From Pixels To Voxels: Looking at Pac-Man’s 36-Year Journey Through VR and Video Games

by Robert Workman • September 12th, 2016

Today is National Video Games Day in the United States and on Twitter — so what better way is there to celebrate it than by looking at the history of one of the most important figures in the entire medium? No, we’re not talking about Nintendo’s red plumber or the boy in green, but instead the yellow pellet-chomping circle from Bandai Namco known as Pac-Man. Even 36 years after his initial debut in arcades, Pac-Man remains a relevant figure in today’s gaming scene.

Pac-Man was a big hit back in the early 80’s, defining the arcade experience as many people knew it. But what followed would help establish Pac-Man in the gaming scene for years to come, between the unlikely sequel Ms. Pac-Man, the interesting spin-offs like Pac-Mania (taking place in an isometric maze) and Pac-Land (a side-scrolling adventure based on the popular TV series at the time), and interesting new entries in the lexicon, like the multiplayer romp Pac-Man Battle Royale (which is a staple in most arcades these days) and the competitive-based Pac-Man Championship Edition 2, which releases tomorrow for consoles and PC.

But, of course, Pac-Man also made his proper home on the VR front, even though it took over 15 years from his arcade debut to make the jump from format to format. The yellow chomper has existed inside the immersive medium before and is making a bit of a comeback again this year, now that consumer VR technology has finally reached a certain level of popularity.

Image result for pac-man vr

Pac-Man VR Then

Back in 1996, Pac-Man VR was initially released in arcades through Virtuality, produced for the company’s Solo, Duo and Quattro 2000 SU units. Set for $5 a play, the game put players right into the midst of a 3D maze, enabling them to look around while, at the same time, moving around the area and avoiding ghosts and chowing down on every dot in sight. Of course, power pellets are also available in the corners of the maze, enabling players to “turn the tables” on their ghostly adversaries for a few seconds, with a point bonus that multiplied with each one that was eaten.

So the general rules of the original arcade game remained intact for Pac-Man VR, but the new first-person viewpoint provided a new way to play. The company’s original promotional page, which is no longer up, read as follows:

Pac-Man fever is spreading again with this new fully immersive 3D virtual reality game from Virtuality in which the player actually becomes Pac-Man himself. Through a licensing agreement with Namco, the creators of the original Pac-Man, Virtuality brings this fun packed game for Solo, Duo and Quattro Series 2000 SU systems.

“Retaining all of the original gameplay, Virtuality have enhanced this classic game by networking up to four Pac-Man characters together, enabling them to see, talk and compete with each in the same virtual maze while still trying to outwit the ghosts.”

Yes, while some players enjoyed venturing out on their own, Pac-Man VR provided a rare networked game experience for the mid-90’s, where players could shoot for the highest score possible while taking on their friends. There wouldn’t be another competitive Pac-Man arcade game of this nature until years later, when Pac-Man Battle Royale made its debut in 2011 and provided a four-player simultaneous experience, with the last Pac-Man standing winning each round.

One other noticeable difference in Pac-Man gameplay with the VR version is the introduction of slight verticality. For instance, players can actually peek over walls if they stood up within the Virtuality unit, and could squat back down simply by taking a seat. This allowed for better viewing over parts of the maze, though obviously would be a hazard if a ghost managed to creep up on them.

As you can see from the video above, the visuals do leave a little something to be desired from the VR demo, with a very slow framerate and certain details left out. For instance, the space surrounding the maze is merely a painted blue background, with the focus being on the surrounding inside maze area and the ghosts. But, again, for 1996 technology, it was rather impressive, and allowed players to look around with ease to keep an eye open for power pellets and, more importantly, ghosts.

At the time of its release, Virtuality chose to charge $5 for five minutes of play. To some, that would be more than enough opportunity to see what the game was about, whether playing on their own or in a networked session with friends. However, some felt that the price was a little too steep compared to other arcade games – like the original Pac-Man, going for a mere quarter per play.

Regardless, Pac-Man VR proved to be one of the first licensed virtual reality games for arcades that made proper use of its source material, putting players right into the thick of the dot-chomping action. Despite its limitations and high price per play, it would become one of Virtuality’s most noteworthy arcade titles – mainly due to the strength of the Pac-Man name alone.


Pac-Man VR Now

Two decades following the release of the original Pac-Man VR, the team at WHITE, creators of the Miibox Touch cardboard virtual reality platform, opted to team up with Bandai Namco to create a more advanced version of Pac-Man VR for today’s gaming scene – one with faster visuals, better detail and, most of all, strong representation of the original arcade game that so many players grew up with.

For gameplay, those taking part in the new Pac-Man experience can gain full control utilizing a dial on the right side of the headset, enabling both forward and backward movement while turning was handled with the player’s head. The end result felt a little more useful than Virtuality’s original set-up, with better “twitch” controls for cornering and getting out of harm’s way when the ghosts begin closing in. Regardless, it does take some getting used to compared to how the original 1980 arcade game played.

As WHITE demonstrates with the video above, VR Pac-Man runs a lot more smoothly than before, and gives players a slightly dizzying – but still highly effective – viewpoint from the top of the iconic character’s head as he tracks down pellets and has a field day devouring ghosts. More importantly, players can keep tabs on a scoreboard showing their progress over the course of the game, including how much fruit is remaining.

You can find more information about VR Pac-Man over at the Miibox website. Ideally, Bandai Namco will take the plunge and partner with a developer to create more robust VR editions of their popular franchises like Pac-Man sooner rather than later.

Regardless of which version takes context, Pac-Man has proven that Bandai Namco’s game can work to some extent in virtual reality. Sure, the 1996 Pac-Man VR game is rough around the edges compared with today’s modern gaming, but it set an interesting standard that the developers at WHITE have kept in check for its new version, though its higher speed and detail are sure to be appreciated by die-hard Pac fans.

Perhaps the release of VR Pac-Man can inspire a few developers to try new ideas with classic games through various headsets. After all, we’ve already seen Duck Hunt adapted into a commercial VR game with Duckpocalypse, as demonstrated in the trailer below, so maybe someone will give Donkey Kong in VR a try one of these days.

Asteroids wouldn’t hurt either – well, provided you don’t really run into too many rocks.

Robert Workman is a freelance writer covering video games and other electronics with work featured in AOL, Gamecrate, and Opshead. You can follow him on Twitter:@TheDCD.

Featured Image: Pac-Man Minimalist Wallpaper by BrulesCorrupted via DeviantArt

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