Some classic games age better than others.
Pac-Man is one of those titles that still plays well today despite the fact it originally came out in 1980. That doesn't mean that it's perfect, however, nor does it mean that people have been happy to leave it alone since that time. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry listing all the Pac-Man games throughout history includes no fewer than 51 games (not including compilations) that either focus on or feature Pac-Man and/or his family at one point or another -- though many of these games radically deviated from the original formula of eating all the dots in a maze while avoiding the unwanted attentions of four ghosts.
Of all the adaptations that remain at least reasonably true to the original game, two of the finest are surely 2007's Pac-Man Championship Edition, which made the game a timed score-attack affair, and its 2010 follow-up Pac-Man Championship Edition DX.
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (hereafter Pac-Man CE DX) was a masterclass in how to modernize an arcade classic: it kept the original gameplay intact while simultaneously incorporating features that simply wouldn't have been possible on the hardware of 1980. Its biggest change to the formula was the addition of "sleeping" ghosts scattered around the ever-changing maze layouts; passing close by them would cause them to wake up and start following Pac-Man in an ever-lengthening rainbow-colored trail. Scoring highly in Pac-Man CE DX was a matter of deliberately building up this trail to be as long as possible, then unleashing a Power Pellet to gobble up as many as you could in rapid succession, the screen exploding in a shower of disembodied ghost eyes flying off the screen as Pac-Man chomped his way to victory.
The simple addition of the sleeping ghosts had a huge impact on the way you had to play Pac-Man CE DX. Because they were always in the same, predictable locations, it became possible to calculate an "optimum" route through the game's maze layouts, though actually successfully executing that optimum route became more and more difficult as the game accelerated to speeds '80s arcade game makers could only dream of. Fortunately, the game provides a number of "time attack" modes which prioritize quickly completing mazes over scoring as many points as possible, and these provide a helpful means of learning the layouts a little at a time before applying them to the 5- or 10-minute score attack modes that provide the game's main, insanely addictive draw. Alternatively, you can use the "Ghost Combo" mode to test how many ghosts you can successfully chomp in one go before a Power Pellet's effects wear off.
If you played Pac-Man CE DX back in 2010, you already know all this, of course, and you're probably wondering what that little plus sign at the end of the title indicates.
Well, it's not a completely new game, though the "Plus" edition does mark its first appearance on PC platforms via Steam. Rather, the new version -- available as a free update for those who already own it on console -- adds a few extra bits and pieces while keeping the core game experience just as it's always been. Specifically, it adds some social and comparison features to make it a little easier to check out how you're doing compared to your friends, and a new set of "medals" to complement the existing bank of achievements and trophies. The game also now has support for add-on content which can either be purchased separately or acquired via the "All You Can Eat" bundle. Currently available DLC includes four new mazes, three new visual themes (based on Dig-Dug, Rally-X and the upcoming Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures) and two new background music tracks, one of which is the finest piece of Japanese jazz funk/drum and bass I've heard from Namco since Ridge Racer Type-4. Have a listen for yourself.
The new mazes are interesting and worth a look for veterans. The Championship III course is a particular highlight, offering a significantly tougher challenge than any of the other courses in the new content -- I found it hard to even break a million on this one, while I'm comfortably well over 1.5 million on most others. Big Eater offers an entertainingly ghost-heavy (and consequently potentially high-scoring) romp that will probably take a few attempts to get your head around, while Mountain offers a highly technical, asymmetrical course that will likewise require a bit of practice to work out the best route through. The weak link in the new courses is probably Highway II, which is just a little too similar to its predecessor for comfort, though nonetheless features some interesting "wrap-around" layouts that require a keen awareness of how both sides of the maze relate to one another as you gobble your way off one side and chomp back on the other.
One of the more annoying new features about the update is the ability to share achievements and medals on Facebook. Indeed, three of the available medals are tied directly to how many other things you've shared on Facebook, and in order to unlock the classic Pac-Man skin for the game, you need to share all of your achievements and five medals, making for a total of 17 separate posts cluttering up your Facebook page all in the name of making the game look like its 1980 original self.
There are three main problems with this: firstly, the medals and achievements are all extremely easy to acquire with the exception of one, meaning they're not really worthy of bragging about; secondly, there's no means of posting the one thing you might genuinely want to share on social media, i.e. your actual score and leaderboard position; thirdly, try as I might, on both the Xbox 360 and PC versions I could not make the Facebook functionality work at all anyway, making the whole thing somewhat redundant. It feels like a half-hearted, unnecessary and badly implemented attempt to add social gaming features into a game that was already pretty good at encouraging competition between friends and among the community as a whole without shoehorning Facebook into the equation. It doesn't need to be there, and the fact that it doesn't work properly and thus actually locks people out of game content just adds insult to injury.
I can't stay mad, though. Despite the Facebook-related idiocy, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+ remains as ludicrously addictive as it was the day it came out back in 2010 -- and the addition of a new Steam version means that a whole new audience can now discover it for the first time. Good integration with Steam's network on the PC version means that you can quickly and easily compare your performance to your Steam friends list right from the game's main menu, though it might have perhaps been nice to see a more direct means of challenging one another. Steam Cloud support also means that you can transfer your progress from one computer to another without having to unlock everything all over again, though the reliability of this was occasionally a little flaky while I was trying it out. I lost progress on one occasion, though it's possible this was more due to the dodgy Internet connection I had at the time than a problem with Steam Cloud or the game itself.
Regardless of a few flaws here and there, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+ remains the perfect coffee-break game -- you can sit down and play for just five minutes and feel like you've had a rewarding experience, but at the same time if you want to spend several hours perfecting your cornering on the game's wide variety of mazes, you can do that too. It's an enjoyably intense experience by yourself, but if you can recruit a few friends to set up an impromptu league of your own, it becomes one of the most addictive games in the known universe. You have been warned!
Well over 30 years ago, I watched a brand new Pac-Man coin-op being wheeled into my local arcade and wondered what it was all about. A few coins later, and I was in love. I spent the rest of the summer learning the patterns required to survive - some of which I remember to this day. While Pac-Man's appeal eventually wore off, I've always had a soft spot for gaming's first mascot - despite his appearances in some decidedly crappy games that seemed to exist only to milk whatever money was milkable out of Namco's yellow dot-eating cash cow. However, after an endless parade of middling-to-poor games featuring his name, the Pac-Man Championship series brought back the magic of this 30 year old gaming icon, and then some.
Pac-Man Championship DX+ takes everything that's great about the original game, and brings it bang up to date with some modern sensibilities. It's a case study of focused design that's all about high-speed, repeatable, highly addictive challenges. I love the fact that you can sit down and have a few quick goes - or spend an entire evening trying to climb up the leaderboards. It's simple, it's fast, and requires no setup: just turn it on and get going. Some of the challenges are really entertaining, and if you're the kind of person who loves optimizing your scores, or competing against other people, this game will have you addicted in ways that will very likely surprise you.
A Pac-Man game mightn't sound particularly exciting, but DX+ is the essence of gaming joy. Simple, addictive, and huge, huuuge fun. It really is a must.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: A selection of different visual themes that channel everything from the original Pac-Man to the upcoming Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures via Pac-Mania means you can enjoy the game's looks however you like. With the DLC, you can even pretend you're playing Dig-Dug or Rally-X.
- Music: Consistently excellent, though everyone's sure to have a favorite; you can freely choose your favorite tracks independently of visual themes, too.
- Interface: The new "compare with friends" front-end is a little clunky and the Facebook sharing is both unnecessarily convoluted and, at the time of writing, seemingly non-functional, but aside from that the game remains a fine example of good design.
- Lasting Appeal: If you're the kind of player who can't stop chasing high scores, there's potentially limitless fun with this one -- and with the prospect of more add-on content in the future, Namco can potentially keep this fresh for a long time.
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