Pac-Man 99 is a game that’s been released to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Pac-Man. The game itself is a big departure from the original Pac-Man, and is a nice way to introduce a whole new generation of gamers to the iconic yellow ball and his family. Unfortunately, the game is also a frustrating mess.
The best way to describe Pac-Man 99 is as a modern version of the iconic arcade title. You play as Pac-Man, who must avoid ghosts and collect pellets while weaving through obstacles on a playfield that can be any shape. The classic arcade game has been brought into the 21st century, albeit with some very noticeable changes. The first thing you’ll notice is that the new version of Pac-Man is a flat screen rather than a classic arcade game machine, and the second is that the four ghosts are now literally four ghosts, all of which look like Pac-Man clones. (They don’t move as fast, though.)
While Battle Royale games have quickly become a fad, Nintendo has added some motivation to the genre with the release of Tetris 99. The 2019 fight with the falling block was unexpected to say the least, and the underlying message felt like satire. But thanks to its fast-paced and competitive nature, this online game has become a must-have for all Tetris fans.
Two years later, a similar Pac-Man 99 game appeared on the Nintendo Switch’s online service, but instead of Bandai Namco bringing the little yellow puck to life, it just goes to show that Tetris 99 was a one-off that happened to appear at the right time. Instead of adding something new to Battle Royale or Pac-Man, this 99-style iteration is a mess of user interface and lightweight gameplay.
Image via Nintendo
While Tetris 99 has cleverly adapted its play style to a multiplayer game, Pac-Man 99 is a yellow round peg in a blocky hole. Instead of redefining Pac-Man for the genre, he copies and pastes the Tetris 99 schedule and rules. Tetris is already suitable for competitive multiplayer: classic Tetris games already have a mechanism where players send useless blocks to their opponents as a form of attack.
The problem with Pac-Man is that the competition is not about playing simultaneously, but rather about breaking previous records. In developing the competitive elements of Pac-Man 99, developer Arika felt it necessary to create some sort of equivalent of the trash blocks in Tetris, to mimic the feeling of pressure from other players in Tetris 99. Instead of trash, you now have to deal with the white Pac-Men that other players send to your board to slow you down. But instead of feeling like a worthy obstacle, it’s just an annoying hurdle that’s relatively easy to avoid or overcome. Therefore, attacking other players seems pointless, and the game boils down to concentrating on your own board and forgetting about other players instead of ticking off other players.
It’s hard to have a sense of progress against your opponents when you can’t even understand what’s going on in the game. The elements of the user interface are hard to distinguish and the screen is a chaotic visual mess from the start. Unlike Tetris 99, where you can at least see your opponents’ small signs, in Tetris 99 there’s no practical use in looking at them.
Image by Bandai Namco
It also doesn’t help that the attack options are located directly above your opponents’ line of sight, and to make matters worse, the options in their current form are vague and useless. On the right are the Random, Counter, Hunter, and Knockout attack options, which are pretty much identical to the attack options in Tetris 99, with some changes in terminology that may or may not make their purpose clearer. On the left you will find the new energy settings: Standard, stronger, speed and training. You may have to read a little further to understand what all this means, because Pac-Man 99 does almost nothing in the game to teach you how to play the game. And even then, the possibilities can seem overwhelming if all you have to do is play Pac-Man like you usually do.
Add to that the mysterious counter at the bottom of the screen, which seems to indicate how many Jammer Pac Men other players are sending to your board; the chips you earn compensate for their appearance. This is something I’ve had to learn by reading various articles and comments on the internet, but the lack of additional text or visual elements other than circles makes it another UI element to juggle. Pac-Man 99 clearly has tools to help you formulate a playstyle and adjust as needed to win – but when the game comes in so poorly without any guidance and most of these player vs. player mechanics seem gimmicky, these tools don’t seem worth mastering.
It’s not like Super Mario Bros. 35, Nintendo’s limited attempt to put Super Mario Bros. in the same format as Tetris 99. Super Mario is pretty badass for the Battle Royale play style, suffering from the same inorganic PvP mechanics as Pac-Man 99, which uses Goombas and other enemies to try and mimic how Tetris handles attacks. At least Super Mario Bros. 35 had an excuse: It was a temporary birthday novelty and disappeared before the game really got old – and it got old very quickly after launch.
Image via Nintendo
Despite the complexity of Pac-Man 99, I found the first few games to be fairly easy compared to the constant struggle that is Tetris 99. I loved the concept of ghost moves that allow you to eat multiple ghosts to perform combos – although I knew it would annoy other players in the background, it was more fun because of the dopamine-induced sound and the visual element of eating an absurd number of ghosts in a row. I reached fifth place in my first game and only lost because I was killed by a red Pac-Man scrambler I didn’t know existed.
Tetris 99 gets you in a jam and forces you out of tricky situations through spontaneous maneuvers. You’d think Pac-Man 99 would have the same description, but instead it replaces compulsion with confusion. The film lacks the spark of inspiration and comes across as more of an empty copy. It’s frightening to think of what 99 could still get, now that he seems to be his own sub-franchise. Frogger? Bomberman? C*bert? Either way, if Nintendo and Arika want to support this idea, they’ll have to take an IP that already has competition and player vs. player at its heart – otherwise, the 99-style battle royale could become as watered down and lazy as the genre itself.
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