The maze chase genre is an oddity in gaming history. No other single franchise has dominated a genre in the public's mind, the way Namco's Pac-Man has. Sure, there were others that sold relatively well in the early 1980s like Universal's Lady Bug and Data East's Lock 'N Chase, but nothing even remotely close to the phenomenon that was Pac-Man. By the mid 1980s, maze chase games were already considered passé, and very few new ones were made from this point on. Despite its short lived commercial viability, the genre did leave behind some quality games. Here are six of the forgotten gems of the maze chase genre.
This 1982 Broderbund game originated on the Atari 8-bit computers, and was ported to Commodore 64, VIC 20, PC and Apple II. I find Creative Software's VIC 20 version to be the superior one in terms of style and feel despite being on weaker hardware. In this game, you control a snake, and the object is to eat the other snakes in order to beat the level. You do this by swallowing segments of their tails. If you hit another snake head on, it will eat you. Sometimes your snake lays an egg; if it hatches before getting eaten, then you will get an extra life. This mix of offensive and defensive gameplay sets Serpentine apart from many maze chase games.
Sega was a notable contributor to the genre. Their arcade game, Head On, is a precursor to Pac-Man itself. They also released a couple Arabian-themed coin-ops in 1982: Ali Baba and 40 Thieves, and Sindbad Mystery. Unlike those games, which had home ports or clones on Japanese systems like the SG-1000 and MSX, their best maze chaser unfortunately remained arcade-exclusive.
1984's Spatter was proof that originality still existed in the genre in the mid-1980s. Its basic structure is typical of a maze chase game but being able to spring off walls to dodge or kick enemies away makes it a unique experience. The bonus rounds shift to platform gameplay as you have to quickly jump your way to the top where your girlfriend awaits. It's very vibrant and colourful, as well, and the character designs have a lot of charm to them.
Fantasy Zone: The Maze
It seems like almost every great franchise gets a spin-off game in another genre. Sega's psychedelic shooter series, Fantasy Zone, is no exception. The 1987 Master System game Fantasy Zone: The Maze combines the shooting action and item purchasing the series is known for with traditional maze chase design, i.e. continuous movement through a maze while collecting objects to clear the level. Besides the excellent art and music taken from the original Fantasy Zone, what makes this game so addictive is its two-player gameplay. Beating the levels is a co-operative effort but you still compete against the other player for score. Overall, I wouldn't rank Fantasy Zone: The Maze quite as high as the other games in the series but it's still a fine maze chase game.
KC's Krazy Chase
The Odyssey2 struggled to gain market share in a console market dominated by the 2600 and Intellivision. Its best hope was with a Pac-Man clone called KC Munchkin. Critics agreed that KC Munchkin was superior to Atari's 2600 port of Pac-Man. While it never made the Odyssey2 a huge success, it was one of the best sellers on the system. However, Atari was eager to protect its console rights to Pac-Man, and they considered it an infringement. They sued Magnavox over the game, and won. KC Munchkin was discontinued in North America.
Odyssey2 mascot KC did show up in a second maze chase game, and, as one would expect, this one wasn't a blatant Pac-Man rip-off. Personally, I think KC's Krazy Chase is a better game than the first despite its lesser popularity. The object is to eat the "draterpillar" by biting it from behind, similar to Serpentine. The game also gives you the option of using the voice module which gives it a robotic-sounding commentator telling you various things like "Hurry!" and "Watch out!" I think it adds to the game although some might find its use of voice repetitive.
One of the oddest maze chase games out there is Synapse Software's Drelbs, available for Atari 8-bit computers, Apple II and Commodore 64. This game isn't as much about collecting items as it is about altering the mazes themselves. You acquire points by flipping the walls of the mazes to form rectangles. The more you plan out your strategy, the more rectangles you will be able to make in each maze. Because there's more thinking involved than other games in the genre, it could be considered a puzzle game as well.
Namco itself wasn't immune to having maze chase games fall into the pit of obscurity. The curiously named 1993 arcade release, Tinkle Pit, did just that. While it's not considered part of the Pac-Man series, the yellow muncher does make an appearance as do a few Dig Dug characters. Gameplay-wise it sets itself apart from Pac-Man by its "line pulling" mechanic. By holding down the button, it drops your companion (a blue ball with eyes, kind of like HAL's Lolo or Compile's Randar) down while you pull a line attached to it. When enemies step on the line, you can let go of the button, and your blue buddy comes back to you, knocking down the enemies on the way.