Fourteen billion dollars. That’s the sum total of the money made by Pac-Man in the past 40 years, since its debut on May 22, 1980. Not bad for a pill-munching yellow pizza being chased through an endless maze by ghosts. When you sit down and think about it, the whole concept of Pac-Man is pretty bizarro. He’s a circle that lives to devour everything in sight, being chased through an electric labyrinth by spirits. He eats fruit, and sometimes birds and pretzels. When he swallows a giant yellow pill, he can eat the dead. Weird as it was, the original game allegedly made enough money to cause an actual shortage of certain coins in Japan, and spawned a global franchise that includes merchandise and themed bowling alleys. Its success ensured that imitators soon followed.
Many of these copycat machines took the basic concept and electrified it, twisted it, and mangled it. Although usually of poorer quality, the weird factor in these games was often cranked up to 11, as they tried to take what worked and make it wholly their own. What was already a surreal concept for a video game became a series of sex nightmares, weird sci-fi futures, and bizarro surrealist comedies, sometimes without even trying.
Guzzler, the protagonist of Guzzler, is the most like Pac-Man of any of the characters we’re looking at. He’s cartoony, cute, and likes running around in confusing mazes in his free time. But this little dude has had a much harder life. He lives on the edge. He makes bad decisions in a world aflame. Instead of ghosts, he gets chased around by sentient fire, and instead of eating his enemies, he pisses all over them.
Let me explain: Guzzler can’t do much of anything unless he’s full to the brim with liquid. He’ll drink from puddles, beer steins, martini glasses, anything you point him toward, he’ll drink it. If it can’t be drunk, like a fire or a wall, he’ll steel himself and gush massive amounts of fluid onto his target. That’s right, Guzzler lives to piss out fires. You’ve heard the phrase “I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire?” That’s not Guzzler’s motto at all. His motto is: “Piss out the fires, keep drinking, repeat.”
Sometimes, in between levels, we get the classic Pac-Man-style cut scene. In this case, Guzzler shows us a gigantic version of the character to scare the hell out of his antagonists. (See also: Super Pac Man.) This giant blue thing jumps out from behind a fence as soon as it sees another bottle of booze. You can see the sweat dripping down its face, and the frantic look in its eyes screams “I need another hit of the good stuff!” Why does he crave liquid death so? Because he wants to pee on more things.
The mazes in Pac-Man are a cool, electric blue, which reminds one of a crazy sci-fi future. But, what if Pac Man and the ghosts all learned to pilot apocalyptic robot death snakes? The result, of course, is Jungler, the “darkest future timeline” maze game. In Jungler, you pilot a long snake dragon thing, apparently made of metal. There are no exits to the maze, only other metal beasts, presumably containing other lonely pilots ready to die for glory. You can’t go in guns blazing, however, because your power is all kept in a ball on your butt. That’s right: shoot the butt ball to weaken the dragon, then crash head-first into the now lesser opponent. That’s a real sentence you could say in the real world about the game Jungler.
A few of the Pac-Man rip-offs were actually pretty fun, a prime example of which is Lady Bug put out by Universal in 1981.The closest to an actual Pac-Man-style of game, Lady Bug is mostly letters, skulls, bugs, and trap doors that you can move to run your enemies into skulls. These mazes are absolutely littered with skulls. It’s safe to assume that those are human skulls. This game must be set in the long-distant future, when the human race has gone extinct, and the insects have all grown large in our absence. You play as a lady bug, running around a maze, eating tiny x shapes, while being pursued by angry beetles. In this mutant wasteland, not only are the bugs larger than the skulls, they can also spell words, with bonus letters being a collectable. The radiation has really given them a hell of a boost, if they can spell at a third grade level.
They can also open and shut gates, which one usually needs opposable thumbs for, but this ladybug can manage even with naught but mandibles. Lady bug is doing it for herself. She’s a strong, independent lady bug, and she ain’t gonna’ let no beetles tell her which skulls to eat. The skulls are poison, true, but she does what she wants. It’s a much better idea to eat fruit, when it appears, as that wipes out the enemy bugs in a mysterious apocalypse of Vitamin C. Maybe they represent scurvy. Hearts are also delicious, although with the presence of the skulls, it does make one wonder about exactly which corpse those hearts came from.
Instead of playing as a yellow circle, or a bug, the Japanese game I’m Sorry has a human protagonist, but this does nothing to make the proceedings any less strange. You play as former Prime Minister of Japan, Kakuei Tanaka, running around the maze-like streets of Japan, collecting gold bars. Your enemies are a truly bizarre menagerie of cultural icons, which include Japanese wrestler Giant Baba, pop-singer Michael Jackson (who moonwalks after you), and olympian Carl Lewis. Fire hydrants spew actual fire, a sentient log rolls after you like a cylindrical, wooden terminator, and if you pass a statue of yourself, it immediately hops down from its pedestal and joins the chase.
You can punch enemies, which on some levels becomes slapping them stupid with a folding fan or jumping over them, but don’t let them catch you. Terrible things can happen. For example, if the generic, secret-service looking dudes that infest every level catch up to you, suddenly you’re wearing tighty-whities while a lingerie and sunglasses-clad dude beats the hell out of poor Kakuei Tanaka with S&M gear. It’s hard to decide whether that’s better or worse than being eaten by ghosts. These enemies are apparently based on a Japanese comedian; however, that doesn’t explain the dungeon attire.
Continuing the theme of weird games with human protagonists, Dazzler begins with the line “Feed me bananas and I’ll show you what to do with vultures.” It’s like a zen koan, something to meditate on while trying to suss out the secrets of the universe. Just . . . more unsettling. You play as a little boy with a banana. You open locked doors, behind some of which are apes, and behind others, there are vultures. Snakes slither about, trying to bite you. If you find an ape, you have to run across the maze and deliver a banana to the other side. Why are you moving all the bananas back and forth? And why do vultures hate you for it? And where is the zookeeper in all this? Dazzler is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Then, there’s The Hand, in which hands detach themselves from human bodies and go rogue. They now exist to play Rock (Gu) Paper (Par) Scissors (Choki). As they run around a confusing maze, they twist themselves into these familiar shapes to wage war upon each other. It’s Pac-Man and his ghosts cranked up to an ultra-competitive level, mixed with a classic childrens’ game. The hands that chase our hero hand are green and have massive frowns. Zombie hands, obviously. This confirms that these are sentient hands, otherwise there would be no brains for these zombie hands to be chasing after.
When a level is completed, a head pops up and informs us “VERY GOOD HANDY,” which sounds vaguely sexual. But The Hand’s innuendo is cheeky and innocent compared to the next few entries, which take maze games to a very explicit place.
In Mad Donna, you shoot Santa with your gas gun after running from the trees in order to see naked women. You read that correctly. This game was made by horny people on mushrooms. Your explorer rambles through a maze, occasionally teleporting between pads marked with the Star of David. Monsters chase you, but you have firearms and make short work of the fiends. Sometimes, you drop fire bombs instead of firing your ray gun, which means you might be keeping flammable items in your explorer pants. This is an obvious health and safety issue, but Mad Donna doesn’t give a shit—it has porn to get to.
When you finish a maze, you are immediately rewarded with various low-res photographs of naked women, suggestively looking at the camera. The porn is straight out of the 80s, complete with big hair and “Oh, you caught me taking off my shirt to air out my nipples!” facial expressions. It remains unclear as to why the monsters don’t want to share their porn with you. The title screen has a plane on it, for some reason, and it seems unreasonable that you would have flown all the way to monster island, and they won’t even let you look at their dirty magazines. Mad Donna is a fever dream, but at least the sex seems to be consensual.
This is not the case in Lover Boy which is essentially a sexual assault simulator. Lost for two decades because it was so reprehensible, Lover Boy has since been unearthed, an anthropological artifact to remind us what a wild-west clusterfuck the early days of video games actually were. Shat out into the world by Global Corporation Tokyo in 1983, this Pac-Man clone replaces our jaunty hero with a dark skinned man in a purple pimp hat. Nothing but a pimp hat. His willy is flying free, dangling and waving about as you run, in a stunning example of early digital animation. You spend your time chasing women around, trying to catch them and have sex with them. When you catch them, right after they scream “HELP” to no avail, an 8-bit fuck session begins, with two meters, one for the woman (love) and one for the man (finish). At that point, you get the timing right, otherwise you can fail as a man (let slip!) or allow the woman to escape (run away)! There are also bonus points for gathering clothes like bras and panties, which have been liberally sprinkled about the streets, and are of course power-ups. For some reason, picking up a bottle of perfume speeds up our lover boy. Maybe he’s powered by patchouli.
Of course there are things making your rape quest more difficult—the cops are out in full force, trying to catch you and drag you back to the police station. Of course, like many games of the era, you start with three lives, which means that each time you fail in your sex quest, they let you back out to do it again. Really, Lover Boy proves a damning indictment of the criminal justice system. It’s worth quoting the actual, official instructions here for Lover Boy:
“WHEN YOU CATCH A GIRL YOU MUST FIND RIGHT TIMING FOR MAXIMUM RESULT WHICH WILL BE SHOWN ON LOVE METER ACTION OF LOVE MAKING IS BY PUSH BUTTON. BEST TIMING WILL PRODUCE MOST ECSTATIC RESULTS ON FEMALE METER.”
How do you play? Simply: “Catch girls by use of joystick. Hardest to catch girl will be most interesting companion.” That makes sense, actually. I’m sure you’ll have a lot to talk about with her, after she’s jumped over fences, run through dark alleys, and eluded your grasp for as long as possible. You could ask her what brand of running shoe she prefers, for example, making her a pretty interesting companion. Cultural critic Martin Ames once wrote of Pac-Man and its addictive qualities: “I have seen bloodstains on the PacMan joystick… I know a young actress with a case of PacMan Hand so severe that her index finger looked like a section of blood pudding – yet still she played, and played through her tears of pain.” That may be true (probably not) but these weird rip-offs make one long for the family values of a yellow circle popping pills in a neon room full of ghosts, don’t they? Maybe that’s why the children of the 80s and 90s got so into drugs—at least they weren’t firing off laser guns, driving a metal dragon around a series of fires trying to rape their friends. Drugs seem downright wholesome in comparison.
Michael Allen Rose is a writer, musician, editor and performance artist based in Chicago, Illinois. His stories have been published in such periodicals and anthologies as the Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Heavy Feather Review, and Tales From The Crust. He has published several books including Embry: Hard Boiled (Eraserhead Press), Rock And Roll Death Patrol (Rooster Republic Press), The Indifference Of Heaven (Omnium Gatherum) and more. In Spring of 2021, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing will release Michael’s newest book, Jurassichrist. He is the host of the annual Ultimate Bizarro Showdown at Bizarro Con in Portland, OR. Michael also releases industrial music under the name Flood Damage. He lives with an awesome cat, helps his girlfriend make internet porn, and enjoys good tea.