How do you follow a game like Pac-Man? That’s the situation Namco found itself in the early 80s, when Toru Iwatani’s yellow, pill-munching hero became a global phenomenon. While Pac-Man spin-offs kept the coins rolling in, the company needed something equally cartoon-like yet fresh enough to capture gamers’ imaginations.
One of the results was the 1983 arcade game Mappy, a concept vaguely akin to Pac-Man – cute characters, items to collect, lots of hide-and-seek – but served up with a wildly different pace and atmosphere. It’s essentially cops and robbers with mice and cats: Mappy, the rodent cop, has to retrieve a stash of stolen items – televisions, expensive paintings, sound systems – from portly boss cat Goro and his army of goons called Meowkies.
What it all boils down to is a platform game set within the confines of a very unusual mansion. In place of stairs to higher levels, there are trampolines. Since Mappy can’t jump, these trampolines are his only means of navigating the maze of rooms, roaming cats, and stolen items. The trampolines also provide Mappy with a brief refuge, since the cats – which otherwise kill with a single touch – can’t harm him while he’s bouncing around. The only catch is that the trampolines break after they’ve been bounced on a few times – a ploy Namco probably came up with to stop players from hogging the game for too long in arcades.
Thinking about it, Mappy’s one of the most delicate and defenseless heroes in 80s gaming. He appears to be carrying a truncheon, but he never uses it. Unlike Pac-Man, he doesn’t have anything approaching a power-up pellet to even the odds. What he does have, however, are doors. Opening a door at just the right moment will momentarily stun a pursuing cat, resulting in a satisfyingly comic bit of animation and a few bonus points. Mappy can also use the doors as a kind of catapult. By opening a door outwards onto himself, he knocks himself backwards, an action which in turn flattens a cat in hot pursuit. Some doors are more powerful and emit a kind of sound wave that flies horizontally across the screen, sweeping away all the cats in its path. Later levels also add large swinging bells, which essentially behave like the power doors but drop vertically when Mappy touches them, knocking any cats off the screen.
These handy weapons aside, the player has to use wit and timing to collect all the stolen objects and reach the next screen. The cats are cunning – and some even hide behind their purloined goods, waiting to pounce on the unwary – but they’re easily tricked. Once Mappy crosses a cat’s line of sight, it will begin its pursuit, which means you can lure the tenacious felines to a painful encounter with a door, as outlined above, or simply guide them away from an object you’re trying to collect.
Like Pac-Man, Mappy’s all about the pursuit of a high score. Although it isn’t too difficult to clear a screen of objects, more bonus points are awarded for collecting them in the correct order – a far trickier task, particularly on later levels where the cats are fast and the mazes more complicated. To break things up, there are also occasional bonus levels, which involve bouncing on trampolines and bursting balloons within a strict time limit.
Given that Mappy runs on the same arcade hardware as Super Pac-Man, it’s worth noting how much more sophisticated its graphics and design are. Its character sprites are larger and more detailed than Namco’s earlier hit, while its levels, although constructed from broadly the same handful of tiles, are more varied. It’s interesting, too, that while Mappy came out in 1983, its characters were conceived much earlier. In fact, they weren’t designed as the cast of a video game, but as robots.
In early 80s, while Pac-Man was filling arcades, Namco had a sideline in robot-building. One of the company’s key personnel at the time was Shigeki Toyama, who was something of a renaissance man when it came to design. Toyama created some of the original concepts for the geometric ships in Namco’s hit shooter, Xevious, and designed several of the company’s arcade cabinets. He was also into robotics, and in 1980, he created a maze-navigating robot named Goro – a portly, grinning cat who looked just like the villain who we’d later see in Mappy. One year later, Toyama created another robot, Mappy, who – you guessed it – was essentially identical to the game’s title hero, right down to the police uniform.
Goro and Mappy were originally designed specifically for solving mazes. Even today, the construction of Micromice is a popular pastime. Namco even had plans to release retail version of the Goro and Mappy robots – they made an appearance at a 1982 Tokyo toy fair – and a much smaller, simplified version of the robot Mappy did appear in Japanese shops towards the end of the decade.
While it’s not clear whether Toyama and his colleagues at Namco always planned to give Mappy and Goro their own video game, that they first publically appeared as (very kawaii) robots makes them quite unique.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Mappy didn’t quite grab the world’s attention as Pac-Man did. Why? It’s difficult to say. Maybe the mechanics, the rules of the game, aren’t as easily understood at a glance as Pac-Man’s. Maybe the character designs, cute as they are, simply aren’t as attention-grabbing as that 1980 maze game. Whatever the reasons may be, Mappy’s still fun and absorbing, with a pleasing balance between risk and reward: there’s something oddly addictive about flattening those pursuing cats behind doors.
Unlike most of Namco’s games from the early 80s, like the hit Dig Dug released one year earlier, Mappy wasn’t widely ported. Versions came out for the Nintendo Famicom, MSX, and Sega Game Gear, and both adaptations are extremely faithful. But neither port emerged outside Japan, where, it seems, Mappy was most popular. There were even a few sequels, Mappy-Land, Hopping Mappy, and Mappy Kids, but these were doomed to be even more overlooked than their forebear.
Despite his growing obscurity, Namco has never quite forgotten Mappy. He’s appeared in other games and compilations from time to time, including Namco Super Wars, Pac-Man World Rally, and the very strange Noby Noby Boy, and Mappy even starred in a short-lived web cartoon in 2012.
Mappy’s status is best summed up in the 2008 documentary, King of Kong. In a film devoted mainly to the rivalry over Donkey Kong, but also touching on a variety of 80s classic arcade games, King of Kong barely had time to mention Mappy—one scene, in which we hear a few words from Greg Bond, Mappy’s highscore champion, was cut from the finished movie and wound up as a DVD extra. Poor Mappy. He may lack the star status of Pac-Man, but he remains, for me, one of the unsung heroes of early 80s gaming.
One word of warning if you’re inspired to give Mappy a try: its perky theme tune will stay lodged in your head for days…