Chasing Ghosts: One Quarter at a Time

My First Crush: An addiction to dots, ghosts and a lady in a bow

The following is a series about my past experiences with arcade games and running them in MAME. I will only write about games I remember playing in an actual arcade, not games I only discovered through MAME.

I’ll begin my writing career here at 1 More Castle with an admission that borders insanity: I actually enjoyed the Atari 2600 Pac-Man.

Now, my tastes weren’t refined as a three-year-old. I don’t think I even realized there was a standup arcade machine featuring Pac and his ghost frenemies. All I knew was that there was a game on a TV that I got to play with my mom and dad.


Pac-Man’s different versions throughout the years.

As the years went on, I was introduced to newer versions of the game. The Tengen Pac-Man on NES (mom didn’t like it as much as the Atari version, but her enjoyment of video games was running on fumes at this point). The amazing Sega Genesis port. Even Pac-Man on the Game Gear. But it was 1997, a full 15 years after it first hit arcades, that I finally got to play Ms. Pac-Man on a proper machine.

Originally, I had found it in our town’s Pizza Hut. It was the speed-hack version, and I should note that this is the only version I play (and all scores mentioned in this article were achieved on this version). When I come across a non-speed-hack version, it fails to hold my interest.

Another failure? My first attempt at this game in public. Eric Hegan’s 34,000 or so points were enough to beat me (and not the last public failure at this game either).

“That can’t be,” I thought to myself. “I grew up playing Pac-Man, he can’t win!” And while I never got my chance at revenge, an addiction grew nonetheless. I had to get better. This was a game I knew I could be successful at. So, I searched out every version I could find. If we went to any place with an arcade, I was bringing my quarters with me. I made sure every console I had could play this game. I remember finding a cocktail version on a church ski trip in New Mexico that I was ecstatic over. More on churches and cocktails in a bit.

I did get better at it. Not Twin Galaxies record-holders good, but good enough to get at least 70,000 on each credit.

Perhaps my greatest find was right in my own school. We did our P.E. classes in the old gymnasium that doubles as a Boys and Girls Club, and our teacher was a football coach. Football coaches, at least where I grew up, had a stereotypical reputation for not really caring about your work ethic inside the classroom. As long as you didn’t give them trouble, they gave you more leeway than the other teachers would have. So a lot of times, while the other students were playing basketball, I was free to do what I wanted for three out of five days of the week. And in that Boys and Girls Club sat a Jr. Pac-Man machine.

Set to free to play.

To quote Daniel Bryan,”Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Looking back, I should have appreciated this more than I did. I didn’t play the machine the whole class period because I didn’t want the coach to crack down on me, but every day I’d give it 5-10 minutes. And as I type this, I realize how ridiculous it was that the coach let me play this game at the beginning of class. But play I did. Did I get the high score? No, but I did break 100,000 and wrote my name on the sheet of paper that acted as a top score list (the high score was a crock, as 253,457 is not a legitimate number in this game).

I guess he knew that video games, and not athletic accomplishments, were my future.

Eat those dots you naughty girl

Dedication takes it toll on you. I had started “dating” a girl who we will call Herman. I put dating in quotation marks because I was 16 and didn’t know a thing about dating. We’re also calling her Herman because using her real name would be a dick move to out someone for dating me in high school. Anyways, Herman was cute, and having zero experience with girls, thought she was an AMAZING kisser. Oh my.

Oh right, this is about Ms. Pac-Man, not Ms. Herman. Anyways, we were at a roller skating rink on a baptist church field trip, and after skating with her for a bit, spotted a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the arcade.

Well naturally, I HAD to swing by and play it. I specifically remember thinking, “I wasn’t a jerk boyfriend, I gave my girlfriend a good portion of my time, now it’s my turn to go off and have fun.”

I don’t remember what my score was, but I was really proud of it. And as I’m skating by, one of our youth group leaders, a grown man, was talking to another kid and didn’t see me. The kid mocked me for not skating with my girlfriend and playing Ms. Pac-Man instead. Instead of having my back or just joking, I’ll always remember the responsible adult actually laughing at me. Not laughing like a funny joke, but with a mean-spirited sense of mockery.

Which makes no sense. With teen pregnancy being a huge issue, even among church kids, you’d think that any church leader would be happy that one of his students didn’t spend the whole night getting handsy with his girlfriend, and that he’d have an interest outside of girls and dating.

Despite his ridiculous behavior, we actually remained friends until a few years ago when we fell out of communication. The relationship with the girl came to a close a few weeks later as well. Something about our relationship not growing. Whatever.

Girls came and went, but my love of the lady in a bow stayed with me far past those failed relationships. My favorite arcade memories revolve around that game, and my favorite childhood memories include Friday nights playing the 2600 version of the original with my parents. So it stands to reason that Ms. Pac-Man is the one to blame for my obsession with building a M.A.M.E. arcade cabinet (Mulitple Arcade Machine Emulator, a program that allows you to play thousands of old arcade games on modern PC hardware). I wanted to play the game with a joystick and a quarter slot. Even though it would have been easier (and cheaper) to just get a version for a home console and get an arcade stick, I wanted something as authentic as possible. So I set about on my quest to build a cocktail cabinet. And I call it a quest because it took four years due to financial hiccups impeding my progress. Nevertheless, I’m about 80 percent done with the machine, as there are a few wiring hiccups and some cosmetic issues that need to be addressed (I’ll hopefully be able to share the building process with you at some point down the road).

Raise your hands if you saw this machine anywhere. Anyone?

Raise your hands if you saw this machine anywhere. Anyone?

So how does Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man and Super Pac-Man (one of the supply stores on Lake Ouchita, Arkansas, had this machine back in 1997-1999, and it is the only time I’ve ever seen this game in the wild) hold up in MAME? Actually, really good. Thankfully, these classic games don’t require a very powerful computer. And while I wouldn’t recommend it, if you are building a MAME cabinet and only have a laptop from the year 1999 to use, you could get away with a lot of late 70s and early 80s games. That Windows 98 box won’t do you any good playing NBA Hangtime, but it should run the Pac family of games without any issues.

From a control perspective, this is the most finicky game I have on my system. Nearly every game controls great, but my crazy nostalgia for Ms. Pac-Man makes me notice even the slightest imperfections. I replaced the Happs Competition sticks I had originally bought with Sanwa 4 and 8 way sticks. They work absolutely great on every other game, but for Ms. Pac-Man, I’m still trying to get used to them. They feel a little too loose, and every once in a while, I’ll miss a turn and run into a ghost. I went from 120K-170K on average on the cocktail Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga 20th Anniversary table at my local laundromat to a home high score of 69,600.

I could spring for the authentic joystick used in those machines, but it would take a lot of extra carpentry work, that I am not capable of, to make it work. In short, the stick is too short to work on my wood cabinet setup, and would require me to use a router to fit it exactly right. I’d rather just get better with the Sanwa stick, as that should make me a better player.

It’s emulated perfectly in MAME, so unless you’re a fanatic about this game, there’s not much of a reason to spend money you don’t have on an authentic cabinet. The speed-hack version and the original slow version are two separate games, so keep that in mind when putting together your cab. Unfortunately, I am a fanatic, and when my wife and I get our own house with space for a game room, I probably will spend a few hundred dollars on an authentic cabinet.

In fact, unless you’re obsessed with things being 100 percent arcade perfect, quarters and all, you could probably save yourself a lot of time by just purchasing Pac-Man Museum for $19.99 on Steam. In addition to Pac-Man, you get the amazing Pac-Man Battle Royale, probably the most fun you could have with four players, along with some other obscure things like Pac and Pal, Pac-Land, and Pac-Attack (Ms. Pac-Man is DLC, which is annoying but not surprising). But if you are dead set on using the speed-hack version only of original Pac-Man, buyer beware, I was unable to determine if this option was available or not in the Steam version.

In fact, the only home version I’ve seen where the speed-hack was offered was Ms. Pac-Man on Sega Genesis. While it might be featured elsewhere, it was not available on the Pac-Man GameBoy Advance collection, the Namco Museum collection for Playstation, or the Plug n Play version.

Which leads me to my final story. One of my wife’s friends threw a giant Ms. Pac-Man tournament in 2012, and offered some really nice prizes. Gift baskets with nice bottles of wine and gift cards to restaurants. Winning this tournament was a big deal. I was ready. I had YEARS of experience playing this game since my loss to Hegan, and I knew I would win it. Classic story of redemption.

Unfortunately, we’re using the Plug n Play version with slow-ass Ms. Pac-Man. Even though all my experience is with the fast version, it wasn’t going to be an issue. I could adapt.

I let my opponent go first. She scored a paltry 15,560 points. She made some really bad choices (eating a second power pellet before the first one wore off), which gave me confidence that I would win.

Unfortunately, pitiful gameplay was contagious that night. I had gotten to the second stage with one life remaining. I sat at 15,470 points, and saw the strawberry right above me. Grab the strawberry, get to the next round.

I could blame the joystick. I could blame the jolt in gameplay mechanics that I wasn’t expecting. But instead of going up, I went right. And ran into the ghost. Game over. She won by 90 points.

It felt like 1997 all over again. For the next few hours, I tried to put on a smile to mask the anger I had at losing like that.

The winner of the tournament scored around 23,000 points. I’ve beaten that score so many times since then in the original version of Ms. Pac-Man. I’m just waiting for the day when I get a chance at redemption.

Ms. Pac-Man has brought me so much joy and so much pain. Happy memories, like my 220,770 high score. And sad memories, like playing it non-stop after my parents split up.

It is a game I love, and a game that I hate. And I’ll never stop giving it my quarters.

Dustin Faber is a doting husband, devoted father, Team Fortress 2 Pyro and retro gamer. When he’s not eating ghosts or serving root beer, he can be found at Tweet him @16bitcatholic.

My Wife Plays Ms. Pac-Man

In an effort to get my wife to play more games, I agreed to give her space to rant and give her thoughts on a game with one credit’s worth of playtime. Here are her words. Oh and she’s on Twitter, @alliwait).

It’s fun. It’s classic. I like that she wears a bow and it’s pink. I wonder what color she’d paint her nails if she had hands in the game.

After watching Dustin play, I learned to sit and wait for ghosts before eating the magic pellet. I’m not good with strategy like I am with Tetris, because the problem solving is much different. With Tetris, I’m filling in spaces, recalculating moves, but with Ms. Pac-Man, it’s basically the same board with small changes. In Tetris I can use critical thinking, and I don’t have to run away from anyone. In Ms. Pac-Man, you can strategize all you want, but if the ghosts go a different way, you’re done for.

I like the fruit. Not enough to play the gimmicky Super Pac-Man though, where all you eat is fruit, save for some magic pellets. That’s just stupid.