Version tested: Xbox 360
Does the Xbox Live Arcade really need three versions of Pac-Man? God love it and all, but we could reel off a gigantic list of other games we'd rather see dusted down and squeezed down our in-pipe instead. Or so you might imagine, at least.
The rather surprising reality of this new one is that it's (whisper it) really bloody good. It's what Namco should have done in the first place, with the seminal original game thrown in as a nice extra for those of us that demand it. A bit like how Rare handled Jetpac Refuelled, for instance.
But what's done is done, and what's more important is the fact that someone's finally managed to take hold of the age old pill-munching concept and make it exciting and relevant for today's retro-minded gamer.
To be someone
That 'someone' happens to be Toru Iwatani, the original designer and 'special advisor' to this revival of one of gaming's most enduring (but perennially abused) brands. Rather than do something stupid like make another rubbish platform game (or worse, a karting game), Iwatani-san and his Namco chums have taken a more 'retro evolved' approach that stays true to its fundamental maze game elements, while keeping a balance and adding the sort of variety and intensity that keeps you coming back for more.
As you might have read in the recent news announcement, the game boasts a total of six 'modes', though what they amount to are simple score-based maze challenges set around a time limit. As usual, the premise is to guide your little pill munching fiend around gobbling the dots and avoiding the attention of Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. No change there, then.
What's interesting isn't the high-def, widescreen reworking (thanks for that), but how Namco has subtly tinkered with some of the basic elements of the game so that it's no longer just about clearing one maze after another. Essentially what you've got now are two halves of one big widescreen maze, and once you've gobbled up the dots dished out on one half, a fruit appears next to the ghost pen on the opposite side. Gobble the tasty fruit treat and dots will once again fill up on the other side, forcing you into a testing mercy dash into often dangerous territory.
Talking about my generation
More often than not, you won't have an entire maze of dots to clear, but a few well-chosen paths of dots to munch - often with a lone tempting power pill to aim for to give you the occasional ghost gobbling edge, and other times with a disproportionate number of power pills but few dots surrounding them.
With the emphasis firmly on getting a high score within a strict (but ample) time limit, it's no longer just an endless maze-clearing exercise. It's specifically this bite-sized, furiously intense goal that goads you towards using the power pills strategically via the new ghost-chain scoring system. The new dynamic really adds to the real risk/reward element, and makes you play the game in a completely different way.
Back in the olden days, 'classic' Pac-Man's ghost-chomping adventures always topped out at 1600 points after you'd munched all four of your pursuers in a row. But now, if you collect another power pill before the effects wear off, you can build up that tally to a maximum of 3200 points. Keep it up and you'll very quickly improve your score and clock up bonus lives for every 20,000 points - helping you through the round, and ensuring you have a better chance of survival when the game starts getting crazily fast.
Circles. My mind is going round in circles
Success, you see, is a vicious circle, because the longer you survive, the faster things get - to the point where it starts to reach Geometry Wars levels of instinctive, intense excitement. Losing a life actually calms things down a notch, but it's only a matter of seconds before you're tearing through tunnels with that pesky Clyde in hot pursuit, adding palpable panic to every second. Such is the speed of the gameplay, time seems to slow down to a crawl while you weave frantically this way and that. Sometimes just getting through the last two minutes of a ten-minute game seems to take forever as you cling onto your precious stock of lives while the enemy's AI gets increasingly ruthless in their teamwork.
With an accompanying bass throb underscoring the traditional wakawaka sound effects, the effect is even more tense, giving you the bug-eyed glare of a wired clubber - especially as the game moves to its countdown climax and amps up the soundtrack even more. With subtle trailing graphical effects to enhance the spectacle, it's a game that has a wonderfully understated and wholly authentic approach to its rebirth. For instance, the main sprites still look identical, right down to the pixelated rough edges, but it's the little details, like the trail of 50s you leave behind when you're speeding through the maze eating dots that catches your eye, or the little spark trails Pac-Man leaves if you turn into a corner ahead of time.
It's a game you almost want to play in the dark to get that full 'bathed in retro effect' like it was in most seedy arcades. Hats off to Namco Bandai for finally demonstrating a true understanding what's required to take retro game and make it genuinely interesting. Not just to retro nutjobs in their 30s and 40s who insist you 'had to be there', but to those who just want an addictive, pick up and play gem to dip in and out of when playing an epic seems too much like hard work.
Plays by sense of smell
Despite the presence of six modes, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there's not an awful lot to it for your 800 Microsoft uberfunds. Beyond the basic five-minute Championship mode, there are a few variations on a theme, such as two challenge modes and three 'extra' modes. On the challenge side, number one (called Patience and Reward in the press guff, but not in the game itself) gives more power pills than normal, while number two (the Darkness course) makes things more difficult by being in, er, in the dark - predictably making it tough to judge where the turns are with only the small glow of Mr Pac to light the way.
The three Extra modes aren't exactly much different either, with only a small twist to justify their presence. The first (The Freeway) is made up of screen-spanning lanes, effectively, and runs at a crazily high speed right from the off, which is as amusing as it is hazardous. Apparently the second is based on Manhattan, but I wasn't observant enough to realise it when I was playing it - it could have quite easily been any maze, to be honest. And by the time you reach three (the Overall course), you're playing a mish-mash of all the other modes in one. It's all very cool to have this degree of focus, but there's absolutely no way it feels like it warrants the 800-point price tag. It feels more at home in the repetitious-but-excellent Jetpac Refuelled territory - except at least Rare had the decency to give you the original for curiosity value. But then again Namco Bandai would risk the ire of an almighty number of people if it started giving away a game that's been a big success on Live Arcade. Like I said, it probably should have released this in the first place, but with the original thrown in. Now that would have been irresistible.
Many - if not most - people who downloaded Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man had issues with the controls, which admittedly weren't best suited to the Xbox 360's analogue stick, and even less well-tailored to directional-pad control. It's refreshing, then, to see that Namco Bandai has seemingly fixed whatever the problem was with its arcade versions. Twists and turns feel much more fluid and responsive when you're under pressure - even when the game goes into super-berserk high-speed phases of imminent death. You'll still make mistakes, of course, but they feel more down to your own lack of foresight than any limitations of the pad.
As it stands, Pac-Man Championship Edition is a great addition to Live Arcade. What you're buying into is a fantastic celebration of a timeless classic, and one that does something genuinely interesting with the gameplay to make it relevant now. The problem is, basically, is that it's been put in totally the wrong price bracket for what is an impulse buy. A curiosity. With not even an attempt to make an online mode and omitting basic options like an endless mode for those that want to play it that way detracts from its long-term appeal. That said, once people get into the scoring element as they did with Geometry Wars, this could be a slow burner, and is definitely worth a trial even if you don't see the point of yet another Pac-Man addition to the Live Arcade. If the cost isn't an issue to you, then add another mark.
7 / 10