Tuesday 22 February 2011

Hyper Pacman

Clones of Pac-Man are nothing new. But finding one that stands out is.

Hyper Pacman, the 1995 arcade game by South Korean company SemiCom. It's all the rage!... and... I've... never really heard of it either. But the real question is, is it a step beyond super?

Let's be honest, the western world doesn't know much about South Korea. The US has fear of North Korea, but though we're all allies of the South, you don't tend to wander down the street and find South Korean produce... unless you're buying electronics from Samsung or Daewoo. Of course they also draw all of your cartoons... and now that I think about it probably supply us with quite a lot, but for the purposes of this paragraph let's say they don't do much.

Video games are one such industry that the South Koreans like to keep to themselves. South Korea has collectively been responsible for literally thousands of video games, 99% of which have remained within the country's borders. Unfortunately for them, few games got in through the borders either, thanks to long standing tensions between the country and Japan. This means for some, Hyper Pacman is the official alternative to "normal" Pac-Man.

And it's sad, because had they teamed up with the Japanese and acknowledged the rest of the world existed, we might have seen some fantastic stuff from the country a lot earlier. Even with the advent of the internet, the world of South Korean gaming is still a mystery to the west. I know first hand because I made some of the first steps into exploring this area... before Hardcore Gaming 101 came and did a better job.

But HG101 didn't touch Hyper Pacman! It's not overly certain how this one slipped by Namco - perhaps they didn't care, or perhaps there's a case to be had concerning the differences between "Pac-Man" and "Pacman". Or maybe it didn't slip by at all and was tracked down later on. Either way, it's fair to say that Hyper Pacman is a shameless clone of the 1980 arcade game we all know and love. But being released in 1995 means there's some notable improvements.

Though it is worth noting that there's an unfortunate trend in South Korean video games of 1980s and early 1990s. Often games emerge as second-rate alternatives to Japanese games, and as they were competing primarily against companies also paired with lazy habits, games like Hyper Pacman are missing that layer of polish you might have come to expect in the world of arcades.

Essentially, SemiCom took what they saw in the 1987 release of Pac-Mania, and tried to apply it to a "standard" top-down view Pac-Man game, creating a strange hybrid that has good, but poorly executed intentions. Hyper Pacman almost seems as if it's constantly pleading for help, desperate to prove its worth against the Japanese despite knowing that it falls far short of Namco/Midway's products.

There's a feeling of tackiness in Hyper Pacman, and though it certainly lacks polish in many areas, many more of the concerns can be attributed to the poor level design. What is most apparent about this game is the way that the ghosts operate, which ends up drastically changing the normal Pac-Man formula. No longer is there a cage in the middle of the board to manage the production of ghosts - instead they literally span randomly across the stage, causing all sorts of problems to any sort of strategy you may have thought up.

The ghosts themselves follow a very basic AI pattern. If you're close, they'll attempt to follow you, otherwise they'll wander randomly around the stage. Ghost counts can also exceed more than four, and as the levels are often not big enough to house them all, this can make death almost inevitable in some circumstances as a combination of the above means they spread out without any plans of where they're going next.

But help is at hand. Hyper Pacman adds power-ups to the mix, allowing for the elimination or avoidance of ghosts without having to rely on power pellets. Speed up, Pac-Mania-style jumping and the ability to fire lasers all exist within the game, as do extra hit points, and these are all necessary for survival against the computer's idea of intelligence. There's also interesting features such as bombs and "glasses", which adjust the layout of the stage slightly. I still think the stages are too small for it to make much of a difference, but it's a nice idea.

Though the goal of the game is still to eat all the pellets, other food items are present for extra points. Some are hidden within walls, which Pac-Man can either blast or secretly travel through. It's all interesting stuff, but the cramped maps ruin the experience and things quickly become more of a chore than an exciting gameplay addition. Also unlike the "official" games, power pellets don't need to be eaten to succeed, so they in turn act more like an optional power-up.

But perhaps the most bizarre additions to Hyper Pac-Man are the set of bosses, with one appearing every ten levels. You rely on the laser powerup in order to defeat them, which is granted when respawning on these levels. Often ghosts show up to make things slightly more challenging too.

I have doubts about whether the concept of bosses adds a positive experience to the gameplay - though similar bosses appear in the likes of the Bomberman and Bubble Bobble series, those games tend to arm the user with some sort of weapon by default - Pac-Man doesn't usually have those privileges, and I'm not sure if giving them to him for these stages makes much sense. These levels play very little like a Pac-Man game (Pac-Man does not constantly move in this title either, so it is possible to stand still), so I can't help but feel they're a bit misplaced.

Graphically it's poor for 1995, and with a lack of special effects it's easy to claim that this is below the expected standard of the era, but lest we forget this was built for South Korea, and they've always been slightly behind when it comes to video games. There is music, which although isn't terrible isn't particularly special either. Obviously the game tries not to tie itself to official Pac-Man games too much, so all the sound effects are different and there's no mention of the Pac-Man family.

But the world it renders for us isn't particularly thrilling. It has a habit of becoming very generic, which sadly balances out the more innovative ideas to deliver us a game that is undeservedly average.

However, though not the best Pac-Man game out there it's still perhaps one worth noting. What's also worth noting is its 1997 sequel, titled "Twinkle". Twinkle is slightly better and may be a better choice if you're into this sort of thing, though I don't suspect many are.

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