Pac-Mania (Sega Master System)

When first seeing Pac-Man in pseudo-3D, there is a certain level of excitement at the promise of a new Pac experience. However, this soon fades, as the somewhat pedestrian pace of the game and frustrating controls prevent this game from achieving its potential. It isn’t that Pac-Mania is a bad game, but it certainly does not provide the level of enjoyment that can be had with many of its 2-D predecessors.

Coming up with new ideas for extending the Pac-Man franchise had to be challenging. I mean, what does one do after changing the titular character into a woman, a child, a baby, and a professor? The character had even been made super. What is left?

Apparently, that character goes manic 🙂

Following the tired practice of quoting from Webster’s, “mania” is defined as “1: excitement manifested by by mental and physical hyperactivity, disorganization of behavior, and elevation of mood” or as “2: excessive or unreasonable enthusiasm.” So, our question becomes, which of these applies to Pac-Mania for the Sega Master System?

Let’s start with a cursory examination of the game. Unlike the sequels I recently reviewed, Pac-Mania once again places the user in control of Pac-Man. To distinguish this game from Pac-Man’s previous incarnations, this game is presented in an isometric view. This not only allows to provide dimension to the characters, but it also permits movement in a third plane, which Pac-Man accomplishes by jumping (the “elevation” referred to in the Webster’s definition? Nah, I think not). Pac-Man now appears spherical as opposed to flat and circular. Pac-Man and the ghosts all look fine; however, the game is certainly not as attractive as the arcade original.

The game moves along at an okay, but none-too-fast pace (so . . . no hyperactivity). The game is not as plodding as the Atari 2600 Pac-Man, but you won’t experience the more frantic action of, say, Jr. Pac-Man. I don’t know how this compares with the arcade original, as I never had an opportunity to play it, so I am curious as to whether this is a design choice or if the Sega Master System was just unable to handle this game running at a faster speed.

As mentioned previously, Pac-Man now has the ability to jump, we he can use to vault over ghosts or even power pellets in order to save them. Later, though, the ghosts get this ability as well (at least I was warned that they do prior to Sand Box Land, though I never saw one actually jump) to help even the score. Also, more ghosts wander the maze of Pac-Mania than in the previous games I reviewed; however, the mazes are so large and the ghosts rarely seem to work together (disorganization of behavior?), so their bolstered ranks do little to place Pac in peril.

One issue I had with this game was the control. As with all Pac-Man games, a good controller is paramount, as it is too easy to do an about-face into a ghost when attempting to quickly take a side path to evade him (or her). I think an arcade-style joystick is ideal, but unfortunately, I did not have one for my Master System, so I was stuck using a three-button Genesis pad (because the Master System pads I have are atrocious). The problem with a control pad is that it is too easy to hit a diagonal unintentionally and to not be able to more accurately. This is compounded when the game does not seem to read inputs as it should. If you watch the gameplay video, you can see that I occasionally move back and forth in front of a side passage. This is not due to indecision on my part—I could not get Pac to move that way, even though I was pressing the control pad in the right direction. Hmm, that disorganization of behavior seems to be more and more applicable . . .

Or, perhaps, the most suitable justification for the “mania” in the title lies with the definition “excessive or unreasonable enthusiasm.” When first seeing Pac-Man in pseudo-3D, there is a certain level of excitement at the promise of a new Pac experience. However, this soon fades, as the somewhat pedestrian pace of the game and frustrating controls prevent this game from achieving its potential. It isn’t that Pac-Mania is a bad game, but it certainly does not provide the level of enjoyment that can be had with many of its 2-D predecessors.

Not recommended

Ms. Pac-Man (Nintendo Game Boy)

Even when miniaturized on a Game Boy screen, Ms. Pac-Man still delivers the goods. If you a Pac-Man fan, it’s a great game to take wherever you go, just in case you have a few idle minutes you need to fill with some video game goodness.

Though the Pac-Man series of games fell from grace as the ’80s progressed, as newer and more complicated games were released for more sophisticated hardware, that did not prevent the games from being ported. Gamers like me scoffed at the various Pac-Man games arriving on the later 8-bit and 16-bit systems. If I could choose between Mario and Pac-Man, why would I choose the latter? Pac-Man was passé.

I probably maintained this view throughout much of my youth. I didn’t have the time nor the money to waste on such simple, outdated games. Pac-Man was for guys who were still programming in BASIC on their Apple IIes while Monty Python played in the background on their Betamaxes. Pac-Man had no place in my late ’80s/early ’90s game world. This is why when I had a Game Boy, I owned games like Castlevania and Mega Man. Those were the hot games—not some monotonous little maze game.

If you’re at all like me, you want to travel back in time about 20 years and smack this smarmy kid. Or at least show him the error of his ways. Because, even though I did play all the way through The Castlevania Adventure, and I probably thought it was great at the time, I should have been open to playing a game like Ms. Pac-Man, which was perfect for handheld gaming. It’s a game that can be picked up and played for 10, 15, or 20 minutes while on a road trip (or while goofing off in art class). It doesn’t require a time investment, and is there for a little quick fun whenever needed.

Ms. Pac-Man on the Game Boy is a good port of the game. It doesn’t play too quickly (seems downright slow after playing Jr. Pac-Man), but given the small size of the Game Boy screen, that may be a good thing. The game features scrolling mazes and detailed characters. A cool bonus is that in a two-player game, the second player gets to control Pac-Man. I don’t know if any other versions are set up that way, but I thought it was a nice touch. At the end of the game, once both players have exhausted their extra lives, Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man are shown coming together, kissing, and then the one who scored the most points gets to do a kind of victory dance (as much of a victory dance as can be done sans arms or legs). That made me laugh. Aww, good game. I love you. In your face, loser! 🙂

The one area in which this game suffered was sound. During play, I thought the sound was fine. It didn’t seem quite right, but I loved that it had the constant Pac-Man sound (if you’ve been around the coin-op, you should know what I’m talking about) that the Atari games lacked. It took me back to the days of arcades and just hearing the different games, each of them beckoning me—your quarters, give us your quarters . . . . The sounds during the intermission (I use the singular here, as I only made it to one—I don’t know if the others are included or not) seemed very off, and the bonk sound the ghosts make when running into one another was missing. I will confess that I played this on my GameCube using the Game Boy Player, and I’m not sure if that might affect the sound at all, but I doubt that it would, as the games are not played via emulation.

Even when miniaturized on a Game Boy screen, Ms. Pac-Man still delivers the goods. If you a Pac-Man fan, it’s a great game to take wherever you go, just in case you have a few idle minutes you need to fill with some video game goodness.

Recommended

Jr. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

Of the three Atari 2600 Pac-Man games, Jr. Pac-Man is definitely the member of the Pac-Man family you’ll want to bring home. With its more elaborate, scrolling mazes; improved AI; and faster gameplay; it finally brought the excitement of the arcade to the 2600.

With Ms. Pac-Man, Atari redeemed itself following the disappointment that was the 2600 port of Pac-Man. The game was closer to the arcade original, played at a faster pace, included additional mazes, and was just more enjoyable overall. Still, sacrifices were made when porting the game, leaving room yet again for improvement. Enter Jr. Pac-Man.

Unlike Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, playing Jr. Pac-Man was an entirely new experience for me. By the time this was in the arcades, Pac-Man was not a huge draw for me (plus, I lived in a small town, so access to the latest coin-op was rare). If I ever knew about this game, I had forgotten about it, which made finding it recently on the 2600 a real joy.

Unlike Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man finally provided a vertical maze. Instead of the entire maze being onscreen at all times, the screen scrolls vertically as the player moves (which is somewhat strange because, from what I have read, the original coin-op had a screen that a screen that scrolled horizontally, as the mazes were wider than they were tall). The game plays much faster than its predecessors and feels much more like an arcade experience. Also, the game is much more difficult when compared with Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. Often when I died in previous games, it was partially due to the fact that I was getting a little bored and was lackadaisically wandering around the mazes. The quick pace of Jr. Pac-Man always keeps me focused, as the ghosts are relentless and the AI is better. Even more than in Ms. Pac-Man, the ghosts seem to exhibit their individual characteristics, with the red ghost almost always on the pursuit and the orange ghost . . . not so much. Additionally, the mazes are more complex, with more corners to navigate, which seems to work to the ghosts’ advantage as they try to corner the player. With regard to sound, I cannot comment on how arcade-accurate the music and effects are, but I will say that they are pleasing and appropriate.

My only gripe with this game is the character. For some reason, I don’t like controlling a Pac-Man wearing a little beanie, and I don’t like that the fruit has been replaced by tricycles and other juvenile fare (why is he eating a tricycle?). It’s a minor complaint, and I’m not so sure why I am more willing to accept the other incarnations of Pac-Man I have previously reviewed, but I would much rather to have this be an updated and improved version of Pac-Man. It doesn’t ruin the game for me, but it certainly doesn’t add anything, either.

Of the three Atari 2600 Pac-Man games, Jr. Pac-Man is definitely the member of the Pac-Man family you’ll want to bring home. With its more elaborate, scrolling mazes; improved AI; and faster gameplay; it finally brought the excitement of the arcade to the 2600. Now, if there were only some way to get rid of that beanie . . .

Highly recommended

Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

After the let-down that was the Atari 2600 Pac-Man, it must have been a relief to finally get a port on the VCS that was true to the arcade and a blast to play. Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 still holds up today. Certainly, there are later ports for other consoles that are superior, but for those of you who still have your six-switcher hooked up to the tube, Ms. Pac-Man is a good bet for some arcade fun.

Ms. Pac-Man happens to be one of my favorite arcade games of all time, though it took more than two decades after the game’s initial release for me to truly fall in love with our little bow-topped coin-op pellet muncher. Most Friday nights while I was pursuing my Master’s degree, a group of English grad students would gather at a bar called The Granville. Though I did not always join my fellow students on Fridays, I put in an appearance now and then, sometimes even showing up several Fridays in a row. Between games of pool, competitions on who could hold a lit match the longest (a contest that was, sadly, of my creation), and other little bits of drunken revelry, I would always make sure that I spent at least a few minutes with the bar’s one arcade machine—Ms. Pac-Man. Every time I went to the Granville, I would put my Jack and Coke aside for a moment and make sure that I set the high score on the machine. It became a ritual, and it wasn’t a real trip to The Granville unless I walked away that night knowing that my initials topped the high scores.

Later, some misguided fool replaced that Ms. Pac-Man machine with a Golden Tee cabinet (why are these all over the place, by the way—I never see anyone playing them). Without my beloved coin-op to play, I turned to my consoles for a Ms. Pac-Man fix, but I had only one port: Ms. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.

As I stated in my previous review, though I don’t believe the Atari 2600 Pac-Man is as bad as it’s made out to be, it is not a great game and becomes monotonous quickly. But what about Ms. Pac-Man? Was it yet another sloppy port that not even multiple Jack and Cokes could make fun?

Fortunately, Ms. Pac-Man does a much better job of capturing the original game than Pac-Man. The game moves at a faster pace and the graphics are truer to the arcade original, as are the sounds. As with Pac-Man, though, changes were made. Once again, the aspect ratio of the game has been changed to better suit a television. The ghosts still flicker, but not nearly as badly as they did in Pac-Man. The intermission scenes have been removed. However, these are all acceptable changes, since the game plays well and, as opposed to Pac-Man, is actually fun! As I played the game, I wanted to keep improving and get to new screens (which made me realize how much of a failing the lack of additional screens was in Pac-Man). Plus, I appreciated that the ghosts again have noticeable patterns of behavior, with Blinky (or Shadow, if you prefer) being relentless in later stages, running down Ms. Pac-Man whenever he gets the chance.

After the let-down that was the Atari 2600 Pac-Man, it must have been a relief to finally get a port on the VCS that was true to the arcade and a blast to play. Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 still holds up today. Certainly, there are later ports for other consoles that are superior, but for those of you who still have your six-switcher hooked up to the tube, Ms. Pac-Man is a good bet for some arcade fun, with or without the Jack 😉

Recommended

Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

Even though I do think that Pac-Man for the 2600 does not deserve the reputation it has, I still cannot recommend it. It might be worth a few plays to satisfy your own curiosity, but there are too many better Pac-Man games available.

We begin our week of Pac-Man reviews with Pac-Man for the 2600, a port of the arcade classic that is notorious for not only failing to capture the experience of the original, but also (often mentioned alongside E.T.) for contributing to the video game crash of 1983. So, how horrible is this game that it managed to upset scads of Atari gamers and bring the video game industry to its knees?

Relatively speaking, it isn’t that bad.

Granted, the complaints about Pac-Man not being faithful to the original are warranted. There were many sacrifices that were made to bring the game to the Atari 2600, and each of these removed the game further from the source material. The game board was changed to fit the aspect ratio of televisions, so it lost the vertical layout of the original. The sprites for Pac-Man and the ghosts are simplified, with Pac-Man being much blockier and the ghosts being monochrome. Additionally, the ghosts constantly flicker, which is not aesthetically pleasing. Apparently, this was a result of only one ghost being rendered at a time, so any one ghost only appears onscreen one out of every four frames. It makes sense, then, why there is no flicker when the ghosts move together (e.g., when they exit the box in the middle). You will also notice when you play that whenever Pac-Man eats a ghost, he will face to the right, even if he was moving from right to left.

Other differences between the Atari 2600 version and the arcade include sound differences (it’s strange to start a game of Pac-Man without that all-too-familiar intro music), behavior differences of the ghosts (e.g., the ghosts exit the central box from the side and not the top), and speed differences. This last difference is perhaps the most disappointing when comparing the Atari 2600 to the arcade. Pac-Man feels like he’s taking a leisurely pace through the maze, which makes the game feel very ho-hum.

All of this considered, though, Pac-Man can be enjoyable. Certainly, it does not provide the experience of the original, but taken on its own and compared with other Atari 2600 titles, the game fares well. It reminds me of when I saw Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. After anticipating the newest installment of a beloved childhood series, the movie was a huge letdown; however, had this not been a Star Wars game and been saddled with the expectations set by the original trilogy, I would probably have considered it an above-average sci-fi flick. If people had not been anticipating the console release of the arcade smash Pac-Man and expected what the arcade game provided, I think that this game would not be remembered so harshly.

Now, even though I do think that Pac-Man for the 2600 does not deserve the reputation it has, I still cannot recommend it. It might be worth a few plays to satisfy your own curiosity, but there are too many better Pac-Man games available, including Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600, both of which I plan to cover in upcoming reviews.

Not recommended

Haunted House

Haunted House, taken out of context, is not a remarkable game. It will not likely hold your attention for long, even with nine different difficulty settings. What makes Haunted House noteworthy are its links to the survival horror genre, as it introduces some survival horror devices that were used to great effect in more recent genre entries.

Tracing the origin of horror video gaming may not be as simple as one might think, in large part due to some ambiguity over what actually constitutes a horror game. Is it enough to include horror archetypes (e.g., vampires and zombies as in the Castlevania series), or does the game have to present an atmosphere of fear (as in Silent Hill)? If the latter, do we need to consider the era in which a game was released? As movies have shown, what may horrify at one point in history can seem benign and comical later (consider the monster movies from the ’50s or even the slasher movies from the ’80s).

Some attempt to get around these questions by dividing horror into sub-genres, such as survival horror. Generally, Alone in the Dark is credited as the first survival horror game and Resident Evil is credited as the game that made this sub-genre popular; however, even this can be contested, as the Gaming Historian does in this video. He claims that 3D Monster Maze, a game that has the player traversing a three-dimensional maze while fleeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex, is actually the first 3-D survival horror game. It is an argument that isn’t without merit.

The same year that 3D Monster Maze was released, Atari released Haunted House. While not three-dimensional, and thereby unable to stake a claim as the first 3-D survival horror game, Haunted House is arguably one of the very first survival horror games to be released.

Note that is said, “arguably.”

In Haunted House, you guide a pair of eyes representing the player through the four stories of a mansion while avoiding bats, spiders, and the ghost of Zachary Graves, who was once the reclusive owner of the property. You are given an unlimited supply of matches at the outset of your journey and nothing else. Matches are necessary to find the pieces of a magical urn (your purpose for entering the house in the first place), the master key, or the scepter, which protects you from harm. On all but the easiest setting, the matches are also your only way of seeing where you are going, as they provide a circle of light around the eyes. You must find the three pieces of the urn (which reforms as you find each piece) and escape the mansion before you are scared to death nine times.

Given the premise of the game, consider what we typically consider survival horror. In these games, the character tends to be placed in an area surrounded by monstrous/evil enemies (spiders, bats, and a ghost, in this case), starts with limited resources (you begin only with matches here), has a limited inventory (Haunted House only allows you to carry one item at a time, so no running around with the scepter while picking up urn pieces), and must complete some task to escape the nightmare (here, you must assemble the urn and make it back to the entrance to the mansion). On more advanced settings, the enemies in Haunted House can chase you from room to room, and all that you can do is run and hope to lose them before being killed.

It is interesting to see tactics used in this game that would return in later survival horror games. The idea of only seeing what the matches illuminates reminds me a lot of the Silent Hill games, where often you are only able to see by the flashlight you carry. Also, the fact that you can only run from enemies and not attack is very reminiscent of the Clock Tower games.

All this considered, Haunted House is an Atari 2600 game from 1981. Obviously, there are technological constraints to the game that weren’t an issue as hardware improved. You aren’t likely to feel afraid while playing Haunted House, though you may become panicky when pursued by an enemy, as with no means of defense, you will have to flee in the dark (your match will be blown out when the enemy appears, and you can’t relight it while the enemy is still onscreen), often resulting in you running into a dead end or opening a door where another monster lies in wait.

Without a sense of terror from Haunted House, some may take issue with including it in the horror genre; however, most aren’t likely to be frightened by any of the old Universal Studios monster movies, for example. If we consider these movies a part of the horror genre, then it seems like we have to do the same with Haunted House.

Haunted House, taken out of context, is not a remarkable game. It will not likely hold your attention for long, even with nine different difficulty settings. What makes Haunted House noteworthy are its links to the survival horror genre, as it introduces some survival horror devices that were used to great effect in more recent genre entries. Just as a movie like Nosferatu is interesting as a piece of horror cinema history, Haunted House is worth experiencing for its contribution to video game horror.

Recommended for its historical significance only

Note: Atari is releasing a downloadable Haunted House game soon to Xbox Live, WiiWare, and the PC. It seems to share some gameplay mechanics with the original, so it would be interesting to compare the two once it is released.

Brave Battle Saga: Legend of the Magic Warrior

I honestly wanted to enjoy this game, but its inconsistent graphics, often tedious battles, and uninspired story prevented me from doing so. I commend Djinn and SteveMartin for their work making this game available to the English-speaking community. I just hope that their next project is a little more deserving than Brave Battle Saga.

In all likelihood, you have never heard of Brave Battle Saga: Legend of the Magic Warrior. Originally released as Barver Battle Saga: The Space Fighter, this is an unlicensed Chinese title that reportedly borrowed heavily (i.e., directly lifted sprites, etc.) from other games such as Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy. Thanks to the hacking and translating skills of Djinn and SteveMartin (links take you to their respective pages on Romhacking.net), those of us who speak English have the opportunity to experience this game.

Using my Everdrive cart, I was able to experience this title on my Sega Genesis. I approached this game with a certain level of excitement for a few reasons. First, Brave Battle Saga is a role-playing game—one of my favorite game genres—and there weren’t a lot of RPG titles released on the Genesis. Second, I had the thrill of playing something rare and forbidden. Third, this was a new Genesis experience, and it had been a very long time since I had one of those.

The game starts out with you controlling one character (unimaginatively named Tim). Tim lives in a village that chooses a town hero each year, the hero being the first to complete a task given by the town elder. Due to his participation in this challenge, Tim finds himself exiled from his town and placed on a quest that will take him to several different towns, kingdoms, shrines, and eventually to a space station that threatens to destroy the planet. The adventure is a little cumbersome at first with only one character, as you will usually face 2-4 enemies in each encounter, and they usually get to attack before your character. Waiting through several enemy attacks, finally getting to retaliate (which may or may not be enough to kill an enemy and decrease the attacks against you), and repeating this pattern until the enemies are destroyed can be tedious and sometimes infuriating. Luckily, other characters eventually join Tim, which makes the battles a little more enjoyable, though your enemies will still likely attack prior to most (if not all) of your characters.

The action during battles reminds me of the Final Fantasy games, and the action occurs without pausing while you make decisions on what you want each character to do. Each character has a bar that slowly fills up, and once filled, you are allowed to give that character a command. After the character acts, the bar is depleted and must fill up again. Much of the time, this system works fine; however, whenever scrolling through menus for a particular spell or item later in the game, you may get annoyed with the extra turns the enemy will receive while you search. Personally, I prefer RPGs that use a battle system like in the Phantasy Star series, where you are allowed to pause the action after each turn, but I can see how some may feel that pausing like that pulls you a little out of the action.

The graphics in the game are nice, but the pirated nature of the game prevents the graphics from feeling cohesive. For one, whenever Tim and his companions are traveling, they will encounter monster sprites. Whenever Tim touches a monster sprite, the game switches to a battle screen. The problem is that, more often than not, the monster in the battle screen has absolutely no resemblance to the monster Tim ran into. For example, Tim may run into a monster that looks like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors, but when the game switches to the battle screen, he is up against a couple of giant eagles and a swordsman. The same problem exists in the character sprites for Tim and crew as well. When not in battle, these characters have a super-deformed look. Once a battle begins, the characters are more realistically proportioned and don’t closely resemble their non-battle selves.

Surprisingly, the game is lengthy, and I spent around twenty hours playing through it. Unfortunately, the story is not compelling and the battles quickly become monotonous. I remember wondering over the last quarter of the game when it would finally end. Finishing was more a matter of perseverance than pleasure.

I honestly wanted to enjoy this game, but its inconsistent graphics, often tedious battles, and uninspired story prevented me from doing so. I commend Djinn and SteveMartin for their work making this game available to the English-speaking community. I just hope that their next project is a little more deserving than Brave Battle Saga.

Not recommended

Note that, if you choose to try out this game, you will need to acquire the ROM of the Chinese game and patch it with the file that can be downloaded from