A large part of me resists describing any video game as cheap marketing trash. Even if a game is clearly trying to cash in on the latest fad or was conceived of as another piece of tie-in merchandise (or both), that doesn’t automatically disqualify it from being a legitimate artistic endeavor. With Ms. Pac Man: Maze Madness, though, I struggle to find redeeming qualities in it. In fact, I struggle to find any qualities in the game whatsoever. The most generous thing I could say about the game is that contemporary players/reviewers would have found it mildly enjoyable if unremarkable. Yet I didn’t play this game at the time of its release; I played it well after the fact, and that added time brought with it clarity. What I played was more than an apathetic game in need of an identity; it was also an example of the more regrettable design trends in early 3D video games.
Some of you might already be aware of what those trends were. During the late 80s, video game developers felt compelled to update old arcade classics and infuse them with modern sensibilities. Asteroid, Breakout, Centipede, Frogger, Pong, Space Invaders – all of them were inducted into the third dimension this way. No doubt Maze Madness belongs to that same group of games, but it doesn’t quite know what “updating Pac Man” should entail. Putting aside the generic cartoon fantasy story about collecting four all powerful crystal to defeat an evil witch, Maze Madness sticks very close to the original games: you pilot the titular heroine around a maze board as she collects pellets, eats fruits, and eliminates whatever ghosts she encounters. The game even borrows the idea of collecting keys to access new areas (and otherwise unreachable prizes) from the painfully obscure Super Pac Man.
Yet similarity is not the source of the game’s problems. Rather, those problems stem from the alterations Maze Madness makes to that formula, and the lack of consideration behind them. Foremost among those changes is the decision to abandon the claustrophobia that defines many other maze games. The game revels in subtle creative choices meant to give the player greater freedom: ghosts and other creatures lurch toward Ms. Pac Man at a sluggish pace, and even if they should cross her path, there’s always a handy corridor to ensure her survival. While these may sound like measured choices on Namco’s part, the irony is that they’d never considered what they’d use this added freedom to achieve. Saying that it allows you to do more and bring more of yourself to bear within the game world (like so many other games at the time emphasized) doesn’t make sense, because the set of actions you can perform hasn’t expanded.
If anything, it’s contracted. What Maze Madness sees as constraints in maze games are actually the genre’s strongest impetus for making the player act. By removing them, the game acts against its supposed goal of opening up the experience and instead closes off an entire set of compelling choices that would otherwise be available to the player. It’s effectively prevented itself from returning to its roots. At the same time, though, it’s also too simplistic to match the contemporaries it’s put itself in competition with. What options are left for Maze Madness?
Whatever they may be, the game is incapable of perceiving them, and soon, the drudgery sets in. Up, left, left, down, right, up, right, avoid that ghost, left, push that block, back, jump on that pad, up, eat that fruit, left, up, left, left. Assuming you’re still capable of sustaining thought throughout this tedium (it has a knack for suppressing thought), then it’s here where you’ll realize just how damaging the game’s lack of boundaries really are. Although there’s very little stopping you from collecting every pellet on the board, it’s for that very reason that the game finds itself unable to provide meaningful structure. It can’t render the claustrophobic tension that makes the original Pac Man so endearing, nor is it equipped to portray the glorious spectacle that Championship Edition DX famously embraces. In fact, the only thing it’s equipped to offer is the emotionally lifeless routine I’d just described; a set of hurdles you’re expected to jump over not as an activity worth performing in its own right, but as one meant only to fill empty time. This isn’t to say Maze Madness is unaware of the problems it faces. Each board contains various puzzles meant to break up the “action” (to varying effect), and the Time Trial challenges add enough limitations to give the game at least a small burst of direction and meaning.
Unfortunately, both the original problem and most of the solutions the game proposes stem from the same core fallacy: pursuing content as an end in its own right. I use “content” in the sense that the game adds minor features and trinkets to collect without making any substantial changes to the foundation. It’s a concept that got its start among 3D platformers of the late 90s (and one that’s seen a resurgence within open world games), and Maze Madness is no different. While the core idea of “collect all the dots on the board” already lends itself well to this kind of approach, Maze Madness goes out of its way to pursue content: on top of that core idea we have so many other little doo-dads to gather, simple diversions to break up the monotony, areas to revisit once we’ve acquired whatever it is we need to progress further, etc.
If what I’ve said about the game sounds flattering, the truth of the matter is that I remain skeptical about the extent to which I could describe this as an actual approach to video game design. At best, it’s a tool that games can use in service of something else. Collecting is meaningless on its own. While it can feel gratifying in some contexts, the most successful examples of collecting always build on top of some deeper quality at the game’s core. Super Mario 64 has its playbox freedom, and Banjo Kazooie has its sense of humor. In light of this, Maze Madness’ attempts to fix its lack of emotional character with a solution that requires emotional character to work were doomed from the start.
In some ways, Maze Madness’ failure feels like a wasted opportunity. As I’d touched on when I covered Yuu Maze, maze games had faded into obscurity some time in the 80s, so revisiting the genre during the 90s offered Namco plenty of opportunities to take maze games in interesting new directions. But it doesn’t look like they were interested in exploring that potential in the first place. If anything, they were more interested in getting out a game quickly enough to capitalize on the latest trends. This put Maze Madness at an uncomfortable juncture: it both had to preserve the nostalgia people had for Pac Man while also abandoning it to suit modern tastes. Judging by the end result, it’s safe to say Namco couldn’t meet the challenge they’d created for themselves.