly towards a ghost before he can shoot it. The Red ghost has the least health, and can often be gunned down even without an Energizer, while the Orange ghost has a lot of health, and usually must be shot while it’s traveling away down a long corridor. Fortunately, he’s not any smarter than he was in the arcade game.

A big difference is the Hunger meter at the side of the screen. It constantly runs down, at an alarming rate, as you play. If it runs completely out, the game ends immediately, regardless of how many lives you have left! You have to make sure to keep tabs on your hunger. And dots and ghosts don’t refill it, only fruit does, and only a bit of it. What Pac-Man can do, however, is save it for later: he has an inventory now, and grabbed fruit go right into it. You press the X button to bring up a menu, and can then pick out the fruit and munch it on down.

If you had to rely on the fruit from the center of the board though you’d starve pretty fast, so now Pac-Man has the ability to plant fruit in the maze. If you plant it, of course, then you can’t eat it, but it doesn’t take long for it to sprout and start generating new fruit of its own. You’ll soon have to start relying on this to survive.

When you clear the board of dots, the monster box opens up and when you go inside you get this screen:

This somewhat sarcastic screen appears to suggest that there’s more to the game than the starting screen. And it’s right.

Once you clear the board of dots, the game doesn’t end. Ooooh no, you’re just getting started. No, the board you start in is the “home” location in a much larger maze, accessed through the tunnels on the sides of the screen. As you explore this maze, new locations will be filled in on a map in the lower-left corner. The borders of this map aren’t the ultimate edges either. This greater map is created anew with each play; sometimes you’ll have tricky situations right near outside the starting board, and sometimes it’ll be fairly easy going. There are ghosts and dots and fruit in these boards too, and sometimes more Energizers, but there are no regeneration boxes. Ghosts you defeat out there turn into eyes, but have no way to turn back into ghosts, and eventually just fly away.

Out there in the maze there’s a lot of weird things to find. Like shops.

And quest givers:

And locked treasure rooms:

And areas of solid stone, and ore, that must be dug through Minecraft-style with a Pick (go into the Tools section of the menu to use it):

And a whole Pokemon-themed area:

And there’s crafting! And you can spend Galaxians you find to enhance stats! And boss ghosts to defeat! And probably more! I keep finding new parts to the game as I play. The game’s itch.io page even claims there’s a final boss to defeat, in the form of an evil version of Pac-Man, but I haven’t found it.

You can save your game, but in roguelike style, your session ends when you do it, and its deleted when you resume. Your game ends either when you run out of lives or your Hunger meter depletes, and both are way too easy to have happen. I find it helps to plant at least one fruit on each screen, but don’t carry around too many: if you’re holding too many things you become “Encumbered” and slow way down!

It’s an enjoyable game, for awhile at least. Pac-Man’s movement speed quickly feel much too slow for exploring the huge over-maze. His movement speed is one of the things you can upgrade by spending Galaxians, but I’ve only just recently even found one of those in the maze, and it was in a locked treasure room. It feels like there’s a lot more to the game than the permadeath feature allows me to see, but I’m still trying.

It is true that, ultimately, 21CRPM is a joke game, and the point is that Pac-Man doesn’t need elaboration upon, and the extra mechanics exist mostly to feel tacked on. There may not even be a real point to them. But neither is there a point to video games in general, and it’s still fun to explore them, for a while.

One of those boss ghosts you can receive a quest to defeat. They take a lot of damage, speed up as you deplete it, and can even fire back at you. You might want to craft a shield before taking one on, out of three Iron Bars (made from ore) and a piece of Wood (bought in a shop or acquired from using the Pick on a tree). You might be able to use a Sword on one, but they break quickly and I haven’t tried it yet.

21st Century Roguelike Pac-Man (itch.io, $0)

Atari Archives Covers VCS Pac-Man

This is a big one. Youtube channel Atari Archives usually makes videos that average around 16 minutes in length, with the occasional entry that goes up to twenty or, once in a while, even thirty minutes. Their entry on Atari VCS/2600 Pac-Man, the infamous title that many claim destroyed the video game market in the US in 1983, goes for 38 minutes. (Their side episode on the Bally Astrocade is 48 minutes long, but it covers the history of an entire platform.)

The video’s states a thing that I have long suspected: Atari 2600 Pac-Man did not itself destroy the game console industry. I also don’t think the other prime suspect, Atari E.T., did it.

If you pressed me, I’d think that both may have been contributing factors, but only as part of a larger trend: stores shelves were inundated with a flood of games at the time, as lots of companies jumped heedlessly into the software market. The opportunity created by Activision, which was famously founded by Atari programmers upset by how they were treated there, which established in court that it was legal for competitors to make their own software for a company’s system, was soon taken advantage of by dozens of other outfits. For every Activision and Imagic, however, there were a bevy of Apollos and Froggos, whose mostly terrible games, in that pre-Internet era, looked about as good to a typical buyer.

Plus, I think there was an element of the bursting of a fad at that time. The success of the Atari 2600 was possibly unsustainable. Even the widely ridiculed VCS port of Pac-Man sold over seven million copies, a sales record that wouldn’t be matched until the middle of the NES’s life.

For more information on the game, and its many other contemporary ports, I refer you to the video.

Atari Archives: Episode 66, Pac-Man (38 minutes)

Frightened Ghosts in Pac-Man: Where Do They Go?

Retro Game Mechanics Explained generally does interesting videos, I find. The details on how the ghosts (monsters) in Pac-Man behave when dangerous are fairly well understood now, thanks to the work of Jamey Pittman in writing The Pac-Man Dossier. RGMEx did a summary video of that work three years ago.

The question of how vulnerable ghosts move, after Pac-Man has eaten a Power Pellet (Energizer), isn’t covered in as much detail. It’s still as accurate as the rest of the information in the document, but its implications are left for the reader to explore. Well, RGMEx has explored it.

Vulnerable ghosts move pseudo-randomly, through an interesting process. The game has a RNG (random number generator) that’s reset at the start of every level, that cycles through a period of 8,192 values. Vulnerable ghost movement is the only thing in the game that it’s used for, but it isn’t applied directly. Instead, it’s used as a pointer into the game’s own code, and the value of the address it finds is used to determine how the ghost moves.

A result of this is that not all directions are chosen equally. But further, and more importantly, if the direction chosen isn’t available, the ghost tries the next direction in a clockwise order. If that one’s not possible, it tries the next, until it finds one that works.

These two facts combine to give a definite bias to the directions that frightened ghosts move. Retro Game Mechanics Explained then ran the numbers and figured out where scared ghosts tend to go. It’s interesting, even slightly useful, information.

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: