Pac-Man is a curious case of gaming nostalgia. As one of the medium’s defining icons—essentially the first videogame mascot—Pac-Man is one of the most influential and well-known archetypes in gaming. Before Rayman, before Sonic, before Donkey Kong and Mario, Pac-Man was the face people thought of when “videogame” popped into their heads. You would think that as such a widely recognized character (your parents and even grandparents probably know who he is) Pac-Man would be pretty easy to update and re-visualize with the times, but in fact it’s the opposite. The little yellow dot-eater has proven notoriously difficult to pin down; his culture and gender-spanning appeal are more like lightning in a bottle than a gold mine.
This brings us to Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, a new take on the character that ironically exemplifies some of the most stubborn problems with updating the Pac-Man franchise. This new game is a third person action-platformer, based on the recently launched animated TV show of the same name. As I popped the disc into my Wii U and booted up the game, I got a strange sense of déjà-vu, the same feeling of awkward nostalgia that the previous generations of game critics felt in the 80s and 90s.
You see, another issue with Pac-Man is that he was also the first gaming icon to be mass-merchandised. Dubbed “Pac-Man Fever” in the early 80s, his popularity led to breakfast cereals, board games, action figures and most notably, an animated cartoon. These extraneous products were popular, but they all seemed to be missing the point, as many purely and nakedly-commercial tie-ins do. I think the real problem is that, in game form, Pac-Man is incredibly abstract. Trying to put a story and characterization on a maze game about a yellow puck eating dots and ghosts is like explaining a punchline; it doesn’t add anything important and actually takes something away.
I’d like to say up front, then, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures. It’s a perfectly serviceable action-platformer and it seems to follow the TV show pretty closely. That said, as I played it, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something a little weird or wrong about the whole thing. Once again it feels like Namco is trying too hard with Pac-Man, gilding the lily as it were, but I must admit that as a retro-gamer perhaps I’m just not the audience for Ghostly Adventures.
In this incarnation of the series, Pac-Man is an orphaned high-schooler living on Pac-World, a planet inhabited by tiny spherical people who apparently coexist with ghosts. The game begins with Pac-Man and his two classmates Cylindria and Spiral trying to figure out what the nefarious Betrayus (seriously, that’s the villain’s name) is up to next. Betrayus is an evil ghost who commands his own legion of troublemaking spirits and he’s launching an invasion of Pac-Man’s city, Pacopolis.
Pac-Man teams up with the ghosts Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde to stop Betrayus; apparently in this version, Pac-Man’s longtime arch-nemeses are actually his close buddies. Why aren’t they bad guys? Can’t the original four ghosts be like Betrayus’s four horsemen of the apocalypse? And where the heck is Ms. Pac-Man when you need her? Grumbling aside, let’s move on to the gameplay.
Ghostly Adventures is a fairly linear adventure, broken up into levels connected by a hub world. While inside these levels Pac-Man’s primary ability is, appropriately, munching on things—food, powerups, and ghosts (strangely, Pac-dots are the game’s obligatory throwaway collectible and Pac-Man does not eat them). If Pac-Man eats five ghosts in a short period of time he activates a special ability. The default power allows him to shout “boo!” and scare enemy ghosts, making them flash blue and run away as per tradition. Personally, I would’ve preferred the dots be involved in this ability; maybe Pac-Man could have spent a certain number of them to scare ghosts? What about collecting power pellets to hold in reserve?
The design focus seems to have shifted away from more retro elements to powerups instead. Pac-Man can change into numerous forms by eating special power pellets. These forms let him shoot ice, fire, turn into a chameleon with a long sticky tongue, and so on and so forth. These abilities change up the gameplay occasionally and are used to either traverse the environment (the tongue lets Pac-Man swing from light poles) or are used to defeat specific barriers and enemies. I can tell they were going for variety here but these powerups just feel… out of place, and kind of gimmicky.
The levels themselves follow a fairly familiar sequence of themes—city, ice, jungle, stone, what you’d expect. The stages are broken up into bite-sized chunks that you tackle in order, and you travel from one area to the next in Futurama-esque pneumatic tubes. This design was pretty obviously lifted from Super Mario Galaxy, so I can’t fault them for imitating the best. However, if they really wanted to steal from Mario Galaxy, I wish the developers would have borrowed some of the “why not?” craziness from that game. Pac-Man’s world is arguably more abstract and strange than Mario’s. Instead of flat, sequential platforms and districts, they could have made levels built from insane polyhedral mazes floating in a sky of triptacular arcade neon.
The game’s mechanics are on the whole serviceable, but I did have some issues with the camera. It made platforming more difficult than it needed to be on several occasions, and often I was getting attacked by enemies that were annoyingly off-screen. That said this game is very, very easy—in design, difficulty, theme and just about every other aspect, it’s a game for very young kids who are also fans of the TV show.
Graphically, the game is attractive but there’s not much to write home about. Everything looks just the way it does in the show, which basically boils down to everything having a clean, almost too-simplistic appearance. Pac-Man and all of his various friends and enemies animate very well, particularly in the exaggerated facial animations. There’s some decent shader work, the textures are crisp and of average resolution, and the polygon count is high enough to give everything a rounded, plastic appearance. The framerate stayed pretty consistent too, and I didn’t encounter any serious slowdown. Overall, however, it’s far from taxing the Wii U’s modest but impressive graphical capability.
On the audio side of things this game is average at best. The music is very basic stuff, it almost sounds sourced from an off-the-shelf commercial music library as opposed to composed specifically for the game. It also loops continuously and unevenly and it really started to get on my nerves. The voice acting is…well, what you’d expect from a kid’s cartoon. The dialogue is campy, the delivery is goofy and exuberant, and you might find yourself wondering why Pac-Man sounds like a 10-year-old.
Once again, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is not a bad game. It’s just generic in every sense of the word. It’s one of the best examples of paint-by-numbers game design I’ve seen in recent years, and if you’re a 5-year-old kid who loves the cartoon, that’s probably enough. But even little kids will probably get bored with this one before they finish a single play-through, and considering this might be their first Pac-Man game, I think that’s a shame.
Namco seems most successful with Pac-Man when they embrace his arcade roots and all the weirdness that comes with them. I think they should stick to that strategy; just look at how amazing Pac-Man Championship Edition and its sequels have been. However, I’m not saying that all Pac-Man games need to be 2D, retro-style throwbacks either. Pac-Man has the potential to be an incredibly trippy third-person platformer too, but only if the franchise’s abstraction, strangeness and purity are preserved. When Pac-Man eats ghosts in a neon maze, it’s goofy and fun; when he’s a high school kid devouring his enemies, who have personalities and yell things like “I’m gonna get you!” in cute cartoony voices, that’s bordering on creepy.
Pac-Man doesn’t need the background story of being an orphan, of having wacky sidekicks or even going home to a wife and a kid after a hard day at the maze. These ideas didn’t work in the 80s and 90s and they still don’t work today. Trying to impose a normal world’s rules and concepts onto Pac-Man just muddies and overcomplicates his extremely bizarre and extremely simple premise. Pac-Man is a giant yellow mouth speeding around a maze, eating dots and narrowly eluding multicolored ghosts—normal is not his thing. I don’t think we needed another generic, cross-media tie-in platformer to remind us of that.
Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is average and generic in every sense of the word. It isn’t a bad action-platformer but you’ve seen everything here dozens of times before. It should keep very young children occupied, especially if they like the TV show the game is based on, but even then I’d only give this one a rent.