Friday, November 26, 2010

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, or Oh Dear God The Ghosts!

pac_man_ce_dx_2As video game characters go, few are older and more recognizable than Pac-Man.  The yellow pellet-eater’s predates Mario, Sonic, Mega Man and more.  At 30, he’s old enough to be Call of Duty’s father (assuming he and the missus settled down a little early).  He’s been the perennial pursuit of world-record seekers, and knowing the story of his almost-offensive name is an easy way for nerds to establish arcade cred.

It’s unfortunate, then, that this living legacy’s name was tarnished by unfortunate forays into the third dimension.  As so many developers do, Namco lost track of what made Pac-Man great: his hunger.  He’s not a platforming hero.  He’s a pizza-shaped thing out to consume dots whilst avoiding the perilous touch of nearby ghosts.  That hunger for dots merges seamlessly with the player’s desire for points.  It’s kismet. 

Thankfully for Pac-Man, the age of the high score is back.  Achievements renewed our latent obsession with points.  Online connectivity and integrated friends lists has replaced the cabinet-specific leaderboards of arcades past.  The downloadable market is rife with small titles developed around such score-based competition.

Namco helped usher in this retro trend with 2005’s Pac-Man Championship EditionTheir newest incarnation of Pac, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, flips the formula on its head while still keeping the action focused on the only thing that ever mattered in the first place: eating ghosts.

Like Championship Edition before it, CE DX eschews the linear progression of boards from the original Pac-Man.  Instead, scattered trails of pellets will spawn fruit after Pac eats them.  Fruit clears half of the board, summoning a new set of paths with a new crop of pellets.  Your goal: achieve the highest score possible in the time allotted.  Sounds easy, right?  If only those ghosts weren’t so troublesome.

Classic Pac-Man ghosts are erratic, dangerous, occasionally stupid creatures.  CE DX doesn’t neuter these beasts entirely, but it does make it easier (and incredibly more satisfying) to turn the hunters into the hunted.  Each new half of the screen brings with it green sleeping ghosts.  As Pac runs by them, these lazy wraiths wake up and form a rainbow-colored conga line that follows him wherever he goes.  This game looks ridiculously cool.I’m not sure there’s ever been anything in gaming more satisfying than eating a power pellet, doing an about-face, and devouring over thirty ghosts in a row.  The screen shakes; the sound cue rises feverishly in pitch; and the points pile up: it’s as addictive as the original must have felt thirty years ago.  Only this time, the stuff of Pac-Man’s nightmares are feeble creatures, waiting to be consumed.  Thirty decades of frustration vented in mere seconds.

For a game with more ghosts than the rest of the franchise combined, CE DX generates comparatively little frustration.  The challenge is not in avoiding the ghosts (the game goes into Matrix mode any time you approach one) but maintaining control of their increasing numbers and choosing the right time to strike.  Like Championship Edition, the game speeds up as you progress, maxing out a fifty-times the normal Pac-Man pace.  But CE DX gives you means to counteract the disorienting speed boost.   With trains of edible ghosts and path-clearing bombs, the player’s never had more control over the action.

Pacman_title_naAssuming you could ever get bored of exacting revenge on Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, CE DX keeps the gameplay fresh with its assortment of boards and trial modes.  Time trials challenge you to collect fruit as fast as possible.  “Ghost Combo” demands the longest continual ectoplasm feast you can muster.  Each board behaves slightly differently – some focus on screen-wrapping tunnels, others emphasize spiraling paths – and they can all be played with a variety of colorful, often neon visual styles.  My favorite variation is the “Championship I” map, which drops you on the Championship Edition board and forces you to make conga lines without any sleeping ghosts whatsoever. 

Each of these maps and modes have their own online leaderboards.  You’ll be assigned a letter rank based on your percentile ranking.  If you’re like me, being told that you’re 7354th out of 30,000 at something is a bizarrely effective incentive to continue playing.  Will I ever be number one?  No.  But I can watch that guy’s replay and glean a few tricks to help me move up a few hundred spots. 

Pac-Man CE DX’s frantic yet satisfying take on traditional Pac-Man gameplay is a sterling example of how to update and revive a classic.  The arcades may be dead, but the high score lives on.