Pac-Man has appeared on more formats than just about any other game, but not many will have been as challenging to convert to as the Sinclair ZX80. This is a machine that comes with a ludicrously tiny 1KB of RAM which can only show black or white pixels, and the only reason the sound chip doesn't disappoint is because there isn't one. Of course, like a cult sci-fi B-movie, much of the ZX80's appeal is not in spite of these limitations, but because of them. Few have been so enraptured by it as Paul Farrow, for it his he that has attempted to convert Pac-Man to the machine that many credit with kick-starting the British programming boom. While that theory is debateable, the ZX80's notorious RAMpack wobble means it certainly would have suffered a few kick-starts itself. In this case, the 16K has been beefed up with an additional 4K ROM in order to make a decent Pac-Man feasible. The end result is technically very impressive and quite playable too.
Since this is a game that even non-gamers know how to play, the main interest is in how successfully the old yellow ball has converted to such a graphically curtailed machine. Well, he ain't yellow anymore for a start, and he doesn't look like a ball either. In fact, he looks like an inverse 'O' simply because that's what he bloody well is! The ghosts are defined by what seems to be inverse quotation marks, giving a set of white eyes and a black square. When Pacman (or should that be 'O' man?) gets a power pill, these little quotes go on and off to give the impression of blinking eyes thus distinguishing the hunter ghosts from the hunted. It's hard not to be impressed by this kind of invention; all the more so when you remember this is a machine with a display that is meant to turn off when making any sort of calculation!
GHOST(S) IN THE MACHINE
Control of the Pac is fairly reliable in spite of the character block movement, though sometimes I found myself going up the wrong alley when chasing the ghosts. Incidentally, that's where the one main difference lies - when Pacman takes a pill, he speeds up, giving him the chance to gobble more ghosts and pellets. Otherwise, the ghosts all move at the same speed as Pacman, so if one is right behind you, you better get a power pill pronto!
The appeal of this conversion is obviously not accuracy like what we saw on Eduardo Mello's brilliant Pac-Man Collection for the Colecovision, but the fact that a playable version of the game can exist at all. So is this a game to admire rather than actually play, like an interactive demo? Well, no I don't think so. While it's true that much of the enjoyment comes from feeling the hardware being taken to the limit, that doesn't mean the game can't stand on its own two shades of grey. None of the elements of the original game have been seriously compromised, and it feels different to other 8-bit conversions, making it rather interesting. The excellent control options also mean that with configuration apps like JoyToKey, it's possible to use a standard USB joypad on an emulator such as EightyOne, and that's definitely preferable to trying your luck with the arrow keys.
Perhaps the only grumble is that since the ghosts only have blinking pixel eyes to show when they are being chased, it's not so easy to see when they change back, so you rely on Pacman's speed variation to know when you've run out of time. There's also no warning beforehand of the power pill expiring since of course the game has no sound, and it can lead to Pacman trying to eat something that violently disagrees with him. It's not too big a deal that it puts you off the whole game though.
I think ZX80 owners will quite rightly be amazed at this conversion, and when compared to the Fairchild Channel F's rather cumbersome looking attempt from a few years ago, they should be even more proud. Paul Farrow's Pacman is essential gaming for all ZX80 fans and programmers, but is also good enough to come recommended to everybody else.