The arcade of old was dominated by machines created by some of the most respected names in amusement machine manufacturing. In the golden age of arcades,
American firm Midway published several of the generation's greatest video arcade games, plucking them straight from Japan and marketing them for the western arcade audience.
Taito's massive hit Space Invaders and, more importantly, Namco's iconic yellow pillpopper both found popularity under Midway's licencing in America — the latter spawning sequels courtesy of western development that got the nod from the original Japanese creators.
Though Pac-Man had many arcade outings before reaching the home market in many more titles that continue to this day, they generally found it hard to set themselves too far apart from the perfectly balanced original game. Sticking with the original formula never found quite as much success.
FEATURED ARCADE CABINET BY CRAIG TURNER (REVIVAL RETRO EVENTS) — BABY PAC-MAN
Still, titles that did attempt to deviate were generally met with divisive opinions, such as the isometric Pac-Mania or the platformer Pac-Land. To add variety to the Pac family of machines, Midway were best placed to do so thanks to their parent business, Bally. Long established as manufacturers of electro-mechanical machines, someone decided to fuse the other popular arcade attraction with classic Pac-Man.
The result was the freakishly unique Baby Pac-Man; a hybrid video game and a pinball machine that incorporated both functions into one single gameplay experience. Players kick-off by starting a very ordinary and familiar game of Pac-Man on the upper-mounted vertical screen, albeit with rather crudely drawn sprites (considering sequels tend to up the details) and a strange playfield with no power pills and bottom exiting tunnels.
The far more aggressive ghost A.I. soon shows you what this game is all about, though, quickly sending you retreating to the dubious safety of said passages.
This is where the game pauses, and a ball is launched into the compact physical playfield of the lower pinball section, where a rather sparse pin area directs you to light up targets that add points, collectables and the absent power-ups to the video playfield above, where you pick up your game after your pinball is lost.
Whilst it's unclear exactly who the machine was chiefly marketed towards, the result is an unrepeatable gaming experience that should no doubt tick a few boxes for fans of both video games and pinball — if not exactly setting the world on fire for hardcore dedicated fans of either. The game is an unrepeatable
experience for either. Still, the relatively unpopulated playfield won't keep skilled pinheads occupied for long.
At the same time, the somewhat muted colours and unremarkable maze pattern of the video portion will frustrate hardcore Pac players and be too tricky for casuals to progress far. The game can only really be assessed on its combined experience. It certainly does impress in its ability to seamlessly match the two experiences and test more than one type of hand-eye coordination with the change of controls.
Getting good at the game will take some practice as focusing on either joystick or flipper ability alone won't net you much progress; that only comes by simultaneously learning to switch mental gears on the fly and shifting your focus fast enough between the two. It is undoubtedly an expensive and complicated fix for operators back in the day. Its curiosity alone makes it a valuable machine for collectors today and worthy of restoration in whatever condition they are found.
Some might say it was for the best. Still, there was never another machine quite like Baby Pac-Man. Making sure you have a go on one anywhere you are lucky enough to encounter a working survivor is essential before these Franken-cabs become complete lost causes to the most skilled restorers, and its uniqueness is lost forever.