Thursday 18 August 2011

Jr. Pac-Man

Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man conceived a child. Think about that. Or don't.

"Jr. Pac-Man", here to make your day as one of the many Pac-Man arcade sequels. This one's from 1983, and thankfully, it's not at all similar to Pac & Pal.

Jr. Pac-Man was another invention by Midway as opposed to Namco, and thus a sensible line was taken during its development. It can be seen as an "upgrade" to Ms. Pac-Man. The "third" in the series, in a world where we don't count Super Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus or Pac & Pal (or Pac-Land, though that came after this one). Like its mother, Jr. doesn't bring much to the table, just larger levels (with scrolling) and "fruit" which now beefs up pellets. Oh and the brown ghost is called Tim. Tim the ghost.

Jr. Pac-Man is a pleasant surprise, not just because the concept of keys or Pal have left the building, but because it's actually a rather good game. The problem of course, is by this point, the Pac-Man name had been tarnished by its creators, and the public were seeking new thrills. Predictably, Jr. Pac-Man failed to sell, which led to Namco cancelling its arrangements with Midway for the foreseeable future.

And it's understandable why to some degree - Jr. Pac-Man doesn't really do anything remarkable. If you were an arcade operator late to the Pac-Man party it's a good game to start with, but there's not much reason to invest in this game if you already own its prequels. Also the target audience probably probably wouldn't see the appeal of little Pac kids, and in fact may raise questions why the adult Pac ghosts are chasing him around a maze.

But there is much to like about Jr. Pac-Man - it's the same game we've seen before, but better in every conceivable way. It's what you want from a sequel, and though the recycled graphics are getting a bit old now, there's no doubt that Jr. Pac-Man is a worthy successor, perhaps even more noteworthy than Ms. when it comes to the features it adds. The scrolling means it's perhaps not one for the purists, but as the average level takes two-to-three times as long to complete as a normal Pac-Man one, you've got more to work with before the levels break.

Jr. Pac-Man doesn't deal with traditional "fruits", but rather, "toys" which have the same function. They're taken one step further than in Ms. though - rather than simply bouncing about around the screen, they'll turn pellets into bigger pellets - the sort which require a few more milliseconds to consume, thus slowing Jr. down. This means these items are actually a priority to deal with as opposed to a nice bonus, unless of course you want to take that risk for extra points. Larger levels also equal more power pellets, which means 50% more ghost chomping.

The sound effects have been re-tuned again for reasons unknown to man, and the graphics are more of the same (fitting comfortably into that wood grain early 80s look). It's a bit less pretty than Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man though - it's not overly clear what Jr.'s toys are supposed to be at first and the "Pac-Man in drag" joke doesn't really follow through here.

Home ports of Jr. Pac-Man exist for the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, both of which are fairly pointless as there is no scrolling (but hey, Pac-Man on its own wasn't a bad game!). Bizarrely the best home port is the Atari 5200 version, which failed to see an official retail release thanks to the North American video game crash, partly caused by the father's disagreement with the 2600. There's also homebrew copies for the Atari 7800 and others, and though it's still perhaps not the widespread success it deserves, it's something, and we're thankful of their efforts. And of course there's plenty of Namco compilations that host the thing, even though Namco were incapable of producing good Pac-Man sequels at the time.

There isn't a lot to say about Jr. Pac-Man. If you've played a good Pac-Man game you'll know what to expect here, but that doesn't mean it should be avoided. It's a top choice for a MAME game library, seeing as real arcade machines are so rare. A quirky piece of arcade history.

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