“Where it falls apart, though, is in failing to recognize that Pac-Man is not, at core, a game about survival. Instead, it’s all about the points.” — The AV Club Pac-Man 99 review
The first time I played Pac-Man with a brother-in-law much, much younger than me, he said “what’s the goal here.” I said “eat all the dots, eat the fruit, get a lot of points.” “Then what?” “Then you do it all again.” Followed by a very disappointed “Oh.”
Pac-Man has cleverly been changed into a fun survival game in multiplayer mode for broader public consumption (no pun) over the years in a way that has kept it relevant and enjoyable for more than one sullen Billy Mitchell alone at a joystick, from the underrated/underplayed Pac-Man Vs. (plug your Game Boy Advance into a Game Cube while others chase you as a ghost on controllers! Locally! With 4 people in a living room!) to the modern 4p Pac-Man Battle Royale at bars (and there is a version at casinos you can hustle normies on!).
As a Pac-Man purist — whatever the fuck that means, I have a tattoo, folks — this transformation away from points made me feel a little like when I did playing Mario Party for the first time: my carefully honed skills weren’t rewarded anymore, any schmuck could just jump in and maybe muscle their way into a win. You know, what most people would call “fun.”
The most exciting iterations of the dot gobbler have tweaked the formula but kept the spirit completely in tact somehow (Championship DX+, under Pac-daddy Toru Iwatani’s eye, maybe being the best of these, blending scoring, survival, and pure speed running adrenaline). The worst have tried to reinvent Pac-Man into something embarrassing he’s not (namely, a 3D Mario/Crash Bandicoot/Sonic platformer clone). But what makes Pac-Man 99 so goddamn fun is that it doesn’t sacrifice any of the core of Pac-Man elements (the classic ghost patterns are faithful, any mistake feels like your fault and not some programming unfairness…the mechanics run like a Swiss watch), almost every game is under 5 minutes, and skill is rewarded. It’s great head to head action.
But, as someone who is very good at Pac-Man (I am), my criticism of this game is you can basically run the same pattern every time and win. Unless I’m missing it, I don’t see a large leader board like Championship+, hacked by bots or otherwise. Yes, I’m one of the guys who watch Pac-Man Championship replays, looking for patterns or little ways to shave off a millisecond here or there. In Pac-Man 99, Speed Boost is really the only power up you need if you know what pattern you’re running.
I wish there were a variety of mazes that would test skill instead of memorization, and maze theory improvisation on my feet (or lack of feet, in this case). Ms. Pac-Man 99 anyone? Instead, we get maze skins of other Bandai/Namco properties that are kind of novel and forgettable (for the low price of $1.99 per skin on the Nintendo Store, if you want that old nostalgic feeling of buying several different cases for your Nokia phone).
Disgraced blowhard cheater or not, Billy Mitchell showed people the lengths this simple game could be pushed to in the 80s — deeper, more complicated, more intense than previously thought. With Championship Edition, it was incredible to see what people could do within the constraints of a ticking stopwatch — how far they could push the points, the speed, and the chains. Pac-Man 99 succeeds in being a fun online competition, but there’s no room to push the game any further or grow the experience. And getting first place only feels great the first 20 or so times.
For those of us who play a little more competitively, the feeling becomes “Then what?” “Then you do it all over again.” Followed by a very disappointed “Oh.”