How does on go about making a sequel to one of the most famous arcade maze games, basically the defining maze game, fourteen years later? But, weren’t there already sequels to the original game? Well, apparently not as such. Ms. Pac-man was considered a spin-off, Pac-mania was a “reimagining”, Pac-land seemed to be another spin-off, even though it definitely did look and play like what most people would imagine a sequel to feel like.
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 or, at least, involve Toru Iwatani, the original designer along with a development team. Well, as it turns out, it was none of these things. 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 apparently 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Pac-man character (or should I say characters, as we’ll see in a minute) relevant by substituting the gameplay from the outdated maze arcade format, with a more console-friendly adventure.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, rather than the original arcade title.
Pac here has a wife (the same Ms. of the titular game, I’m assuming) and two children, 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. It definitely feels like playing “Pac-man 2: Marital Bliss”. Shortly before the end of the game, a plot starring The Ghost Witch of Netor (yes) finally rears its ugly head, only to get quickly resolved, so that the Pac can finally be proclaimed the hero by the townsfolk.
Spoilers, I guess?
While it would be mostly correct 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 that our man Pac do things and he will decide if he feels like doing it, there is no way to order him around. It is possible to define it as the “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 a Tamagotchi flair to spice things up. But here’s the design flair: Pac-man has a temper which acts as a sort of (mental) health system. Indeed, our main guy can can go from 1 to 100 quite quickly, even going as far as having a complete hysterical breakdown.
Naturally, an angry Pac-man has more strength than a depressed one, so it is sometimes required to actually 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, naturally, get himself killed. While it is not a big problem, since there are infinite lives and no profusion of enemies, the player will always have to mind the hero’s moods in order to understand how to solve each puzzle. Like every human being on the planet – Pac-man’s biggest enemy is indeed himself.
Look at me, getting all philosophical.
In the game’s world, Pac-man is the only character that directly interacts with the player, in a continous sort of fourth wall breaking relationship. More than a mid-life crisis, this almost feels 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 mascottes like Sonic and Mario!
The way the player interacts with the Pac is basically through suggestions: telling Pac-man to look at something (along with the direction he should look towards) or 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 indeed more difficult. Shooting Pac-man with a pellet may also serve 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 dear yellow ball to do something useful, rather than going about his business and ignoring us altogether. This is where the gameplay will divide most people, 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 it virtually last forever, since there are no actual hints on how to proceed beyond the first puzzles.
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/The Sims 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 a life management sim, a point’n’click adventure and an arcade title, unfortunately the “mood system” seems to be the main issue. Pac-man’s mid-life hysterical crisis might be, indeed, 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.
Besides some extremes like Ren and Stimpy, there aren’t many cartoons around where the main hero gets depressed because of a “no entry” sign and could even go as far as to just give up on life and become entirely unresponsive to external stimuli, if nothing is done to cheer him up. It doesn’t go as far as Pac entertaining thoughts of suicide, sure, 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 just a wacky entry in the series. Playing can easily become a chore, thanks to Pac’s ignoring the player’s inputs, sometimes even regardless of his actual moods.
This appears to be 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. Sound design is also interesting, since Pac-man and his family have musical instruments that double as voices, which definitely keeps with the whole “interactive cartoon” vibe, while the player has – coherently – a real human voice.
Now for the kicker: 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 once again, another 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. Trying to play it definitely required keeping an open mind, one might find out it is possible to have fun even beyond trying to solve the puzzles. It is a game that invites experimentation, for example by torturing the poor soul or, instead, leisurely enjoy the relaxed pace. 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 the Pac going back to gawk at a solved puzzle just to act all “arrogant” – to make our hero cartoony and fun are definitely cute and might get a smile out of even the more hardened players.
While the game design seems to have come out in the wrong era and still definitely feels far from perfect, I feel Pac-man 2‘s attempt at trying something a bit different from the crowd and the series itself, is worthy of respect. 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.