Archive for the ‘Pac-Man’ Category

Know Your Onions

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

One of my English teachers in high school liked to say that at that level, we’re not actually learning history, we’re actually just learning History’s Greatest Hits. At the time I just laughed it off as a silly joke (he made lots of those), but, over time, I realized he was right. You go through school and get an overview of history (and just about every subject) by hitting the high points so you’re not completely ignorant of how the world and the US got where they are today. But the thing is, there’s so much history (and more of it all the time!) that it’s impossible to know it all. If you’re interested, though, you will go beyond the bare minimum required to pass your high school (and even college) classes. Most of us, though, probably don’t care about that kind of history enough to do more than watch the occasional documentary on PBS, or whatever Drunk History counts as. So, we know some history, but historians, people who love history, know lots more. That sounds obvious, but they do more than watch documentaries in order to feel smart. They do research: they read books (the horror!), they talk to other historians, they visit historic places, and so on. They know that there is more to history than everyone was required to learn in school, and they know that knowledge is out there, they just have to go get it. A lot of times they’ll specialize in one particular area and learn everything they can about it.

You probably think that being a hardcore historian is probably not for you, though. You may not care if Shakespeare actually wrote all his plays or not. You may think that Socrates is just some dead Greek dude who was the subject of a few jokes in the first Bill & Ted movie. Besides, you like video games (well, if you’re reading this site, there’s a pretty good chance that you like video games). Video games are way better than boring old history any day of the week.

But what about video game history?

Felipe Pepe wrote an intresting article on Gamasutra the other day lamenting that a lot of so-called ‘hardcore gamers’ don’t know much about the history of video games past five or ten years or so ago.

That is a disappointing realization.

Video games are becoming (or maybe have already become) a mainstream form of entertainment for everyone, but they’ve been around in one form another since at least the late 1940s. No, that’s not a typo.

Warning: From this point on, I’m going to probably sound like either a hipster or an old man yelling at a butt. You have been warned.

When I say “retro gaming” or “old video games” what do you think of? I’m going to guess that it’s Super Mario Bros or The Legend of Zelda. Maybe just the NES, Super NES, and maybe even the Genesis. Possibly Pong. You may even know that Pong was a big deal in the 80’s. It was, but it was an even bigger deal when it came out in 1972.

You may have heard about the Commodore 64, but do you know anything about it? Can you name five games for it without looking them up? Have you ever heard of the VIC-20? The PET? The Commodore 16? The Commodore 128? The Amiga? Do you know who Jack Tramiel was? Do you know why Bill Cosby is an important figure in Commodore’s history?

You might have heard about the Atari 2600, but what about the reissued Atari 2600 Jr.? The Atari 7800? The Atari 8-bit line? Do you know who Nolan Bushnell is?

Did you know that Texas Instruments had a line of computers that played games? Did you know that the TI-99/4A is actually a revised model of the TI-99/4? Did you know it supported a voice module to enable real actual speech? Do you know who its spokesperson was and why that’s important?

Do you know why games like Diablo are called ‘rogue-like’?

More importantly, have you ever actually played these games that are more than 5 years old? How about 10? 20? Further back? I don’t mean ‘load them up in an emulator and fart around with one for five minutes’, I mean actually play them for a decent amount of time. Try to finish one or set a high score (without abusing savestates, natch). Did you play something outside of the games you’ve heard of (the ‘video games greatest hits’)?

The Problem

While doing some independent research on Ironsword, the game infamous for having Fabio on the label, Wikipedia cites a GameSpy article that says:

You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but IronSword is actually a sequel to Wizards & Warriors. But thanks to the presence of Fabio on the cover, gamers got confused and thought they had accidentally picked up one of their mom’s romance novels.

It also posts a cropped picture of the label (with Fabio’s Fabulous Hair) with the caption that “Anything Fabio is involved in becomes automatically bad.”

I suppose the author was trying to be funny, I get that. But it’s pretty clear that the image was cropped to make that joke, since the full image clearly has, “Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II” at the top of the label. And, I guess I could mistake a video game for a book if I had never seen a book or a video game before. And the game itself is actually pretty good.

The problem is threefold:

  1. Old consoles are hard to find, take up room to store, and emulating games is questionably legal.
  2. A lot of writers for big sites are in their 20s. That’s not necessarily a problem, but a lot of these games came out before they were born, and since old consoles are tough to find, they probably won’t bother. They just rely on Wikipedia, cruddy Youtube videos, and other sources of second-hand (or even third-hand and fourth-hand) information.
  3. Since old consoles are hard to find, and a lot of people won’t bother trying to find or buy them anyway, the echo-chamber effect starts to take over. For instance, Phalanx for SNES usually gets lambasted as having a dumb box featuring a hillbilly playing a banjo. The game must be terrible, whatever it is, right? Wrong. It’s a passable shoot-em-up. Or, ET for the Atari 2600 is the worst game ever made, right? Nope. ET isn’t even the worst game on the Atari 2600 (Sneak ‘n’ Peek, for example). Custer’s Revenge gets a bad rap as one of the worst games ever made (and it is bad, don’t get me wrong), but it was one of those porno games, like Bubble Bath Babes on the NES (don’t Search for these games at work). It was never sitting on the shelf at your local Hills next to Kaboom and Chopper Command.

What all this means is that we have a lot of people writing authoritatively on things that they know very little about. It’s like if you were writing for a music website, but the only thing you knew about music older than 10 years is the songs from your local radio station’s 80’s dance mix, and you just assume that everything pre-1970 is either The Twist or the Foxtrot.

So, what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, I can’t demand that everyone writing about video games broaden their horizons in any meaningful way (if only). But what I can do is demand excellence, both from myself, and from the publications that I read. At the risk of being labeled a pedant and a hipster and a fogey, I can point out why your top whatever list is dumb and wrong, like this list of the 100 best games of all time that only has one game made before 1990 on it (which is Mega Man II. That’s not even the best Mega Man game on the NES).

I don’t want the industry, the consumers, or the media to forget what got us here. I don’t want the past 50+ years of games distilled down to Pong, Pac-Man, some NES stuff, and then everything else. I want to be able to discuss Pix the Cat as being a cross between Pac-Man Championship Edition and Flicky without someone not knowing what I’m talking about. We need to have one eye on the past and another on the future. And a video camera on the present, I guess? I’m not good with metaphors. Video games have a vibrant history, and a lot of that history directly shapes what we have today. Several of those experiences have not been duplicated. They may have been refined or cast off as the medium evolves, but when we study them, it helps us to know why things are now the way they are.


Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

As I’m looking back at the things I’ve collected over the years, I can’t help but notice that I’ve gotten a lot of Pac-Man stuff. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, even though I’m pretty sure he’s not as popular as he was a few years ago, he was absolutely huge in his day, and I was around for most of that day. But he’s still around, and tends to pop up from time to time in the most bizarre places. For instance, take a look at this:


What we have here is a couple of bears wearing 3D-glasses (you know, like everyone did in the 80’s), and on their bellies, we have… Inky and Pinky?

A closer look at the tags reveals that these are a product of the Peek-A-Boo Toy Company


Which has only been around since 1995, meaning that these can’t possibly be authentic 80s toys. They don’t appear in their current catalog, either, and I can’t find anything else on the Internet about them, so I’m forced to make the following conclusions:

  • These were made for a carnival or fair and distributed as prizes
  • They’re some kind of throwback, retro thing to get parents to spend money to try and win a reminder of their childhood
  • They’re totally rad to the max!

But now I kind of think I need to try and find the other two… assuming there are two more.


The Pac-Man Riddle and Joke Book

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Finally we come to this. The Pac-Man Riddle and Joke Book. A book that captures what it was like to be a kid in the 80’s. America’s Riddle King serves up a whole book of illustrated riddles and puns all based on Pac-Man (more specifically, based on the words ‘dot’ and ‘pac’). It starts out promising enough, I mean, take a look at this cover.

Pac-Man Riddle and Joke Book Cover
But that’s as awesome as this book gets. We’re “treated” to page after page of bad Pac-Puns after another. Like, “What’s Pac-Man’s favorite city? Dot-troit, remember?”. I’m not actually sure why he says, “Remember?” there. It’s not like I learned that anywhere but in this book.

And it just goes on and on like this. And lots of people on the Internet will tell you how bad this book is. And, sure, it’s bad now to adults who are 30 years removed from the source material. But what about in the 80’s?

Well, I was around in the 80’s, during Pac-Man’s heyday, and when I got this book back then, I didn’t think it was all bad. Although, I didn’t get all of the jokes (how is a 7-year-old expected to get a Rhapsody in Blue reference?). But I didn’t think it was all that bad then. Heck, at that age, I didn’t think much was bad at all. Everything was new and amazing! Which kind of explains how I managed to keep myself entertained with a barely functional tape recorder for an entire summer (blank tapes were cheap entertainment, what can I say?).

And what about America’s Riddle King? Well, here’s his ‘self Pactrait’ (which is an extremely clumsy pun, I admit) and a mini-bio.

Pac-Man Riddle and Joke Book Interior

But he’s apparently the creator of Letterman, a cartoon that aired during the Electric Company, so that scores him some redemption points, I guess.


Pac-Man Fever

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

The other day, when talking about the Pac-Man Bag in my possession, I linked to a song called “Pac-Man Fever”. Now, depending on how old you are, you either thought that was a one-off song from a bygone era or you reminisced about how that song made it to #9 on the Billboard charts at one time. Or maybe you just liked the song and wondered if there were any other songs by this mysterious group.

I kind of fell into a combination of all three. I knew about that song for a long time, and it keeps coming up from time to time when talking about or having anything to do with video games more than about 25 years old, and I knew that the album existed, but I never bothered to track it down. So, I decided to do a little digging. I picked up the CD and gave it a listen. The songs definitely have an old-school feel to them, but the title track wasn’t quite the same as I remembered. It turns out that due to some rights issues, the original recordings could not be re-issued, so they all had to be re-done. Eh, no big deal, right?

Let’s see what we have here.

Bare-bones presentation

Bare-bones presentation

Pretty basic stuff. Vaguely Pac-Man-shaped characters on the label, track listing, and not a lot else. No lyrics, no foldout full of album art. But we don’t need frills like that. We’re here for the music, right? So let’s run down each of these songs and see what this is all about, shall we?

  • Track 1 – Pac-Man Fever. The title track and most popular song on this collection. It’s got an infectious combination of camp and cheese, which makes it very earwormy. It really captures the excitement of heading to the arcade in the 80’s. Seriously, it’s difficult to stay in a bad mood during this song. Defining lyric: “All my money’s gone, so I’ll be back tomorrow night, because I got Pac-Man Fever”.
  • Track 2 – Froggy’s Lament. A little slowed down for this song. From the opening command by our gravelly-voiced singer to “Pluck your magic twanger, froggy” to the fairly matter-of-fact explanation of how Frogger works, this track didn’t do much for me, other than weird me out a little bit. Defining lyric: “You gotta keep on hoppin’ ’till you get to the top”.
  • Track 3 – Ode to a Centipede. A song talking about Centipede (obviously). A game notable for being designed by a woman in an era where that just didn’t happen all that often (and still doesn’t happen nearly enough). So it’s weird that this song features a creepy voice telling the centipede that “you can’t get away” and that “I’m right behind you” in just about the most stalkerish way possible. This track actually made me feel a little uncomfortable. Defining lyric: “Go ahead, run your little legs off… do you have Nikes for all of them?”
  • Track 4 – Do the Donkey Kong. It’s the dance craze that’s sweeping the nation! You put your hands over your head and stomp on the ground, just like Donkey Kong! Right? No? Yeah, me either. This track tries really hard to be catchy (and succeeds, boy, does it succeed), but the odds that you’ll catch me doing the Donkey Kong in public are pretty slim… unless we can organize a flash mob. Also, keep an ear out for the fake-out fade-out. Defining lyric: “You pick the hammer up and then you put the fire out”
  • Track 5 – Hyperspace. Unless you’re familiar with arcade games from the 80’s, you might think that this song is about a game called “Hyperspace”, but you’d be wrong. It’s actually about Asteroids, which, if you look at the arcade cabinet’s controls, had a Hyperspace button. The Hyperspace button would make you disappear and reappear in a random location on the board. It was a definite last-ditch option. This song is pretty frantic, and captures the stress of an extended play session pretty well. The only real oddball thing about this song is the way the singer gives us the word ‘Thrust’. He goes from pretty normal at first to sounding like he’s trying to… erm… evacuate… if you get my meaning. Defining Lyric: “I’m invisible now, but I’ll be back again”
  • Track 6 – The Defender. Again, we’re slowed down into what could maybe be a song for a sitcom theme song from the 80’s. For anyone that’s played Defender for any length of time, you will recognize the sounds of the aliens appearing out of nowhere to take the people that you’re supposed to be the defender of… And. They. Never. STOP! Whoa, sorry, had a flashback to playing this game. Defining lyric: “Here comes a bomber now, this is my chance / to fire the laser, and watch him dance”
  • Track 7 – Mousetrap. This is the only song based on a game that I have not played. Mousetrap apparently starred you, as a mouse, who had to pick up cheese and stay away from cats. If you collected a bone you could turn into a dog and defeat the cats. Also there was a hawk that gave you troubles. Hey, makes sense to me. Just knowing that makes the lyrics a little less insane. Other than that, this song didn’t do much for me, and since there aren’t any sounds from the actual game, this just kind of stands out as an oddball song in almost every conceivable way. Defining lyric: “I can turn into a dog if I only had a bone, and could press the doggy button, they would leave me all alone”
  • Track 8 – Goin’ Berzerk. Ah, Berzerk. Kind of a predecessor to games like Smash TV, this takes you through lots of randomly-generated rooms to destroy robots, with the occasional appearance by Evil Otto (who cannot be destroyed). This song starts off talking about the game, but it kind of devolves into a song that seems to borderline on obsession. It just progressively gets more creepy toward the end. Defining lyric: “Berzerk! Berzerk! Berzerk over you!”
  • Track 9 – E.T. (I Love You). This song (and the one that follows) is a bit of an oddity. It’s not about the terrible E.T. video game, but about the movie. I guess it’s supposed to be a slow, sweet song about E.T., but it just seems out of place on this disc. Not to mention a little hokey (but, hey, E.T. was also pretty hokey, so it fits there, I guess). Defining lyric: “I shared your thoughts, your hopes and dreams. I watched you make the flowers grow.”
  • Track 10 – Hostage. The last song seemed out of place, but it was at least a song about a movie from the same time period as the games the rest of the songs were based off of. But this song? It came way out of left field (which makes sense, since it was originally from a totally different album). It starts out as a pretty upbeat song, but it soon takes a weird government-protest bent. It kind of turns this CD from a fun trip down memory lane into an awkward political statement. This song usually gets a skip from me. Defining Lyric: “Brady bill, poppin’ pills, people headin’ toward the hills. Devastation, aggravation, politicians kill my nation”

I saw it mentioned that Buckner & Garcia didn’t want to become pigeonholed into being known for making songs about video games, so they branched out and made songs like Hostage. Which is fine, I’m not going to tell anyone what they should do with their careers. I just would have liked to have seen more video-game related music out of these guys because that’s my bag, and after 30 years, the songs they made about video games still hold up reasonably well.

But I’ll take what I can get.


Pac-Man Bag

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

I’m not going to take too much time introducing you to Pac-Man. Unless you were born yesterday (in which case, welcome!) you already know enough to appreciate the little yellow guy with the bottomless appetite.

But say you’re a kid in the early 1980’s or so, and you have Pac-Man Fever (or maybe Pac-Man Elbow). So, obviously, you need something that will tell the world about your Pac-obsession while also doubling as a handy tote-bag.

Pac-Man Bag with The Python Book

Pac-Man Bag with The Python Book

Or maybe you just want to carry around a big ol’book about Python. Either way, the Pac-Bag is probably what you would want. It’s a pretty standard canvas tote bag, big enough to hold one Python book (or maybe a few smaller books, if you have any), it has a snap on top so you don’t lose the contents when you’re doing windmills while walking down the street, and it has a convenient spot to write your name. Or someone else’s name if you want.


But, that does make it a little harder to locate it at the lost and found (and to prove that it’s actually yours), should you need to do that.