E3 2003: Pac-Man

We weren't expecting this.

We never expected to be writing about Pac-Man at E3, right from the day we bought the plane tickets to about five minutes after Miyamoto brought the subject to life on Tuesday. Even after we'd seen Nintendo's creative overlord locks horns with Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani, Hideo Koshima and NOA's George Harrison at the Nintendo conference, the prospect of spending as much as a minute of the show this week hunting down ghosts and munching pills was farther-fetched than the notion of our trading Matrix Reloaded tickets for magic beans. But as we strolled somewhat disgruntled from Kirby's Air Ride this afternoon, we just so happened to fill the fourth seat at one of the Pac-Man consoles. And so we renewed our friendship with the first Man of gaming.

Packed to the rafters

The idea of Shigeru Miyamoto's four player Pac-Man is thus: one player is given a GameBoy Advance - connected to the Cube - and plays old school Pac-Man on the familiar map, munching pills and fruit and trying to avoid three enemy ghosts (unless he or she has downed one of the four reversing tabs), and the more pills and ghosts munched the higher the player's score. Meanwhile, the three other players are each controlling a ghost and concentrating on one of three circular sections of the television screen, which gives them a 3D view of their ghost's immediate surroundings - but not the entire map. It's the Cube players' job to catch Pac-Man and to avoid becoming an appetiser too often. When Pac-Man is caught, the GBA is passed on to the captor.

As one of Nintendo's rather luscious blonde helperettes kindly pointed out for me, it's really very intuitive. But then there are complications. Each session lasts 300 seconds, comprising as many rounds as the clock fits; the idea being to have the most points when time runs out - and the scoring system is very thoughtful. 1600 points are awarded for tagging Pac-Man, 5 points are awarded for each pill munched, several hundred for a ghost munched, and presumably a whole lot more for swallowing every pill (although this didn't come up today). Points are deducted for being caught in the role of Pac-Man, and losing your blued ghost to the jaws of his mighty yellowness.

And so various strategies are quickly ruled out. Co-operating with other ghosts is obviously no help, because they're as much in competition with you as Pac-Man. If you team up then you run the risk of having it backfire. Having your ghostly self quickly swallowed to get you back into action is also counterproductive, because it costs you more points than it's likely worth. And yet simultaneously the ruleset begs the GBA player to take risks, because gobbling up ghosts is worth more points than letting them sit there in a non-threatening state. What's more, swallowing fruit is a good way of quite literally narrowing the enemy's sights - pinching their circular TV view window to cut off that little bit of extra periphery vision.

Man oh Man

Does it grow stale quickly? Absolutely not. It may seem a little old-fashioned to sit on your sofa swapping controllers between rounds, but - whether we admit to it or not - isn't that what everybody does anyway? Our only concern is gradually plaiting our pad leads if we play for too long. On the show floor Nintendo were handing out little GBA SP wallets to the winners and little "Gameplay Enhanced" pins to the three losers, which helped add to the tension (pity us), but it's hard to imagine the game not taking on a deservedly prominent place in any evening's post-pub entertainment.

Sadly though the eventual cost may prove prohibitive. You obviously need a GameCube and a GameBoy Advance (SP or otherwise), a Cube-to-GBA cable, and three GameCube joypads. Whilst the average games reviewer probably has that lot in cold storage somewhere, the average punter does not. And if the game costs more than about 15, it's unlikely to prove popular. However we've a sneaking suspicion that Nintendo might well bundle Pac-Man for GameCube with the GC-GBA cable in future, thus boosting sales of that. After all, as far as we know this is just a four-player party game, and not a particularly swanky one on many levels. Visually the Cube sections resemble low-end PC shareware, with a repeating Pac-Man background floating past the three windows, and barely-3D visuals like something out of a programmer's bedroom. Will it ever have a single player mode? Does it even support less than three players?

We'd be lying if we told you that Pac-Man is a must-have title, but the E3 demo had us yearning to take it home and introduce it to the family. It is unadulterated gaming purity, satisfying gamers from every walk of life. Even your missus and the kids will be interested, because, after all, who can't get their head round Pac-Man? We simply pray that enslavement to a credit card company isn't necessary to get it up and running.

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