I still remember what it was like when Super Mario Kart first came out, back in 1992. Obviously, there was the addictive glee of a beautifully realised and devilishly silly racing game, the sense of witnessing the arrival of a classic. But more than that was the genre-hopping freedom it heralded. Hard to imagine now, but back then the very idea of a famous platform character taking the wheel of a dinky go-kart was fresh and innovative.
Thanks to the voracious commercial gullet of the games boar, that freshness and innovation didn't last long. From our vantage point in 2007 the kart racing sub-genre has been sullied beyond repair by a parade of shockingly lazy knock-offs, pasting famous brands into tiny cars with wanton disregard for the nuances that made Mario's outing so damn great. Off the top of my handsomely proportioned head, we've been "blessed" with kart racers featuring Looney Tunes, South Park, Antz, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Bomberman, Crash Bandicoot, Diddy Kong, The Beano and Crazy Frog. There's probably at least a hundred more yet. Hell, there was even a Woody Woodpecker racing game. Woody Woodpecker. Let that thought roll around in your brain for a moment.
Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be Mario Kart
Needless to say, Pac-Man Rally (released everywhere else on the planet-sphere as Pac-Man World Rally) doesn't exactly arrive dripping with the sweet sticky honey of anticipation. To give the little pill-guzzler his due, he does have more of a claim to the crown than most, having shared the track with the moustached one as a secret character in Namco's 2005 Mario Kart arcade cabinet. Perhaps that's why I'm finding it hard to be too outraged at the fact that Pac-Man Rally is, to all intents and purposes, Mario Kart.
Seriously, do a quick palette swap, change the characters around and you could be playing the Nintendo original. Other racers have tried to copy the original formula, but this is the first kart racer since Crash Team Racing to get within spitting distance of the perfect copy. The controls, for instance, are identical. From the little shoulder-button hops to get round corners or deliver a sly speed boost to the way weapons can be fired backwards or forwards with a quick jab of the left stick, it feels so immediately familiar that it's hard not to be a little bit seduced.
There are even some fun twists to the formula that use the Pac-Man paraphernalia in rather clever ways. Driving over power pills activates lines of pills down the track. Gobbling these up fills your Pac Meter which, when full, grants you the expected power pill bonus - your kart transforms into a chomping Pac-Man and you can eat any racers you catch. The fruit pick-ups also make an appearance, acting as keys to open shortcuts on each track. As with the power pills, you first have to activate them by driving over one, then you need to hit another to actually pick up that item of fruit. With it in your inventory, the clearly marked shortcut opens up as you approach. Later tracks boast multiple shortcuts and, as you can only carry one fruit key at a time, there's a subtle hint of strategy in choosing which pathway you want to aim for.
Such minor innovations, while making good use of the Pac-Man elements, aren't enough to compensate for the overall lack of ambition though. Imitation rather than innovation is the goal here, and the result feels like one of those tribute acts that turn out to be surprisingly good, but ultimately serve only to remind you how good the original was.
2 (or more) Pac
Things certainly aren't helped by the rather limp cast that Pac brings with him. There's Ms Pac-Man, and Pac-Man Jr, plus Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde. Filling out the roster are a trio of bad guys from the recent Pac-Man World platform games, who will only be familiar to scary Pac-Man obsessives, and a handful of Namco characters to be unlocked - namely Pooka and Fygar from Dig Dug, and Prince from Katamari Damacy.
What really holds Pac-Man Rally back is the lack of any stand-out tracks. The expected themes are in place - Ice, Desert, Beach, Volcano, Etc - but few of the courses have that ephemeral something to elevate them from pleasant diversion to outright pleasure. Best of the bunch is Ghost Mansion, a charmingly designed scoot around a graveyard, through a haunted house and back out through the upstairs window. Other tracks strive for innovation but end up over-egging the pudding with too many wacky ideas. Funhouse of Terror, with its overlapping trackways and warp points is certainly out of the ordinary and clearly aiming for the head-trip tone of Rainbow Road, but is too confusing to be truly enjoyable.
Retroheads will also enjoy the Classic Cup courses. There's a decent Galaga track, but the one that made me chuckle out loud on sight was King's Kourse, a Katamari themed track watched over by the tight trousers of the King of All Cosmos. Sadly, the track itself is disappointingly short, with giant rolling Katamari providing the only tangible connection to Takahashi's masterpiece. The final course of the game, appropriately, finds you racing inside a Pac-Man maze, menaced by Tron-style ghosts that hover ominously around the multiple routes. Look up and you can a giant Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man through the glass of the sit-down arcade cabinet. It's a cunning moment of intertextual mischief that harks back to the days of Namco Museum.
Here in my kart, I feel safest of all
The balance is never quite right though. There's an over-reliance on wacky hazards, which can stop you dead through sheer bad luck, as well as a few too many courses with instant death drops to the side. The weapon set is equally lopsided, divided between mostly useless static traps to be dropped behind you and unavoidable projectile weapons that home in on racers in front with infuriating accuracy. Whereas a skilled player could learn to dodge imminent red shell death, there's no such flexibility here. Once you see the icon that says you're the target of a homing attack, you have a split-second to frown before your kart is sent tumbling.
Despite this, the game is phenomenally easy. I romped - yes, romped - through all fifteen courses in just a few hours on my first go. I came first in every race, apart from one, where I came second thanks to a supremely shady last minute attack right before the finish line. Now, I'm good - but not that good. That was on normal difficulty but, frankly, the hard mode isn't exactly a challenge either. You have to unlock Nightmare difficulty to really stretch yourself.
Thankfully there are a brace of decent two-player modes (no multitap support, strangely) ranging from competitive races to a surprisingly healthy range of battle modes. The battle modes also feature long and short range weapons that don't appear in the races, which ekes out the longevity a little bit more.
It's hard to gauge who this game is aimed at. The gentle learning curve suggests a younger audience, but then how many kids give a hoot about Pac-Man, or would appreciate the retro in-jokes? And how many adult gamers will keep coming back to a game where you can see everything within a few hours? Putting aside that quandary, and judged purely on gameplay terms, Pac-Man Rally is a solid entry in a mostly wretched genre. It's cute, it's charming and makes you smile without ever really winning your heart. Still, if you've been fiending for a decent PS2 kart racer you can play without vomiting your bones out in horror, here's where your money should be going.