August 30, 2006

Game Dork

Patterns Comprise Everyman, 'Pac-Man' & Superman

The world needs patterns to work. Without patterns, there'd be anarchy and no routine; no shepherds without sheep; no flesh without DNA; no music without rhythm. Patterns are as pretty as snowflakes and poems, and as cliché and redundant.

Cliché, as in the following big, thinky thought. Life is "Pac-Man," featuring patterns of ghostly villains running routines. And here you are tracing patterns to eat them and beat them.

The patterns of "Pac-Man" made it the biggest-selling arcade game of all-time. It's now available in an assortment of places, including Xbox 360's online arcade, which also offers, for a few dollars, an indefinite supply of "Galaga," "Frogger," "Street Fighter II," "Joust" and "Robotron," among other classics.

When "Pac-Man" was born in 1980, gamers quickly realized you could defeat the game's pattern of ghosts if you memorized your own pattern of moving a yellow smiley-faced hero around dotted lines the exact same way, every level, forever.

This created two kinds of "Pac-Man" gamers: A) Those who followed a set of rules in a pattern to win. B) Those who chose to think of themselves romantically as mavericks who didn't need no stinking patterns. It's an obvious thesis that requires extremes, but it's true. You either follow rules and patterns — every day, routinely — or you're an adventurer. If you follow patterns, you may end up on the leader board and retire to a life of leisure and golf (with its patterns).

Patterns of "Pac-Man" reflect the business world. Pattern people become CEOs and Burger King managers.

If you're a crafty pattern-breaker, you may end up somewhere between destitute and top winner. Non-conformists eschew rules and rise to entrepreneurship and fall to homelessness. They are Superman. They are mercenaries. They are nudists.

There's also a hidden danger in following patterns. Someone could change variables so your patterns don't work anymore. You could get a new boss and wham, your previous patterns fail, and your career, tanks.

Likewise, you play the new retro versions of "Pac-Man" — which look and play exactly as they did 26 years ago — and you find designers have tweaked the computer system so that old patterns don't work but end in death.

Even within patterns, there is a variable of anarchy. Snowflakes differ, as does any game of "Galaga." You can come up with a method to shoot all the falling space flies that swarm at your space ship, but essentially "Galaga" is a ballet. If you have no creative force to dodge and dance, you're doomed. Patterns of shorter doses let you win in "Street Fighter II."

Of course, those who excel follow enough patterns to avoid dicey situations. They also gamble and break rules to leapfrog into the leader board. It's like how some people run yellow lights to get to the next green light, breaking one rule while following a set of rules.

Either way, where you end up could be solitary. If you pattern or freestyle your way to the top of "Pac-Man," you win but you're competing only against yourself. Then, who do you have to share your enthusiasm of a vigorous victory?

(Xbox 360 online arcade — Plays old-school fun. Looks good. Easy to challenging. Rated "E" games, mostly. Four stars out of four.)

Used Game of the Week

"Madden NFL '06" is actually from 2005. Since the 2006 version of "Madden" is on the market now, last year's model is going for cheap in used-game stores: $10 for Xbox and PS 2, and $20 for Xbox 360.

But "Madden NFL '06" is not a great bargain. For some reason, Electronic Arts messed up the greatest sports franchise for the season. It seemed impossible to do the simplest things, like create a whole season for your favorite team. You're better off going for the $5 used "Madden NFL 2005," if you don't already own the new $40-$60 "Madden NFL '07."

(Ratings: "E" for "Everyone;" "T" for "Teen;" "M" for "Mature 17+")

Doug Elfman is an award-winning columnist who lives and writes in Chicago.

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