How many Pac-man inspired titles (or clones) have existed since 1982? Well, one possible answer would be probably as many Space Invaders and Arkanoid ones. Still, among this huge list of clones, Rootin’ Tootin’ feels quite different. But it made sense for developers to try and imitate those arcade classics, since they were considered the basic steps for anyone looking to develop anything that would at least function as a game. They were (deceptively) simple titles to program, along with being instantly recognizable by players. As long as it could be picked up and played without explanation, then it was worth a shot. Rootin’Tootin’ (a name which actually makes me think of High Noon…) is probably among the best of the early Pac-man “inspirations” one could find, along with being quite obscure.
Before arriving to the Commodore 64, though, we have to make a stop at the arcade.
Going back to the arcade
Rootin’ Tootin’ is a fast paced classic maze game with a musical theme, the player manoeveurs a tuba around a single screen, trying to catch all musical notes in order to finish the “pattern” (level), trying not to get caught by the enemies. The game first came out in the arcades in 1983, several years after the release of Pac-Man, originally developed by Data East. As far as I’m aware, the title never reached Western shores and remained a Japan exclusive. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information on these early Japanese arcade titles, except for finding out its original Japanese title is La-Pa-Pa, there isn’t anything else out there. I’m not able to credit the original designer, at this time.
While the tuba is busy collecting musical notes, it has to steer clear of the enemies. The rooster is as musical as everything else, since the rest of the orchestra is out for “tempo”, hell bent on sending the poor tuba to its maker. Expect enemies such as trombones, pianos and guitars, but with an interesting “animal” vibe which makes them look quite unique.
While calling La-Pa-Pa a “clone” of Pac-man would be understandable, it would also be quite a disservice to Data East, since there are quite a few different things in the gameplay design. The freedom of movement is mostly the same as the Namco title, with each level designed around a musical pentagram, but there is no way of exiting a level as a strategy to avoid enemies. Still, the game adds its own spin on things. Instead of swallowing them, the notes collected by the tuba are immediately launched around and can, thus, be used as bullets, if correctly sent towards the enemies.
This small design tweak leads to the player having to employ quite different strategies from Pac-Man, since the tuba is always capable of killing enemies while picking up notes. While most of the instruments will just chase the player around, some have special powers and will be able to drop pauses in the level, which act like mines. The piano enemy (Pianha) can directly chase the tuba around the level, completely disregarding the scale. Along with collecting notes to clear the level, there are extra lives up for grabs and a 1/8 rest which acts like a power pill, freezing all enemies. Also, the tuba can become temporarily invulnerable with the press of the single fire button.
Solid Commodore 64 conversion
The C64 conversion was developed by Bryce Nesbitt, one of several pretty much unknown programmers who apparently has Rootin’ Tootin’ as its only credit (as a bonus bio note, he was the inventor of the 1541 Flash disk drive). But, as the only game the worked on, this definitely feels like a labor of love. The fast paced gameplay is kept smooth and fun and the one button design to become invulnerable lends itself easily to the C64. The difficulty is, curiously enough, ramped up from the original arcade since all enemies move quicker and appear at a faster rate, if the tuba doesn’t collect all the notes in as little time as possible.
All of the gameplay features of the original arcade – like the notes shot by the tuba that might also end up killing off the extra lives or bonuses – are left intact but Nesbitt also went one step beyond and wrote a terribly catchy tune for the soundtrack, which is the same for all levels but with different instruments playing it. One of these simple design idea to add some variety without much effort. It is also possible to turn off the music and keep the sound effects, which I am aware does not sound like an actual feature nowadays, but for 1983 it was pretty advanced.
While, as might be expected, the 8-bit graphics on the limited C64 palette are less colorful than the arcade version, they definitely hold their own, especially for an early C64 title. All the different enemies and features of each scheme are still present and easily recognizable. Also – but this might be quite subjective – the black/blue color scheme is easier on the eyes than the original red/olive green which might end up being a bit tiring after even ten minutes of playing.
The only real downside – if one can call it that – is that the home computer conversion, after the first four levels, starts going in a weird random pattern, which might make the player think they’ve seen every level in the game, but that is probably not the case. Then again, it’s pretty hard to even reach level five, without losing all lives. The manual says “we know of 21 levels” so I guess even the publisher wasn’t sure how long the game was supposed to go on for!
Rootin’ Tootin’ is the perfect example of how a game inspired by a classic arcade stitles might still be quite fun and refreshing, even though the design might be all too familiar almost forty years later. In the arcade original, Data East managed to slightly tweak the original Pac-man formula, as to be more difficult and unpredictable, with the musical theme also being a nice touch. Ironically enough, the only thing the game was missing was a memorable mascot, since the Tuba is a quirky little instrument, but not really a character like Pac-man would turn out to be.
My usual pirated Commodore 64 version of the poor Rootin’ Tootin’ was called “Strike up the band” (“Suona Banda” in Italian) which was a rather brilliant title. I loved to play this game as a small child and, after Burger Time, it was one of the very few arcade conversions on the C64 that I found myself coming back to again and again. I will never know for sure which is the first game I ever played in my life, but Rootin is definitely among some of my earliest childhood memories.
Mr Nesbitt’s work still shines through with its brilliant gameplay and infectious music. Since the official Pac Man conversion on C64 was derived from the Atari one, hence leaves much to be desired, I’d say this is definitely a potential candidate for the best Pac-man-like on the Commodore 8 bit home computer. Definitely recommended for a spin!