1984 may have seen console games dead in the water in the U.S., but elsewhere the medium rose to new creative heights. PCs saw an influx of talent as Atari developers abandoned ship; the UK had come into its own with its indigenous microcomputers; and the booming Famicom market supplemented Japan's already vital arcade scene.
If the decline of Atari and the collapse of American consoles and arcades marks the end of gaming's long-ago golden age, 1984 saw the dawn of a new silver era characterized in part by the division of video games into clear genres. The free-wheeling, anything-goes unpredictability of gaming's early days began to settle down into a time of refinement, as developers looked at the best and most popular kinds of games that had come before and considered how to build on those concepts and perfect them.
That held especially true for the platformer genre, which evolved considerably in 1984. The format's design evolved considerably from Donkey Kong and Pitfall! to Super Mario Bros., but it didn't happen in some sudden leap. A lot of talented people along the way applied considerable thought to the question of what makes a great game about running and jumping. "Exploration" seemed to be a popular answer, although you also had a few designers who dodged the question entirely.
Namco, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with all that oblique searching and discovery. It hoped to reinvigorate the Pac-Man brand after the lukewarm reception the series' most sequel, Pac & Pal, received. The maze-chase genre seemed to have lost its luster, so instead of beating that particular horse into a miserable paste, Namco instead decided to take its most popular hero into a more character-focused adventure. What they came up with was Pac-Land, a rough but interesting proto-platformer that basically set the course for the next 10 years of action games.
Compared to the likes of Montezuma's Revenge and Jet Set Willy, Pac-Land appeared almost laughably simplistic in design. The dense, interconnected, multi-tiered maps of 1984's other notable platformers gave way to a straightforward obstacle course that felt like a regressive step to the original Pitfall! Pac-Man ran straight ahead from left to right, rarely needing to reverse course, leaping only to avoid monsters or clear gaps in the scenery. But of course, this fast-paced, no-frills style of game design was better suited to an arcade game, where players were lucky to survive for three minutes, had to pay for the privilege of each session, and thus could rarely afford the time and money needed to the master arcane complexities of something more involved.
Pac-Land revisited the Pitfall! style of action game as a coin-guzzling test of twitch reaction. Not surprisingly, it left other platformers of its era in the dust on a technical level, rendering its characters and their world in the style of a cartoon. While "it looks like a cartoon" has often been used to describe colorful video games, in Pac-Land's case it was a literal truth: Despite developing the game in its Japanese studio, Namco based its design on America's Pac-Man: The Animated Series Saturday morning cartoon by Hanna-Barbera. While a far cry from the hand-drawn authenticity of LaserDisc adventures like Dragon's Lair, Pac-Land managed to imitate the look of TV animation as well as could be expected from a sprite-and-tile based game crammed into about 64Kb of storage space. Bold, flat colors and crisp black outlines delineated the realm of Pac-Land, and the protagonist, his foes, and his family looked faithful to their television counterparts (all the way down to the ghosts' slouchy hats and Ms. Pac's thigh-high pink boots).
Pac-Land's visual design may look simplistic in hindsight, but it was quite impressive in its time. And it contains some surprising subtle visual details, including a vanishing point based on line-of-sight that causes the top edges platforms to be more visible the further they are from the center of the screen. Where other 2D games -- including the many to follow in Pac-Land's wake -- usually adopt a fixed side view or forced false perspective, Pac-Land's designers tried to incorporate a realistic line of sight despite the fact that the game's aesthetic actively imitated a cartoon.
That level of hidden quality defines Pac-Land, which ultimately proves to be a much less mundane take on the platformer than appearances might initially suggest. The later levels contain some really interesting and unexpected concepts, with challenges and obstacles even more sophisticated than the ones the legendary Super Mario Bros. would throw into the mix a year later. Eventually, the game even ventures into non-linear platforming and stages steeped in darkness, similar to Montezuma's Revenge.
But it's easy to overlook these features -- or never know about them at all -- because of Pac-Land's strange, repetitive structure. Each of its worlds is broken into a few sub-stages, but simply reaching the end of the stage (where, inexplicably, Pac-Man rescues a bizarrely out of place and decidedly human-looking faerie queen) isn't enough to take you to the subsequent level. Instead, you have to retrace your steps, running back through the freshly completed stages in reverse order with new obstacles and (again, inexplicably) a magical pair of boots that allows Pac-Man to fly. This effectively doubles the length of the game, and as you can see from this playthrough video, means a perfect playthrough of the game takes about half an hour to complete -- a truly bizarre design choice for an arcade game.
Unfortunately, there's just not enough to the game to justify the padding, and its finer moments are buried behind a firewall of tedium. More's the pity, because the adventure really does feel at once true to Pac-Man and inventive, combining the aesthetics of the cartoon (with ghosts attacking on pogo sticks, in cars, via UFO, and more) with the rules of the core arcade game (you can collect energizer pills and devour ghosts for stacking bonus points) and the infant platformer genre. The latter stages contain a lot of interesting ideas; it's just that getting there is a real chore, and the primitive controls and physics certainly don't help.
Still, looking at all the games that followed in Pac-Land's wake, it's hard not to think that pretty much every game designer in Japan didn't sit down with a Pac-Land cabinet, furiously scribbling notes. It was a technical triumph: Not the first game to incorporate scrolling backgrounds in place of single-screen transitions, but the first platformer to do so. This constant sense of movement (there weren't even separate transitions between sub-stages, as Pac-Man simply rested for a moment before advancing seamlessly to the next section of a level) truly liberated the genre, enabling Namco's designers to create a constant sense of danger from a never-ending succession of foes without fear of "cheap" deaths resulting from hazards lurking too close to the edge of the next screen transition.
Super Mario Bros. would define the mascot platformer a year later, but before that could happen, Pac-Land had to codify the ideas that Nintendo would perfect. Pac-Land hasn't withstood the test of time, and I can't imagine an awful lot of people saw all it had to offer even in its day. But it seems quite fitting that gaming's next major wave of design would be ushered in by Pac-Man, even if the character wouldn't stick around to see what he had heralded.