Ms. Pac-Man is the best arcade game ever – period. In an era when amazing, revolutionary games would arrive at your local arcade every week, Ms. Pac-Man reigned supreme. And its longevity has been remarkable; long after arcades had sent their Defenders, Berzerks, Dig Dugs and even their original Pac-Mans packing, Ms. Pac-Man frequently represented the golden age of video games even in the era when fighting games like Mortal Kombat were all the rage. It’s still not terribly hard to find Ms. Pac-Man out in the wild, if not an original machine at least on one of those combo units that feature other classic games as well.
More than anything, Ms. Pac-Man is a superior game to its insanely popular predecessor Pac-Man. Having learned that players had identified patterns to beat Pac-Man, Midway went into the design of Ms. Pac-Man determined to make the monster (they’re not ghosts – that’s a 2600 Pac-Man myth) behaviour as unpredictable as possible. However, astute players were still able to discover some tricks – primarily the concept of “grouping” the monsters in order to have them all together the second you eat a power pill. The ability to corral will be an important judgment point in this review.
When we’re comparing the arcade Ms. Pac-Man to the ports designed for the Atari 2600 and the NES – spoiler alert! – arcade Ms. Pac-Man wins in every category. However, that does not mean the others are not without value (or at least one of them anyway). Full disclosure: there are actually two versions of Ms. Pac-Man for the NES: the licensed version by Namco and an unlicensed one by Tengen (an offshoot of Atari). The Namco version is the one we’re looking at today. The Tengen version is said to be better than Namco’s but I can’t speak to that as I do not have access to the Tengen port.
The facts. Although carrying a copyright year of 1981, according to Wikipedia Ms. Pac-Man was released to arcades January 13, 1982 by Midway Manufacturing. The Atari 2600 version was released by Atari in 1983 while the official Namco version of Ms. Pac-Man for the NES being discussed here wasn’t released until 1993, towards the end of that system’s commercial life.
I don’t think I have to get too much into the gameplay of Ms. Pac-Man. Basically, it’s Pac-Man with a variety of mazes, moving rather than stationary fruit and – as mentioned above – monsters that move in a more unpredictable fashion. Ms. Pac-Man comes in two difficulties: “normal” and “hard.” If you are playing on MAME, difficulty can be adjusted by hitting the “tab” button on your PC (I honestly don’t know if MAME is even available for Mac – sorry) and selecting “dip switches” in the main menu. The NES version has the same number of difficulty variations, while the Atari port allows you to select the number of monsters you want in your game.
Like most arcade games of its era, Ms. Pac-Man is vertically-oriented. For the 2600 port Atari stretched out the screen to fit a standard 16:9 television of the era, while Namco did something in between for the NES version, letting the game take up about three-quarters of the screen and placing scores and other game info to the right, resulting in something of a “squished” feeling.
NES Ms. Pac-Man follows the same basic maze structures as the arcade and includes the cute little cinematics the original offered every two or three levels. Curiously, though, it does not follow the same colour patterns of the first four levels (pink, pink, blue, blue). Atari did a pretty good job of replicating the arcade’s mazes with different dimensions; however, there are some key differences (the warp tunnel at the top of the blue mazes in the arcade are at the bottom on the 2600, for example). Like Atari VCS Pac-Man, Atari opted for “wafers” instead of dots for Ms. Pac-Man. Because of their size there are less wafers in the VCS version than dots in the arcade original, but generally this doesn’t seem to impact scoring much. Speaking of which, scoring is the same in all three versions.
Grouping. I don’t claim to be an expert on grouping, although I can generally group at least three monsters in one place, with the fourth close enough to catch it. Not surprisingly, grouping is easiest on the arcade machine. Monsters appear to move more randomly on the 2600, making grouping difficult. However, I noticed that some of the techniques I use with the arcade machine pay off eventually. Surprisingly, the NES version seemed to feature the weakest grouping, which might just be a result of it moving sooooooo slow.
Challenge. Not surprisingly, the 2600 port is far easier than the arcade original in normal mode, but that doesn’t make it a walk in the park, either. Although not as fast as the arcade, I would say the speed is just right for the moderately-talented video game player. The NES version, on the other hand, moves far slower than either the arcade or 2600, making it an utter chore to play.
The fun factor. We have to think of things relatively here. VCS Ms. Pac-Man was designed in 1983 for a console that was never designed to handle a game that sophisticated. In that respect, Atari did a fantastic job. NES Ms. Pac-Man, meanwhile, underperforms considering it was designed ten years later on a far more powerful system. All told, it comes off as an afterthought, almost like Namco figured no one cared about Ms. Pac-Man in 1993 anyway and decided not to put a lot of effort into it. There’s simply no excuse for it not to emulate the arcade original’s play better than it does. The bottom line is the Atari 2600 is almost as fun as the arcade while NES Ms. Pac-Man is far less enjoyable than both.