Yesterday, we took a look at one of the most controversial titles on the GameCube - Square Enix' poster-child for GBA connectivity, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicle - and having assembled a group of boisterous gamers and a motley collection of link cables, GBA SP handhelds, controllers, beer and pizza, it would have been a waste not to try out another Nintendo four-player game which left many fans scratching their heads in puzzlement when it was originally announced.
Cast your minds back, if you would, to E3 2003, and arguably one of the most disappointing E3 conferences that Nintendo has ever hosted. There was no new hardware, little in the way of new games, and no sign of Reggie Fils-Aime's now legendary stage personality; and when Miyamoto took to the stage to show us his latest and greatest, it transpired that what we'd been awaiting with bated breath was.... Pac-Man.
Wakka Wakka Wakka
Of course, this being Miyamoto, there's a twist to the formula - and this being Nintendo, the twist is (you guessed it!) connectivity. Pac Man Vs is at heart an incredibly simple but interesting idea - one player plays as Pac-Man, and can see the entire play area on his GBA screen; the other three play as the ghosts, and can see only a small area around themselves on the main TV screen. As ever, Pac-Man's objective is to eat all the delicious crunchy pills, and the ghosts are meant to catch him in order to put a stop to his pill-munching antics. Sounds a bit like Brixton on a Friday night, actually.
To spice the concept up a bit, there are a selection of different stages to play on - each one is represented with the traditional simple Pac-Man graphics on the GBA screen, but has a unique 3D theme on the GameCube. So you get a graveyard level, a forest level, and so on; the graphics are still incredibly simple but it's a nice touch which adds some variety to the look of the game. Audio is a simple case of wakka-wakka-wakka Pac-Man noises along with Mario voice actor Charles Martinet yelping out information or helpful comments in full Italian plumber mode, just to remind you that this is a Nintendo game you're playing.
Miyamoto and his team have also added a few new bits and bobs to the gameplay to sustain interest. For example, the fruit which appears in the middle of the play area can now be picked up not only by Pac-Man, but by the ghosts - who get a point bonus and a temporarily widened field of view for their troubles. And in two- or three-player mode, the ghosts which aren't being controlled by players start out as harmless disembodied eyeballs, but change to the colour of one of the player ghosts when touched, and if they then subsequently capture Pac-Man, the player who owns the ghost gets the points.
Pac 'em in
Simple, right? Exactly. The scoring system is the only thing which took us a few rounds to fathom - it works by giving you points for things you do in the game (such as eating pills or munching on fruit) and then it transfers 1600 points to the balance of whoever captures Pac-Man (deducting it from the score of the Pac-Man who was eaten - although the first player to play Pac-Man gets started off on 1600 points, so think of this as a moving point balance that hops between players). Whoever catches Pac-Man plays as Pac-Man in the next round, and the first player to hit a pre-defined point limit wins.
The bottom line question - is it fun? Answer: yes, buckets of fun. It's an incredibly simple and addictive game which demands teamwork and communication between the three ghosts, and while good reflexes and clever planning are also important, it's still simple enough in concept that it can be enjoyed by both small children and drunk people (key factors in the quality of any console multiplayer game, if you ask us). The clever chaps at Nintendo have effectively taken one of the oldest single-player concepts in gaming and turned it into a fun, well-implemented and extremely clever party game. Surprisingly, it's also quite good fun with less than four players - we're not sure about two-player mode, which gets old pretty fast, but with three players the battle between the ghosts to gain control of the computer ghost adds an extra element which makes the game just as fun as in four-player mode.
It isn't without its flaws, though, and if we were to highlight two they'd be the fact that the game lacks longevity - you really have seen everything it has to offer after the first few minutes, and the differently designed maps simply aren't as good as the original Pac-Man layout - and that it wreaks havoc with your controllers. Since the game is played with only one GBA and three normal controllers, you have to swap the GBA for a controller each time Pac-Man is captured (the game does keep track of who is holding which controller very intelligently, which is a nice feature). A few levels in, the front of your Cube will look like you've been playing Shigeru Miyamoto's Interactive Basket-Weaving Simulator - a strong argument for Wavebirds, if ever there was one...
Won't last long
One of the tough things about slapping a score on Pac Man Vs is that it's a lot cheaper than normal games - in fact, it's free when you buy Namco's (admittedly bloody awful) R:Racing, and will apparently be packed in with other games in future. For the purposes of this score, however, we've chosen to ignore the price point (since realistically, if you want to get hold of it now you'll have to go out and buy R:Racing, effectively meaning it's full price since you're unlikely to actually want R:Racing itself), which means that we've marked the game down severely on the grounds of longevity. Don't get us wrong, though - it's a stunning little game to play for a while after the pub or while waiting for a taxi to turn up, and a complete contrast to the involved multiplayer experience you'd get with FF:CC. If a copy lands on your lap, you'll probably love it - you just wouldn't pay thirty quid for it.