It's hard to believe that the core formula of Pac-Man — eat pellets, avoid ghosts — has lasted this long. It's a testament to Namco's work back in the days of the arcade: while shoot-'em-ups and light gun games have gone the way of the Dodo, Pac-Man still continues on to this day.
To be fair, many of the franchise's more recent titles have been simple ports of the classic games, but there's one game in particular that managed to inject some new life into the classic formula.
Pac-Man 256, released last year on mobile platforms, is a strange hybrid of new and old. The moment-to-moment gameplay mechanics largely remained the same, but developer Hipster Whale infused that formula with that of its own hit game, Crossy Road. The result is something that's still distinctly Pac-Man and something new at the same time.
After a year as a mobile exclusive, Pac-Man 256 has finally arrived on consoles. At $4.99, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions are noticeably more expensive than their smartphone counterparts — so, is a new multiplayer mode really enough to justify paying for something that used to be free?
Pac-Man 256′s design is about as straightforward as you can get: players are tasked with running through an endless maze, collecting power-ups and eating fruit. As with any good Pac-Man game, there are a plethora of different ghosts to avoid (including a few newcomers), and gamers are forced to keep moving in order to avoid a glitched-out "death screen" that's eating away at the bottom of the screen. From there, the game does offer up a multiplayer mode along with a number of different challenges, upgrades and achievements to unlock.
Actually playing Pac-Man 256 isn't all that hard to figure out. Just like in past games, players only ever have to worry about movement: power-ups and Power Pellets are all activated automatically, and ghosts can be dispatched simply by making contact. Naturally, there's a huge emphasis on high scores, and the game gives gamers plenty of different ways to rack up huge combos. Otherwise, the only thing left for players to do is survive.
Pac-Man 256 adds in a few wrinkles to keep the gameplay from getting boring. The most immediate change to the gameplay is its more aggressive pace: power-ups allow gamers to take out multiple ghosts at a time, and it's easy to chain items together for extended bouts of spectral annihilation. It's a big change from previous games in the franchise (where players were almost always on defense), but this new focus on offense helps encourage the combo-happy scoring of Pac-Man 256.
Missions also help the game from feeling too repetitive: while the game never tasks gamers with anything too complicated, the added focus of eating a certain number of cherries or using different power-ups gives each individual run a bit more focus. It's a small change, but a welcome addition.
As previously mentioned, new ghosts have joined the fray and do a great job of adding new mechanics while blending in nicely with Pac-Man's returning cast. The all-consuming death screen is a menacing new addition and manages to instill fear without causing any unfair frustration.
Finally, different map sections do a great job of making the game feel like a straight run through a boring maze. Each segment of the map is denoted by a specific color — and while each of the runs is randomly generated, players can easily identify different layouts based on their color. Some focus on long straightaways, while others center around tight turns and grid-like patterns. Again, it's a simple touch, but the diversified level layout definitely helps keep the relatively simple gameplay interesting.
Long story short, playing Pac-Man 256 is a lot of fun. Granted, it won't take long to see everything the game has to offer — aside from unlocking new power-ups, players can see everything in the game after just a few runs. That being said, it's still extremely easy to pick up and play — considering how much time some video games require nowadays, it's nice to have something that anyone can play for 10 minutes at a time.
Of course, Pac-Man 256 doesn't exactly push the next-gen consoles to their limits, but there's no denying that the game looks great. Colors are bright and vibrant, the isometric view is perfect for the endless-runner gameplay, and the new 3D versions of classic sprites pop off the screen. It's simple, yes, but it's hard not to smile when a hapless ghost burst into tiny clouds of 3D pixels.
At first glance, the sound design is nothing to write home about, but Hipster Whale threw in a few clever touches that really add to the game. Sound effects and background tracks grow louder as the player's combo grows — it's subtle, but the game starts to feel more and more chaotic as each run goes on. Such an understated addition is something that few developers would ever think to include, but it's something that definitely adds to the experience.
Yes, at the end of the day, Pac-Man 256 feels like a mobile game — but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The game isn't meant to be some huge time-sink, or the sort of thing that gamers dedicate themselves to — instead, Pac-Man 256 is best played in short bursts. Sure, the $4.99 price tag isn't perfect (especially when compared with the free mobile versions), but the lack of any nagging microtransactions help make the increased cost feel justified.
Pac-Man is an icon from an era gone by — though, with a game like Pac-Man 256, it's easy to see why Namco's little yellow circle has stuck around so long. If you're one of the many gamers who miss the days of coin-op arcades and high scores, Pac-Man 256 is a near-perfect hybrid of new ideas and classic gameplay.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of Pac-Man 256, provided by publisher Bandai Namco.