Namco’s iconic yellow fellow has starred in countless games over the years, so it’s no surprise that some have fallen into obscurity. Arguably, none of these are more deserving of a lookback than 1993’s Pac-Attack, a neat little puzzler with more than a whiff of Tetris about it.
Although the puzzler appears to have been designed with Pac-Man in mind, that’s actually not the case – its roots can be traced back to Cosmo Gang the Puzzle, a very similar game released in arcades the year before. The curious thing about this is why Namco didn’t put Pac-Man in pride of place from the start. Although there had been a few other arcade games featuring the Cosmo Gang in the past, the puzzler’s concept of lining up rows of enemies so that they can be haplessly eaten has Pac-Man written all over it.
Like all good puzzlers, Pac-Attack is easy to pick up. That’s especially the case for those who have played Tetris before, and to be fair, it’s hard to imagine that anybody hasn’t – even way back in 1993. Blocks vanish when a full row is formed, thus preventing the ever growing pile from touching the top. As the levels rise, the speed of the block’s descent increases until the point where lightening quick reflexes are required.
So far so Tetris. As well as standard blocks though there are also rows of ghosts to line up for Pac-Man to munch whenever a block formation containing Pac-Man appears. Herein lines the genius streak – huge combos can be pull off by blocks dropping down after the ghosts underneath have been eaten. This goes a long way to making it a very satisfying game to play, particularly after lining up a long string of ghosts for Pac-Man to dine on.
But while Pac-Attack adheres to the golden rule of being easy to pick up, it isn’t particularly hard to master. It has been said that Tetris is pinnacle of puzzling due to featuring just seven shapes – with seven being the optimum amount of things a person can remember. Aka Miller’s Law. Block formations in Pac-Attack are altogether far more random – bunches of blocks, small stock piles of ghosts and mixtures of the two.
Consequently, a lot of strategies used by Tetris pros – such as leaving a gap down the slide of the screen for the long straight tetromino cannot be used here. It doesn’t always help that Pac-Man only moves in the direction he is facing – a fact that can throw beginners.
It’s not quite the case that luck rather than skill is required, but certainly less skill is needed there than Tetris. This doesn’t make Pac-Attack a bad game, of course – we’ve always found it more instantly gratifying. Presentation too is stronger – the ghosts pull faces and yawn as they await their demise and it speaks volumes (literally, we suppose) than ‘Pac-Attack music’ appears higher on Google than ‘Pac-Attack ROM’.
Although reasonably obscure, Pac-Attack isn’t too hard to get hold of. The SNES and Mega Drive iterations (the latter of which known as Pac-Panic) are common on eBay, while the Game Gear, Game Boy and CDi versions are less common thus slightly pricier.
It’s also available on the Wii’s Virtual Console and on iTunes for £1.99. Curiously, the mobile version is referred to as a ‘demake’ – the stylised visuals from the 1993 original have been changed to sprites similar to the original Pac-Man.
With a bit of luck the Game Boy version will be added to the 3DS Virtual Console some day – Game Boy games seem to sell well on the 3DS, and this is one that deserves more recognition.