Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from David Buck, who spent a lot of time recently researching obscure patterns that once took the arcades of the world by storm. It’s time for a little Pac-Mania!
Today in Tedium: As a kid, I owned the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man. I enjoyed the game from that moment onward, even if it wasn’t the ideal introduction to Pac-Man. The rich history of the game, its sequels, and spin-offs is well covered around the internet, but the act of playing the game and perfecting one’s own performance within its legendary mazes doesn’t seem to generate much buzz in the 21st century. The Pac-Man patterns are one of the most interesting aspects of the game’s entire history. In today’s Tedium we’ll be revisiting Pac-Man through the many ways it has been—and continues to be—played, mastered, and adored today. So get those patterns committed to memory and don’t forget to eat plenty of fruit before you do. — David @ Tedium
Today’s issue is sponsored by Lemonade. More from them in a second.
The final stage of the arcade version is Pac-Man. After 255 levels of normal play, the game experiences a glitch where half of the screen becomes a jumbled mess and effectively ends the game. This kill screen is occasionally the subject of great fascination among fans and programmers. In 2007, Don Hodges broke down the reason why the kill screen appears as a problem in the code, where the program messes up as it attempts to draw the fruit. He goes on to offer a potential fix for the code in his article, so if your Assembly isn’t too rusty, you can always try it at home.
Precise turns and patterns galore
Pac-Man was a cultural phenomenon from the beginning, but evolved into a beloved, inclusive, and instantly recognizable part of modern day pop culture. The game spawned animated TV shows, several arcade variants, home versions, and music since its initial release on May 22, 1980.
Playing and mastering the game became the subject of intense research and study on the part of the game’s players. While eye-hand coordination and making quick turns are vital to Pac-Man success, players began developing patterns of taking Pac-Man through each maze in a way that maximized scores and a series of established patterns for the mazes emerged.
Several books arrived in the early 1980s that sought to assist Pac-Man players in their eternal quest to obtain the highest score. By establishing patterns that would help Pac-Man clear each maze quickly while avoiding the ghosts, enabled players to engage in an early sort of gaming fandom and community contributions. The perfecting and sharing of patterns became so popular that at one point, Bally Manufacturing Corporation—who licensed the arcade version at the time—changed the programming on some of their games to render the established patterns completely useless.
This didn’t deter players from creating and perfecting new patterns, and Bally would later leave arcade licensing behind to focus on fitness. The “new chip” programming provided more of an opportunity for engaging in Pac-Man pattern perfection. Author Ken Uston (more on him later) would write about in his revised version of Mastering Pac-Man, noting that, “For every countermeasure, there’s a counter-countermeasure” and that experimenting with various patterns, he was able to get a few of his established ones to work while developing new ones dedicated to the new chip programming.
While Uston’s Mastering Pac-Man provided an in-depth look at the Pac-Man patterns, with a revised edition that covered the Atari version, knock-off games, and the expanded chip, other books arrived to provide a more accessible portal into the hobby.
April, 1982 brought Pac-Man practitioners The Video Master’s Guide to Pac-Man from authors Jim Sykora and John Birkner. The 95-page tome boasted “new secrets” for both stand up and sit down arcade version of the game and also featured a workaround for the pattern-squashing chip.
Perhaps the most succinct (and engaging) book, however, was How to Win at Pac-Man. Written by the editors of Consumer Guide Magazine and published by Penguin Books in 1982, the book is a vastly more entertaining presentation of the Pac-Man patterns, but lacks the depth and analysis of other books. How to Win at Pac-Man presents the three primary patterns and the famous ninth key pattern, along with tips about using the tunnels, misdirecting the ghosts, and using the hiding places on each board. The tome also explores patterns for the Atari 2600 version that work great—at least they worked fine when I played the game as a kid.
The patterns are still being used by players today—and continuing to be perfected by an entirely new generation of Pac-Maniacs.
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The maximum score a player can achieve in the arcade version of Pac-Man. A lively debate about why the game’s maximum possible score peaks at this seemingly random number can readily be found online, but according to the online Pac-Man museum. Apparently, this total is the sum total of all the pellets, fruit, and ghosts found through the game’s 255 regular levels. In 1999, hot sauce manufacturer Billy Mitchell ended up achieving the score after a six-hour marathon session during which he basically finished the game by reaching the jumbled mess of level 256. From then on, he continued his attempts to set high scores in other games. Later, Mitchell was accused of using emulation to accomplish high scores in Donkey Kong, and his scores were subsequently removed from both Guinness World Records and Twin Galaxies. He’s been fighting a legal battle to get them restored ever since—despite the fact that many of the scores have been surpassed in recent years by other players.
How a professional gambler helped breathe life into the Pac-Man Pattern phenomenon
Before he developed an interest in computers and arcade games, Ken Uston was a consultant/financial planner. When he became a professional gambler, Uston made a name for himself as Blackjack expert in 1974, authoring several books on the subject and at times, playing Blackjack in disguise at casinos that had previously thrown him out. He was not cheating, but simply cultivated a high level of skill in the game—a concept he applied to just about everything in his life and work.
A growing fascination with computer and arcade games in the early 1980s led him to writing about them and forging professional relationships with some of the companies he wrote about. His book, Mastering Pac-Man, was essentially a textbook for conquering the game. Uston’s manual is pragmatic and straightforward, but also realistic and even a bit cautionary. He never offers the patterns as a one size fits all solution to the game, but rather a tool to achieve excellence in Pac-Man. Toward the end of the book, he cautions readers that the patterns may not always work as well as intended:
In Pac-Man, remember you are playing an electronic opponent. There will be times you think you’ve played the pattern exactly—with no delays—and yet the monsters move differently than expected. This is because you can never distinguish a millisecond delay (thousandth of a second) in your pattern—but the computers can and do. One way to minimize human delay in Pac-Man is to turn the control knob in the desired direction before Pac-Man enters the intersection at which the turn is to be made. Thus he will turn “immediately” in accordance with the delay time of the Pac-Man electronics, and there will be no human-delay time. Obviously, if you turn the control knob prematurely, you’ll turn too early, at the wrong intersection. Even using this approach, you will inadvertently cause delays—delays which will seem instantaneous to you but which are interminable to the Pac-Man computer. Fortunately, small delays can usually be handled by the patterns described in this book. In most cases, you will know when you’re delayed by the movement of the monsters. I have included in the patterns, when appropriate, some of the more common delays, as well as advice on how to correct for them—if indeed the delays are correctable.
Uston’s patterns are broken down piece-by-piece in a very analytical way, but they tend to work pretty well—especially his meticulous 9th Key patterns. Patterns aside, Uston still had a bit of gambling on the brain when he wrote the book. On page 29 of the revised edition of Mastering Pac-Man, author Ken Uston asserts that one can potentially use the Pac-Man patterns presented in the book to hustle other players for money and that hustling Pac-Man games for $50 or $100 was a thing in “certain Las Vegas bars” at the time of the book’s publication. Later in the book, he once again discusses hustling Pac-Man by telling the player not to disclose his or her knowledge of patterns to their potential mark and advises players to vary their patterns a bit while gambling over Pac-Man. In a way, Uston may have unknowingly predicted the future of gambling: In 2017, casinos ran with the idea of gambling via Pac-Man with slot machines and a competitive version of the game called Pac-Man Battle Casino that featured betting and a four-player mode.
Compulsive gambling is fun, isn’t it?
Betting on Pac-Man Battle Casino ranges from $2-$20—depending on what the casino decides they want to require for the minimum bet. A wheel is spun to determine the winner’s payout and the game begins. Something like Bandai Namco’s Pac-Man Battle Casino makes sense in 2019, but in the early days of the Pac-Man, the legality of video-style games of skill was still being determined. But the popularity of the game, in combination with some enterprising agencies, brings us to a world where Pac-Man slot machines exist. It was only a matter of time.
“Pac-Man is, hands down, the most popular video game in history. It speaks to players of all adult ages. They remember playing Pac-Man as kids. People are just going to love it—because everyone loves Pac-Man.”
— Mike Dreitzer, president of the North American branch of Ainsworth Game Technology who released the Pac-Man Wild Edition slot machine in 2017. Per Ainsworth game development director Cody Herrick, a second slot machine—Pac-Man Dynamic—was released a year later and loaded with audio and visual references to the arcade classic.
Pac-Man patterns in black & white
The Pac-Man patterns may be established, but they’re not set in stone. Over time, numerous variations have come up and are still pursued in some online circles today. A Pac-Man pattern isn’t difficult to come up with on your own. The folks over at Pac-Maniac.com offer a reasonable three-step process for creating your own Pac-Man patterns:
A pattern should have at least three qualities that make it worthy of remembering and using. A pattern must:
1. Be easy to remember
2. Be easy to execute (no timing hesitations)
3. Gather most of the available points on the level
All patterns I post here are my own and work on the authentic Midway Pac-Man arcade game in its original, unmodified form. I don’t care for patterns that miss the “fruit” and give up those extra points. I try to stay away from reverses and never use timing hesitations. Most of all, a pattern should be fun to play.
The main patterns are the Cherry Pattern which covers the first stage, the Mid-Fruit Pattern for the next three stages, and the Apple Pattern that should work up until stage 16. For later stages in the game, the 5th and 9th Key pattern—when nine keys appear at the bottom of the screen—come into play, with the 9th key pattern becoming the way to finish each level from stage 25 up until the end of the game:
Variations of the 9th Key pattern come up regularly, but ultimately, it’s the pattern that will help you win the game. Just for fun, we attempted to translate some of the patterns to the NES version of the game—to varying degrees of success. The Cherry Pattern worked on the first board, while the Mid-Fruit and Apple patterns both worked for their respective stages until my poor reflexes ended the game (stages 2-4 for the former, and 5-8 for the latter). Do the 9th Key patterns work on the NES version? It’s always a possibility.
“I’ve got all the patterns down, up until the ninth key …”
— Buckner & Garcia, from the title track of their LP of songs about video games, Pac-Man Fever. Even the guys who wrote the song on the subject struggled with learning this important pattern, but such is the way of Pac-Man pattern play.
That time the phenomenon of Pac-Man branched off into unexpected territory—the pop charts
This issue of Tedium wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t discuss the equally unique cultural phenomenon of songs about Pac-Man. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s made a parody of The Beatles’ “Taxman” early in his career about the game. As is typical of Al, “Pac-Man” pays homage to the game in a humorous way, but it lacks the comedic edge of his later work. The song remained unreleased until Al’s career spanning Squeeze Box boxed set arrived in 2017—although one could find it in the archives of a certain radio show prior to the official release, if they knew where to look.
The most famous Pac-Man song, however, came from the Ohio-based duo of Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia (known on record as Buckner & Garcia). The duo were songwriting partners who ended up with a hit and a full album of video game related songs. Later attempts at follow ups were met with indifference, but Pac-Man Fever is a true time capsule of the early 1980s that is still a fun listening experience today.
There seems to be a trend online where some writers like to mention how their song “Pac-Man Fever” hit the Billboard charts, but leaves it at that. Pac-Man Fever seems to get dismissed, as many novelty records do. But the album isn’t as bad as the hyperbole would lead you to believe. Rather, the music is well produced, catchy, and ultimately just as fun as playing the games in the arcade, circa 1983. Listening to the LP today feels more nostalgic than dated and the LP’s inner sleeve contains all of the Pac-Man patterns in full glory. Theoretically, one could listen to the record while memorizing the patterns from the sleeve and achieving a high score in the game—at least up until the 9th key, of course.
Other album tracks like “Centipede,” “Froggie’s Lament,” and “Do the Donkey Kong,” all feature stellar musical arrangements with fun and funny lyrics. The duo attempted numerous follow-ups to Pac-Man Fever, but never quite managed to gain any steam. Gary Garcia sadly passed in 2011, but the song remains an integral part of Pac-Man history—and an equally important part of pop culture history. If Pac-Man Fever isn’t exactly to your taste, you can always listen to the theme song performed in a multitude of styles instead.
The year Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph was released into theaters. The movie features a lovable Donkey Kong clone named Ralph who longs for more in his world of the arcade—and jumps into a racing game to find it. Pac-Man appears in one scene of the film and we never see or hear anything about patterns, but there’s a broader connection to “Pac-Man Fever” in the film: the movie’s theme song. Buckner & Garcia were responsible for writing and performing the catchy tune, harkening back to the glory days of Pac-Man Fever.
People like to spend a great deal of time thinking about Pac-Man these days.
In Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, a perfect game of Pac-Man is an integral part of the story’s conclusion. While the fictional version of Billy Mitchell’s victory made a dent in pop culture, things get a bit more interesting in real life. Sometimes it leads to a bizarre interpretation of the game’s central themes, but the legacy of Pac-Man extends beyond high scores. The game did wonders for igniting interest in the world of video games on both the pop culture and development ends of the spectrum.
Per Gamasutra, the creator of Pac-Man intended the game to appeal to women. And it did; Pac-Man not only saw more women to play arcade games, but it helped to encourage more women to pursue game development in the future.
The game is still incredibly popular and can be found just about everywhere. The ability of a little yellow arcade game character to transcend its status as a mere game and fuel the imaginations of players for almost four decades is a remarkable feat—one rarely accomplished by any character. And what about those patterns? Variations of them are still being developed today. Not bad for a simple arcade game with a heart of gold.