As a self-described retro-gaming purist, I went into Pac-Man 99 on the Nintendo Switch prepared for a battle royale gimmick that did little to alter or improve upon the classic.
What I was treated to instead is a modern take on Pac-Man that could very well become the standard for how future generations of gamers experience the venerable franchise.
"Blasphemy," old heads will cry, but for our very online world, Pac-Man 99 feels relevant in a way the series and long-dormant maze-chase genre in general haven't in decades.
Over its 40-year history, Pac-Man has undergone countless tweaks and facelifts. Aside from the occasional platformer, though, the concept has always remained pretty much the same: eat pellets, avoid ghosts, repeat.
Eating pellets and avoiding ghosts inside a maze are still core game mechanics, yet Pac-Man 99 manages to shake up the formula drastically, feeling less like a sequel than it does an evolution.
Pac-Man > Mario, Tetris
Pac-Man 99 is the latest stab at transforming an iconic retro game into a free, online, multiplayer battle royale by developer Arika, having previously collaborated on Super Mario Bros. 35 and Tetris 99.
Mario 35 was enjoyable enough (until Nintendo shut it down) even if the game works better as a straight-up platformer than a competition. Tetris 99 really wasn't a stretch at all, employing head-to-head mechanics almost as old as the tile-matching genre itself. Neither game strays too far from its source material.
Arika really got creative in giving Pac-Man the battle royale treatment. No longer is one of the primary goals to clear stages by erasing every dot on screen. In fact, stages are removed entirely and sometimes dots are missing, too. And reaching the famed Power Pellets that turn the tables on the ghosts isn't purely a means of survival or in pursuit of a higher score. Now, each ghost that Pac-Man consumes allows you to send "Jammer Pac-Mans" to one of your 98 opponents or counter their attacks.
The ghosts get progressively faster, and the Jammer Pac-Mans that aim to slow or, in the case of Red Jammers, destroy Pac-Man fill the maze until you lose or become the last player standing.
Image credit: Nintendo
Tips to get good at Pac-Man 99, quickly
Despite a relatively basic premise, Pac-Man 99 isn't as straightforward as the classic, nor does it bother to explain itself, so new players might wind up feeling confused initially.
This is not an issue with a steep learning curve, however, as I found myself consistently finishing in the top 20 within a half hour of getting started. Rather, it's simply a matter of figuring out the mechanics.
What would be helpful to know going in is that everything on your screen will replenish whenever you collect a piece of fruit, which occurs quite often. No need to be stingy about grabbing Power Pellets, as you will be hard-pressed to use them all before they reappear.
The replenishments apply to "Ghost Trains" as well. Collecting the small ghost icons at mid-map causes a conga line of sorts to form behind ghosts, allowing Pac-Man to rack up some absurd combos after eating a Power Pellet. Continue building Ghost Trains while eating Power Pellets in succession without interruption, and there's a potential to hit on combos that exceed triple digits.
Don't forget to keep an eye on the GUI as you become familiar with the game. A simple button press allows players to switch between different strategies such as adjustments to how Jammers are dispensed.
Room for improvement
Pac-Man 99 is not without shortcomings. I'm mystified as to why movement is controlled by the directional buttons rather than the analog stick, seeing as Pac-Man is one of the great joystick games of all-time. And games are finished lightning fast, with rounds generally lasting no more than a minute or two.
On the bright side, starting a new match is only a button press away, and lobbies fill up almost immediately, so there's very little downtime in between.
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Downloadable content is available for purchase as well, including a single-player version of Pac-Man 99 and retro-themed skins. None of this meaningfully adds to or alters the gameplay, though, which, while fun, is undeniably repetitive with its single maze and identical premise in every round.
A little more variety would be nice but, hey, that’s Pac-Man for ya. The competitive element and ability to seamlessly jump into games in rapid succession still makes Pac-Man 99 more interesting to play in 2021 than the classics.
How Pac-Man 99 changes the game
I mentioned earlier that this title could forever change the way generations of gamers experience Pac-Man. It's a bold statement, to be sure, but is the thought so outlandish?
What do games like the original Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man have to offer today's audiences beyond nostalgia? Sure, they're undeniably fun, but they hail from an era when arcades were thriving and putting your initials on a high-score leaderboard was the chief reason to replay. The entire franchise is essentially just a steady flow of ports and modest updates of the first coin-op from 40 years ago.
Beyond a few random encounters, younger audiences -- hell, even audiences my age (yes, Pac-Man even predates me) -- aren't investing their time into a traditional, single-player Pac-Man maze chase game. That's just reality.
Although Pac-Man 99 will likely never sniff the level of popularity its namesake achieved in the 1980s, it accomplishes something decades of remakes couldn't with its innovative approach, frenetic pace, anxiety-inducing multiplayer experience and free price point.
It makes Pac-Man feel new again and gives gamers of any era a reason to take another look.
When Bandai Namco produces new Pac-Man games in the future, it should look to Pac-Man 99 as a template. It’s far from perfect, even feels somewhat incomplete. Yet, it goes far beyond putting another fresh coat of paint on a dusty, albeit tried-and-true, concept.
Pac-Man 99 feels like a starting point, as if after all these decades, that little yellow circle is finally ready to break the mold.
Lead image credit: Nintendo