Marc Daniels: What It Meant To Dominate Pac-Man...In 1981

Ms. Pac-Man Atari 2600 Game Cartridge

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It was the summer of 1981. I was 14 and by then I had started working part-time at a variety of places that included Arby's, SupeRx Drug store and Publix. 

I hated the Arby's job and quit after four days because the manager asked me to clean the bathroom and scrub the floors. Do you know what those bathrooms looked and smelled like and what was all over those floors? That's why I quit.

I was a stock boy at the SupeRx Drug store.The manager was a nice guy but an alcoholic. He would hide out in the back room and stock area and drink. I am pretty sure I worked illegal hours by staying until close to midnight often for stock shifts. But after emptying the truck, he usually added a couple of hours to my hand written time card and then told me to grab whatever my family might need in the store and bag it up, at no cost.

I bagged groceries at Publix when we used paper bags only and must come clean that I didn't turn down the quarter or more when a shopper offered a tip. And If you needed someone to go to the parking lot and get all the carts, I was your guy and made sure it took me an hour or two to accomplish.

My summer was like most kids my age growing up in south Florida. I hung out with friends and played sports in the street, nearby parks and organized leagues. We went to the beach. Pretended we had serious girlfriends for a weekend and no one had a cellphone. We also played arcade and video games. Not the video games you think of today. But if you are in my age bracket, as Scott Harris says "plus-30", then you know the games I am talking about. At home, you may have had an Atari 2600 or a Sega Genesis and if you did, you were a popular friend. But back then we also hung out at arcades. Arcades were filled with old pinball machines but also included these amazing console games that took us to outer space(Asteroids, Space Invaders, Galaga), and other odd destinations for games like Donkey Kong, Frogger and Centipede. But there was one game that mesmerized me. It was the challenge I could not escape. It was...Pac Man.

At Big Foot's Arcade off University Drive and Commercial Boulevard in south Florida there were the latest and greatest games. You needed a roll or handful of quarters and either walked, rode your bike or had mom drop you off and you were set for hours. Inside were flashing lights, bells, whistles and bleeps and buzzers. They played like a fine orchestra all day and into the night. My group of friends competed in everything. If you secured a high score, you bragged until someone topped your score. You squared off one-on-one in certain games and they got intense because it mattered, at least that day.

But in a prime position on the floor of Big Foot's Arcade was Pac Man. The original wood paneling on the outside with the front console area featuring a few buttons and that red joystick. The large screen was a maze of dots and ghosts in different colors. Do you remember the names of the ghosts? Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde. Those ghosts were your enemies until they became your friends when they turned blue. The maze of dots provided a challenge of maneuvering your pac man around the maze gobbling up those dots before the ghosts got to you. If you successfully gobbled all the dots you were rewarded. If you got to the ninth screen and survived you had reached the famous key level. Early on in Pac Man's existence few reached the key level. It was "big time" if you ever got to the key level. Most bombed out long before but a few kids made it to the key level. If you did, you usually had drawn a crowd around the game. People watched in awe of your ability to float around and dominate the game. Kids who had put their quarter down(meaning they played next) knew their wait was longer because you knew what you were doing when you made it to key level.

I wasn't very good at the start of my Pac Man career. I might make it to the second or third screen but eventually early stages of carpal tunnel set in because shifting that joystick was painful. I often watched other kids reach the key level and saw how people were impressed. I wanted to be that guy. Despite trying and trying and trying I was just not getting better. But then something happened.

One night after finishing stocking the shelves at the SupeRx store I worked at, the manager told me to go grab whatever my family might need and bag it up. I called, on a real phone, my mom who had a list of items the family needed. While packing up, as my dad was on his way to pick me up, I noticed in the magazine section something that made me pause. It was a magazine about video games and a section on "how to cheat at the best video games" inside this "special edition". Well, sure, you want to work at something and earn the rewards of your hard work but this was also about money and every game of Pac Man I played was costing me a quarter. So I dropped the magazine in the bags of toothpaste, toilet paper, paper towels, shaving cream and gum(I liked Big League Chew back then). 

The "special section" included "How to Master Pac Man" and my life was about to change. I read that section better than any school assignment or the Sporting News section filled with MLB box scores. That was "must reading" for me because it's how I memorized rosters and learned how to keep score, understand stats and keep up with the game. Why did I do that? Because my older brother did that and I tried to do everything he did. But he didn't care about Pac Man. By then, my older brother was a senior in college. 

After reading and learning how to work the board, I went back to Big Foot's Arcade and applied what I had learned. It was a slow process but then I realized to trust the tricks and suddenly it clicked and I was in a zone like Steph Curry launching 30-foot threes. I cruised to level 5 and 6 and 7 and then one day I hit level 9, the key level. It was like I attained a level of glory few could imagine. Well, it felt that way when you were 14. And suddenly I was the kid drawing a crowd. People watched in awe as I cruised through levels and keys kept popping up on the screen because I was blowing past anyone else's high score. Lesser players who dropped a quarter to play next realized they may as well go get a snack because you weren't getting on this game for a while.

It felt good and your friends just treated you a little differently when you reached a level on a game like this. They talked about you at home and told tales of your dominance. It's the stuff legends are made of. It felt pretty, pretty, pretty good that summer. When I walked into Big Foot's Arcade people whispered "there he is...the guy that can get to key level" and who doesn't like that.

Like most trends, they begin to fade. I eventually lost my obsession to dominate Pac Man. Other video games emerged and new challenges were presented. I never mastered another game and stopped looking up articles for hints and clues of how to rig the game.

Do I feel like I took a shortcut to win at Pac Man? No. At 14, you do stupid things and always try to impress or outdo your friends. 

I vaguely remember the path to take if I play Pac Man today. I still get a kick any time I see one of the original consoles and someday might buy one. For now, I think of all the quarters spent on trying to get good and then dominating Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde. I think about the other kids who looked at me as a baller, a playa and a Pac Man OG(I am pretty sure we didn't use any of those terms in 1981). Ahh, the good old days when video games and arcade games were a little different than today and a roll of quarters kept you engaged for hours and hours...

Final note: A perfect score on the original Pac Man was 3,333,360 and there were 256 levels.

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