Pac-Man 256 was a big hit on mobile phones last summer. Created by Hipster Whale, with help from 3 Sprockets, the free-to-play game iterated on the classic Pac-Man formula of eating pellets, and turned it into an endless runner variant. It was a simple stroke of genius that created a whole new way to play Pac-Man, while still being faithful to the 36-year-old Golden Age coin-op's gameplay.
Basically, Pac-Man 256 takes the original game's top-down viewpoint, gives it an isometric spin to the right, and replaces the screen-sized maze with one that's procedurally generated and scrolls perpetually upwards. Providing the impetus to move forward is a glitch that's based on the original Pac-Man's infamous kill screen, a game-ending bug that occurs on level 256 when the game tries to roll over to zero. This glitch slowly turns the bottom of the maze into a series of random characters and numbers, essentially consuming it. If you get caught up in it, you lose your one and only life, so the only option is to keep on moving up the screen into fresh territory.
As you might expect from a Pac-Man game, ghosts patrol the maze and provide further threat to our yellow friend's survival. While they look like the original Pac-Man ghosts of yore, they act slightly differently this time out, each type having its own unique behavior pattern that can be learned and exploited. For example, Pinky sits in place and won't move until she "sees" Pac-Man, whereupon he gives chase until he loses sight of him again, while the deadly red Blinky continually pursues the hero, trying to take the shortest route to cut him off.
Fortunately there are power-ups to help deal with the enemy, and not just the classic power pellet that you can eat to turn the ghosts into consumables for a limited period of time. Pac-Man 256 features a whole new roster of anti-ghost tools, including a whirlwind that churns through the maze, killing anything it touches, a stealth power-up that renders you invulnerable, a size-boosting item that lets you eat ghosts in classic style, and a bomb that you carry for a limited period of time that explodes when you touch a ghost, destroying it and any other ghost that happens to be in the vicinity.
These new items are unlocked over time as you play the game. Once an item has been earned, it can be added to your three-item loadout that you select before you start a game. In this way, you're essentially choosing which power-ups drop during the game, giving you a strategic choice about how you equip your Pac-Man to best suit your playstyle. Furthering the strategic depth is that there are coins randomly dotted around the maze that you can collect, which can then be used to boost your power-ups to make them even stronger, such as making them last longer, or improving the points that they yield for killing ghosts.
What I particularly like about Pac-Man 256 is the way it plays off greed versus survival. As you eat pellets, a score multiplier begins to rack up for every pellet you eat in a row. Miss a beat, or run into a part of the maze where there's a break in the row of dots, and the multiplier resets. Keep going, though and eat 256 pellets without break, and you clear the entire screen of ghosts. This means you're often faced with tough choices: do you risk taking a route through ghost-infested territory to keep your pellet multiplier going, or do you play it safe, backtrack, and reset it? Add in scoring-multiplier fruits that can seriously help boost your tally, and you have a game that adds some clever highscoring sophistication beyond just pellet munching. If you want to hit the big scores, you really need to take risks in this game, and that helps keep the proceedings exciting.
One thing I should point out, however, is that luck can sometimes play a part in getting highscores – or ending a game early. Because items are dropped randomly, and the maze is procedurally generated, occasionally you can end up munching your way into a part of a maze that's really difficult to navigate through, especially if ghosts appear in just the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, the game is well designed enough that it doesn’t happen very often, but you can definitely have games where good luck – or the lack of it – can determine the outcome, for better or worse.
Still, even with its element of random fortune, I had an absolute blast playing Pac-Man 256. While its gameplay is very simple in concept, it adds depth to the traditional dot-munching in terms of the loadouts you can choose, and the way you make strategic point-scoring choices while playing. Also, the consistent nature of the ghosts' behavior make it a game that you can really master, once you've learned how they go about their business.
Games are generally short, making Pac-Man 256 very addictive. Last night I played for hours, and the time flew by. I just got totally immersed in the action, and simple though it may be, it kept me glued to my PS4. It's classic Pac-Man gameplay, but given an addictive new highscoring spin that makes it difficult to put down once you start chasing your top score. I'm not sure how long its appeal will last, but Pac-Man 256 strikes me as one of those games you'll just keep on coming back to every now and then for a session - weeks, months, and even years from now.
Add in support for up to four players participating simultaneously, and a host of different skins that you can put on the game, including ones that look like Pac-Man Championship Edition, original Pac-Man, Pac-Mania, and Crossy Road, and you have a simple, but brilliant game that's well worth its low $5 price of admission.
Pac-Man 256 is one of those games that you might get bored of over the short-term, but its classic design will keep you coming back to it regularly over the long-term.
The original game's iconic music and effects have been lightly and effectively remixed to give Pac-Man 256 a really distinct sound.
Basic, but nice-looking graphics that are further enhanced by the game's 10 different skins.
Pac-Man 256 takes the original coin-op's gameplay and gives it a clever new twist to create an endless muncher that's hugely fun to play. On the surface it looks simple, but its gameplay has surprising depth that makes it fiendishly addictive - and highly challenging to master.