'Why bother releasing Ms. Pac-Man when Pac-Man's already on Live Arcade?' is a not an unreasonable question to ask. Well, for a start, Ms. Pac-Man is by far the better game, offering four different maze variations. "Four, you say?" Yes, four. As in four times as many as dear old Pac-Man, therefore, four times as much fun. 32/10!
Of course, its place on Xbox Live Arcade more than 25 years after its release is more down to Microsoft's (and specifically Namco's) ongoing desire to populate the service with as many bona-fide hall-of-fame-worthy museum pieces as possible, as opposed to considering how well it stands up to scrutiny by the current audiences. Besides, who cares what 'the kids' think when there are literally millions of people - this reviewer for one - who have so much nostalgia wrapped up in games like Ms. Pac-Man that their hilarious simplicity doesn't even come into it. It's a retro pill that you take that transports you back to a time when this new form of entertainment was at the stage where practically everything you saw was new and exciting - and in an arcade that enveloped your ears and eyes with unfathomable things that collectively screamed THE FUTURE. *Pop*
Back on planet Earth, the strange thing about Ms. Pac-Man was that Namco didn't even develop it, or have any part in its inception. With Pac-Man mania rife in 1980 and 1981, numerous clever types hacked the original machine and worked on slight variations. One such variant was Crazy Otto, a bootleg version of Pac-Man presented to Namco's US distributor Midway for consideration by some folks working for General Computer Corporation.
Gobble gobble gobble
Seeing the potential in the game (and understandably fed up with waiting for Namco to release an official sequel, which became Super Pac-Man, fact fiends), Midway bought the rights, changed the graphics, and the entirely unauthorised Ms. Pac-Man was born. As with the dozens of Pac-Man variants concocted at that time, the premise was almost identical: chomp all the dots in the maze, avoid the ghosts, eat the power pills and turn the tables on your pursuers. Simple. But Ms. Pac-Man was different. It had more mazes, extra tunnels, fruit that bounced around the maze, ghosts that no longer followed a set pattern, and, Pac-Man with a bow and lipstick! In those days the idea of just adding a few tweaks to a game was more than enough to tempt the loose change from people's pockets.
Namco eventually claimed the rights, and, as far as most people are concerned, scored another genius hit and got all the plaudits. Perhaps Midway deserves more credit for its role in the Pac-Man success story.
But anyway, what's more important is that the game was, without doubt, one of the finest games of the early '80s, and certainly the best realisation of the dot-gobbling maze game that ever was. The presence of four different mazes added immensely to the variety, making it a much longer lasting game than Pac-Man, and one that always tempted you back for more. Pac-Man was fun, but playing the same maze over and over did get a bit dull after a while. Playing either version now admittedly feels an incredibly lightweight experience, but in a sense that instant gratification element has always been its charm - a game to pick up and play in a few spare minutes, nothing more.
Hall of shame
This version, as with all the Xbox Live Arcade titles, has the added bonus of worldwide leaderboards, guaranteeing a few hardened retro nuts will be going all out to claim top spot for years to come. For those less skilled, the usual achievement points are there for the taking - in the form of fruit collected to prove you reached a certain stage. But just like the other Namco games on Live Arcade, these are largely pointless thanks to the ability to start again on the stage that killed you - rendering the 'achievements' completely redundant. Even so, I'll be attempting to break my all-time rubbish score and spying on my friends list scores to see whether anyone else I know cares.
In terms of how well suited it is to the Xbox 360 pad - as with Pac-Man, it's a tricky sod to precisely navigate the maze without the pad regularly misinterpreting your input. For example, with ghosts in hot pursuit, you'll hit down and curse as you continue going from left to right, and so on. The further you get into the game (and therefore the better you become) the more of an issue this is, as tight, precise movement is the minimum requirement from Ms. Pac-Man. The sooner Microsoft (or a specialist third party) releases a cheap arcade-style joystick panel for use on games like this (and beat-'em-ups, presumably), the better.
Whether you should buy Ms. Pac-Man - well, that depends on whether you've had your fill of the game over the past 25 years via emulation or one of the numerous Namco Museum compilations. If you own it already, there's hardly any point unless you've some deep-seated desire to prove your worth on the online leaderboard. If you've studiously dodged it for all these years then Ms. Pac-Man is definitely one of those all-time classics you almost have a duty to have in your games collection (Needless to say, if you weren't there at the time, then don't expect to get what all the fuss was about, ok?). Despite being perfectly emulated, it suffers a little from the same control niggles that seem to affect all the retro arcade games on Live, but apart from that is represented in fat-free form, just as nature intended (unlike this flash version). In summary, Ms. Pac-Man is still a joy to play. Simplicity itself, elegant, addictive, manic and somehow timeless. Download the trial and see for yourself.