Review by Suprak the StudDonate directly to the author of this contribution

Reviewed: 07/29/10

Nostalgia Can Only Get You So Far

Released in 1980, Pac-Man was one of the games that helped to popularize gaming and bring it to the mainstream. An arcade hit, Pac-Man remains both one of the most recognizable and most loved games of all time. To this day, you'll find individuals that claim that Pac-Man is the best game ever made, and these people are either so blinded by nostalgia that they need special glasses to prevent power pellets from appearing on the road while they are driving or stopped playing games sometime in the mid 1980's, because the unfortunate fact is that the original arcade classic has aged about as well as raw meat left outside for thirty years in the middle of the Sahara Desert. While it is undoubtedly an important game, I think there comes a time that one must separate influence from quality. After surgically removing the game itself from the nostalgia and childhood memories that may accompany it, you’re left with a fairly monotonous, brainless game that is an alright way to pass time for a couple of minutes and has all of the entertainment potential of a yo-yo.

In Pac-Man, you play as the titular Pac-Man, a character that only got his name because the American audiences couldn't help themselves from altering the “Puck-Man” on the side of the arcade machines into something that sounds like the least likable superhero in the Justice League. Pac-Man is a fairly large circle, and he must go around eating other, smaller circles. While this act of cannibalism sounds terrifying enough, the game reaches a whole new level of terror because four ghosts are released periodically and they try to murder Pac-Man by running into him (possibly causing him to be scared to death). This all makes sense, because the circle's perennial enemy is the ghost, but things can quickly become turned on their head the moment you devour a power pellet. Most power pellets I'm aware of only increase your strength and slugging percentage, but these are special because they let you eat ghosts. I have a hard time thinking of something I'd rather eat, but unfortunately at later levels the ghosts develop some sort of resistance and the amount of time you have to eat them decreases until it disappears entirely. Eating sequential ghosts earns you more and more points, and fruit appears in the middle of the maze area which not only helps Pac-Man fight off scurvy, but also racks up copious points for your score.

And that is literally everything you need to know about the game. Later levels feature faster ghosts and less effective power pellets, but everything else is exactly the same. They didn't even bother to modify the maze even slightly, so you literally see nothing but the exact same screen from start to finish. I want you to think about your favorite game. Now try to remember the first level. Now imagine that every level after it was exactly the same as the first level, but the enemies were slightly faster and became progressively more inedible. If this sounds like an improvement over your favorite game, then maybe Pac-Man is right up your alley (and I should also point out that I think your favorite game is probably only a demo because I can think of no other way this might be an improvement). However, for all of us with a completely functional hypothalamus and intact pleasure centers in our brain, this sounds like a recipe for a class-A train wreck of terrible.

Worst of all, the game isn't even that fun. Moving around eating dots and power pellets is straightforward enough, and Pac-Man does have simplicity working in its favor. Getting points by eating the pellets, fruit, and ghosts is pretty entertaining for a little while. It does serve as a mildly entertaining time waster, and perhaps can one day serve as a very nice loading screen for a bigger, more entertaining game. The problem is the formula is only interesting in short bursts for a couple of levels at most before the thing begins wearing thin. It isn’t necessarily bad, but nothing here should be able to keep your interest for long periods of time unless you spend long periods of time color coordinating your socks.

The weird thing is, people have dedicated their lives to games like this and other early arcade titles. Bump into anyone old enough to have spent a lot of time in arcades and accidentally mention whatever new game you happen to be enjoying, and you’ll have to prepare yourself for a five minute rant as to how they just don’t make games the way they used to and games like Pac-Man and Pong were the best games evar!!1! with the best gameplay and several other minutes of nonsense before they need to take their diabetes medicine and return to the old folks home. It might be one of the first games, and a pioneer, but propping it up and claiming that it is one of the best games ever made seems a bit silly considering how far the medium has come. You don’t find film buffs claiming that the very first zoetrope showing a horse running was the apex of motion pictures, or that the Great Train Robbery rivals Casablanca or The Godfather. And those statements are every bit as crazy as declaring Pac-Man as one of the best games ever because that same technical limitations that have pushed the zoetrope down the path of obsolescence did the same to nearly all early arcade titles. When a game is simple and antiquated enough to run on a calculator, the Google homepage, and a pair of shoes (while the Air Pacs aren't quite ready yet, I'm sure to have worked out the kinks by the time my review is posted), it just doesn't have the content or entertainment value to entice me to keep playing it.

Some people might say I’m being too harsh on Pac-Man, or that I need to judge the game by different standards because it was released 30 years ago. To that I say a resounding blllllllllpth (the ancient Incan word for incredulity). How am I supposed to judge it? As a man suffering from amnesia with no recollection of any game that has been released in the past 25 years? As some sort of time traveling caveman who slipped into a time warp and has just recently become familiarized with technology? Unfortunately, I am neither of those things (although the last one sounded pretty cool), and I can only judge it with the same standards by which I assess anything else. Just because a game is old doesn't mean I should treat it with kiddie gloves. A game must stand up on its own merits, and if I said that Pac-Man was anything other than boring and lacking in content, I'd be lying.

But fine, let's say I was willing to bash my head against the wall and indulge the notion that it should only be assessed as a game from its time. Donkey Kong is better, Tetris is better, Space Invaders is better, and heck, even Pong is better. Even against its closest competitors, Pac-Man just doesn't stack up. And judging Pac-Man only by these limitations isn’t even worth the effort. A great game is timeless, needs to stand up to not only changes in the medium but advances in technology in a way that makes the game enjoyable to play regardless of the time period. Gamers tend to want to pay reverence to their roots, and ignore the fact that a lot of these games just aren't very fun because they were the forefathers of games we love and enjoy now. It's fine if you want to honor Pac-Man due to its history in the gaming industry, but don’t shove it in my face whenever people want to discuss the best games ever made because the next person who tries to mention this game to me during such a debate will be sequestered to the broom closet as the occupants of it will provide a more suitable debate partner for you. Pac-Man is alright to play for a couple of minutes here and there once in a while, but the game itself has long past the point where it is relevant or even remotely entertaining. People associating Pac-Man with the best game ever is one of the reasons why gaming as an art form is still a hotly debated topic, because Pac-Man is little more than a toy. It has all the artistic merit of a paper airplane or a ball in a cup. It is a little gadget that is kind of fun and with which we can pass a couple of minutes, but lacks depth so badly that it offers a very brief experience that isn’t worth remembering or repeating. Technological limitations play a part in this, no doubt, but just because we couldn't do better at the time doesn't mean we haven’t greatly surpassed this game in every possible way since. Gaming has progressed a long way, and it's a good thing because if games were still like Pac-Man this industry would have died off long ago.

Blinky (THE GOOD):
+General formula is entertaining for a little while
+Trying to max out your score does provide a little entertainment value
+Nostalgic influence is enough to blind most people to the blandness of it

Inky (THE BAD):
-Game really has not aged well
-Mindlessly repetitive, almost nothing changes from start to finish
-Simplicity of the game causes it to become boring very quickly
-Level design is not changed in the slightest throughout the game
-Lack of content kills replayability and makes it enjoyable only in short spurts after long breaks

Clyde (THE UGLY): I feel kind of bad for Clyde. His nickname in Japanese translates to “stupid”, presumably because he is the least likely ghost to chase after Pac-Man while he is on his ravenous rampage. I’d argue that this actually makes him the smartest of the pack, because whenever I witness enormous, cannibal shapes I tend to avoid them as well.

THE VERDICT: 3.00/10.00

Rating: 3

Product Release: Pac-Man (US, 10/31/80)

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