Wandering around Nintendo's DS annex at E3 last year gawping (which, whatever they may have apathetically protested in the intervening period, is what most people were doing), one of the questions that repeatedly popped into our heads was, "Yes, this is nice, but how are they going to make it into a proper game?" With the release of Pac-Pix in Japan recently, we had the chance to find out what became of one of Namco's little E3 demos, which involved drawing Pac-Man on the touch screen, watching him come to life (flapping mouth and all), and directing him around to gobble up ghosts. And on early evidence it looks like we've been given at least one satisfactory response.
The game's split into a number of chapters, each consisting of half a dozen levels, and each of these in turn gives you limited number of Pac-Men, a time limit, and a number of enemies per stage - the idea being to gobble them all up within the time limit without losing more than the stated number of Pac-Men off the side of the screen. The bigger you draw Pac-Man, the slower he moves, and vice versa. You can even draw several at once, assuming you can keep them in play. And you do that by drawing lines to change Pac-Man's direction. He turns whichever way you draw the line, and the lines you've drawn disappear a few seconds later.
Those are the basics. But since E3 Namco has introduced all sorts of different enemies and other elements. Beyond the basic ghosts, who move in straight lines turning 90 degrees every so often, there are ghosts who disappear and pop up elsewhere on the screen, ghosts with shields who can only be tackled from behind, ghosts who drop paint onto the touch screen play area which you can't draw over until it disappears, and even bosses.
The boss fights are increasingly clever, and the first of them sets the tone. It's a large purple fellow, who initially just boots your Pac-Men off the screen until you realise that you have to draw something bigger than him in order to actually gobble him up. The second doesn't let the side down. He's a sort of frog (well, I thought he was a frog), who positions himself on the top screen and occasionally chucks arrows that you have to dodge - and you hurt him by chomping on his eyeballs-on-tentacles when they pop up through one of five holes in the ground on the lower screen, all the while you're carefully watching out for the spikes that sometimes pop up instead. They grow increasingly complex as the game does.
And whatever we may have suspected when we first clapped eager eyes on it last May, it does. Level design becomes increasingly complex as you move through the chapters, with switches to open the way to passages along the top-screen, blocks which bounce you back in the direction you came, enemies that have to be captured in sequence, and combinations of the above. After a while it introduces you to new tactics, like drawing arrows to shoot at enemies floating in the clouds, which knocks them down into the play area.
Before long the levels can become frantic affairs as you struggle to keep Pac-Man on-screen whilst firing arrows between moving blocks at enemies on the top screen and avoiding hitting enemies in the wrong sequence, which is another tactic the developer uses to upset your karma. Other obstacles include blocks that send you back the way you came, and Namco hasn't been afraid to use all of its little annoyances in unison to really up the ante.
There are a few, er, drawbacks [a pun that I saw coming as soon as you bought the game -Ed]. Sometimes the game doesn't seem to pick up on your stylus strokes, but thankfully this is fairly uncommon, and sometimes it doesn't quite interpret what you've drawn correctly and Pac-Man's flapping mouth appears on the right side, but he moves sideways like some sort of reject from the Island of Dr. Moreau. Or a crab. Crab-Man. There's a new franchise there, Namco. It's also possible that some players may find it unnatural the way the game wants you to actually draw Pac-Man. You're expected to start with his lower lip, move inside his mouth, head back up to form the upper lip, then circle back round to the bottom. But even so it soon becomes second nature.
And indeed so does the rest of the game. It's lovely. One of those quirky little Far Eastern ideas for which the DS seems to have been custom-designed. It's lovingly crafted, too, with remixed Pac-Man tunes to tug on the heartstrings, and some lovely little easter eggs that you can find by drawing certain shapes in the Sketchbook bit of the Gallery. Imagine our childish excitement when we discovered you could draw an arse and watch it expel clouds, complete with sound effects. That sense of indulging the developer even extends to packaging; when we bought our copy we were handed a special biro-esque stylus with Pac-Man's head on the top.
We haven't had the chance to play it enough to tell you whether it stands up to, er, extended play, or how it develops beyond the first handful-and-a-bit of chapters, but the signs at this stage are encouraging - we know; we drew them ourselves. But with the game due out in the States within the month according to US retailers, with any luck we'll be able to give you a more in depth assessment then. Along with a great number of new "terrific draw" puns.