Friday, 30 September 2016
Mega Drive Review - Ms Pacman (Game 117)
[Continuing from the ‘Pacmania’ Review]
Published by Tengen
Released in 1991
As Retro Gamer magazine notes "After the success of 'Pac-Man' in 1980, it was inevitable that a sequel would appear." The history of the sequel 'Ms. Pac-Man' is actually a lot more complex than most realise. It involves unofficial arcade modifications and lawsuits but the end result was a Namco endorsed follow up that featured video game's first female protagonist. Despite what the film 'Wayne's World' once claimed the game isn't the same as 'Pac-Man' with the exception of the main character having a bow in their hair.
The arcade version included four different mazes, now with more warp tunnels and solid walls - making it far easier to quickly read the level layout. It also offered slightly improved enemy AI which caused endless headache for 'Pac-Man' pros who had memorised the behaviours of the ghosts in the original game. Bonus fruit now moves around screen, with a far more varied menu on offer this time. So the differences are small but they're just enough to make 'Ms. Pac-Man' superior to the original without ruining the concept.
'Ms. Pac-Man' is widely considered to be "the most popular arcade game ever made" and for a time it certainly held the record for "most commercially successful arcade game ever". Understandably it was ported to practically every home console and computer in some form. The Mega Drive version of course came out over a decade after the original arcade release at a time when developers were competing to show off exactly what the 16 bit generation could do. While it has had a 16bot lick of paint, 'Ms. Pac-Man' looks archaic compared to other Mega Drive titles at that time. 'Ms. Pac-Man' on the 16 bit Sega was however never meant to be a reinvention, it was consciously made for fans of the arcade game to enjoy. It hit the mark for the target audience with Classic Games Room's Mark Bussler calling the Mega Drive version of 'Ms. Pac-Man' "the best version of the greatest game of all time".
'Ms. Pac-Man' is far closer to the original 'Pac-Man' than 'Pacmania' is. The circular wife can't jump for example which makes the game an expansion rather than a reinvention of 'Pac-Man'. While the arcade version only had four mazes this Mega Drive version has dozens divided up into several categories including "big", "arcade" and "strange". The player can also put Ms. Pac-Man into “turbo” mode where she moves around the maze much faster. As you progress, the AI of the ghosts becomes much more aggressive and they will actively try to hunt you down and kill you. While this was also a feature of the arcade original this is far more obvious in the 16 bit Sega version and presents a welcomed challenge that breaks up the monotony of the game a little bit.
While it would make sense for the "big" mazes to scroll, the problem with this version of 'Ms. Pac-Man' is that every maze scrolls. The original game had a longer screen so all arcade mazes are taller than they are wide. This does not lend itself to the 4:3 almost square display of the Mega Drive. 'Pacmania' scrolled without detriment to the experience because the playable character was always in the centre of the screen. 'Ms. Pac-Man' however only scrolls up and down when the avatar is at the screen's edge. This makes her much more prone to sudden attacks from off screen ghosts. The problem is made worse during two player mode, when the screen simply doesn’t know who to look at. Should both players move in opposite directions, then one playable charter will vanish off screen. That's not to say multiplayer mode shouldn’t have been included, it's actually warmly welcomed. As with so many things, playing with someone else greatly improves the experience.
Your choice of which 'Pac-Man' style game you prefer really does depend on your love for the original. I would certainly argue that 'Pacmania' has aged better, it's much more attractive and certainly more varied. 'Ms. Pac-Man' while being more authentic perhaps can be incredibly frustrating with enemy AI catching you in unavoidable traps far too frequently. Pac-Man’s ability to jump in ‘Pacmania’, while not a guaranteed form of defence at least offers some hope.
Both games however are enjoyable in small doses by anyone. The central "eat the pills avoid the ghosts" concept is simple and accessible. Perhaps this is why today, people still latch onto the game series and celebrate its existence. While I didn't catch what my hipster friend was doing on the London underground that day, maybe his love for 'Pac-Man' extended beyond decorated bags. After all, with its simple game mechanics and short-burst style game play, a 'Pac-Man' game is the perfect game to play on a commute. Five minutes of spare time is more than you need to finish a few mazes and munch ghosts. Maybe it wasn't electric dance music that entertained him, perhaps I overheard the 'Pac-Man' theme bleeding from his headphones.
To be honest, when building a Mega Drive I doubt I would have bought one 'Pac-Man' game let alone two. These came in a big bundle and I largely ignored them while I played the others. I'm pleased I did eventually get round to putting them in the machine as if forgotten how addictive the series can be.