Virtually Overlooked: Pac-Land

Welcome to our weekly feature, Virtually Overlooked, wherein we talk about games that aren't on the Virtual Console yet, but should be. Call it a retro-speculative.

Pac-Land may not be terribly obscure, but it is an interesting look at how Namco treated its flagship franchise in 1984. Most companies would play it safe with a hit as massive as Pac-Man, but not Namco. They branched out in increasingly odd directions. Pac-Land is still exceptionally odd today, but it was even stranger when it was originally released, and bizarrely anachronistic when it was ported to the PC Engine in 1989.

Why the game hasn't been announced for Virtual Console yet:

It will be eventually. It was a fairly large release for the Turbografx-16, and was a major entry in one of the most important game franchises ever. It'll get there. Namco actually put Splatterhouse on the Virtual Console, so anything is possible!

Why we think it should be on the Virtual Console:
Bally/Midway, the US distributors of Pac-Man, made a couple of weird sequels and spinoffs to Namco's original Pac-Man. Baby Pac-Man was a half-pinball, half-video game chimera. Professor Pac-Man was a quiz game. Namco went off on other weird tangents, like Pac & Pal, featuring a helper ghost, and Super Pac-Man, in which Pac-Man eats keys to unlock gates in a maze. One of their weirdest ideas was to put Pac-Man into a nascent genre called the platform game, in which a character moves through a scrolling level, jumping on platforms and collecting items while avoiding enemies. And so Pac-Man, one of the most abstract games ever, lead to Pac-Land, which put gameplay elements of the original game into a cartoon-realistic world and made characters of the yellow shapes. In the game, Pac-Man agrees to walk some fairies home, through a ghost-filled town in which he lives for some reason. He says goodbye to Ms. Pac-Man and Baby Pac-Man, sticks a fairy under his adventurin' hat and sets off.

Pac-Land differs from most platformers in a couple of important areas. First, the control scheme-- Pac-Land uses, by default, the I and II buttons to run and the d-pad to jump. In a genre that depends so heavily on precise controls, this control scheme is jarring. It's strange that anyone ever thought that using action buttons for movement and directional buttons for action made any sense. But, of course, these are the same people who designed ghost enemies that attack you by throwing their children out of airplanes.

Second, unlike most platformers, Pac-Man's method of dealing with enemies is not to stomp on them or attack them. Alone, he is completely unequipped to dispatch any of the numerous ghosts who occupy the levels, flying around in airplanes or driving in jaunty automobiles. In true Pac-Man fashion, he can pick up Power Pellets and eat ghosts, but most of the game is spent avoiding ghosts.

At the end of every "trip" (analogous to a "World" in Super Mario Bros.), Pac-Man returns the fairy to her home, and is rewarded with boots that let him jump infinitely. You then use these to fly back over the previous levels to your home, only to embark on another trip the next day. Speeding through the game on bouncy boots is the best part! And, of course, it's good to see Pac-Man getting some use out of those feet that he has all of a sudden.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.