by Richard Kushner
What I am about to admit is difficult. I am a MAMA's boy (a Middle Aged Maze Addict). I'm just crazy about maze games. Show me the latest text adventure and I'll yawn. Show me a new shoot-em-up and I'll defer to my sprained thumb. But maze games are something else.
Since I've played them all, or all I can find, I will state flat out that nothing yet has topped PAC-MAN. The ATARI computer version rates very high with me as a good rendition of the arcade phenomenon. It would have been nice to include the intermission "cartoons" of the original, but that is a small quibble.
What makes PAC-MAN so good, and some of the other games fall short? It mostly comes down to what I can only describe as "feel". The compelling thrust of PAC-MAN grows and grows. The sound increases in volume and the ghosts move ever faster as you advance through the maze. The ghosts' movements seem to become less random and more attuned to your every change of direction. Decisions can sometimes be made by careful planning, but, inevitably, success or failure comes to depend on those split second decisions--Should I grab the glowing dot now? Should I duck through the side of the tunnel? Should I go left or right, up or down?
But even that is not enough to capture the imagination of a nation. PACMAN is also manageable, by which I mean that, with a little practice, anyone can get through the first few levels. You don't have to have eyes in the back of your head, or the reflexes of a 10 year old, to survive-at least for a while. This is the chief drawback of maze games like CROSSFIRE or MOUSKATTACK. Both of these are graphically the equal of PAC-MAN, but I simply am unable to look in three directions, move, and shoot, all at the same time (as CROSSFIRE requires), or lay pipe, look for bad joints, avoid cats, manage traps and move, all at the same time (as MOUSKATTACK demands) .
Game designers, please remember that the home computer is not like the arcade machine where you need at least 20 quarters per hour to make big bucks. There is room for gradual escalation, and a game that can be played for more than 30 seconds before Armageddon wipes out the good guys. You need to consider the frustration level of your purchasers, who plunk down $30 to $50, based largely on the cover art, but who will only recommend your game if it is a "good" one.
Here are a few more observations on the extra touches that make games good:
Please let me skip the introduction. Sure, it looked terrific the first time I saw it, and amusing the fifth time, but after that it was just plain boring.
Don't make me start over every time I play. (Give me the choice of starting at some of the advanced levels, even if you want to reserve the highest for those who earn them. Aztec Challenge lets you continue right where you were when you got wiped out. This allows you to get far into the game, without having to plod through all the "I've been there before" sections.
Everyone has discovered vertical blank interrupts and uses them to wedge music into most of the Atari games on the market today. Music should be an option. It wears on the nerves after playing a while, even though it is fun sometimes.
How can you determine if you are a maze game addict? What measures can you take to cure this dreaded disease? The symptoms are easy to describe: damp palms, tension ache in the shoulders, sore wrist, and the search for the "perfect" joystick.
The cure, I'm afraid, is worse than the disease. You can't just taper off. No, like the alcoholic, you have to give it up entirely, and avoid going to arcades. "Cold turkey" is the only sure cure. Probably it would be best to get rid of the computer altogether, so as not to be tempted. But wait a minute ... I heard that Digdug, QIX and Zaxxon are coming out soon. I'd better go do my joystick exercises so I'll be in shape when they arrive. Oh, well, there are worse habits.