Author: John Legendoffzelda
Ms. Pac-Man is a classic, solid golden oldie of video games. But for a lot of people it may seem a little odd that it has an official version on the Super Nintendo, and the original Pac-Man does not. For other people this oddity is offset by a kind of convenience that they share between them, one that probably isn’t taken into consideration enough: the sequel is the better game. The December 2009 staff of Game Informer magazine sounds like a group of such people; the issue published that month had a list of what they considered the “200 Greatest Video Games of All Time”, where Ms. Pac-Man made it to the top ten – and the original Pac-Man didn’t even reach the top fifty. From the little excerpts that I remember of the article, their case simply said that this game did Pac-Man better than Pac-Man; it offered those little tweaks like faster movement, ghosts that were less predisposed towards patterns, and bonus fruit that paraded around the mazes that in the end made a world of difference.
What seems to be left out of discussion most about the original game is that for all its great design, it’s kind of dreary. The predator-prey dynamic offered with the ability to eat the ghosts that chase Pac-Man is a good idea, but it’s really just a game about clearing an endless series of static boards, and unlike Super Mario Bros. there’s only one way to do everything. Little modifications like the ones that Game Informer mentioned give the action some vitality and challenge, and that, really, is the spirit of Ms. Pac-Man. It’s good to say that with the Super Nintendo port, released a tidy fifteen years after the game’s debut, Williams Entertainment and Digital Eclipse both expand further on that spirit and provide several handfuls of aesthetic goods to go with everything.
The game’s main mode consists of 32 mazes, likely a response to hardware limitations yet the creators work around this with ease. The story that the game tells is about the relationship between Ms. Pac-Man and her beau – from how they met to the children they had, told through neat cut-scenes that double as a sort of reward for the player. As for the gameplay, the actual pellet-munching that lets the player advance, the old model has been given alterations that keep things interesting. With this version of the game, the screen scrolls; it’s zoomed in closer to Ms. Pac-Man so that it moves up and down with her movements, though thankfully not so close that the player doesn’t have a clear idea of what’s ahead, and creates a new way of managing the task at hand. Since the ghosts, score-counter, and life-counter aren’t always in sight, an element of danger creeps in, and now the player really hopes that they can avoid the ghosts long enough to score high enough and get an extra life. There’s another feature that turns the danger into outright excitement, a boost option – by holding down an action button a tiny motion blur appears behind Ms. Pac-Man as her speed doubles, or for more daring players the boost can be selected as “always on” and they can zip through the mazes with a little more difficulty making turns, but also with a greater sense of vigor.
And what about these mazes, did they stay the same? No, the creators didn’t forget about them: they too get some sweet upgrades. The “main mode” mentioned before mostly has the classic layouts, but the twist is that the mode is one of four ways the player can take on the action, and elsewhere the mazes get all sorts of different and interesting layouts. The “mini mode” makes the mazes smaller and the “big mode” expands them, something that presents a duality in play style; the former is quicker to play through, and the latter is a better opportunity to really rack up those points because of all the extra pellets lying around. The “strange mode” is where the game’s design really gets turned on its head, with a really unconventional series of boards; some of them aren’t even mazes, they’re areas dotted with funky obstacles that test how well Ms. Pac-Man can turn a corner. Each of these modes offers unique and challenging variations on the Pac-Manian process of wolfing down pellets, a concept that benefits well from these welcome changes. Player’s response to challenges like these is the main reason that the original Ms. Pac-Man has earned so much praise; it all works.
This version of the game is a worthy heir to the original’s legacy, and on an extra note it looks fantastic. 16-bit graphics do wonders for this early-80s title, retaining the vibrant colors while adding sheen and detail to the right areas. The mazes remain neon-pink and electric-blue and such, but now they have a glimmer of light on the walls that makes them pop like they hadn’t really before; the pellets get some of this treatment too, getting shiny coats of fuchsia and metallic silver. Ms. Pac-Man herself now has eyes and makeup, and for possibly the first time she has a real face. This game additionally inherits the original’s sound, which means there’s a general lack of music but also a lot of iconic sound effects; the buu-woop of nabbing a bonus snack, the ding-ding-ding of an extra life, and all the other favorites.
Williams’ and Digital Eclipse’s 16-bit update of Ms. Pac-Man is a splendid game, but I must refrain from absolute recommendation. All of the ideas they implemented in this game really do mesh with this concept, but at the same time making this version a console title limits its potential. The original game, like its prequel, is a communal experience: it’s still slight, but that slightness makes it designed to be shared in public where people can access it freely, and that’s what the medium of the arcade cabinet (and the Xbox Live Arcade, where Pac-Man Championship Edition resides) can do. Much as I’m glad this version exists, I wish it weren’t just cooped up in a Super Nintendo cartridge. I don’t think that’s how people will remember the game in the future.
Four out of five stars.
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