How many Pac-man inspired titles exist in the world? Well, one possible answer would be: as many Space Invaders and Arkanoid ones. The arcade classics were among the basic steps for anyone wanting to program an arcade-like title: deceptively simple 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’ (which actually makes me think of High Noon…) is probably among the best of the early Pac-man “inspirations” one could find, but before arriving to the Commodore 64, we have to spend some time in 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, a year after the release of the original Pac-Man, originally developed by Data East. 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 this time.
The enemies rooster is as musical as everything else: the rest of the orchestra is out for “tempo”, hell bent on sending the poor tuba to its maker. While I would understand the reason why, calling it a “clone” of Pac-man would be quite unfair, there are quite a few different things in the gameplay design. The freedom of movement is the same as the Namco title, with each level designed around a musical pentagram, but 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 different strategies from Pac-Man, since the tuba is not really defenseless. 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.
The C64 conversion was developed by Bryce Nesbitt, one of these 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, it was definitely a labor of love. The fast paced gameplay is smooth and fun and the one button design 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 potentially 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 know sounds pretty much not a feature nowadays, but for 1983, it was pretty advanced.
While the graphics are generally 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 is quite subjective – the black/blue color scheme is easier on the eyes than the original red/olive green which ended up being a bit tiring after 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 weirdly random pattern, which might make the player think to have seen everything, 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 the classics that still manages to be fun and refreshing, even though the design might be all too familiar. 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 version on the C64 was called “Strike up the band” which was a rather brilliant title, if a bit long. 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!