Gaming History: Discovering Deep Ms. Pac-Man Secrets


I played a fair amount of Ms. Pac-Man in my youth, sometimes plugging my entire $3 allowance into the machine at the movie theater, or the one at the pizza parlor near my grandmother's house. I was never any good at it -- never much good at any arcade games, really -- but my father and brother were skilled Ms. Pac-Man gamers. They preferred Ms. Pac-Man to the original Pac-Man, but I don't recall ever getting an answer about why. (I must have assumed that her little red bow was the killer feature.)

Now, the original Pac-Man was famous among game nerds for its nonrandom ghost behavior. There were stories of people playing the game for days at a time by using the "hold" position -- a specific location on each board where you could park Pac-Man and he'd never be hit by a ghost, since the ghosts moved in a repeating pattern. (You'd use the hold in order to go to the bathroom, get a bite to eat, and then continue playing -- assuming you had a compatriot who would make sure no one touched the machine.) I heard legends of Pac-Man players (think Billy from King of Kong) who had racked up unbelievably high scores by memorizing the ghosts' nonrandom movements and liberally using the hold positions over multi-day marathon sessions.

But the nonrandom ghost behavior is specific to the original Pac-Man. Ms. Pac-Man was supposed to be different. I just came across an article from 1984 revealing how a secret "hold" position was actually discovered (through extensive trial-and-error) in Ms. Pac-Man when it was thought impossible due to randomized ghost movement. Here's a tidbit:

Pac-Man was a game you could beat. You could beat it by memorizing patterns. The ghosts, you see, weren't programmed for randomness. If you zigged and they zagged, they'd do the exact same thing in a similar situation. It wasn't long before everybody knew the patterns to beat Pac-Man. Ms. Pac-Man is a different story. The ghosts are programmed for randomness, so there isn't a pattern that exists to beat it-the ghosts behave differently in each game. But there is one technique that will earn a player an incredible amount of points [called] "Grouping." If you can induce the ghosts to move close to one another, you can stay alive and get 1,600 points when you gobble them near a power pill. This is the story of three guys from Montana who got together and figured out how to give Ms. Pac-Man a beating she'll never forget.

Read the rest for a nice story of kids overcoming obstacles to achieve the "impossible." (Note: the original article is by Paul Stokstad from Computer Games magazine, June 1984. It's reprinted in the linked blog with a source credit at the bottom.)

(Via the most-excellent Anarchaia.)