Wednesday, October 6, 2010

NES Month: Pac-Man

  • Publisher: Namco / Tengen
  • Developer: Namco
  • Platforms/Release:
    • NES (Tengen): 1987
    • NES (Namco): November 1993
    • Wii (Namco): May 2007
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • Tengen: Moderate (US$5-15)
    • Namco: Uncommon (US$20-40)
    • Wii: DLC (US$5)
Okay, normally I wouldn't cover something so well-known, but Tengen's releases of Pac-Man for the NES deserve a mention simply because of the history of the company. Yes, I said "releases", plural; I will explain that in a moment. But if I'm going to cover the history of the NES, then this is one facet that I can't ignore.

Back during the reign of the NES, Atari was still making its own consoles, such as the 7800 and re-released 2600. So you think they weren't about to make games for the competition's consoles. But at the time, the company was split into two parts: Atari Corporation, which owned the brand rights and made home games, and Atari Games, which only released titles for the arcade. In order to make games for home consoles, Atari Games formed a new brand, Tengen, also named after a term from the Asian board game Go. Tengen sold ports of arcade games, most of them already released in Japan by companies (Namco and Sunsoft) which were not selling in the US at the time. However, they were also unhappy with Nintendo's licensing rules, such as that companies could only produce five different NES games per year.  So, while they released some games under the license (Pac-Man, Gauntlet, and RBI Baseball), they secretly went to work trying to circumvent the 10NES lockout chip I mentioned before, and succeeded. These unlicenced cartridges were shaped differently, colored black instead of gray and having an angled top face. Were they supposed to invoke the shape of classic Atari cartridges? You make the call! [1]
Licensed (left) and unlicensed (right) Pac-Man cartridges. [2]
The Tengen game I will be focusing on in this review is Pac-Man. As with the other two games that they first released under license, this game was sold in both licensed and unlicensed versions. Apart from the cartridge shape and in-game copyright text, the software in both versions is identical... and almost identical to Namco's own (Japanese) Famicom version from 1985... and the one Namco finally released for the (American) NES in 1993. Yes, they were idiots for waiting so long. But don't worry about them, they're still cool. Really, the only in-game difference between the Tengen and Namco versions is that the colors are slightly different -- and even then, they're both different from the arcade version. That's about it.
Tengen (left) and Namco (right) versions of Pac-Man gameplay. [3]
So I suppose I should really focus on the differences between the arcade and NES versions instead. First thing you'll notice from these screenshots is that Namco (they developed the first port in Japan) solved the ever-tricky problem of adapting a portait-size arcade image to a landscape-size TV. While some would leave everything as is, making everything smaller, and others would rotate the image (the eyesore Atari 2600 version comes to mind), they solved this issue by putting the status bar to the side instead of the top. Truly the best compromise, at least that I could think of. And you know that overly familiar starting jingle? It's less shrill-sounding in the NES versions, due to the different instruments built into the system's hardware. And since I have more nostalgia for the NES port (licensed Tengen, to be exact), this version's sounds are actually more familiar to me than the arcade's.

Aesthetic elements are one thing, but the real challenge in porting a video game is successfully re-creating the game engine and AI. In that respect, the only major difference here is that the NES ports play a tiny bit slower than the arcade game. Other than that... you'd really have to spend hours of time on both in order to learn the differences between the two versions' AI patterns. If you're one of those people who absolutely has to have the original arcade version, well, I won't judge you (in public), but it is available almost everywhere else. It's in a couple of the Namco Museum compilation games, available as a stand-alone game for the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Store, and there's bound to be more. In fact, you probably already have a copy of Pac-Man on some platform. As for everyone else, you can get your fix right here.

Control: 4 Power Pellets out of 5
Design: 4 Power Pellets out of 5
Graphics: 5 Power Pellets out of 5
Sound: 5 Power Pellets out of 5
Value: 3 Power Pellets out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] "Tengen (company)".  Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

[2] "Tengen pac-man image by cerberus314".  Photobucket.

[3] "Pac-Man - NES Screenshots".  MobyGames

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