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Pills, thrills and bellyaches.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. Welcome back. If it wasn't for Pac-Man and his relentless pursuers many of us might not have been lured into the gaping maw of videogames in the first place. When I first got pulled in by this gaming tractor beam, I was barely tall enough to see the arcade cabinet's screen, but lure of dot-munching proved instantly irresistible. It's easy to embellish these things after the fact, but Morpheus himself may as well have been standing there offering me the blue pill of normal life, or the red pill of a lifetime of staring at a screen, open mouthed. As it turned out, the four yellow power pills on offer inside the maze seemed way more interesting: it turned the ghosts blue, ma! Watch me eat them.

Unlike any other game, my entire family became ritually obsessed with Pac-Man, and latterly Ms. Pac-Man. Probably because it didn't involve shooting, punching or jumping, everyone loved it, and still loves it. The best Christmas present I ever bought my sister was one of those terrible plug and play TV joysticks with Pac-Man built into it. I still get regular high score updates.

However much people scoff (arf) about what Pac-Man means today, its seismic impact shouldn't be underestimated. For some people, it's still their game, and today's release on Xbox 360 Live Arcade will be the cause of much celebration for a lot of people. The chance to compete on worldwide leaderboards alone is enough for most of its fans to justify shelling out for it.

Eat to the beat

Ready for a lifetime in videogames, youngster?

For everyone else too young or too bored to indulge in the pill-munching feast all over again, that's fine. It's a game that's been re-issued so many times across so many platforms (particularly on the incessant Namco Museum releases) that we wouldn't blame you in the slightest for showing utter contempt for yet another thinly veiled attempt to tug at the flaccid teat of this most abused of cash-cows. In terms of actual bang for your buck, titles like this are massively overpriced compared to what it'd cost you per game on a compilation - but that's an ongoing issue that's only going to be resolved once Microsoft starts getting some serious competition in the downloadable console games arena. For now, yes, it's quite a high price to pay for something that originally came out in 1979 and is about as basic as gaming gets, but you're paying for convenience alone, folks.

In terms of what you actually get for your 400 points, well, it's not a lot. Exactly like Galaga, it's 'just' the original arcade game in non-modified form, which is to say the same pill-munching affair that it's always been. In short, you guide the gurning slack-jawed Pac-Man throughout the blue lines of a single-screen maze trying to clear every single dot without bumping into the four ghost-monsters along the way. Four power pills in the corners of the maze can be munched at appropriate times in order to become temporarily super-powered; this allows you to turn the tables and eat them, but your opportunity to do so is very limited. Belying its family-friendly appearance, it's a tough, hardcore, tactical game, where knowing the quirks, patterns and behaviour of your foe makes the difference between racking up huge scores and inevitable short-lived failure.

The speed soon ramps up, and getting truly into Pac-Man is no easy task - many millions have sweated over mastering it for decades. Inevitably, this latest port is the exact same thing repeated over and over again with the same intermissions, the same ghost patterns, the same quirks and exploits, the same fruit, etc, etc. And once again, if you change any of the default settings (to, for example, change the extends and number of lives) you're then ineligible to upload your subsequent high score to the worldwide leaderboard.

On the plus side, Microsoft and Namco-Bandai hasn't messed with the legend. Unlike the hideous and unnecessary brand pillaging that has ensued every year since its release, this is pure Pac-Man distilled to its very essence. On that level, this is a basic exercise in giving people a chance to play an all-time classic in the exact form that was intended, but it's also a missed opportunity to provide some semblance of value-for-money. Why not, for example, offer the many (official) variants for the purists? Why not throw in Ms. Pac Man, Super Pac-Man, or the bally Midway cash-ins like Baby Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus or Jr. Pac-Man? Apart from the excellent Ms. Pac Man, they're not titles that anyone could make money out of sold separately, but would definitely be appreciated by the hardcore followers if they could prove themselves via worldwide leaderboards.

Pac-Man ate my hamster

Achievements? 10/10 for putting the minimum possible effort in, Namco Bandai.

As it stands, what you see is what you get, plus the superfluous artwork either side of the game's screen. Beyond that, the trial version lets you play just two rounds before it quits, while the 12 achievements rely on picking up the fruit and suchlike - essentially goading players into making serious progress in return for their points.

No one can have any complaints whatsoever about Microsoft releasing bona-fide gaming classics onto Live Arcade, but as with many of its other releases, you have to decide whether the price is right before you hand over the cash. In the end, the chance to claim Pac-Man bragging rights among your friends list may be enough to make it worth buying, and the chance to play one of the all-time greatest games again arguably makes it a compulsory purchase regardless of how many times you've played it before. Having said that, you can't help but wish that a little more love was put into these retro re-issues. A little extra value for money goes a long way - are you listening Microsoft?

Being entirely impossible to score in such an out of context fashion, it's a 10/10 for what it represents to videogaming, but a 3/10 for value. An eight seems fair to me, but then I suppose I was playing it when I should've been doing my maths homework.

Pac-Man is out now on Xbox Live Arcade, and costs 400 Microsoft points.

8 / 10

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