Ms. Pac-Man: The Grandmother of Gaming
Go to any doctor’s waiting room, long line at the bank or traffic jam, and you’ll see people passing the time with games. Arcade games are ubiquitous; they’re only as far as your smart phone or hand-held gaming system. Older game fans can remember when playing an arcade game meant making a pilgrimage to an arcade and plugging countless quarters into chunky arcade machines. Donkey Kong, Tetris, Asteroids and Centipede lured millions into arcades in the 1980s, but the undisputed queen of classic arcade gaming was Ms. Pac-Man.
An unlicensed spin-off of the blockbuster arcade hit Pac-Man, Midway’s Ms. Pac-Man featured some changes to the original formula. The dot-eating yellow circle remained largely the same, although Ms. Pac-Man sported a coquettish red bow, but changing maps and moving fruit prizes gave players more of a challenge. Ms. Pac-Man soon became the big breadwinner in the family, eclipsing even the phenomenal popularity of Pac-Man. The game’s charm was so powerful that the giant arcade cases have become a collector’s item today. A few still grace donut shops and pizza parlors in small towns, taking visitors’ quarters now just as they did in 1982.
The power of nostalgia is only one reason that the original arcade machines are so collectible. The beautiful design of the vintage cases have an enduring appeal. Ms. Pac-Man’s cheery blues, yellows and pinks made the case as eye-catching as the action on the screen. The video game arcades of the 1980s had more light and sound than a busy casino, but the only pay that players received was fun. That was enough of an incentive to make Ms. Pac-Man worth millions of dollars in the original arcade incarnation. Earning that sum one quarter at a time makes it an even more impressive feat.
As beloved as they once were, the big cases and tiny screens of vintage arcade games have been surpassed by games so complex that they’re almost unrecognizable as the same kind of entertainment. With sophisticated AI, 3D graphics and more computing power in one notebook-sized console than hundreds of classic arcade games could muster, modern console and computer games have evolved far beyond their progenitors. Modern games don’t take a special trip to an arcade, and they don’t eat quarters. Although Ms. Pac-Man’s status as the grandmother of gaming earns her respect among collectors, she could easily have gone quietly into a retirement home.
Paradoxically, the cutting edge of technology has rescued Ms. Pac-Man and a host of other vintage arcade games from obscurity. What once fit in a huge paneled and printed stand-alone case now takes up virtually no memory, making classic games small enough to fit on even low-end mobile phones and hand-held gaming platforms. Flash versions of these games work in a browser without a download, so they’re a good match for social media. Facebook users can share their love of Donkey Kong or Joust whenever they like and from any platform. These older games had no rating system because they were accessible to everyone; stacking bricks, eating dots or blasting asteroids appeals equally to younger kids and to adult game aficionados.
As much fun as it is to play Ms. Pac-Man on a phone, every gamer who appreciates the art of game design deserves to play the game in its original glory at least once. The sheer physical presence of the towering machine, the beautiful case artwork and the sensitive joystick that takes practice to use with ease just can’t translate to a tiny screen and a stylus. Embrace the modern arcade game ports to smart phones and Flash animation, but don’t hesitate to drop a few quarters into the real thing if you should be lucky enough to find one.
Mercedes Potter is a professional inbound marketer, with a love for classic gaming and arcade machines, who guest blogs for a variety of online publications. Mercedes is a part of an elite team of writers who have contributed to hundreds of blogs and news sites, including Reuters, SEOmoz.org and The Washington Post. Follow her @CedesPotter.
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