Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My Gaming Audio History: Ms. Pac-Man (1983)

For the last few days I've been taking in all that is Pac-Man.  My family didn't own the original, but when I listen to the music, I know I've played it.  However, Ms. Pac-Man, which we did own, is much more familiar-- I can sing the game start song from memory.  With more maze variety and random ghost movement, Ms. Pac-Man is considered superior to the original Pac-Man by many.  We probably owned it not because of these features, but because it targeted women and my mom wanted it.



Pac-Man was so popular in the US, it's kind of amazing.  In most games at this time, you were a dot, a spaceship, an unidentified FP tank, plane, etc, or perhaps a humanoid character.  In Pac-Man, inspired by a pizza with a slice eaten, you're something else-- a character made of video game dreams.  Who knows exactly why, but it caught on huge in America.  Pac-Man inspired a Hanna Barbara cartoon, which I dutifully watched an episode and a half of.  Here's Dick Clark hosting a Saturday Morning Pac Preview Party for the cartoon with kids literally screaming about Pac-Man.  The main theme of the Pac-Man Animated Series (which sounds to me like a version of Turkey in the Straw-- conjuring up memories of Steamboat Willie!) would become a part of the game PacLand.  Consider this: a video game, Pac-Man, inspired a cartoon, Pac-Man: The Animated Series, which then transformed back into a video game, Pac-Land.  The impact of Pac-Man can't be overstated: think about the Karen Collins essay collection I read last year entitled From Pac-Man to Pop Music; a title like that implies that Pac-Man is the beginning, and indeed it was the beginning of the video game phenomenon for many Americans.

Here's a commercial for the Atari 2600 version of Ms. Pac-Man, clearly aimed at drawing in women players.  Love the belting Ms. Pac-Man at the end! Pac-Man inspired a cartoon, which I dutifully watched an episode and a half of.  The theme song for the cartoon became the song for the later game, PacLand.  While John Williams and Henry Mancini already had themes cross from movies and TV to video games, PacLand is unique in being a TV show created about a video game.  Pac-Man Fever, a song by Bruckner and Garcia, was #9 on Billboard in March 1982 (the month before I was born).  The album has a number of songs that I've given a listen to.  Many contain game sound effects and lyrics that players would've identified with.  If you're interested in historical footage, here's some video from Midway as Ms. Pac-Man arcades are assembled.

Pac-Man is credited with all kinds of things: the first cutscene in a video game, the first video game character, and I think I read somewhere, although I can't find it now, that Pac-Man is credited by some as having the first video game theme song.  Coming from an era when many games simply launched into gameplay once you pressed start and the audio experience of the game simply began, hearing a musical prelude to gameplay is pretty huge.  Is this the very first though?  Games released a few months later like Donkey Kong would have gameplay start sounds, and I'd have to do more research to definitively say, but I've not heard anything like this up to this point.

When you're dealing with a brand like Pac-Man that has so many releases, versions, spinoffs, etc the sound effects aren't going to be the same from one console to another simply based on differences in the audio capabilities.  Here's a video that shows several different versions of Ms. Pac-Man.  I played many of these!  Each version maintains the Ms. Pac-Man theme (some sounding more in tune than others), but the sound effects: eating power pills, the "waka" sound of moving along the screen, change notably between the games.

Who created the audio experience?  The original Pac-Man's short audio was created by Toshio Kai.  Ms. Pac-Man's audio by Naoki Nigashio.  It's hard to find out much about either of these men, but I'm hoping more will become available soon.  It's pretty safe to say that they didn't turn into prolific game composers or there would be more information about them.  That said, their audio did change the gaming world!

What's the audio experience?  Ms. Pac-Man has a number of sound effects, but also quite notably is the first game on my list that has a musical start up theme (E major).  It's also got music during the cutscenes as well.  The first and third cutscenes have short music (in G minor and A major, respectively), but the second cutscene has a longer rag (D major) reminiscent of a carnival, or just to invoke an earlier era representing the vaudeville like chase scene on screen.  Here's a video that transcribes "the chase" music into standard music notation.  This cutscene has some Mickey Mousing, particularly right at the end with the quick dashes across the screen that are timed precisely with the music.  Note: I'm jotting down the keys of these sound clips to see how quickly composers became interested in key relationships of the music in a game.

How does the audio experience draw the player more deeply into the game?  Of course, the sound effect of eating as you move around the board is classic.  On the Atari version I played, the sound after you eat a power pill conveys the timing of the pill's duration simply as the pitch gets higher, implying urgency, that combines with the ghosts flashing at the end of the time to let you know your power up is expiring.  The cutscenes are literally short films without dialogue whose music helps to create a more enriching experience.  Music was important in these cutscenes!  Many games in the arcade ran video of gameplay as a demo-- perhaps almost immediately after you died or won-- and the cutscene music helped to remind the player that the game was still active and progress was being made.  

I could go on about Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man... but those few games end my Atari childhood.  I'm off to a new platform: the NES.