The all-time arcade classic goes portable in a decent enough rendition that leaves room for improvement.

Game Boy has seen no shortage of games reminiscent of Pac-Man to date. Now, at long last, Namco brings us the real deal. And it is, well, Pac-Man. That said, it’s honestly not the greatest version of Pac-Man you’ll ever play. There’s a reason people would flip out about the Neo Geo Pocket Color version of Pac-Man a decade later: With this as the handheld competition, there was still plenty of room for improvement.

Pac-Man on Game Boy continues the series’ somewhat checkered history on Nintendo platforms, which had been precipitated by Namco’s falling out with Nintendo. Pac-Man briefly appeared as an officially licensed title from Tengen, which itself was an offshoot of Atari that ended up bringing a ton of Namco games to NES thanks to the longstanding relationship between Atari and Namco. Tengen shipped a handful of NES games with an official Nintendo license but almost immediately went rogue. They cracked the secret of the 10NES security chip lockout system and began to sell self-produced games outside of Nintendo’s official licensing system. Pac-Man debuted as a Nintendo-sanctioned release but soon shifted over to become one of Tengen’s unauthorized releases, distinguished by the angular black cartridges in which they shipped.

There was no love lost on Namco’s behalf. The company’s president notoriously chafed at the restrictions Nintendo attempted to impose on all publishers for NES and Famicom. Namco’s leadership felt, not without justification, that Nintendo owed a great deal of the Famicom’s success to Namco’s early support. When Nintendo attempted to tighten their grip on Famicom third parties and decided to treat Namco like any other licensee, the company balked. As a result, the U.S. didn’t see Namco as a licensed publisher on NES until late in 1993, which landed right at the very end of the console’s life.

Namco’s friction with Nintendo makes the company’s arrival on Game Boy in all regions here with Pac-Man a bit of a surprise. Pac-Man for Game Boy debuted in Japan in November 1990, and six months later in the U.S., all under the Namco name. I guess those hurt feelings only went so far when the opportunity for millions of sweet Pac-Man dollars was there for the taking.

Still, Namco ultimately wouldn’t publish a huge number of games for Game Boy compared to their support for other systems. In Pac-Man, we may have a clue to the reasons for their relative scarcity. This is a troubled port of the game. It’s not awful or anything, but you really get the impression that Namco—or whatever unknown studio they ghosted this project out to—found themselves at odds with the system’s limited hardware. 

Pac-Man on Game Boy appears to use maze graphics converted directly from the NES version of the game. Indeed, the maze lines up pixel-for-pixel between NES and Game Boy. And if you’ve been paying any attention to the past hundred-odd Game Boy releases chronicled in these volumes, you know what that means: That’s right, Pac-Man has a problem with proportions. That plague of console-to-Game Boy direct conversions affects even this most legendary of works.

The developers’ decision to retain the pixel dimensions of the maze rather than resizing it to fit the handheld’s screen means that you can only see a third of the maze at any given time. The screen has to scroll on both axes in order to keep up with the action, something that constitutes a huge strike against any conversion of Pac-Man. What makes it especially annoying is that the Game Boy screen is actually just wide enough to contain the Pac-Man maze horizontally if you trim the edges by four pixels: The Game Boy screen is 160 pixels wide, and the Pac-Man maze on NES was 164 pixels wide. They easily could have run the maze the full width of the screen and let it scroll only on its vertical axis, which would have played far better than what we ended up with. But rather than take that approach, Namco burdened the game with a big blank sidebar that takes up more than a quarter of the screen’s width to display the score and a lives counter. 

It’s a strange design choice, one for which the only possible justification could be if it were implemented for performance reasons. See, Namco released Pac-Man on Sega’s Game Gear just a few months after this port, and the Game Gear version takes the overlay-free approach. As such, that version only scrolls vertically, which makes the action a lot easier to keep up with. The score and the lives counter hover on top of the screen as an overlay, which is a little ugly but is far less compromising to the gameplay. So the question is, does Pac-Man’s Game Boy sidebar exist because it’s meant to mirror the NES version, which was a huge hit in Japan? Or is it there because the Game Boy just couldn’t handle displaying a full screen’s worth of maze action at once?

It’s worth mentioning this version of Pac-Man is noticeably more sluggish than other contemporary ports. It moves at a fraction of the speed of the NES and Game Boy conversions, which leads you to suspect the game simply couldn’t have spanned the entire screen. One of the Game Boy’s more famous tech quirks is that the system actually lacks the video memory to fill the screen with unique graphical tiles, forcing developers to either repeat visual elements or leave blank zones like the sidebar you see here. Given Pac-Man’s design, which involves a twisting maze with a constantly changing state (going from dot-filled to empty as players work through each level), it’s possible that this awkward design was actually a technological necessity to work around Game Boy’s shortcomings.

Why does any of this matter, you may wonder? Because Pac-Man was designed around fast action spanning a single screen. You should be able to look at a glance and take in the location of Pac-Man relative to the monsters chasing him, while also scanning to take note of which pellets need to be captured in order to complete the stage. With only a third of the screen visible at a time, playing Pac-Man becomes far more difficult. You can’t see at a glance where all of your enemies are most of the time, so this approach involves a lot of guesswork that didn’t exist in the original arcade game. 

Even if you keep track of where ghosts go off the screen, it’s impossible to know exactly how they’ll behave while they’re out of sight. Even memorizing the gameplay patterns becomes impossible, since this version obviously doesn’t distinguish between the colors of the four different maze monsters. All four of your enemies here appear in the same shade of grey—which is to be expected, perhaps, but it’s still unfortunate. The color divisions matter because each of the ghosts has its own distinct behavior, denoted by its color.

While those behaviors still exist here, it’s impossible to know which ghost is which when one pops onto the corner of the screen. Are you about to collide with Blinky, who will doggedly pursue Pac-Man? Or is it perhaps Clyde, who is more or less oblivious to Pac-Man and mostly does his own thing? Knowing the behavior of a monster should inform your strategy in a pinch, allowing you to know when to double back and when to barrel ahead, and you can’t do that here. The game’s lack of any real signaling regarding the monsters’ personalities turns the Game Boy port into something of a guessing game.

Between the lack of color and the bi-directional scrolling, Pac-Man loses something essential on Game Boy. It’s a poorer game for the loss.

You get the sensation Namco tried to balance out this conversion’s shortcomings by tilting things slightly in the player’s favor in other respects. Not only does everything move more slowly here than in other versions, the game feels noticeably more forgiving in terms of collisions. It’s actually possible to pass through ghosts in certain situations. Of course, Pac-Man’s collision detection was always pretty generous—a ghost normally only “catches” Pac-Man if their center pixels overlap—which means everyone who’s played the game has had those sweaty-handed moments where a ghost was literally on top of Pac-Man and death seemed imminent until they managed pull away from the pursuer or grab an energizer at the last second. But here, a maze monster basically has to overlap Pac-Man before it registers a kill. Of course, this works both ways: You’ll often fail to eat a frightened ghost or pick up a maze pellet that should have registered here due to the rather loose collision detection.

The final pebble on this game’s mountain of frustrations: Spongy controls. Pac-Man doesn’t move as crisply as you’d like him to when ducking around the corners of the maze… which is strange, because you’d think that this conversion’s slower pace would create a greater allowance for tight controls. Unfortunately, no, and unlike other contemporary conversions of the game, I find this Pac-Man doesn’t snap to respond the way he should. I constantly miss turns and wander into ghosts that my fingers and brain attempt to evade. The spirit is willing, but the D-pad is weak.

It’s a so-so showing for a legendary video game, which is a shame. Pac-Man is the second most beloved legacy work ever to appear on Game Boy (right after Tetris). It deserves better here—its legacy is too immense. Pac-Man, of course, was the big international breakout title for publisher Namco. Conceived by Toru Iwatani, a designer at the company, the game was meant to appeal to a broader audience than normally flocked to the shooting and pinball games Namco traded in… which is to say, appeal to women as well as men.

Colorful visuals and a food-based theme (not to mention the lack of overt violence and the presence of memorable characters full of personality) made Pac-Man stand apart from its competitors. It was video gaming’s first true mega-hit, eclipsing Space Invader’s impressive showing in Japa by dominating arcades all around the world. Pac-Man’s simple gameplay demanded players master a four-way joystick and nothing more. It presented a simple and intuitive goal: Help Pac-Man eat everything in the maze while avoiding the four monsters. Special “energizer” dots in each corner of the maze allowed Pac-Man to flip the tables on his aggressors and devour them in a brief window during which they changed color and became vulnerable.

Pac-Man inspired merchandise, cartoons, and pop radio hits. It begat sequels and ripoffs and sequels that began as ripoffs. It was massive. And it’s appeared on nearly every game system in history… including Game Boy, of course. But if Tetris was a case of developers using Game Boy’s design and limitations to its own advantage, Pac-Man succumbed to the machine’s shortcomings. It’s slow, difficult to parse, and difficult to play. 

I know Pac-Man as a game is hard to improve on, but I do wish Namco had taken a page from Data East’s book with their treatment of Lock ’N Chase. In arcades, Lock ’N Chase was a mediocre Pac-Man clone. On Game Boy, though, the game enjoyed a great revamp that makes it far and away a superior portable experience. This straight, compromised Pac-Man port just doesn’t cut it.

Again, a superior Game Gear version of the game came out just a few months later. It’s hard to say how much direct one-to-one comparisons hurt the Game Boy release, of course. Game Boy sales greatly eclipsed Game Gear, and this undoubtedly was the version of Pac-Man most kids (and adults!) bought. Still, having these two versions of the same classic game land so close to one another played exactly into the “look at how bad and dumb Nintendo experiences are compared to ours!” marketing line SEGA had begun pursuing around this time. And, truth be told, this really is a bad and dumb version of a classic video game. The one saving grace it offers is the ability to toggle the screen to a zoomed-out viewpoint that sacrifices visual detail (everything becomes small and nearly indecipherable) in favor of having the entire maze on screen at once. But even this doesn’t help mitigate the sluggish speed of the gameplay or give the grey ghosts valuable color detail.

I’d like to say Namco would redeem themselves for this letdown eventually, but they didn’t publish many Game Boy titles that would actually make their way to the U.S. Aside from a few weird excursions like Great Greed, Namco mostly treated Game Boy as a place to drop a few quick and easy ports of guaranteed sellers. After all, if someone bought Tetris, they were probably going to buy Pac-Man, too. And maybe this version didn’t need to be great to sell—a universal hit like Pac-Man on a platform with broad appeal like Game Boy was guaranteed to sell well. Still, it would have been nice if they’d tried.