Pac-Man Is Still Cool

Namco Bandai releases sequel to 2007's popular Pac-Man Championship Edition

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Sep 12 2016, 4:00pm

Image: Namco Bandai.

By all logic I should be sick of Pac-Man. I'm old enough to recall a time when people still called it new; when there was still some magic in seeing the old table-style arcade boxes in convenience stores. A table with a built-in TV screen! With a game! In the 80s, for elementary school kid, such things still gave off a whiff of myth.

Most of all, though, I remember being entranced the initials that'd pop up after each game—initials of people I probably knew. Beat them, I thought, and I could win myself a small degree of local celebrity and bragging rights.

Playing Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 this weekend, I found that spirit hadn't completely died. As the world leaderboards were still sparse owing to the review phase, I recognized the usernames of colleagues perched near the top, and I found myself wanting to win my place among or over them.

I enjoyed letting those hours fly by, even if I never reached the top. Much as was the case with developer Namco Bandai's first Pac-Man Championship Edition for Xbox Live Arcade in 2007, this is arguably a better game than what I played in the early years of the Reagan administration. But, and this is key, neither is it that different. Wisely, all the important elements remain intact: the little yellow head that gobbles pellets, the little floating fruits, the ghosts he evades and occasionally chomps.

Pac-Man has always been about reaching the top of the leaderboards, but now it's all about getting there higher and faster. Extra lives drop far more frequently—there's no driving need to empty your pockets of quarters—and the new version lets you bump into ghosts a few times before you piss them off enough to attack.

Sometimes Pac-Man rolls through holes that send him to the other side of the maze. He gobbles down all of the available pellets before munching on a fruit that sends him flying to another map where he gobbles some more. He gobbles past dormant, lesser green ghosts by the dozen, awakening them and sending them trailing behind the four main spirits while he gobbles enough pellets to send him flying to yet another map. At last the power pellet unlocks while ghosts are flying around the screen with dizzying speed. Now they're on the run, and when he catches one of the main ghosts he scarfs down the whole line in a satisfying orgy of gluttony that briefly changes the perspective from 2D to 3D. All the while, a five-minute timer ticks down, adding yet another layer of urgency.

Image: Namco Bandai.

Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 tosses all kinds of other doses of variety into the mix that somehow never sacrifice the integrity of the original design. Pac-Man sometimes ends up chasing ghosts on hexagonal grids rather than the familiar squares and rectangles, or down narrow mazes in "dungeons." There are even boss fights with giant, screen-hogging ghosts, sending Pac-Man to gobble pellets ever faster in tiny maps under a timer that beats far more urgency than normally.

It's a Pac-Man for our times. Namco Bandai captured the essence of what made it work back then so well and smartly updated it for an environment beyond the arcades and beyond the quarters. In this age when so many are pillaging the pop-culture icons of the 80s and 90s for new usage, its success should be studied.