Lost Arcade Classics


By Kyle Snyder <hojoarcade36 %at% yahoo %dot% com>
February 27, 2009

“Jumping the shark”: A popular term originally used to designate the moment in a television series at which point all credibility has been lost. In recent years we’ve seen the term applied to virtually everything else such as … movies, music, and politics, not to mention… product lines of established brands: “New Coke”, “WebTv / MSN TV”, or “ArchDeluxe”, anyone?

So lets apply the term to arcade video games. A case could be made that the “Jump the Shark” moment in the Double Dragon series would have occurred with Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone, in which your character had to enter shops and PAY (with real quarters, yes, from your pocket into the cabinet’s coin slot) for additional power ups for your on-screen fighter. Or another shark-jumping game would be Donkey Kong 3, as Stanley the Bug Man replaced Mario in a game that owed more to Galaga than Nintendo’s legend.

(I suppose these two examples could also be used to support a point that the third game in an established franchise falls short of expectations, but that’s a different argument for a different article.)

Anyway, let’s look for the shark jumping moment in Namco/Midway’s iconic Pac-Man series. I’ve heard some players argue the point for Super Pac-Man, with its “eat the keys to unlock the walls to eat the food inside” game play, and others have mentioned the half-video, half-pinball hybrid Baby Pac-Man, which featured a truncated pinball playfield and ridiculously challenging ghost AI.

However, I believe that the Jump the Shark moment in the coin-op Pac-Man world occurred in late 1983, with a title so wacky, so off the wall, that it demands deeper exploration, preferably in print. That game, and this issue’s Lost Arcade Classic, is Bally/Midway’s Professor Pac-Man.

Not really a sequel, but more of a spin-off, Professor Pac-Man challenges players (referred to by the game as “pupils”) to answer animated logic and observational puzzles before the “dot clock” runs out for each question.

The dot clock is a timer represented by Pac-Man eating a row of dots, interspersed with decreasing point values (900 to 0). The pupil is allowed two chances to answer each question, and each question has three possible answers. If the pupil answers incorrectly twice, the question is voided, and no points are awarded. The same is the result if the gilded gobbler devours all the dots before the pupil selects the correct answer.

As would be expected, points are earned for answering questions correctly before time runs out. In a strange twist, the point values correlate to how many dots Pac-Man has not yet cleared off the clock, making this the only Pac-Man game to award points for dots NOT eaten!

Side observation: The creation of the dot clock is preceded by an animation showing Pac-Man sauntering across the screen from right to left, with very skinny limbs, blue boots, and white Mickey Mouse styled gloves. Upon reaching the left side of the screen, he REMOVES HIS OWN HEAD, which is then placed on the ground, and becomes the traditional representation of Pac-Man, that is, the yellow pizza with a slice missing. His stick limbs (hanging in mid-air, mind you) then disappear with a little starburst effect similar to zapping a Space Invader. Seems like we really don’t know everything there is to know about our ghost-gobbling friend.

Anyway, disturbing imagery aside, Professor Pac-Man appears seated at the top of the screen; a numeral on his desk shows the amount of questions that have been asked so far. He is flanked by chalkboards that display each pupil’s score. Each player has a fruit symbol indicating their level, and a digit showing how many questions they can answer incorrectly (or not at all) before their game is over.

After every few correct answers, the pupil earns a bonus question. If the bonus is answered correctly, the pupil earns twice the score value, and the fruit level increases, which initially follows the same progression as the original 1980 Pac-Man game… cherries, strawberries, peaches, apples, and grapes, which were often interpreted as a grenade or a pineapple in the earlier title. Then the series deviates into Ms.Pac-Man territory (bananas and pretzels), then Super Pac-Man gets a nod with the appearance of hamburgers and donuts, before revealing the professor’s own special menu of pizza, ice cream, and blueberry pie!

As the fruit levels increase, the amount of time on the clock decreases. On the cherries levels, players have 10 seconds to answer a question, but on the higher levels, only three seconds is allotted.

As play continues, the machine selects from a pool of over five hundred questions (according to the marquee), such as one that displays four items, and asks the pupil to select the object that does NOT belong in the set. For instance, you may have pictures of a keyboard, a keychain, a violin, and a map of some islands. The choice doesn’t seem immediately clear until you recognize that the map is showing the Florida Keys, which makes the violin the item that doesn’t belong, as all the rest have something to do with “keys”. This question reminds me of that classic Sesame Street jingle... "One of these things is not like the other... one of these things just doesn't belong".

A question that harkens back to the first Pac-Man game displays the original Pac-Man maze, then shows a path of dots leading from Pac-Man to a fruit, and asks the pupil how many left (or right) turns are needed to follow the path and reach the fruit.

One fun question displays a touch-tone phone, upon which a seven-digit number is dialed. (Must be a local call). Then, the pupil has to recall which number was called. If the correct phone number is selected, an extra large Pac-Man is shown happily “wocka wocking” into the phone’s mouthpiece! Or maybe it’s a cameo from Super Pac-Man. Now, who would HE be talking to?

Other questions involve arranging the faces of a die in the correct order, adding mathematical symbols to a sequence of digits to generate a certain answer, recalling details in a city scene, and identifying a completed figure when presented with the component parts of that figure.

Once the limit of incorrect answers is reached, the game closes with a silhouetted Professor waving good-bye as the sun sets on his schoolhouse.

The Professor Pac-Man cabinet is fairly standard, but the control panel is worth mentioning. It features six illuminated oversized buttons – three per player, as each question presents three answers. These buttons are labeled as “A”, “B”, and “C” using the famous Pac-Man font, which is a cool touch.

The cabinet also features an illuminated panel on the front of the cab, echoing similar displays from earlier Midway cabs like Gorf, Omega Race, and Tron. The panel shows Professor Pac teaching a class, and Pac-Man, raising his hand to provide an answer. What a good little student he is!

Seated behind Pac-Man, are two ghost monsters, and where they go, wackiness ensues. Blinky, wearing a handsome “Jughead Jones” style beanie cap, is preparing to shoot a spitball at the propeller-beanie sporting Inky. Somebody at Midway must have liked beanies, as the propeller variant showed up a year later atop Jr. Pac-Man’s noggin!

Now, it’s hard to blame Bally/Midway for thinking outside of the box. After all, quiz-themed coin-operated games themselves are not a bad idea. One of the earliest coin-op games of the quiz genre dates back to 1968, when Nutting Associates (the guys that released the first coin-op video game Computer Space in 1971) released the similarly named Computer Quiz, which displays questions from a filmstrip on a backlit screen.

As video games became more commonplace, Ramtek experienced a moderate hit in 1975 with the simply named Trivia, Sega offered up Tic Tac Quiz the following year, and Atari’s Kee Games division released Quiz Show, also in ’76, which stored questions on magnetic tape, much like music on an 8-track.

Once the mid-80s rolled around, a video trivia revolution unfolded due to titles like Status's Triv Quiz, Greyhound’s Video Trivia, and Merit's popular Trivia Whiz series, which featured multiple question revisions for years following its original 1985 release. There were even several officially licensed versions of the Trivial Pursuit board game, adapted to a coin-op video format by Bally/Sente in 1984.

Although quiz games usually weren’t found at the local arcade, they managed to gain niche popularity in bars, pool halls, and restaurants. Often appearing in cocktail or countertop cabinets, trivia games were attractive to customers because they were easy to play in order to show off intellectual prowess… especially when inebriated. It also helped that quiz games required very little hand-eye coordination in order to succeed, which supports the whole “playing while drinking” theory. Low prices for trivia game kits meant route operators were able to generate a fast ROI on quiz-based games, and many older conventional video games were converted into trivia titles.

However, upon its release in September 1983, the good Professor’s game immediately flopped. Despite charming graphics, special animations, and a unique style, Midway’s video puzzle game was a tough sell.

I believe several factors led to the game’s failure. First of all, and probably the most important, is that it was released smack dab in the middle of the great video game crash... very poor timing, to say the least. By this time, many operators and arcade owners were buying very conservatively, if not closing down altogether. A game would need to feature a groundbreaking technology (such the laserdisc animation of Dragon’s Lair), or be prove itself to be a runaway hit (such as Spy Hunter or Punch Out), to garner any serious sales numbers.

Secondly, the Pac-Man license is clearly tacked on. The game has almost nothing to do with the earlier maze themed Pac-titles, and abandons all elements that made those games popular and approachable to players. This certainly proves that making a game part of a successful franchise, does not guarantee that the game itself will be successful.

Finally, the game tests the player’s observational and critical thinking skills, as opposed to simply recollecting facts. This gives Professor Pac-Man a totally different feel than a trivia based game which may ask a player to identify the starting quarterback for the 1981 Washington Redskins, or who contributed backing vocals and guitar to Elton John’s 1974 cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. (The answers are at the end of the article… NO PEEKING!)

Nevertheless, Bally/Midway expected the best from the Professor. Three different versions were planned; “Public”, designed for arcade and bar patrons, “Family”, which leaned toward younger pupils, and “Prize”, created for installation in casinos. Question upgrade kits were to be released every four months to keep the challenge fresh.

Midway reported manufacturing only 400 “Public” Professor Pac-Man machines, and nearly 300 of those were returned to them for conversion into their 1984 platform title Pac-Land. The “Family” and “Casino” versions never saw the light of day.

Given that 25 years have passed since its release, and factoring in the subsequent trend of either converting or parting out non-earning old games, it’s hard to guess how many Professor Pac-Man machines remain. Fifty? Twenty? Maybe even less than that, who can say? What’s certain is that Professor Pac-Man is a truly scarce machine, and those who own one tend to see it as a crown jewel in their collections.

Just ask my friend Mike Fuchs, who over a year and half, assembled a complete collection of Pac-Man arcade titles, including a very clean Professor Pac-Man. He was fortunate enough to purchase his machine from another collector, so it was complete and in original condition. It did have a small board issue, but Mike recently won an untested board set (a total of SIX PCBs!) on Ebay, which ended up working pretty much flawlessly! The cabinet pictured in this article is Mike’s machine, thanks for the pictures, Mike!

So the next time you visit our hallowed halls, after you study the exhibits and read all the placards… after you reflect on all the obscure video games of the past… take a moment to attend a class held by the good Professor. He’s featured in the lecture hall of the museum of the Lost Arcade Classic.

(And for all you trivia heads, the answers to the questions posed earlier in the article are Joe Theismann, and John Lennon!)