An odd, belated attempt to clone Pac-Man that nevertheless has its own interesting legacy.

Clu Clu Land

Japanese title: クルクルランド • Kuru Kuru Land

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-HA-USA]
Japanese release date: Nov. 1984 [HVC-HA]
European release date: Feb. 1987 [NES-DH]
Genre: Action (Maze)
Alternate versions: Vs. System [1985]; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade1985];  Famicom Disk System [1992]*; Animal Crossing [GameCube2002]; eCard [GBA2003]; Famicom Mini series [GBA, 2004Virtual Console [Wii, 2008; 3DS, 2013Wii U2013]
*Note: Famicom Disk System version was an expanded adaptation of the Vs. System game, released in Japan under the name New Clu Clu Land and localized in the U.S. as Clu Clu Land D.


Among video game publishers and manufacturers alike, Nintendo commands the single greatest reputation for never playing by everyone else’s rules. That’s no coincidence: The company has made a concerted effort over the past decade to break away from the systems and expectations enkindled through decades of console wars and arms races. No other company would have pinned its hopes on the DS and Wii… and, at the same time, no other company would have given us the Wii U, either. Nintendo’s willingness to break from convention results in both disasters and successes, and personally I love that about them. You may not enjoy everything Nintendo does, but it’s never dull.

However, Nintendo wasn’t always the reckless, defiant, aggressively original creature we know and speculate about rampantly today. Back in their early days in the games industry, they were every bit as unoriginal as everyone else. Sure, we look back at Nintendo’s arcade days and the early Famicom launch period and we see inventive masterpieces like Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., games upon which the company built both an empire and a reputation. And deservedly so—they were creative masterpieces, like nothing else anyone had ever created.

However, much of that has to do with Nintendo’s own messaging. The company developed, published, and manufactured a great many games in the eight or nine years leading up to Super Mario, and they weren’t all dazzling works of invention. Nintendo, however, tends to quietly omit those duds from its c.v. The reality, however, is that outside of its giant hits and a few other notable works, Nintendo was absolutely the derivative copycat that it works so earnestly not to be today.

In fairness, so was everyone else back then. That’s just how video games did in those days.

Nintendo’s first home video games consisted of Pong clones produced by Sharp Electronics. Their first arcade included a great many Space Invaders knockoffs; Donkey Kong famously rose from the ashes after Invaders clone Radar Scope crashed and burned, but it’s easy to forget that Radar Scope was only one of three Invaders clones Nintendo produced that year alone.

So when we come to the eighth chronological release for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Clu Clu Land, it should really come as no surprise that the game is basically a naked attempt to cash in on the biggest video game craze of the early ’80s: Pac-Man. Arriving in Japan in November 1984 and debuting in America at the NES launch 11 months later,  Clu Clu Land saw Nintendo tilling the exact same soil that every other game maker of the era had attempted to coax cash from.

Pac-Man derivatives came in two forms in the arcade’s golden era: Utter ripoffs, or brave but futile attempts to do Pac-Man one better. Clu Clu Land falls into the latter category, with the emphasis on attempt; this is not a work on par with Namco’s standard-bearing maze-chase classic. (To its credit, though, it’s far better than any of Midway’s post-Ms. Pac-Man hacks.) However, there’s more of a story behind Clu Clu Land than “Nintendo made a Pac-Man clone.” If you really dig into its history, Clu Clu Land ties in to a fairly pivotal moment for Nintendo as a game maker.

As Nintendo’s business evolved throughout the ’60s and ’70s from playing card manufacturer to electronics company, president Hiroshi Yamauchi began to reorganize the company’s employees into specialized divisions. The first of these, Research & Development 1, was established in 1970 under the purview of Gunpei Yokoi, the creative savant whose Ultra Hand gadget gave Nintendo its first major success. Several more divisions followed in the coming years. A decade later, Yamauchi established the fourth and final of these internal divisions, Research & Development 4, in response to the success of Donkey Kong. 

By building a new team, Yamauchi was able to elevate Donkey Kong’s designer, a young illustrator named Shigeru Miyamoto, to a leadership position without snubbing any of the veterans at R&D2 (which focused on hardware design under Masayuki Uemura, including the NES and Super NES) and R&D3 (which focused largely on supplemental technology under Genyo Takeda, such as the save RAM and memory mapper chips that would become so essential to the NES’s long life). R&D4 would eventually go on to be known as Entertainment Analysis & Development, but in the short term the studio focused its energies on creating arcade releases to follow on Donkey Kong before shifting to Famicom development. 

The particulars of Nintendo’s internal affairs in the early ’80s are imperfectly chronicled, but all indications suggest that Miyamoto’s R&D4 group made the jump from arcade design to console games almost immediately after the Famicom’s Japanese debut in July 1983. R&D4’s Donkey Kong 3 and Mario Bros. hit arcades throughout 1983, and April 1984 saw the group’s Famicom debut via a game called Devil World. 

Two facts about Devil World jump out immediately: One, it was evidently the first game Miyamoto designed exclusively for consoles; and two, it’s one of very few Miyamoto games never to see a U.S. release. Again, Nintendo of America took a delicate touch to the U.S. market right from the beginning in order to avoid touching off firestorms of controversy in ’80s America. That meant no religious content in NES games, and Devil World was crammed full of Christian imagery… used in a loopy, nonsensical fashion, but undeniably Christian. Devil World incorporated iconography including bibles, crosses, Satan, and (strangely) soft serve ice cream cones. These visual elements were far too integral to the game for simple sprite edits to ameliorate, since most levels were arranged around a central cross shape and would need to be redesigned as well.

You can definitely see the influence of Pac-Man on Devil World; the game cycles through three different level formats, and the first of them involves clearing dots from a maze while grabbing power-ups to protect you from roaming monsters. It’s not a 1:1 correlation, however, as Devil World adopts a mechanical compromise that you saw in many home ports of Pac-Man: A scrolling screen. In Pac-Man conversions, a scrolling screen is usually a warning sign to stay away. By removing the player’s ability to take in an entire level at a glance, those ports deeply compromise the fundamental nature of the game—if you can’t keep track of your progress and the position of the ghosts, the game becomes much more difficult.

Devil World, however, actually embraces scrolling as part of its fundamental design. You can only see a portion of the maze at any given time, and your window into the level scrolls around as directed by Satan, who stands at the top of the screen gesticulating commands to his minions. It’s not an entirely successful idea, since the direction in which the devil points appears to be determined at random and can lead to dead air time in which he guides the maze toward ground you’ve already covered. Still, it’s a pretty clever attempt to integrate a game design element that in other games typically felt like a compromise.

Devil World’s second stage format works more or less like the first, except that instead of clearing the maze of dots you instead need to find four Bibles scattered around the maze and carry them to a skull icon in the center of the screen. Once all four Bibles are in place, Satan retreats from the maze and lets you play a bonus round in which you collect icons.

With the devil gone, scrolling in the bonus round is determined by the player—the maze is littered with arrow icons that direct the movement of the screen frame. All told, it’s a fairly decent if not exactly timeless attempt to do the Pac-Man thing in a novel fashion.

That was Miyamoto’s take on Pac-Man, but it wouldn’t be Nintendo’s only foray into the maze chase genre, and Miyamoto wasn’t the only designer to attempt to freshen up an aging genre. A month after Devil World’s debut, Nintendo published its second attempt, Clu Clu Land. While the timing might give the impression that Nintendo’s designers were stuck in a rut or spinning their wheels, it’s important to realize that the two games were designed by two different divisions of Nintendo.

Where Devil World came to us courtesy of Miyamoto’s new R&D4 division, Clu Clu Land appears to have been the work of the venerable R&D1. I say “appears to” because, as per usual, Clu Clu Land lacks anything resembling in-game credits, and no one seems to know who designed the game.  However, composer Hirokazu Tanaka—aka Hip Tanaka—is widely credited online for Clu Clu Land’s soundtrack. Given that Tanaka was R&D1’s go-to guy for music, it therefore seems safe to say that this was an R&D1 joint.

In any case, what we have in Clu Clu Land is a game that belongs to the same genre as Devil World but frankly couldn’t be more different. It’s a faster, simpler game… yet one that despite its more straightforward design is considerably more difficult to master. 

The trickiest thing about Clu Clu Land is its control scheme. The game’s name is an anglophone interpretation of the Japanese title, Kuru Kuru Land… “kuru kuru” being a Japanese onomatopoeia for rolling or rotating. And indeed, that’s what you do in Clu Clu Land. Much like Pac-Man, your little round heroine Bubbles doesn’t really have a resting state; she’s constantly hurtling forward. What differentiates Bubbles from Pac-Man is that you have no direct control over her. Instead, you guide her through the maze by causing her to reach out and grab the posts scattered throughout the maze.

By grasping a pole, you create a fulcrum point around which Bubbles can revolve. She’ll continue spinning in a 360-degree circle until you let go, at which point she’ll continue moving ahead in the cardinal direction she’s facing as you release the pole. So, while you can’t stop Bubbles altogether, you can at least arrest her forward momentum. Grasping a pole allows Bubbles to tread water, as it were, by spinning around a fixed point. It also allows her to change direction as she cruises along through the maze. 

This makes for a more challenging control scheme than Pac-Man’s direct approach. The constant momentum of the protagonist means you can never let your guard down, and the fact that she navigates by altering her trajectory by clutching posts forces you to think a step ahead of your actions. For example, you can’t simply backtrack along your current route unless you bounce off a wall—to reverse direction, you need to grab a post and do a 180, which will send you flying along a channel parallel to the one you just skated through. And you need to keep the control scheme in mind, as the controller activates Bubbles’ left and right arms individually and relative to Bubbles’ own orientation rather than to her position on the screen. Think the tank controls in Resident Evil.

The pole mechanic does have its advantages, though. One of the two hazards you need to dodge in Clu Clu Land are vortexes that will suck Bubbles in if she passes over them… unless she happens to be holding onto a pole as she does so, in which case her grip keeps her from being drawn into the hole. The vortices often show up along critical paths, so mastering the ability to skirt past them becomes essential for survival as the level designs grow more complex. 

The game’s other hazards, on the other hand, aren’t so easily circumvented. In keeping with the underwater theme of Clu Clu Land, Bubbles has to complete each maze while avoiding a host of roaming sea urchins. While they tend to putter about somewhat aimlessly, the mobility of the sea urchins combined with the unrelenting breakneck pace of Bubbles’ movement makes them a greater hazard than their pokey movements might lead you to expect

Fortunately, Bubbles isn’t as defenseless as your usual maze-chase protagonist: She can fire sonar pulses straight ahead for a short distance. These bursts of sonic force will stun any Sea Urchin in their path, stunning them momentarily. If Bubbles bumps into a stunned Sea Urchin, she’ll send it careening into a wall, taking it momentarily out of play. While this powerful and unlimited attack might sound like a huge, imbalanced advantage in Bubbles’ favor, the rotational nature of her movement makes lining up bad guys more challenging than you might think. The greatest danger in Clu Clu Land comes from smashing into a Sea Urchin while spinning around a pole, and your sonar blasts can’t help you against an enemy that lurks around the corner. 

They also won’t do you much good if you trigger one of the barriers hidden between certain posts—these rubberlike obstacles pop up as you pass over them, reflecting you back in the direction you came from. If a Sea Urchin happens to be hot on your heels when a barrier appears, Bubbles will carom right back into it before she has a chance to fire a defensive beam. Thankfully the barriers aren’t random. They’re hidden, but there’s a pattern to them, and as you learn the maze configurations you become better at predicting and avoiding them.

Really it’s something of a misnomer to refer to Clu Clu Land’s stage as mazes—while some of them have obstacles fixed in place, be it barriers or black hole vortices, most of the game’s levels consist of a wide-open grid of poles. There are also no dots or objects to collect; each level begins as a blank field, with nothing but poles, Sea Urchins, and black holes visible. Your goal in Clu Clu Land is not to clear the maze of objects but instead to fill it by passing over spaces in which gold ingots have been hidden. As you pass above them, you reveal the ingots, and once all the hidden items have been revealed you move on to the next stage.

The ingots appear in patterns, such as hearts, submarines, and card suite symbols. Clu Clu Land has a fixed number of stage designs—20 in total—divided into four patterns each for five sets of stages. You’ll always see the same four patterns within a set, but the order in which they appear is randomized. You won’t know which pattern you’re currently revealing until you’ve passed over enough ingots to reveal enough of the design. 

The most important legacy of Pac-Man isn’t mazes but rather the concept of territory control, and Clu Clu Land plays around with this concept as inventively as any game of the era. The gem-revealing concept makes for an unusual game mechanic, but it works really well. Clu Clu Land is predictable thanks to its preset gem patterns, yet varied enough across each session thanks to the random sequence in which patterns appear to keep players guessing. Once you get a handle on the available designs, you can become quite efficient at revealing all the ingots without wasted movements. 

All told, Clu Clu Land is an odd little game, combining a sort of sideways take on Pac-Man with a very challenging control scheme to create something with its own distinct personality. It doesn’t seem to have gone over particularly well in the U.S., though; you rarely hear it spoken about in glowing terms, and it’s currently one of the three most expensive NES Black Box games on the collector’s market, which suggests it sold poorly. 

Nintendo seems to have a soft spot for it, though. Clu Clu Land has resurfaced quite frequently through the years, everywhere from Virtual Console to Smash Bros. The company also poured an uncharacteristic amount of effort into the VS. System version of Clu Clu Land; where other Famicom-to-arcade typically saw modest tweaks, VS. Clu Clu Land offered twice the levels of the home release and a new enemy type. That version of the game eventually made its way to the Famicom Disk System, though it didn’t make its way outside of Japan until appearing in Animal Crossing under the name Clu Clu Land D.

Ultimately, though, Clu Clu Land’s real value lies in its relationship to its fellow Nintendo first-party maze Pac-clone. If indeed Clu Clu Land was produced by the R&D1 division, you can see the different personalities and styles of Nintendo’s internal teams taking shape as early as 1984. Devil World isn’t all that great as a game, but it bears the hallmarks of Shigeru Miyamoto and the group that would eventually come to be known as EAD. It bursts with personality, and it features a narrative framing device… literally. Devil World’s mechanics reflect its simple story, with the devil visibly directing the movements of the maze, and a small team of minions carrying out his commands. It feels almost like a spiritual predecessor to the “stage production” theme of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Clu Clu Land, on the other hand, really does feel like an R&D1 production. It’s a little unconventional, and it doesn’t faff around with storytelling or context.  Instead, you get a challenging, fast-paced, highly technical take on the maze game, not so friendly—definitely a game that demands practice and mastery. R&D1 and R&D4 would become the mainstays of NES game design, the former churning out landmark classics like Metroid and Kid Icarus, the latter producing Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Both were very different groups that created very distinct works, and you could sense the two faces of Nintendo’s game design teams even here, in these early days.


Gallery

Clu Clu Land set

Clu Clu Land front
Clu Clu Land back

Clu Clu Land quarter 1

Clu Clu Land quarter 2

Clu Clu Land cart

Clu Clu Land manual