One Giant Leap, 1984: Pac-Land

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: the strange, forgotten, and massively influential Pac-Land

For the past 3 months, we’ve been looking at the platformer’s earliest days, at games that introduced basic concepts but don’t much resemble what we’d expect from a platformer today. Next month, we’ll be looking at Super Mario Bros., the game that defined “what we’d expect from a platformer today”. But what to do about 1984?

This is a weird moment in US-centric histories of the games industry, because in 1984 it looked like there might not be one for much longer. The industry suffered a sharp collapse in 1983, spurred by a glut of inferior games looking to cash in on a new trend 1. Infamously, Atari had to bury hundreds of thousands of unsold cartridges in the New Mexico desert. Although commercial video games had been around since the early 70s, by 1984 it looked like they might have been a novelty that had run its course. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight we know this wasn’t the case; video games in the US came roaring back with the Nintendo Entertainment System2, which saw wide release in 1986. And the crash was not universal, of course; games didn’t go anywhere in Japan, and in Europe consoles and arcades had always taken a backseat to PCs.

But as a result of this crash, a lot of games released in the mid-80s have been completely memory-holed. We already saw this a little with 1983’s Mario Bros, which has far more fame as a minigame in Super Mario Bros. 3 than it ever did as an arcade cabinet. And this hits double for today’s subject, Pac-Land, which is easily best-known as the inspiration for the Smash Bros. stage of the same name. Which is a huge shame, because otherwise Pac-Land would be one of the biggest landmarks in the medium’s history.

Simply put, a huge amount of what Super Mario Bros. would go on to popularize was present here first. Pac-Land is a quantum leap from the likes of Donkey Kong and Pitfall!. It features full side-scrolling. It has mid-air jump adjustments. It has 32 different levels3, broken up into 8 groups of 4, including a castle level with different, spookier music. You can run as well as walk. There are powerups, hidden secrets, double-jumps, bottomless pits…in many ways, Pac-Land wouldn’t feel out of place on the NES.

Just…look at it! That’s a platformer, baby!

Each “trip”4 has a similar arc, with Pac-Man starting out at his house, venturing out into the wilderness, reaching Fairyland, then returning home. Different levels have different gimmicks, like springboard jumps over large moats or a multi-level castle with locked doors that require keys. Each return level features Pac-Man running left instead of right, and features winged boots that give unlimited mid-air jumps.

There’s a lot of content here compared to the games we’ve looked at so far. Pac-Land is still an arcade game, so quick deaths and short play sessions are still the rule, but it branches out a little bit; players can choose to start on a later trip, serving as something like an honor-code save system, or perhaps a warp zone. This is a mentality we’d see become the norm during the NES era: games are still very hard, but there’s more of an expectation that you might “beat” the game anyway, and there are systems in place to help you achieve that.

Unfortunately, part of the curse of being visionary is that any aspect that whiffs or is of its time will be so much more noticeable. And for Pac-Land, there’s one archaic element that’s a real doozy. You see, Pac-Land didn’t use a joystick to control movement. It instead uses buttons for left and right movement. To run, you double-tap the movement button. It’s awkward; even though there technically isn’t a difference between this and a joystick when you get right down to it (analog sticks are over a decade away, after all) it still just feels wrong.

And this is exacerbated by the game’s obscurity. Unlike previous and future entries in this series, Pac-Land was not well preserved. It didn’t get a fancy Arcade Archives release, and when Namco remembers to include it in Pac-Man collections it tends to be the NES port rather than the arcade original. The only official version I could find was a PlayStation port, included in Namco Museum Vol. 4 and available on PS3 through the PS one Classics store. And for some reason, this version maps the left and right movement buttons to X and O??? And maps jump to the d-pad????? Like, the entire thing, every button the same??????? This collection came out in 1996, there is less than 0 excuse for this.

Why are you like this?

The unfortunate result of what I can only interpret as an act of deliberate sabotage is that I can’t bear to play Pac-Land for more than a few runs. This bizarre mapping means that I have to think about my inputs, rather than just think about what actions I want to take. Pac-Land has all sorts of neat, subtle jump variations (we’re finally out of the “exactly 2 jumps” era!) but it’s so hard to take full advantage when I have to spend precious frames thinking “wait, which button was right again?” So, despite the fact that there is something of an end state here5 I have to admit I didn’t reach it. Even with the game’s proto-warp zone system, these weird controls were just too much to overcome.

Pac-Land is a super interesting and influential game; you can see a lot of its DNA in Super Mario Bros., and from there in most every 2D platformer that came next. But sadly, its foibles combined with its obscurity make it a game more worth admiring than playing. It’s a game that deserved better from history, but only to a point. It definitely deserves a competent port, though. Maybe one day.

Other 1984 platformers of note: The Atari VCS was basically over by 1984, but it got an incredible retirement gift in Pitfall II : Lost Caverns. Like Pitfall! before it, Lost Caverns is surprisingly forward-thinking. It abandons lives and game overs entirely, a move that would have stuck out in 1994; for ’84 it was downright revolutionary. Instead, this game features one of the earliest examples of a checkpoint system. Hitting an enemy sends you back to your last checkpoint and costs you some of your score, but even if you’re at 0 points you can keep trying just to beat the game. Lost Caverns even shows Pitfall Harry moving through the world back to the checkpoint, just to illustrate to the player what exactly is happening.

That red plus sign is a checkpoint

Pitfall II is another game that’s less remembered than it should be thanks to the crash of ’83. And while Pac-Land‘s advances would be codified just a year later, it’d take much longer for Pitfall II‘s ideas to percolate. Checkpoints would become fairly common during the NES days, but it would take until the PlayStation era for lives to start being abandoned in earnest, and in the platformer genre lives systems held on well into the 21st century; the Mario series didn’t drop them until 2017. If Pitfall II had been a smash hit, the gaming landscape that followed could have looked pretty different.

Next Time: Maybe the most iconic game of all time: it’s Super Mario Bros.