Is there any modern equivalent of the maze game? The nearest equivalents I can think of, like Bit.Trip Runner and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, are too different from the genre to be called proper maze games. So we can safely say that outside ports and maybe a few reimaginings, the genre that birthed games like Pac Man, Burgertime, and Clu Clu Land has remained dead in the ground for years. It’s not hard to see why. Either developers thought there was no more headway to be made with these games and proceeded to abandon them; or players lost interest with them as more complex titles started to appear on the market.
However, just because either side effectively gave up on maze games doesn’t mean the genre ran out of things to offer its audience. In fact, Yuu Maze demonstrates just how much further these games could have gone, and it was made as late as 1988. Not in gameplay terms, mind you; Yuu Maze still sees you navigating a series of halls, avoiding swarms of enemies, and collecting every last trinket on the map. It’s the tone that separates this game from others. Far from replicating the innocent fun its peers were known for, Yuu Maze comes across as a despondent slog of an experience.
Granted, what the game does isn’t all that different from other maze games, but there are enough subtle changes to the formula that it’s easy to read the game’s actions as deliberate. The dead ends on several of the maps prove that well enough. While it was possible to run into a dead end in a game like Ms. Pac Man, they were never a feature of the environment. They were the result of enemies blocking you in, meaning you could interpret dead ends as resulting from a failure to play the game well. Thus the game’s cheerful mood remains intact.
Yuu Maze has no such affordances. In addition to the enemy-made dead ends, the game is happy to build dead ends directly into the level architecture. You know that venturing down those hallways is basically a death sentence, yet you have no choice but to follow them anyway. You can put off doing so for as long as you want, but because they hold the dots you need to clear the level, you know that you’ll have to brave them sooner or later. The game is essentially forcing you to make yourself vulnerable to advance, heightening the tension during play while mollifying any feeling of fulfillment you may get from success.
Of course, you’re only making yourself more vulnerable comparatively, as you’re already at the game’s mercy in all other areas. All the environments can ever really offer you is the thin illusion of safety. For example, while hallways without dead ends allow you more options to escape, they still limit all your options to just that: escape. And upon reflection, escape may prove futile. Not only do your enemies consistently outpace you, but their numbers and aggressive nature mean they inherently outpower you, too. At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “I can use the open spaces to outwit my pursuer. I’ll maneuver around them in some tricky way, give them the slip, and then collect a few dots before they know what hit them.”
Unfortunately, Yuu Maze is a cruel game that wants nothing more than to see you fail. That’s why it’s ready to sabotage your plans before you can even envision them. Where once you could turn corners with precision, you now find your car putzing about these open areas as you try to coax it into going where you want to go. Your enemies, on the other hand, aren’t encumbered by these open spaces; they’re just as precise as ever. It’s as if the game knows that you enter these areas holding a certain assumption, and then uses that same assumption against you. Looking at all the other design choices populating the game, it’s a hard feeling to shake. Enemies you’ve removed from play (more on that in a bit) eventually return to the battlefield, as though your previous efforts to get rid of them amount to nothing. That feeling only grows stronger when you find yourself running over the same dots twice just to collect them once.
Even some of the power-ups carry an air of futility. First, they only appear in the levels randomly, as if a capricious deity is pushing your buttons behind the scenes. (Keep in mind that your enemies can utilize some of these power-ups, too.) But what caught my eye was this one power-up that collects all the dots for you and ends the level right there. Finding this power-up can be relieving, but it also undermines all the effort you exerted just getting this far. It’s as though the game’s saying it could have helped you any time it wanted; it just chose now for whatever reason. That’s why I’m so welcoming toward the awkward control scheme, even knowing it’s most likely a programming quirk (your car has a little bit of inertia when it starts to move, so that might be at play here). It’s a quirk that works in service of everything else, telling you that there is not a single moment in this game when you are safe. Perhaps that’s why the final level works as well as it does: it’s all open space, robbing from you any advantage you may have imagined you had before. In addition, I also see the art style feeding into all this, as it lacks the cartoony abstraction you’d usually find in these kinds of games. The game instead opts for a futuristic, almost dingy visual style and an urgent soundtrack.
The only real downside I see with Yuu Maze is the laser power-up. That may sound too specific, but there’s a reason I’m singling it out. Every other power-up in the game either maintains the defenselessness the game thrives on, like the mines and armor you can only use a limited number of times; or at the very least, introduce some new mood the game can work with, as we’ve seen with the dot-collecting power-up. The laser falls into neither of these categories. It simply powers you up with no negative consequences. Well, no negative consequences within the game, at least; you can mow enemies down at your command. However, this means that they no longer pose a threat, so any fear the game might have elicited disappears altogether.
And without that fear, the game doesn’t have enough nuance to support itself. All that’s left is to collect the dots, an uninteresting mechanic that fails to create any meaningful tension on its own. Without any enemies to menace the player, the game feels repetitive and monotonous. True, some of the levels require the laser power-up to complete, since certain enemies will lay down new dots faster than you can pick them up, but this only speaks to how incongruent those levels are with the rest of the game; not to any particular strengths the laser power-up may have.
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself that I’ve made quite the furor over a game simple enough to fit in with early arcade games, but I think that’s why it’s worth examining in the first place. There’s a tendency to search for meaning in games through their overt and complex structures, whether that’s narrative (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy) or ludic (Pandora’s Tower, Final Fantasy). Yet here’s a game that’s able to communicate so much to the player with such a limited toolset. At the very least, Yuu Maze gives us a new perspective we can apply to games we’ve known for years. That alone should give the game value.