Last month, Bandai Namco announced a special bonus for Switch players who invested in the new Namco Museum Archives Vol. 1. In addition to 10 emulated Namco classics, the game’s official Nintendo store page notes it includes “a newly created 8-bit demastered version of Pac-Man Championship Edition” (emphasis added).
That bonus game combines the gameplay of the 2007 Xbox 360 Championship Edition release with the graphics and sound effects of an NES title for a doubly nostalgic dose of retro appreciation. And this was no faux-retro demake either; shortly after release, hackers managed to extract the Pac-Man CE ROM from the Namco Museum collection and found it actually works on real NES hardware.
As it turns out, though, the “newly created” part of the game’s promotion isn’t quite accurate. Bandai Namco has confirmed to Ars Technica that its much-lauded Championship Edition demake is actually based directly on an obscure NES/Famicom ROMhack created over a decade ago by a Japanese fan going by the handle Coke774.
“Throughout Pac-Man’s 40-year history, he has inspired countless fans to take on game development as either a hobby or a career,” the development team said in a statement provided to Ars Technica. “In the case of Coke774, his work was highly appreciated by our team and we worked with him officially to implement his design into our game.”
Follow the videos
In discovering the hidden source of Bandai Namco’s latest retro treat, we owe a huge debt to Matt Hawkins over at the Attract Mode blog. About a week ago, Hawkins publicly gathered together multiple disparate bits of evidence that suggested the Pac-Man CE demake might not be quite as new and original as Bandai Namco implied in its marketing materials.
That evidence includes two extant videos, one posted to YouTube in 2017, the other posted to Vimeo way back in 2008. Both show largely identical gameplay on what’s labeled as an “FC Ver.” (short for “Famicom version”) of Pac-Man CE. And both bear an uncanny resemblance to the demake Bandai Namco would eventually release last month.
To be sure, there are some differences between the older videos and Bandai Namco’s “official” Switch release. For one, the “FC Ver.” has been removed from the Switch release title screen, and a “1980 2007 NAMCO BANDAI Game Inc.” copyright notice has been replaced with “2020 BNEI.” For another, the Switch release includes much better music and more authentic sound effects than the “FC Ver.”
Aside from those changes, though, the videos and Bandai Namco’s later release look utterly identical. Everything from the attract mode to the fonts to the smallest animations matches up perfectly.
The real tell, though, is the way both the “FC Ver.” and the Switch demake feature ghosts whose eyes disappear when they’re facing upwards (almost as if the ghost had turned away from an isometric camera). That behavior is so specific—and not apparent in the Xbox 360 original—that it would take an incredible coincidence for it to occur naturally in two unrelated demakes (FWIW, there is already a fan-made patch that “fixes” this behavior for the extracted ROM).
Videos aside, actual information about the earlier “FC Ver.” demake of Pac-Man CE is hard to come by. The strongest initial clue to its provenance came from a comment on the YouTube video from user wartax5:
Nobody has the rom/patch because the creator, Coke774, never released it, just the footage. He did some minor patches found over at romhacking but not a lot. I suspect it wasn’t released for legal reasons.
From there, it is relatively easy to find Coke774’s page on ROMhacking.net. That page includes an NES port of the PC-8801 action RPG Sorcerian as well as an improvement patch for the NES version of Lode Runner. But there’s no mention of Pac-Man.
A little more Web digging, though, turns up Coke774’s Twitter page, which boasts 932 followers as of this writing and describes interests including “homebrew games for older consoles.” A bit of backwards searching through Coke774’s feed finds this Japanese tweet, which translates to read “It’s been a while since I got a mail from a foreigner asking for the Pac-Man ROM.” (Thanks to Andrew Vestal for the translation help throughout this piece).
The Twitter page in turn brings up links to Coke774’s YouTube page. Though there are no Pac-Man mentions on there, an Internet Archive copy from 2018 includes a thumbnail for “Pac-Man CE for NES” from 10 year prior (and with nearly 150,000 views).
Twitter also includes a link to Coke774’s Japanese Niconico video page, which includes two videos that have been set to “private.” An Internet Archive copy of the first video, first posted in 2008, includes a description that translates to “Looks like (someone) made Xbox 360 Pac-Man CE for the NES. It’s pretty close. The music is borrowed. It uses MMC3. It’s confirmed working on real hardware.”
An archived copy of the second private video, posted in 2012, features a thumbnail with the “FC Ver.” running on a CRT. The translated description mentions a “Demonstration of Famicom software I made myself running on real hardware. However, since it was lonely to play the video, I slowly add commentary like voice.” (Unfortunately, the Internet Archive did not capture the videos themselves).
As if that wasn’t enough evidence, the Niconico page also includes a link to Coke774’s personal website. Though it’s currently down, archived versions of that page include screenshots from the “FC Ver.” demake, including an Achievements page that looks exactly like the one found in Bandai Namco’s official demake.
But while Coke774 provided direct links to download his Sorcerian and Lode Runner hacks, his personal page appears to have never included a link to the “FC Ver.” Pac-Man CE demake. Coke774 did not respond to attempts to contact him through Twitter.
Why hide it?
Even if Bandai Namco hadn’t acknowledged Coke774’s role in its Switch demake, this would all be more than enough evidence to show that the ROM in question was actually largely the work of a lone Famicom hacker working over a decade ago. What’s baffling, then, is how much Bandai Namco and supporting developer M2 downplayed that association before now.
Take M2 director Naoki Horii, who expounded on the demake on Twitter last month (as translated by SiliconEra). There, Horii talks about first working on a 3DS version of the game five years ago, before the team “basically further replaced and remade many things even beyond just the soundtrack” for the Switch version.
“We worked hard to make this a Famicom game on Nintendo Switch where you can move to the rhythm of the music and the graphics,” he writes. “While there are some people who knew about this project beforehand, I bet even they will still be surprised at the finished game!”
Nowhere in there does Horii mention that the game they worked on was originally created by a lone hacker working outside of M2 back in 2008 (M2 did not respond to a request for comment from Ars Technica).
Or take Bandai Namco’s own press release for the collection, which describes the Pac-Man CE demake as “an exciting ‘new’ title developed specifically for Namco Museum Archives.” Despite the Bandai Namco’s use of scare quotes around “new,” that announcement gives every implication that this was a “specific” Namco creation, not a touch-up to a decade-old unauthorized fan work acquired by the company years later.
In any case, with Bandai Namco now publicly acknowledging Coke774’s work, this solitary hacker can finally get his due public credit for the creation of a masterful retro port. The whole affair brings to mind last year’s Genesis Mini, which included a similarly licensed fan-made port of Darius to round out its offerings. Or you could go back to the creation of Ms. Pac-Man itself, which started as the fan-made hack “Crazy Otto” before becoming an officially licensed sequel (that is now caught up in some messy legal battles).
While we’re at it, we’d like to know more about the origins of the “new” NES port of Gaplus included in the recent Switch Namco Museum Archives collection. Bandai Namco has not yet responded to our request for comment on that one.
Hopefully, the Pac-Man CE revelation will lead to a greater appreciation of the wider community of fan games that push the boundaries of what’s possible for well-loved retro game properties, despite frequent legal threats.
Listing image by Internet Archive