Did you know that in 1982 Milton Bradley made a Pac-Man board game?
The box boasted brightly colored plastic Pac-Men, ghosts, marbles and "as much fun as the action-packed arcade game of the same name". I played this game once in 4th grade. It sucked. I didn't use language like that back then but I'm pretty sure I said "Wow, this sucks". The game was too confusing to play and the pieces were too crummy to play with. I'm not saying my childhood ended there, but between that and the Transformers movie it was a tough time to be a kid.
Two years ago I crossed paths with a copy of the game in a cabin on the Taku River. Letting down my guard for the first time in almost two decades I gave it another shot. It… still kinda sucked, but by this time I'd developed a sense of irony about the surprising complexity of the rules and the questionable optimism of dice-based arcade action. It turns out that it's pretty fun to decipher and debate the ambiguous and occasionally contradictory rules of an ancient children's game, especially when it involves carefully quoting the aged inside of a cardboard lid like a constitutional scholar. I wondered how a child of the 80s was ever supposed to play this, what the rules would look like if they were written clearly, how many of them would be left once those that were non-applicable and canceled each other out were removed, how many would have to be inferred to fill in the gaps, and then what the first if statement might look like… at which point I knew I was doomed.
So I took the board game and made a video game version! In the spirit of translating a book from English to Japanese and then back to English, I present Pac-Man The Video Game Of The Board Game Of The Video Game! Is it as much fun as the board game of the arcade game of the same name? I can’t promise that, don’t hold me to that.
Wait, It gets worse! It's… um… a Windows program. Spider Solitaire, Minesweeper, I’m gunning for you! It’s got sound, music, computer players, instructions, and a full screen mode that screams "this is a poor use of a large screen". The game is a standalone program that due to its low-tech nature runs on Windows 95, Windows 7, and everything in between. There's nothing to install, it's just a small executable. If your computer can play MIDI files then you'll hear music, otherwise not so much.
Pac-Man is a two-to-four player game that can be played by humans and/or computer. Unlike the board game you can jump right into this version without knowing the rules. If you can make a move, it's legal. This tautology cuts through a lot of the confusion. The game can be played with either a mouse or keyboard (and just between you and me, a Windows Media Center remote control) and if I've done my job then you should be able to quickly figure the controls on your own, though all of the details can be found in the Help menu under Instructions. It was so hard to condense all the rules into terse bullet points with consistent tense that I saved it for last, which was fitting since this was basically the challenge that led to this whole project. Sirs Milton & Bradley: take look and take note!
To build this I've had to make some tough calls on the rules. Some of these were a result of interpretation, others were driven by implementation. If Pac-Man was the centerpiece of your family's game night then you're bound to find something to take issue with, but that's okay because I don't think that any two families have ever played this game by the same rules, and that's not just because I don't think that any more than two families have ever played this game, and that is indeed something I do very much think. Two families tops, maybe a broken home as well. I tried to balance original intent and probable typos against tradition and the inherent pursuit of fun in a game. The results are what I'd expect from an Antonin Scalia that cared that we're trying to have a society here.
Pac-Man – The Video Game of the Board Game of the Video Game was written by me, though it clearly makes use of things I did not make and do not own. The Pac-Man and Ghost graphics were taken from the original Pac-Man game by Namco (1980), while the sound effects came from the 1982 Nintendo version. The music is from the secret Pac-Man level in Wolfenstein 3D by id Software (1992), but I don't know who made the MIDI version that I used. Hopefully I'll figure out where it came from so I can update this to give proper credit. I'm under the impression that translating id's custom music format to MIDI is even harder than it sounds. Most importantly, I credit the inspiration to my recurring disappointment in Milton Bradley's Pac-Man board game. I morbidly wondered what a video game of it would look like, and now I know.
So please enjoy Pac-Man – The Video Game of the Board Game of the Video Game. I've been slowly sowing the seeds of interest across the continent for two years now in anticipation of today's big pay-off, and I'm feeling pretty good about it. So if you're one of the many people who I've sat next to on an airplane while playing this on my laptop in the hopes that you'd ask me what the deal is, I really wish you'd have asked me what the deal is, and then told your friends upon landing, because both you and your friends would be way more excited about and aware of this release than you probably are now.
The best part about making a video game, as far as I can tell, is that it immediately gives you the audacity to act as an authority on all aspects of game design and construction as if you invented Doom. I intend to cash in on this, so brace yourself for an upcoming audaciously authoritative multi-part series on the making of Pac-Man TVGOTBGOTVG that will span the next twenty eight years. Or less, if we get more rainy Sundays.