• Cassie

The History of Super Pac-Man: From Pac-Man Fever to a Mild Pac-Chill



Introduction

Once upon a time, there was an era filled with kids wearing plastic Swatch watches, breakdancing in the streets, and eating popcorn to Steven Spielberg movies. All these things were good but best of all, there was a yellow circle chased by ghosts who ate a lot of things and people loved him. Not only did they just love the yellow circle, but they also fed him billions of quarters for many years and in turn made many other people very rich. He was called Pac-Man and the people of the world knew his name well. On the shores of the USA, Pac-Man not only made the original owners of Pac-Man very rich (Namco), but also the company (Bally-Midway) who was lucky enough to gain the license to Pac-Man. However Bally-Midway would be very greedy for those quarters and wanted more of them. With this greed the true sequel to Pac-Man developed by the originator Namco would get lost in a shuffle of market saturation, pop culture burnout, and poor-quality side projects. This is the story of Namco’s Super Pac-Man, and why it perhaps never really got the success in the marketplace it deserved.


The World Falls in Love with Yellow

Not pictured, cocaine.

Unless you, like me, grew up during the early 1980’s it’s hard to explain how insanely popular Pac-Man was during that era. Pac-Man was created and developed by the Japanese company Namco, a company with more than its fair share of arcade classics on its resume (Rally-X, Dig Dug, and Pole Position just to name a few). If you are one of the few people on the planet who have never played the game, you play Pac-Man (originally titled Puck-Man) who is a little yellow circle that moves around a maze collecting dots and avoiding ghosts. The game was designed by legendary game creator Toru Iwatani who has said his inspiration for the game came from wanting to design a non-violent video game compared to the (at the time) more common shooting style arcade games, and a game that would appeal to female game players. [1] The game would go onto become one of the biggest video game hits of all time, and even today Pac-Man is one of the most recognizable video game characters in the world. [2]



After the release of Pac-Man the United States along with the world went absolutely bananas for the creation and not just by pumping Pac-Man arcade machines full of quarters. An avalanche of official and unofficial Pac merchandise flooded store shelves soon after the game debuted. Most of this “Pac Gear” would arrive in the forms of inexpensive discount department store items such as school supplies, Ben Cooper Halloween costumes, candy, t-shirts, stickers, pajamas, or cheap toys. There were exceptions however including items like watches, bed sets, and a highly sought after Coleco manufactured LED tabletop video game version. Pac-Man had become an absolute pop culture phenomenon with its own Saturday morning cartoon, breakfast cereal, and even a top 10 US charting hit pop song by musicians Buckner & Garcia. [3]

Ms. Pac-Man: A Complex Lady

Just like any popular movie, it seemed a no brainer that people in charge of such successful arcade game would develop a sequel as well. What would end up being the Pac-Man sequel however would be from surprising origins. Ms. Pac-Man would be released in 1981, arguably the most successful arcade game of all time and would create a strange powerplay between the USA licensee for Pac-Man Bally-Midway verses the owners and creators Namco. Ms. Pac-Man would start out as a modification kit developed by the small company General Computer Corporation (GCC) for operators to modify original Pac-Man arcade machines.

These conversion kits are sold under the idea that a game starts to lose value as players grow bored with the game and seek out newer video game challenges. The kit would change Pac-Man (using new ROM chips and an add on daughter card to the original PCB) into a slightly new version of the game called Crazy Otto. GCC had developed a similar kit for Atari’s Missile Command arcade machine, which ended up getting the company into a bit of legal hot water with Atari. Due to this legal action, GCC had to present the kit to Bally-Midway for approval, which Bally-Midway in turn bought the rights to using it as a base for a Pac-Man sequel. The game was developed without Namco's approval, but depending on different reports it seems at some point Namco president Masaya Nakamura was possibly brought in to approve the project development. Other articles have stated that Bally-Midway somewhat strongarmed Namco into approving the game, and Namco was reluctant until it was clear soon after production that the game would be another smash hit (which Namco of course, got a large share of the royalties from).



Ms. Pac-Man is more of an evolution from the original game rather than any sort of dramatic revolution. Instead of one maze design for Pac-Man to run around in there are four variations, bonus items now move around the maze, the game board is more brightly colored, the behavior of the ghosts (or the AI of them if you will allow the term) is different, and one of the ghosts is even named Sue now. The game was a colossal success, even eclipsing the success of the original Pac-Man. Today over 40 years after its original release Ms. Pac-Man machines are staples in corner pizza restaurants, retro arcade bars, and with arcade game collectors all over the USA.

Midway Continues to Pac

Perhaps emboldened by the success of Ms. Pac-Man, or just a capitalistic desire to keep those pixel money presses pumping out quarters, Bally-Midway continued to make sequels and spin-offs to Namco’s Pac-Man for the North American market without direct permission (or little involvement) from Namco. First was a conversion kit (or upgrade) of the original Pac-Man titled Pac-Man Plus. Pac-Man Plus was an attempt to bring quarters back to the original Pac-Manmachines after the successful release of Ms. Pac-Man. This upgrade kit was also a response to the numerous bootlegs, illegally produced, and “gray market” upgrade kits for Pac-Man that had flooded the coin-op arcade marketplace in the USA by 1982. Released only one month after the release of Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus modified the original Pac maze, added new bonus items, new ghost behaviors, and a few other surprises. To fight the huge market of bootleg Pac-Manboards on the market, the upgrade kit was rather heavily copyright protected for the era, including a add on daughter board encased in epoxy.


Not wanting to miss any possible “Pac-Dollar”, in April of 1982 Bally-Midway would release a pinball machine titled Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man. I always thought the change to Mrs. rather than Ms. from Ms. Pac-Man was interesting, I wonder if Bally-Midway wanted to make sure that you knew these two yellow circles were not living in Pac sin I guess. Anyway, Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man entered the market when pinball machines were on a downhill slide in popularity compared to their video game cousins. Despite these market conditions for pinball in the early 80’s, Bally-Midway produced over 10,000 copies of Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man which was a sizeable run of pinball machines for that era.





Namco's Super Pac Enters the Arcade

In October of 1982 two more Pac machines would be released into the US market, one official Namco developed sequel and yet another strange unauthorized Bally-Midway creation. Already one month old in Japan, on October 1st, 1982, Bally-Midway would release Super Pac-Man in the USA. Super Pac-Man presented a large change in gameplay and concept when compared to the original Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man. Super Pac-Man was again developed by Toru Iwatani while working for Namco.



Unlike the first Pac game were the player eats multitudes of dots to clear the maze to the next level, In Super Pac-Man you travel around the maze eating keys which open doors. Those doors will then open closed off maze sections which contain bonus prizes from previous Pac games like fruits, bells, or Galaxian ships. When all the bonus items are eaten in a level, the game starts to the next level. As with previous Pac games, there are also several “commercial breaks” with Pac-Man based animations.




Early levels the keys tend to unlock nearby doors while later levels the keys tend to open random doors and of course the ghosts become more aggressive as the game progresses. Another interesting gameplay change is unlike previous Pac-Man games, in Super Pac-Man a player can enter the center area where the ghosts originate from. Power pellet power-ups still exist in Super Pac-Man like the previous Pac games which still turn the ghost blue allowing them to be eaten for a short window of time. There is also the addition of two (per level) "Super Pellets” that turn Pac-Man into our hero, Super Pac-Man for a time. As Super Pac-Man, Pac becomes twice the physical size he was and the "Super Speed" button on the control panel can be used to speed up. In the Super Pac mode, you can also “eat the doors” of previously unlocked areas of the maze. An additional feature of the Super mode is that the ghosts are unable to attack you (no matter if they are blue or in their normal coloring). If you cross over a ghost while in Super mode, the ghost will appear squished or flat which is supposed to give an illusion of Super Pac-Man "flying”. Other unique game features include a timed bonus round (with no ghosts, just things to eat), and a “slot machine” style bonus multiplier in the center of the playfield.


Despite the apperance, the top marquees are exactly the same size

The physical upright cabinet is similar in size, dimension, construction, and statue to a standard upright Ms. Pac-Man machine. Other than the difference in artwork, there is a playful “cut out” on the sides of the cabinet to outline the opening in Pac-Man’s mouth. Super Pac-Man machines were literally being produced at the Bally-Midway factory side-by-side with other Pac themed games, including Ms. Pac-Man. Ms. Pac-Man despite being over a half a year old at this point, was still hugely popular. Reports suggest Bally-Midway would continue to manufacture new Ms. Pac-Manmachines until the end of 1983 to keep up with demand. My Super Pac-Man cabinet seems to have overspray paint inside the cabinet that matches the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet blue, presenting the possibility that the cabinet was originally intended to be a Ms. Pac-Man. Super Pac-Man was released in a standard upright cabinet, cocktail cabinet, and cabaret cabinet. Exact production figures are unknown, but it seems that around 13,500-17,000 Super Pac-Man machines would be manufactured by Bally-Midway, a far cry from the production numbers of earlier Pac games (both of which had production numbers of over 100,000 upright cabinets alone), but a very high run compared to other titles from the 1980’s.


Super Pac-Man appears in Pac-Man's Hanna-Barbara produced cartoon series (1983-84)


Super Pac-Man would see a small foothold open in pop culture relevance besides other Pac properties, but had nowhere the impact of the original two Pac creations. Super Pac-Man would start appearing as a character in the Hanna-Barbara produced Saturday morning animated cartoons, Fleer would offer a set of Super Pac-Man specific trading card-stickers (Which they had done with previous Pac properties), and some Super Pac specific merchandise would make its way to store shelves (mostly inexpensive discount items such as coloring books or puzzles), but nothing like the onslaught that had happened with Pac-Man originally.



Versions were planned by Atari for the 5200 home system and Atari 8-bit computer systems but would not make it out of prototype phases of development due to a souring home gaming market in 1983-84. Home computer versions of the game would start popping into the market in the mid to later part of the 80’s. Despite both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man games making appearances on various video game consoles through the mid-late 80’s and early 90’s, Super Pac-Man would only start popping up in later gaming generations as part of compilation games for either Namco or Pac-Man, and even then, only semi-frequently when compared to the first two Pac games.


Baby Pac-Man at an arcade game auction

Midway Continues to Pac

As we mentioned above, Bally-Midway couldn’t stand just to release one Pac game in the month of October of 1982. On October 11th, 1982, a mere 10 days after the US release of Super Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man would be released. Baby Pac-Man is an odd hybrid pinball and video game arcade machine with a small pinball playfield below the video game monitor. The game was met with a good bit of excitement in the industry when it debuted at the 1982 AMOA trade show [4] but was by most accounts not developed with Namco’s direct blessing. Today this game is a favorite for arcade game collectors but is one of several Bally-Midway unofficial Pac creations that Namco does not acknowledge as an official Pac game.






The Third Official Pac Game is Denied a US Passport

In July of 1983 back in Japan, Namco would release the 3rd Namco developed Pac game titled Pac and Pal. Pac and Pal would take the Pac-Man gameplay again in a very different direction than the first game and the games developed by Bally-Midway. Pac and Pal plays more like an evolution of Super Pac-Man than a direct descendant of Pac-Man or any of the Bally-Midway developed games. Much like Super Pac-Man, areas of the game field maze are locked off and must be accessed via eating cards which “flip over” to reveal items which then can also be eaten to open gates to the maze. The general design of the maze and many of the playfield mechanics are indeed holdovers from Super Pac-Man. Meanwhile a small additional character named “Pal” (who is a small green like circle with a bow) will often take the unlocked items and attempt to discard them in the center maze box before Pac-Man can catch up to her. The game has several power-ups and references to other Namco arcade games (such as Rally-X and Galaxian).



Bally-Midway would test and plan a release of Pac and Pal for the US market retitled Pac-Man and Chomp-Chomp, changing the “Pal” character to “Chomp-Chomp” who was Pac-Man’s dog in the Hanna Barbara cartoon series for the USA. Bally-Midway canceled the game release due to what they perceived as a lack of interest from players for the game. The game was also not perceived as a success in its home country of Japan, and at the time was seen as a failure although it was released in small quantities in Europe.


Professor of disappointment perhaps


The Final Straws for Namco

Professor Pac-Man was probably the final straw for Namco’s patience with Bally-Midway’s misuse of the Pac-Man license. Released in August of 1983, Professor Pac-Man was marketed as a trivia game hiding under the famous Pac brand, but it was more of an uninteresting memory matching game. Arcade players and coin-op operators were not fooled however, and Professor Pac-Man would go down as one of the most famous arcade game flops of the golden age of arcade games. Rumor has it that less than 500 of these machines were ever made, and most were returned to Bally-Midway. Some of these returned cabinets would be converted into the game Pac-Land which was much more successful. Today the game is a rare oddball machine of interest only to hard core collectors.


Jr. Pac in a Super Pac cabinet



Not be outdone with just one unofficial Pac game for 1983, Jr. Pac-Man would also make its debut in the arcades from Bally-Midway. Changing the basic Pac play dynamic only slightly by adding two screen wide scrolling mazes and changing the behavior of how a few of the game elements interact (bonus items can create “larger dots”, if bonus prizes aren’t caught in time they can destroy energizer dots), the game was once again more of an evolution of the original Pac concept rather than attempting to broaden the Pac gameplay in the way Namco’s official sequels had. The game was sold mostly as a conversion kit, although some dedicated cabinets were manufactured mostly out of unsold cabinets of another licensed Namco creation, Mappy (Mappy, was not the success Namco was hoping for in the USA but was very successful in other parts of the world).[5]. A handful of cabaret Jr. Pac-Man cabinets also seem to exist. Conversion kit versions were made available for all previous versions of Pac-Man and in my experience tended to take up a lot of homes in former Super Pac-Man cabinets.





It seemed that the Pac gravy train was ending for Bally-Midway along with Namco’s tolerance for their unauthorized sequels. Bally-Midway would release one final Pac game under their license in December of 1984, the official Namco developed Pac-Land. Pac-Land is an early side scrolling platformer and vastly different than any previous Pac-Man game. It was a mild hit in the USA and in Japan during 1985 despite a soft market for arcade video games in that year and is very influential. Shigeru Miyamoto creator of Nintendo’s classic Super Mario Bros. told Pac-Land developer it had a “profound influence on the creation of Super Mario” [6]. In 1987 Atari Games would release Namco’s Pac-Mania in North American arcades [7] ending the rather shaky relationship between Bally-Midway and Namco.


Seems legit, just like Dario Brothers

A Saturated Market for Pac Wannabes

One of the larger factors that might have been working against Super Pac-Man was just a saturation of not just Pac style games, but the video game market in general. Bootleg arcade games were commonplace and Pac-Man series games tended to be a common target for bootleg versions due to their popularity. Speed up kits were also a popular modification for all versions of Pac games, players might have simply moved on from Pac releases to other popular games of the era.



The success of the original Pac-Man game also created a huge amount of “Pac Like Maze Games” by late 1982-early 1983 in the arcade market and home market. Although some of these games were better than others (the games Triple Punch by KKI, Lady Bug by Universal, and Pepper II by Exidy are personal favorites of mine), most were quick to market and lazily developed knockoffs with poor gameplay dynamics and were as quick to leave the arcade landscape as they had arrived. Also worth noting was the highly anticipated yet ultimately disappointing version of Pac-Man for the Atari VCS (or 2600) home video game system. I would make the argument that this often-hated version of the game shared a good bit of the responsibly for the slowing down of Pac-Man’s popularity (Atari did redeem themselves somewhat with better versions made for other systems, and an excellent version of Ms. Pac-Man for the 2600, but the damage was already done). The overall market conditions for home video games, home computers, and arcade games would start to feel the effects of price wars and oversaturation of the marketplace by 1983 and 1984 leading to what many gaming historians refer to as The Video Game Crash.


French Super Pac-Man cabinet

A final point about Super Pac-Man perhaps not seeing a wider spread success or longevity might have to do with the longevity of Ms. Pac-Man. I would argue no title has stuck around longer as a commercial arcade machine than Ms. Pac-Man. The widespread popularity of this bowed dot eating lady has endured not only a pop culture mainstay, but as a profitable game for decades after its original release. Video game players had simply crowned Ms. Pac as the most popular of the Pac releases, and no future Pac variations simply ever came close to the yellow circle lady in Pac popularity. Ms. Pac-Man was simply peak Pac perhaps.




The Legacy of Super Pac-Man

Today versions of the original arcade Super Pac-Man game can be found on retro downloadable compilations for all sorts of home video game systems or computers in both official and “homebrew” variations. Companies such as Arcade1up have released versions of Super Pac-Man (in addition to other Namco games) in reproduction arcade cabinets designed for home use, and Namco has included Super Pac-Man in modern commercial arcade machines such as Pac-Man’s Pixel Bash. Super Pac has occasionally made appearance in home Pac-Man themed video games as well including Hello Pac-Man, which was released in the USA as Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures.


Hello! Pac-Man by Namco of Japan

Despite the modern translations of Super Pac-Man for retro based systems, it is tempting to ask was Super Pac-Man robbed of a larger legacy in the hallowed halls of arcade gaming. Was Namco’s spin on a sequel with Super Pac rejected by the public compared to Bally-Midway’s developed games such as Ms. Pac or Jr. Pac. It is hard to argue with the legacy or commercial success of Ms. Pac-Man compared to Super Pac-Man for sure. Collectors of arcade games can be a quirky bunch, and overall, my experience is that many collectors do find interest in Super Pac-Man, but not when compared to many other Pac titles perhaps.






Our Super Addition to the Arcade


Farm fresh, literally!

Our Super Pac-Man’s previous home was at a blueberry farm in the Northeast of Washington state, where it has lived for at least 25 years. The game is a true survivor sporting all its original parts, paint, and pieces apart from the monitor. At some point someone replaced the monitor (which originally would have been either a Electrohome G07 or a Wells Gardner K4900) with a Happ Vision Pro CRT style monitor sometime during the late 1990’s or early 2000’s. Super Pac-Man machines tend to see a lot of paint flaking of the dark blue paint, and our example has some on the bottom of the cabinet (possibly from the game being moved or mopped around during its life), and a good bit of paint flaking on the back of the machine. Despite some minor imperfections it is in amazing physical condition considering it is creeping up on being 40 years old. As of this blog post the monitor is being rebuilt and the game should be up and running soon.


Mom I need more yellow crayons!

Conclusion

Super Pac-Man is a fun and innovative evolution of the gameplay presented in the original smash hit Pac-Man. It also is an interesting moment in arcade history that pitted the future of one of the video game industry's earliest stars between the original creators and its American licensee. Super Pac-Man however also was such a bold leap from the original Pac formula it’s easy to see why there was an inability to capture a larger piece of arcade legacy when compared to more evolutionary Pac games such as Ms. Pac-Man.It’s also not difficult to side with Namco’s frustration with Bally-Midway’s development of unofficial sequels to their original property, while still celebrating Bally-Midway's spins (successful and not) on the Pac legacy. Super Pac-Man shows a young industry both suffering from growing pains and still willing to take chances for innovating gameplay, and that alone is worthy of a super legacy.


- Cassandra (The Vintage Arcade Gal)


[1] Kohler, Chris (2005). Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. BradyGames. pp. 51–52. ISBN 0-7440-0424-1. [2] Wilson, Jeffrey L. (11 June 2010). "The 10 Most Influential Video Games of All Time". PC Magazine. [3] (March 1982). "Pac-Man Fever". Time. [4] (15 January 1983). AMOA Show Wrap-Up. Play Meter Magazine.

[5] Lambie, R. (14, September 2015) Mappy: Namco’s Forgotten Follow-Up to Pac-Man. Den of Geek. https://www.denofgeek.com/games/mappy-namcos-forgotten-follow-up-to-pac-man/ [6] Szczepaniak, John (4 November 2015). The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Vol. 2 (1 ed.). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. pp. 207–208. ISBN 978-1518655319. [7] "Game Machine's Best Hit Games 25 - テーブル型TVゲーム機 (Table Videos)". Game Machine (in Japanese). No. 322. Amusement Press, Inc. 15 December 1987. p. 25.







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