Above: Puck Monster Unit. Photo courtesy of Retro Games UK
The January 30th news that Masaya Nakamura, founder of video game company Namco, had died back on the 22nd probably didn't hit as hard as Nintendo president Satoru Iwata's passing in 2015, for a lot of people. Perhaps that's understandable—Iwata was a well-known figure, died young of a terrible illness, and presided over Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom. Those properties are as big as a Disney franchise today, successfully evolving over generations, while many of Namco's biggest brands, like Pac-Man, Ridge Racer and Galaxian/Galaga, feel curiously archaic by comparison.
Perhaps that's just in my head, I don't know. It's not like Namco—now Bandai Namco Entertainment following a 2006 merger—isn't publishing contemporary heavyweights, including Dragon Ball and Tekken games and, in the West, the Dark Souls series. But certainly, when I think of Namco, I think of the 1980s, and arcades with stand-up cabinets, cigarette burn marks and sticky floors. All of the stereotypes you've read before, in other nostalgic posts—but stereotypes because they were true scenarios, at least for me.
And I think of Pac-Man. Most of all, I think of Pac-Man. Nakamura wasn't the man who created Pac-Man, the character and the game (that was the very-much-still-alive Toru Iwatani), but he did see the potential of the arcade market for Namco, aka the Nakamura Amusement Machine Manufacturing Company. He was regarded, widely, as "the father of Pac-Man". And while Pac-Man wasn't Namco's first game in arcades, with Bomb Bee and Galaxian launched in the late-1970s, it was their most-profitable one—indeed, it's the highest-grossing arcade game of all time.
I was born in 1980, the year Pac-Man, the arcade game, came out, and it's not like I marched out of the womb and straight down the seafront with a bag full of 10 pence pieces (not that I could have—I was born the month before it debuted, in Japan). I'd see arcades on TV shows and movies, but I very much doubt I ever stepped into one, for real, until I was seven or eight. The local social club that I sometimes visited on weekends did have a sole cabinet, but I don't remember what it played in those days—although I can recall it running Data East's 1988 RoboCop game, and Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles offering of a year later.
I digress. The point is that I never played Pac-Man, the arcade game, in arcades. When I was six or so, my uncle handed our family down his old Spectrum, which became our first computer, and I'm fairly sure we had the Pac-Man port for that. (When games came on cassette, and you weren't too savvy with piracy laws, you quickly accumulated quite the collection. We had a lot of cassettes.)
The Spectrum was shared, primarily between my two brothers and me. We'd get into arguments over what to play, and turn each other's games off—never a nice thing to do, when loading times felt like forever. Silly brotherly bickering that carried into the Amiga days, too. I'm sure many of you can relate.
Above: Puck Monster in action. Video courtesy of SoftOtaku
Again, I digress. Thinking about Pac-Man, this week, has sent me to a place in my memories that I don't think I've explored before—somewhere close to those old cassettes with hand-written game titles on them, the screams of the ZX trying to load a handful of kilobytes into the system's RAM. Close enough to be the same era, but a few steps to the right. To the long-forgotten realm of handheld electronic games.
Puck Monster—one of many Pac-Man clones of the time (one, 1984's Devil World, was co-designed by a certain Shigeru Miyamoto)—was the first game that I could call mine. Not to be played in some sort of timeshare scheme with those other boys in the house. Mine. If I remember right, it was a gift from the same uncle who gave us the Spectrum—he was into computers and such, and is the reason we had two Gamates and a stack of its games in our house once the failed Game Boy competitor reached a rock-bottom price. (A quick look at eBay suggests we should have held onto those.)
I loved this silly device with its two game modes (!), all of its pathetic little blips and bleeps, and zero frames of animation.
Puck Monster wasn't a cassette or a cartridge though, a program on a floppy disc or some other proprietary media format. It was a Pac-Man clone cast as a standalone LED electronic game, produced by a London-based company called CGL—Computer Games Limited. CGL was the British importer of Nintendo's Game & Watch range, not that I ever owned any of those; but foremost, it rebadged games by other companies like Tomy and Gakken, sometimes giving them alternative names.
Puck Monster was put out by Gakken in Japan, and CGL picked it up for the UK, apparently in 1982 but I'd have received it later than that. So far as I can tell, it never officially came to the US—although a few units evidently made the journey across the Atlantic.
"Fun for the entire family," read the information on the front of the box—a box that was no doubt irreparably ripped apart upon receipt. But no chance of that, as it was all mine. (We've been over this.) Batteries, their short life often the scourge of enjoying these tabletop "handhelds", weren't a worry, as my uncle—or possibly my dad, foolishly—had provided me with an adaptor, so I could run Puck Monster off the mains. And I did. Over, and over, and over again.
Bigger and better games were just there, on the Spectrum. We had Dizzy. We had Renegade, and Bubble Bobble. We might have had Skool Daze and Jet Set Willy but, like I said, we had a lot of games, and they were mostly on identical C60s picked up in multipacks from service stations. It was hard to tell them all apart.
But I loved this silly device with its two game modes(!), all of its pathetic little blips and bleeps, and zero frames of animation. "Pac-Man" couldn't even turn around, eating any dots to the right through the back of his head, which is also his body, obviously. However that works. The ghosts (or, here, "monsters") weren't Blinky or Inky, just shameful identical stand-ins, voiceless and desperate, consumed only by an appetite for yellow—save for when they were "timid", and could be eaten.
My parents came to hate its noises—a sure-fire sign that I was on it a lot, after school and before it, on sunny weekends and with the rain hammering down on the flat roof of my childhood bedroom. I might've broken the joystick in the end—there must have been a reason for chucking it out. (It never felt especially durable, which is why you should be wary of this eBay listing for a Puck Monster unit, for the cheap, cheap price of £250. Good luck with that.) It definitely did find the dusty corner of the closet eventually—once I was allowed to put my birthday money towards a console proper, a Sega Master System, I never went back to these LED/LCD handhelds. I mean, why would anybody?
And why does any of this memory lane-ing matter? It doesn't, really. It's just interesting, I think, where events of the now, affecting people you've never met, can take you: back into the past, following the roots of your relationship with something you love today. I could say, justifiably, that Puck Monster taught me the "rules" of so much gaming in the 1980s—three lives, high scores, power-ups.
But that way to play has all but gone, laws laid down by coin-drop culture rewritten several dozen times over the years. More significantly, it was the first game that I remember attaching myself to. It became mine in more than just an ownership sense. I got good at it.
Masaya Nakamura was a pioneer of a different era, in an industry that sheds its skin and develops new abilities with supersonic speed. Mario learned to drive at extreme speeds (sometimes upside-down), to serve a tennis ball and swing a golf club, to fold himself in half, and got himself a doctorate somewhere along the line. Pac-Man? He likes dots, alright. And as for the idea of seeing such a blatant clone like Puck Monster in the contemporary gaming landscape, well, I suppose we call them sequels. (Jokes, obvs?)