Friday, May 21, 2010

Pac Man F(or)ever

Dear Fenya,

I saw today that the video-game Pac-Man has its 30th birthday today. You are always asking me about ways in which things were different when I was a kid, and this strange little game reminded me of a lot of changes.

I was never that interested in playing Pac-Man when it came out, and it is still nowhere near the top of my favourite games of the period; I would far rather play Asteroids or Battlezone. Still Pac-Man brought some exciting innovations to the table:

Colour! Prior to this, games were largely black and white, with some cheaters, notably Space Invaders, putting colored transparencies over the display to make the games a bit more visually appealing. Pac-Man had blue glowing walls, 4 differently coloured ghosts, and a bright yellow hero whose only identifiable feature was his insatiable mouth. Pac-Man was far more eye-catching than most of his contemporaries.

Sound! The Pac-Man arcade cabinet did not have a lot more hardware to work with than other video games of the time, but it certainly used them to good effect. From the whimsical music that heralded the beginning of each game, through to the lament that accompanied the hero's inevitable fate at the, well, not hands, but whatever of the ghosts, Pac-Man's sounds are iconic even today. You haven't played the game a lot, but if I mimicked the 8 bit death march (wee-er wee-er wee-er wee-er bep bep, or thereabouts), I have no doubt you would recognize it. If I do this years from now, I would appreciate your not having me immediately committed. The familiar "wakka wakka" noise that signified the eating of dots remains an audio touchstone for consumption.

Character! Who flew the ship in Asteroids? What kind of tank did you drive in Battlezone? Those marching Aliens from Space Invaders, what are they called, and why is the last one so darned fast? Sadly, we'll never know, but every child of the age knows that Pac-Man's nemeses are Inky, Pinky, Blinky and...Clyde. Even though the other games had a less abstract and more accessible storyline, Pac-Man brought enough pop-culture cachet to justify lunch boxes, t-shirts, trading cards, a top 40 single, and even a television show, and this in addition to the countless spin-offs and sequels like Ms. Pac-Man.

Why would a giant yellow mouth race around a maze eating dots? Why did the ghosts object to this? What the hell was in those "energy dots" that made these same predatory spectres turn blue and grimace while they fled from Pac-Man in abject terror, lest they be devoured? It didn't matter. Even with this ludicrous and abstract premise, Pac-Man was one of the first games to introduce characters and a bit more of a narrative to its proceedings. I imagine the first time someone saw one of the little 'Intermission' animations, other onlookers mgiht have exclaimed, "how are you doing that?"

None of this really explains why the game was as much of a hit as it was, although some speculate that the single handed controls allowed players in bars to drink and play simultaneously, but whatever the reason, Pac-Man was the first arcade game to make the bold crossover into mainstream culture. This was the first domino to fall in a ripple that in less than two decades would see more children recognizing Nintendo's mascot Mario than venerable Disney spokesvermin Mickey Mouse.

You see Fenya, in my day, only the most primitive of video games could be played at home. To play really decent games, we had to go to dedicated spaces called 'arcades' where at one time pool tables and pinball machines ruled, and plug these infernal devices full of quarters. These were sometimes scary places, filled with unsavory or intimidating characters, but more often than not, just an average cross-section of adolescents enjoying themselves. Compare this to today, where an entry level video game console uses either wireless controllers or infra red sensors to control elements rendered in three-dimensional full colour glory, and lifelike characters can be given soiled or torn clothing, in addition to scars or five o'clock shadow. Pac-Man had a mouth, and that's it. The ghosts don't even have that.

The original Pac-Man can now be played without difficulty on the telephone I carry in my pocket, which is in itself a tiny miracle I have come to take for granted. I don't actually take advantage of this, as it would cost me a monthly fee of $2.99 for this privilege, unlike the Galaga game that currently resides in my phone and required only a one-time payment.

If Pac-Man is still being talked about when he gets to his 60th birthday, I wonder what you'll tell your children or nieces and nephews about it.

"I remember playing that game with Poppy on his whatyacallit, Playstation. We used wires to hook it up to a television, which was like a video display unit we used for entertainment."

"Wow, wires?"

"Yep, and not like the ones you use for those neural uplinks in your temples either. Other wires connected the controller..."

"Whoa, back up auntie; I get that they probably didn't have thoughtboxes back in the day, but you didn't even have a gesture interface yet?"

"No, and that's nothing compared to my dad. Poppy couldn't even play at home, he had to go to a special place and use coins to pay for each play session!"

I have a sneaking suspicion that this generation might look at our early electronic play experiences as something quaintly comparable to Morris dancing, but I bet they will still know what you mean when you mention Pac-Man.

No comments:

Post a Comment