How does on go about making a sequel to one of the most famous arcade maze games, fourteen years later? Wait but… weren’t there already sequels to the original game? Not really. Ms. Pac-man was a spin-off, Pac-mania was a “reimagining”, Pac-land another spin-off, even though it definitely did look and play like what the gamers would imagine a sequel to be.
So, one would think that finally getting around to an official sequel to the game, Namco would find a way to make the maze gameplay relevant again and, at least, involve Toru Iwatani, the original designer, with a talented development team. Well, the story is a bit more complicated than that. Pac-man 2 is actually an action-adventure where the player is not even in control of the titular character. Talk about a bitter pill to swallow…
Developed by a subset team at Namco, with little previous experience, that then went on to work on the Klonoa series, Pac-man 2 came out in 1994 for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. The developers tried to keep the Pac-man character (or should I say characters, as we’ll see in a minute) relevant by substituting the gameplay from the outdated maze arcade format, with a more console-friendly adventure. Pac-man 2 seems to have been inspired by the short lived cartoon series from 1982, rathern than the original arcade title.
Pac here has a wife (the same Ms. of the titular game, I’m assuming) and two sons, his family will be the main source of all the different errands and quests our yellow hero has to complete in order to get to the end. Indeed, that is the core of the gameplay: pick up the milk, find a flower for the wife, etc. They probably should have called this: “Pac-man 2: Marital Bliss”. Shortly before the end of the game, a plot by The Ghost Witch of Netor (oh boy) finally rears its ugly head, only to get quickly resolved and for Pac-man to be proclaimed the hero by the townsfolk.
Spoilers, I guess?
While it would be mostly fair to define Pac-man 2 as a point’n’click graphical adventure, there is one major caveat: there is no point and click involved since the main character is not controllable.
Basically, the player politely (or less so, sometimes) suggests Pac-man do things, there is no way to order him around. Perhaps it is “Majesty of the Pac-man series“, as if Namco had laid an adventure gameplay on top of Little Computer People (or Creatures to name a more recent effort), with a bit of Tamagotchi flair to spice things up. But here’s the kick: Pac-man has a temper which acts as a sort of “(mental) health system”, especially because he can go from 1 to 100 quite quickly, even going as far as having an hysterical attack.
Naturally, an angry Pac-man has more strength than a depressed one, so it is sometimes required to anger or calm down our hero in order to advance through the game. Problem is, the angrier our hero gets, the more he is prone to do stupid things and get himself killed. Not a big problem since you have infinite lives and no profusion of enemies in the game. Like every human being on the planet – Pac-man’s biggest enemy is indeed himself.
Look at me, getting all philosophical.
Pac-man is the only character that interacts directly with the player, in a continous sort of fourth wall breaking interaction. More than a mid-life crisis, this is like Pac-man having a psychotic episode. But that is understandable: imagine being in his shoes, not only he had lost all kind of relevancy by the mid-90s, he had also been replaced by other more cool mascottes like Sonic and Mario!
The only interactions that can be carried out are telling Pac-man to look at something (along with the direction he should look towards) and shooting a pellet with a slingshot to hit objects or the Pac himself. This of course raises his anger and can be used to solve puzzles, as opposed to finding items that calm him down which is harder. Shooting Pac-man with a pellet also serves to make him jump or rapidly get out of harm’s way. So, while the puzzles are not generally that hard nor the obstacles insurmountable, the main crux of the player is getting the yellow ball to do something useful, rather than going about his business.
This is where the game will divide most public, because there is no real AI at play here, it is mostly cause and effect.
Knowing exactly what to do, it is possible to finish the whole game in a couple of hours, but grasping at straws might make the game virtually last forever. Pac-man 2 was released to mixed reviews, with many critics pointing out that the game seemed to be aimed at kids but, with tedious and complicated gameplay to get to grips with, seemed to fit no-one. Namco really missed their chance here, had they pushed hard on the Tamagotchi gameplay, instead of the adventure, they might have had a smash-hit on their hands, bundling in a pac-man tamagotchi to boot.
While, admittingly, Pac-man 2’s game design is an intriguing hybrid between The Sims, a point’n’click adventure and an arcade title, unfortunately the “mood system” seems to be the main problem. Pac-man’s mid-life hysterical crisis might be too much to handle for most players. His extreme moods are also a design choice that at times seems to clash with the whole “interactive cartoon” aestethic Namco were going for.
Unless we’re talking Ren and Stimpy, there aren’t many cartoons around where the main hero gets depressed because of a “no entry” sign and could just give up on life and become unresponsive, if nothing is done to cheer him up. It doesn’t go as far as Pac entertaining thoughts of suicide, but not that very far off either. If the developers had kept Pac-man’s mood from swinging too much, this could have been something more than a wacky entry in the series. Playing can easily become a chore, thanks to Pac’s ignoring the player’s inputs, even regardless of the mood, at times.
This is intentional design on Namco’s part: he is supposed to put up a fight, like training a puppy dog with a bad temper. Thusly, if one is not enamored with our hero’s energy, mood swings and weird faces (which are indeed fun, I’ll admit that), The New Adventures is, more than an acquired taste, a hard sell. The sound design is also interesting, since Pac-man and his family have musical instruments that double as voices, which is cute and keeps with the whole “interactive cartoon” vibe, while the player has – coherently – a real human voice.
Few people will be surprised to find out that Pac-man 2 was actually originally released in Japan as “Hello! Pac-man” with no hints whatsoever that it was supposed to be a sequel. Yes, this is only the last title-change with little to no thought behind it to which the western markets were, by then, accustomed.
My opinion is that those reviewers who lash out at Pac-man being frustrating or useless, are missing the point. Coming to the game with an open mind, one might find out there are many ways to approach it: for example, torturing the poor soul or, instead, leisurely enjoy the relaxed pace or plain experiment. It can definitely be a family friendly experience, if one doesn’t mind a hearty slice of 90s wild mood swings (The Cure references in my articles: 1). The little details that Namco spliced in – like him going back on a solved puzzle just to act all “arrogant” – to make Pac cartoony and fun are very cute and might get a smile out of even the more hardened players.
While the game design came out in a wrong era and still far from perfect, I respect Pac-man 2’s attempt to be something different from the crowd and the series itself. A brave choice for an off-the-wall title that will test many a gamer’s patience but may also bring a smile to their face.