Version tested: Xbox 360
Well this certainly caught us by surprise. Remember how the original Pac-Man Championship Edition turned everyone into bug-eyed crazies for about four months of 2007? Remember how it got people into Pac-Man that didn't even like the flappy-jawed yellow blob? Well, this DX edition has the audacity to improve everything we loved about the first one tenfold, and not even warn us about it in advance.
As usual, it's all about clocking the best possible high score, but Namco Bandai gets around the repetition by not only upping the maze count from two to nine, but also by layering on new mechanics and new modes that twist the formula in a frantic and relentlessly exciting new direction.
The most obvious change, initially, is the presence of stationary green ghosts, snoozing at various points around the maze. If Pac-Man moves past them, they wake up and give chase, allowing you to build up a huge, snaking conga line of ghosts if you can hold off from eating a power pill for long enough. The payback is that you can turn the tables in spectacular style, chowing down on literally dozens of them and clocking up a massive score in the process. Some ghosts will even top up your time bar, so eking out your feast becomes a strategic balancing act as you weave your way along the most effective route to score-based glory.
Another interesting tweak comes in Pac-Man's new ability to bomb all his pursuers back to the centre of the maze. With a simple tap of the trigger, you'll not only avoid losing a life, but save the associated time penalty that comes with being out of action for a few precious seconds. It does come with a small penalty, though, dialling the game's speed down a notch and therefore slightly reducing your ability to rack up a leaderboard-troubling score.
The game even gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card by slowing the action down to a crawl if you're in imminent danger of crashing into a ghost. As controversial as these fundamental changes undoubtedly sound, they keep the game flowing in a completely thrilling way. The price of staying alive is the constantly rising gameplay speed, and once you start getting into the realms of 40 and above, the battle to keep Pac-Man on course becomes an increasingly futile one. At this point, you'll probably be muttering about chunky old-style 4-way joysticks and shouting at the joypad.
Having successfully introduced these exciting new twists to the formula, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX goes one step further by adding enticing new modes designed specifically to ensure that you won't be doing anything constructive for the next few weeks. As well as the usual five- and 10-minute score attacks for each maze, you now get time trials which challenge you to eat a designated number of apples in the shortest possible time. As usual, clearing the dots on one half of the maze presents you with fruit on the other side, so carving the most efficient route becomes an obsession.
But clearing a time trial stage merely unlocks further stages, and your overall time trial leaderboard position relies on your ability to pick your way through each stage and painstakingly reduce your total time as much as possible. Needless to say, it's ruinously addictive, and essentially turns Pac-Man into a crazy racing game where relentless consumption is the aim.
As if dozens of time trial stages and the various score attacks weren't enough to keep you occupied, each maze also houses a Ghost Combo challenge in which you have to gobble up as many ghosts as you can in one go without the ghost state time bar running out. Set against a 10-minute time limit, each maze plays out to a specific pattern, and the trick is to figure out both the best route around all the sleepy ghosts and the optimum moment to strike.
Sometimes the pattern of the dots gives you precious little choice but to take a pellet before you'd ideally like to, but if you can allow yourself to build up the conga line again, an even better opportunity might present itself – albeit at an insanely high pace that will probably mangle your poor, battered thumbs. Such is its incessant one-more-go allure, Ghost Combo is the kind of game you'd happily pay for on its own. The fact that it's just a small portion of an equally brilliant package leaves you shaking your head at the genius of the whole thing.
On top of all this gameplay magic, Namco Bandai has had the presence of mind to allow you to customise the look, feel and even the sound of each maze. You can tailor the colour scheme to your own whims and cycle through various styles of Pac-Man and ghosts, from the pixellated retro style to the plastic PacMania era or a more modern neon look. You can even tinker with the thumping soundtrack options, each designed explicitly to ensure that you'll wind up a palm-sweating wreck after a few sessions.
Whatever audio-visual option you plump for, you can't lose, as your living room is swiftly bathed in the glorious phosphor glow of a 1980s arcade, accompanied by the kind of frantic electronica that may even have neighbours nodding along in approval. At least, that's the idea. Thanks to this greater variety, the DX version is even more of a visual feast – aided no end by the explosive fizz of the smart bomb and the accompanying sight of cascading ghosts doing an airborne conga all the way back to their base.
But in amongst the chaos, you may not even notice how good it looks. What matters more than ever is your performance on the leaderboards. With so many of them to take into account now, you can either break things down to a granular level of detail or view your performances combined across the entire game. For once, even if you're not that brilliant at specific mazes or modes, you feel like the sum total of your efforts can get you somewhere if you play all of it – and that's where Pac-Man Championship Edition DX really grabs you, and one of the main reasons it's certain to torment you for months to come.
To say that this is a must-buy is doing it a disservice; it's a game you'll want to instantly evangelise to anyone with even the vaguest sense of what makes a game good. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX takes everything that made the original so successful, twists and refines it in a relentless and thrilling new direction, and then adds a plethora of new mazes and modes for good measure. When we look back at the great score-attack games of this generation, this will be right up there at the top table. Like Trials HD and Geometry Wars before it, it's touched by true design genius. The hardest part will be knowing when to bloody well stop.
10 / 10
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX is available on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80 / €9.60). A PS3 version will be released on the PlayStation Network on November 24th, price TBC.