Simplicity, at times, has its own unique elegance.
Consider the rules for a childhood game of Tag, for instance. I try to catch you. If I do catch you, you now have to try to catch me.
Sure, there are a few mild extension rules one has to learn, such as the dynamics of “base,” the game’s boundaries and how to handle “tag-backs,” but at its core, Tag is about chasing one another. And Tag’s replayability is among its more charming characteristics, one that’s counterintuitive given its simplicity.
That elegance of simplicity probably has its own word in German – or perhaps Japanese. While simplicity was a defining characteristic of many of the early games that ushered in the arcade’s Golden Age, few captured that elegance quite as well as Pac-Man.
What is Pac-Man, if not a slightly modified version of Tag? Ghost Monsters chase Pac-Man, and if they catch him, he dies. Pac-Man can eat energizers, which allow him to chase and eat ghosts for a little while. Throw in a few other elements, like needing to finish eating all the dots on the screen in order to progress, some fruit you can munch for extra points, and a door that wraps to the other end of the screen, and you’ve essentially captured it – not much more complicated than the first time the neighborhood kids described the rules of Tag to you when you were a little kid.
If you didn’t need one- and two-player start buttons, a Pac-Man machine wouldn’t have buttons at all. A joystick is all that is required to play. Contrast that with modern console games, where the controllers have two joysticks, a directional pad, four buttons, two triggers, two bumpers – you get the picture. Simplicity was Pac-Man’s defining characteristic, and for a long while, it ruled the roost with its sheer popularity in the early 1980s.
So many people were playing Pac-Man that it spawned numerous video game sequels, a song that sold 2.5 million copies, a Saturday morning cartoon and a flood of merchandise that threatened to bury every other trend at the time. And nobody wanted that authentic Pac-Man arcade experience more than 8-year-old me.
Unfortunately, that experience was a long time coming. The first things I saw emerge to meet the demand for Pac-Man were cheap electronic game clones. My godfather even bought me one as a gift – a battery-operated electronic game that played like Pac-Man, but with all the clunkiness that comes with having to play it on an LCD screen. These were, at first, flagrant rip-offs, but when nothing else existed to deliver the arcade experience at home, you took what you could get. And Pac-Man’s game mechanics were so simple that clones and cheap imitations were addictive and fun in their own way.
What we were waiting for was for some game programmer to make a version of the game for the Atari 2600. What seemed like an eternity later, Atari did deliver, but not in the way we expected or would have been satisfied with.
Atari 2600 Pac-Man was one of the most anticipated game cartridges in the console’s lineup. Once the game was ported over, it became the best-selling Atari 2600 title of all time, selling 7 million copies. The first time I saw it, I was too excited to be disappointed.
The port was disgusting. The maze looked completely different. Pac-Man didn’t even turn to face the direction he was heading – he always faced to the right. The ghost monsters were all the same color and they flickered weirdly when Pac-Man ate an energizer. Instead of playing cool little snippets of tunes as you were preparing to start a new board, Atari 2600 Pac-Man would play four weird, dissonant tones that sounded like something Ma Bell might use to test a phone line. The side door was now a top-to-bottom door. And the bonus fruit had been replaced with this strange wafer-looking thing that never changed form as you progressed through levels. The behavior of the ghost monsters was predictable and boring, and we quickly learned how to play almost indefinitely without losing a single Pac-Man.
Despite selling 7 million copies, Atari got hosed on this. They overestimated demand, 5 million copes went unsold, and the poor quality of the port damaged Atari’s reputation with both consumers and retailers.
Even considering all of this, I happily played the game at friends’ houses and later at my own. (As I mentioned earlier, I was probably the last kid on my block to get Atari.) Why? Because the mechanics were so simple, and even though the graphics were stupid and the gameplay ridiculously easy compared to the arcade machine, it was all we had. So we would hold contests to see who could run up the score the most egregiously.
Meanwhile, we waited patiently for a game that would deliver something closer to the arcade experience. My buddy John bought Pac-Man for the Atari 400, and wasn’t far off the mark. We wasted countless hours playing it, and it was ridiculously more difficult than the Atari 2600 port.
But one of the things missing from all the ports, no matter how close they came to the original, was the unpredictable behavior of the ghost monsters. From the perspective of the player, playing on an arcade machine was so much fun because it was comparatively harder to guess what the ghosts were going to do. It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered that a lot more went into programming the ghosts than I ever thought. In fact, Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde each had their own personalities and ways that they pursued Pac-Man all over the maze.
It turns out that in order to really get that “just like the arcade” experience, I had to wait until I was in my 30s, when arcade emulation became accessible to people with home computers. Along the way, I had purchased at least six different versions of Pac-Man, with none feeling entirely authentic. I had suffered through dropping most of my allowance into coin-op machines, terrible ports to home arcade systems, a bad pop song, money spent on Pac-Man stickers and trading cards, and one godawful Saturday morning cartoon. But I still loved Pac-Man and its elegant simplicity.
Look at how simple the instructions are on the arcade machine. That’s the whole game right there. And yet, different players can adopt radically different play styles. Sure, there’s the pattern-based method, in which players can exploit the complex but ultimately predictable behavior of the ghost monsters and pursue the perfect game. But if you’re more of a casual player, and your emphasis is more on the journey than on the destination, you might play the game differently than any of your friends.
My wife, for instance, plays defensively. Energizers are things that will make the ghosts go away so she can eat more dots. I’m more of an offensive player, and I look for opportunities to hide near an energizer and wait for the ghosts to come closer, so I can strike and get more points. Some people place value on how many screens they can clear of dots. Others look to total points as a measure of their Pac-Man skills.
That all of this comes from something so rudimentary, with such simple rules and gameplay, tells me that video gaming’s best days might still be ahead of it. If we can learn to strip away the complexity of modern games, perhaps we might invent the next pop culture phenomenon by going back to basics.