Friday, June 30, 2017

Ms. Lacks, Man

Okay, just one more post before June ends. Yes, it's cranky, but by my estimation, that frustration is well deserved. 

Let's talk about Ms. Pac-Man for a minute, shall we? Originally designed by General Computer Corporation as "Crazy Otto," the game got some tweaks by Midway's marketing department, becoming an official sequel to Pac-Man and one of the most successful arcade games of all time. 

Thirty five years later, people still play Ms. Pac-Man, and for good reason... it's more varied, more colorful, and has loads more personality than the first Pac-Man. Just between you and me, I don't think Namco has ever forgiven this US-born game for topping its own creation. Home ports of the game have varied wildly in quality, with Namco's own conversions for later consoles feeling almost intentionally lackluster. Let's take a look at the scoreboard...

ATARI 2600
To the best of my knowledge, this was the first console port of Ms. Pac-Man. It's clearly saddled with the limitations of the aging 2600 hardware, but it's an earnest effort and a huge step forward from the first game. Ms. Pac-Man faces in all directions, and the fruit targets bounce along the playfield just as they had in the arcade game. I spent many a morning playing this one just before school.

ATARI 5200
image from Atari Age
Outwardly superior to the 2600, with a higher resolution, more faithful mazes, and excellent sound. The big problem here is that Ms. Pac-Man moves rather slowly, and jerks along the playfield slightly while eating dots. The 5200's stock controller doesn't help matters much, but really, if you spend any time with this system at all you should have bought a 2600 joystick adapter or a Wico controller already.

ATARI 7800
Coincidentally, Ms. Pac-Man creators General Computer also designed this system, originally meant as a peace offering to players burned by the Atari 5200. Ultimately, the console was delayed to compete with the NES, making its flaws more obvious. Nevertheless, it's smoother, faster, and more detailed than its Atari 5200 counterpart, and even sounds okay despite the 7800 sharing a sound processor with the 2600.

Image from Emuparadise
Putrid green courtesy of Namco
And here is where the problems begin. This version of Ms. Pac-Man is obviously a reskin of Namco's already shaky NES port of Pac-Man. The lovely pastels of the arcade game have been turned into gruesome greens, rust reds, and Pepto-Bismol pinks, the characters have been awkwardly scrunched into mazes too small for them, and sound effects are far off the mark, excluding the music at the start and during the intermissions. It was released in 1993, probably at the exact moment when people least cared about Ms. Pac-Man, so it won't come as a surprise that the game is super rare today. Hold onto your copy if you've got one, but for the love of Pete, don't play it! 

This is an entirely different animal from Namco's game, and takes a lot of liberties with the source material, adding mazes (some good, some so frustrating you'll want to belt the designers) and new features. Ms. Pac-Man can dash, giving it the flavor of the Ms. Pac-Man speed hacks, and the translation is overall vastly superior to Namco's version. Colors are brighter, the artwork is more faithful, the sound... kind of blows... well, I guess you can't have it all. It's worth noting that this version was developed by Franz Lanzinger, the guy who created the very Pac-Manny arcade game Crystal Castles back in 1983.

Despite running on nearly identical hardware, the Master System and Game Gear versions are completely different. The former is based on Tengen's NES version, with the same variety of mazes and the turbo button. The latter is based on the crap Namco served up on the NES, with the same scrunched up mazes and similar sound effects. One thing worth noting is that extra care went into the graphics in these two games, with exquisitely detailed fruits in the Game Gear version and jowly monsters in the Master System game. Why the designers couldn't just stay true to the arcade game is anyone's guess, but it's a reoccurring issue with these ports.

Image from AtariAge (again)
This is hands down the most Atari-looking of Atari's Ms. Pac-Man conversions. The monsters are single colored, with black dots for eyes, and Ms. Pac-Man herself only looks slightly better, smashed into a six pixel wide sprite. You could blame the Lynx's coarse resolution for the stone-aged visuals, but what about the sluggish gameplay, huh? Or the chirpy sound effects? My point is, this isn't very good, no matter what Lynx fans starved for software will tell you.

Largely the same as Tengen's sorry NES conversion, with a scrolling playfield and an outline around Ms. Pac-Man. The lack of color may actually be a plus when you consider how the NES game looked. It's more detailed than the Lynx version too, but then again, so are most cave paintings.

Pretty similar to the GameBoy version of Ms. Pac-Man, which in turn was similar to the NES version. It was the 1990s... I guess Namco was into recycling, like everyone else. However, this one has several improvements. Color is the most obvious of these, but it's good color, unlike the NES version with its desaturated greens and reds. Also thrown in for your (likely brief) amusement is a port of Super Pac-Man.

Image from Player 1 Start
Remember the NES version of Ms. Pac-Man by Tengen? Well, these two cartridges are the same thing, beaten bloody with the 16-bit stick. Everything is jarringly detailed and shiny, from the mazes to the fruit to Ms. Pac-Man herself. If you insist on an arcade perfect port, maybe don't get either of these. The sound effects rapidly alternate between stunningly faithful to the arcade version and "what the hell were they thinking," with the Super NES version sounding the best. Ms. Pac's high-pitched quacking/oinking in the Genesis game will... probably take some adjustment.

(Image from Moby Games)
What the hell happened here? In the mid 1990s to the turn of the century, Namco had access to the most powerful game consoles ever made; machines far and away superior to the original Ms. Pac-Man hardware. Despite this, the port of Ms. Pac-Man on Namco Museum is clearly compromised, with compressed graphics. Not satisfied with frustrating Playstation owners, Namco also released this collection for the Nintendo 64, and most depressingly, next generation consoles like the Dreamcast and Playstation 2. You know, the Playstation 2, the game system powerful enough to be used as a missile guidance system. Guess a 1981 arcade game was just a leeetle too much to ask from a console that could send you to the Matrix. (Either that, or Namco just got lazy.)

Rightly repulsed by the Ms. Pac-Man ports in earlier Namco Museum releases, someone at the company hired the emulation masters at Digital Eclipse to (finally) do the game justice. The end result was Namco Museum 50th Anniversary, which not only includes a sterling conversion of Ms. Pac-Man, but a lot of other Namco hits. Rolling Thunder? Galaga '88? Yes, please! The interface is a nice touch, a spinning turntable packed with authentic arcade cabinets and 1980s music blasting in the background. Now that's the way you do it!


Okay. I'm going to skip ahead a couple of chapters, because if I had to cover every Ms. Pac-Man port in existence, I'd never get a chance to make my point. Some years back, Namco released Pac-Man Museum, a spin-off of its Namco Museum series featuring only Pac-Man games... and the characters from that stupid computer rendered cartoon. Namco offered Ms. Pac-Man as part of the collection, but it was downloadable content, and you had to download it right away or pay five dollars for it later. I opted to pick up the DLC while it was free, and waited for Pac-Man Museum to go on sale.

I bought Pac-Man Museum the moment it hit the digital bargain bin, and now I can finally play Ms. Pac-Man. All the other games on the collection are golden, so there should be no problem with this one, right? Right?


Uh, no. Very not right. The attract mode looks fine, but then the game starts and you hear a constant high-pitched droning that sounds like the noise a guy must hear before his head explodes in Scanners, except it happens all the time, and you can only wish your head would explode to take the pain away. A casual player may not notice the difference, but I've been playing Ms. Pac-Man for a while, so I picked up on it right away... and wanted to play a better version almost immediately afterward.

I mean, sure, I could have settled for Namco Museum on the Game Boy Advance (which is good), or Namco Museum Battle Collection for the PSP (which is very good), but I wanted to play Ms. Pac-Man on a big screen. My copy of Namco Museum 50th Anniversary Edition for the Xbox is back in Michigan, so to satisfy my raging need for instant gratification, I had to buy the game from an online source.

Currently, the Playstation 4 version of Ms. Pac-Man is available for just two dollars on the PSN store, so I went that route. And that's when my problems continued. I should have known something was up when the game took what seemed like a lifetime to finish downloading. Turns out that Ms. Pac-Man for the Playstation 4 is eight hundred megabytes, which is about... 799.9 megabytes larger than the actual arcade game. I could understand a little padding for a user interface, but damn, 800 megabytes? That's just senseless. You could put half the Neo-Geo library into that much space.

Joystick not included. And actively discouraged.
(image from the Playstation Store)
So it finally downloads, and I hungrily open the file. It's a pretty good conversion, and I love the option to add reverb to the sound effects, giving them added punch and making it seem like you're hanging out in an arcade with noises bouncing off the walls. However... there's no joystick support. You know, a joystick, the thing you used when you first played Ms. Pac-Man. Some Playstation 4 games have the option to play with a joystick designed for the Playstation 3, but that was a bone developers had thrown to fighting game fans. It's not a feature in older arcade games, to my great consternation. Sure, you could play Ms. Pac-Man with a Dual Shock controller, but you could do your own dental surgery, and I don't recommend that either.

So I looked for yet another version of a game I already bought, in the vain hope that Namco would finally get it right. Okay, Ms. Pac-Man is on sale for two dollars over at Microsoft's store. I guess I'll get that. Sure, I already have it for the Xbox 360, but that's the Pac-Man Museum version, and my ears have already taken enough punishment.

(Image from IGN)
Out of all the home ports of Ms. Pac-Man I've got, the standalone version on the Xbox 360 is the most tolerable. Yes, the sound is a little soft, prompting me to crank up my television's volume to compensate. Yes, Ms. Pac-Man looks strangely sultry in the border art. (No, I won't "come up and see you sometime." Aren't you married?) However, it offers most of what the Playstation 4 version does, and you can play it with a damn joystick you already own. 

I'm not sure why I had to buy this game three separate times before I found one that Namco did right. You'd think they would have it down to a science after thirty-five years, but I'm starting to get the impression that Namco would be much happier if people forgot about Ms. Pac-Man entirely and just settled for the original game. (Fat chance of that happening, though.)

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I see what you mean. I always knew the NES versions sucked--which is a real shame--but I had no idea most other versions sucked, too. That said, I find the visuals of the Game Gear port to be interesting, although I wouldn't go so far as to say I prefer them to the arcade version's. Also, I've got to say that I think the Lynx's visuals are ... intriguing. They kind of look like how I imagine a Pico-8 "demake" would look, if that makes sense.