|Format played:||Sega Genesis / Megadrive|
Everyone has played Pac-Man, right? Originally released in 1980, the arcade classic has gone on to appear on every format known to man; from Atari to Playstation, handheld to the internet browsers of bored office workers the world over. Truly it is one of the most innovative and successful games of all time.
But how to design a sequel. More levels? More characters? Harder difficulty perhaps?
What about an adventure game?
Yes that’s right. This curiosity from Namco was released in 1994 and appeared on the SNES and Sega Genesis in America. In a radical departure from the pill popping maze-em-up gameplay of the original, the sequel took the form of an adventure, introducing Pac-Man’s extended family and dumping the whole lot into a cartoon style world.
But that is only half the story. Like the fabled rabbit hole, things just get weirder the further in we go.
If, like me, your only previous experience of Pac-Man is top down maze affairs then you are in for a shock.
Booting it up, you are greeted with shots of the principle cast; Pac-Man himself of course, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Jr, Pac-Baby and everybody’s favourite ghosts, Inky, Blinky, Pinky and, er, Clyde. Plus some secretive puppet master who is evidently directing the actions of the ghosts.
After this roll-call, it is onto the game itself and it’s a real looker. Taking it’s cue from Saturday morning kids TV, it has a great cartoony look with bright, primary colours, delightful little animated touches, whilst Pac-Man himself oozes character (more on that in a moment).
It really has the impression of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, or perhaps a more recent reference point would be Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. This is clearly a game aimed squarely at the children’s market. Pac’s animations are designed to raise a smile, from happy whistling to comedy pratfalls to sullen or angry as he is attacked by a cat or tries to escape a barking dog only to run face first into a swiftly descending spider.
This is a strange old experience and no mistake.
The intro sequence covers the basic controls that will see you through the game before you embark on your first mission. There are four in all that see you set off on such grand adventures as getting some milk, picking a flower from the mountains, rescuing Pac-Jr’s guitar from the ghosts and taking back the town’s supply of gum! Along the way you can ride the train, fly a hang-glider, ride in a mine cart and become Super Pac-Man to defeat the ghosts.
Bizarrely, you don’t control Pac-Man as such. This is more of a point-and-click, with elements of Lemmings and even Space Ace in terms of the level of interaction. You take the role of almost an observer to help him get around the map, solve puzzles and fight off the ghosts. Clicking the crosshairs on the screen you tell Pac-Man which direction you want him to go in or direct him to look at something above or below him and he’ll head off in that direction and interact with any interesting items he might come across. Objects can be manipulated by firing your catapult at them, say to activate a musical clock or annoy the cow. You can even use it to get Pac’s attention if he is about to wander over a cliff or to revive him if he gets knocked down.
But sometimes, Pac doesn’t do what he’s told. It all depends what sort of mood he’s in.
‘Mood?’ you say. Why yes.
Sure, he might look like a chipper sort of a chap but apparently married life and fatherhood have left the old boy a somewhat emotional guy. Send him careening into a door, that opens and splats him against a wall, and he’ll get annoyed. Fail to spot a rock that he trips over before he sends a skateboard flying that bashes him on the head and he’ll become positively furious and charge off down the screen ignoring your instructions. If you want to keep him happy, knock an apple out of a tree for him to eat or let him visit the department store in the city and his mood will soon pick up, making him far more likely to follow instructions.
It is a novel concept, something like The Sims providing a broad reference point. Whilst this originality should be applauded, it can lead to incredible frustration. There are times when you know exactly what to do but Pac won’t respond as he is too busy stomping sullenly round the screen because the cat stole his hot dog or the balloon popped and frightened the birds. It can be amusing but after the umpteenth time it becomes repetitive and frustrating and you start to wonder why you are helping the ingrate in the first place.
Even without these wild mood swings, the absence of a direct control scheme can be inherently frustrating. Several times I was furiously clicking what I thought was a clear instruction to look up or down only for the game to interpret it as an instruction to go right or left, Pac-Man infuriatingly wandering off in the wrong direction and steadfastly refusing to go back the way I instructed until his animation cycle is complete. At other times, I would desperately stab the ‘look’ button at an object of interest only for Pac to ignore it, only acknowledging its existence when he was in precisely the right point (and not throwing a tantrum).
To some extent this is offset by the difficulty level and checkpoint mechanic. This isn’t a game in which you ‘die’ instead each screen almost becomes a single screen challenge; if you fail the puzzle, the game resets the screen and gives you another go, albeit with Pac getting more and more despondent. Only when you finally get him to respond, or find a snack or other treat, will his mood pick up allowing you to progress. The game also gives you a code which effectively lets you restart from any point.
With only four missions this won’t take you long to play through. Pac’s mood swings can artificially extend the playtime but once you know what you’re doing, each mission can be played through with relative ease. There is some variety though. The first mission is a fairly sedate stroll around the village but later levels sees a more direct, arcade style as, for instance, you guide Pac-Man in his hang-glider, using your catapult to fend off the ghosts that are trying to attack him. Or the mine cart sequence, reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country, as you charge along the track avoiding obstacles whilst fending off ghosts. The final mission meanwhile requires you to collect a set of ID cards to progress, necessitating some exploration of the world to discover them. Interacting with the world reveals other hidden secrets, including a little treat at the local arcade that I won’t spoil for you.
These sections are fun and help to break up the pace of the game but they do have a touch of the Rick Dangerous about them, utilising the ‘try, fail, try again and memorise’ mechanic to get you through the full sequence.
Still, total running time is a few hours maximum. And there is nothing wrong with that in principle. Not every game has to be a multi-hour slog, sometimes it’s nice to have a limited life diversion. But it is hard to know who this game is really aimed at. It is too simplistic and easy for parents and surely too frustrating for kids. As an interactive cartoon, they could watch you play, sure, and will no doubt find some enjoyment from Pac’s slapstick reactions. But then my kids usual cartoon choices don’t come with a soundtrack of rage induced profanity to accompany the action.
Sound is serviceable and pretty much what you would expect from a title like this.
Nice jolly music and appropriate spot effects help to reinforce the cartoon atmosphere.
But let’s be clear, the graphics and character are very much the stars of the show here.
This is a difficult game to summarise.
On one hand, this is an interesting and unique take on a well known character. On the other, it is frustrating, repetitive and too short to provide much in the way of long term challenge.
In some ways I feel like I have been a bit harsh in my criticism. It is frustrating sure, but I had a lot of fun playing it and it was satisfying to reach the end.
This is one of the most original titles I have played in years and is worth going out of your way to experience first hand.