Ms. Pac-Man has played a major role in my existence.
I think I first played the arcade classic in the early-mid 1980s, probably just after it had come out. My father was a big fan of the early Pac-Man tables that came to the world about the same time I did and he would often bring me along for long lunches and early dinners with his sales associates in his various cable-selling and/or entrepreneurial efforts of those heady Reagan years. Often these meals were at establishments that had a couple video games making a trial appearance at the front entrance, competing with the cigarette vending machines, the dirty old bubblegum-dispensers, and occasionally the clucking chicken prize machines that I absolutely adored.
(Given Alex’s incredulity at seeing her first cigarette vending machine at Harrah’s New Orleans a few months back, I expect similar puzzlement about the last kind of machine from those not around in the early ’80s, though it may also have been a localized thing. In which case, behold:)
I don’t know exactly when my father first hoisted me up to a proper height to be able to reach the controls of Ms. Pac-Man’s hectic voyage through her haunted maze of dots, but it may have been at one of those bar-style tables that would have been decidedly more accessible to my short childhood frame (not a redundancy – I was really short for my age until I shot up to my current height around ages 12-13). It was sometime after we’d seen Tron in theaters as my first or second movie-going experience* and I almost immediately remember connecting the experience of the character I was remotely controlling with the lives of those mono-suited and harrowed drivers in the film. It was thrilling. I’m sure I died quickly and had no idea why, but I also carefully watched my Dad and his associates play over time and soon Ms. Pac-Man would join Halloween and Watership Down as inextricably magical portals in my consciousness.
Thereafter, Ms. Pac-Man would always be my go-to game at arcades and pizza parlors in my youth. I didn’t frequent these places often, but birthday parties or other outings in Seaside, Oregon made them a common location to test out the skills of evading ghosts and eating fruit. I played a safe survival strategy, eschewing the big points to be gained from eating lots of ghosts and preferring usually to gobble the unguarded dots while they went through their mollified blue phase. NBA Jam certainly made a run at my heart for the top spot in the world of video gaming outside the computer, but nothing could knock the hungry yellow circle off her perch.
Then the obsession really kicked into high gear and got some reasonable attempts at practice when we moved to New Mexico and I fell into the habit of bowling with my friends on an at-least weekly basis. Holiday Bowl on Lomas at ~Louisiana remains there and became our third or fourth home and had a big Ms. Pac-Man machine right in the front of the various video games adorning the entrance. Jake and I were the biggest fans, but most everyone took a turn or two at the big yellow-and-blue box, with the crowded semicircle of onlookers cheering or groaning at every turn. It was here that I honed more risky strategies, emerging as I was from a highly risk-averse youth into a still disproportionately risk-averse teenage-dom. I went for the full 1600 (3000 total) points of eating all four ghosts. I went for the fruit from time to time, learning the valuable lesson that it’s there, especially in the early levels (up to peach) mostly to distract you and get you eaten. I learned to hate Red, or Blinky as it is named in the game, for its cunning and speed, especially in sometimes trying to get eaten early so it could fly back out of the gate when no longer vulnerable.
I remember a particular national debate trip in high school where we ate somewhere that had a Ms. Pac-Man machine (or maybe it was in an airport?) and I dropped everything to get out some quarters and give it a spin. My debate teammates had never seen me transformed by the effects of the twists, turns, triumphs, and tragedies, and were thus mostly amused. Jess Hass told me she had never seen me that animated and that it was like another person had come out of my shell. It’s probably somewhat like what people who’ve never seen me dance think when they first see me at a party or wedding.
Then there was a bit of a lull. Brandeis lacked a Ms. Pac-Man machine on campus and Pelta-Heller taught me to play pinball instead. That and laundry scooped up my extra quarters and my skills lapsed a bit. I’d still jump at the chance to gobble some dots and ghosts when presented with the opportunity, but the chances became less frequent as aging machines were taken out. A brief renaissance ensued when Gris and I discovered a table Ms. Pac-Man sublimely sitting in the middle of an Ethiopian bar and grill in Oakland, though. I distinctly remember playing after his birthday party there to console him upon having his car stolen that day (it was recovered two days later not much worse for the already heavy wear).
And then my Dad called and said he’d found an affordably priced Pac-Man table machine on the Internet and did I think it would be cool if he bought it and put it in the basement? This is a bit like a lifetime soccer fan being called on a casual Tuesday night by a relative who is weighing in on whether he or she should choose to buy Manchester United. I got done with my gleeful incredulity about four minutes later and could only calm down enough to make my approval truly clear another four minutes after that.
This elation was only mildly dampened when I came home the first time to discover that he had not just short-handed the game’s title by calling it “Pac-Man” but that it was, in fact, an original, not the Ms. Pac-Man that had stolen my heart over the last two-point-five decades. But I quickly grew to love the simpler and less prolific original, though the cut scenes were not something I’d memorized the tune to ages before. The ghosts were a bit more plodding and logical, but the overall game ran slower and had less variation with the lack of different boards. That said, it was very hard to argue with being able to fish the quarters back out of the till unspent, nor the camaraderie of playing against my father.
The Pac-Man machine has been dormant and is being considered for re-sale, but my Dad and I got it up out of the basement and plugged it in upstairs last visit, when Alex and I went out for Balloon Fiesta in October. And she went from very new to pretty darn good quite quickly, an echo of her childhood playing Super-Mario (I always had a computer for games instead of a Nintendo). And shortly upon our return, we discovered that the arcade at our favored local movie theater, the Elmwood 20 in Harahan (same parking lot as the only NOLA-area Chipotle!) has a back room. We’d been playing air-hockey and occasionally gambling away dollars in the claw machine (curse you, Kurt Falk!) when especially early for films, but guess what was sitting in the back the whole time (I mean, all of four months, but we see a lot of movies…)? Yup, Ms. Pac-Man.
With our honed practice on the arguably harder original game in Albuquerque, we suddenly started tearing up the field on this machine. To the point that it was only a couple weeks of two-a-movie-each play before we were each setting individual records. After nearly 30 years of play, an individual record! I was pretty sure that about 60-65,000 was my personal best prior to discovering this machine, and soon I was over 70k. I made the fourth board design, the dark blue one, for only the second time in my life, edging past the “Junior” cut-scene. And then I was consistently getting deep into the prior dark-brown boards, or getting through the first four levels without losing a life. The picture up top is from our last session, when we each played three games, and two (2!) of mine were personal bests, back-to-back. Alex also set a personal best with 44,560 points.
It has only been after the last two sessions that I connected my most lamented fact about this particular Ms. Pac-Man machine with my favorite. You see, the sound basically doesn’t work on this machine. Once in a while, there’s a scratchy murmur of a sound trying to escape the otherwise broken speakers, but that’s it. I have actually sung the music for the first two cut scenes most every time we reach them as I miss dancing to it so much. I have missed (or thought I missed) the satisfying power-up bloops of consuming ghosts or the anguished disintegration noise that so poetically echoes the frustration of the reverse.
But what if I’m setting records… because there’s no sound?
What if I’m not better at all at this point in my life, but just less distracted than usual? It certainly follows that, like the early-level fruit, the sound proves to be as much an impediment to success as it does a boost. There’s already a ton of mental multi-tasking required for stellar Pac-Man play. One must develop a planned route, re-route the route continually when it is blocked or dangerous, line up ghosts for quick eats after eating a big dot, and constantly strain peripheral vision to be aware of all four enemies on the board while also processing blind tunnels and, in the later levels, game-making 2,000-point pears and 5,000-point bananas. All that and try to anticipate when the ghosts will randomly reverse and throw the whole thing off. Could sound be the fourth dimension that keeps concentration impossible? And its absence indicate an opportunity to master the game as never before?
I won’t know, of course, till I can test my newly honed skills on a fully-operational machine somewhere else. Though I’m nervous to play anywhere but this dingy back-room in Harahan after getting remarkably close to the fabled six-digit threshold. Until then, I’ll have to wonder, like with so many pursuits these days and always, how much of my success is the unadulterated improvement that so often follows practice and how much is the sheer luck of unpredictable circumstance.
As, no doubt, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man must wonder as they traverse those three vaunted and normally musical cut-scenes. Was it destiny that prompted them to meet? Or were they the only two Pac-(wo)M(e)n in the world and lucky enough to bump into each other? How much credit can they claim for the little family they forge?
*Much debate persists in my family about whether I saw Tron or E.T. first in theaters. I loved the experience of the first and was terrorized for years by recollections of images of the protagonist in the latter. E.T. was released on June 11, 1982 and Tron was released a month later, on July 9, 1982. But admittedly E.T. was a blockbuster that stuck around in theaters for months after Tron‘s debut. That said, the earlier release seems to correlate better with my theory that E.T. was actually my first movie and that part of what scared me was the strange new experience of being in a really dark yet crowded room. If you think about it, going to a movie theater is intensely bizarre and disconcerting for a new human.