Developer: Hipster Whale
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: 06/21/16
Way back when Pac-Man first turned into a phenomenon in the arcade scene, there was a glitch in the game (due to the technological limits of the time) that eventually became something of an infamous game glitch: Level 256. Since the arcade board of the time could only count off stages in an eight-bit integer, the highest possible level it could produce correctly was Stage 255. The game wasn’t programmed to stop or reset itself when this happened, however, so players who were skilled enough to get this far in the game would discover that the next stage, Stage 256, was glitched out and effectively impossible to complete. These days, that’s not really a concern due to how tech has advanced, of course, but if you’re going to make a game based around Pac-Man, it’s not a bad idea to reference that concept at some point. This is, as it happens, the basis for Pac-Man 256, a game that, if I’m being honest, was completely different from anything I’d have expected prior to picking it up for review. To put it simply, this is absolutely a Pac-Man game, but it’s also accurate to say that this thing does not even come close to describing it. Put simply, Pac-Man 256 is one of the fresher takes on Pac-Man that’s come out in quite some time, and it’s a novel attempt at trying to give the franchise a quick-play friendly makeover.
On Dot-Gobbling and Ghost Dodging
The concept behind Pac-Man 256 is surprisingly easy to wrap your head around: you, as Pac-Man, are in an infinitely upwardly scrolling maze, and your objective is to survive for as long as possible while eating dots along the way. Now, this being a Pac-Man game, there are obviously the standard ghosts to dodge and deal with, but the game is also on a sort of timer, as the mazes are also being deconstructed behind you by some kind of glitch miasma, and you’ll need to stay ahead of it, or it’s game over. The miasma might be the least of your problems, however, as there are far more ghosts to contend with than ever before, each with their own behavioral patterns you’ll have to keep in mind, as some will patrol a section, some will sleep until you come near and home in on you, and some will wait in position until you pass and rapidly chase you down, among many other patterns, so you’ll need to be on your toes. On the plus side, ghosts are color-coded by their behaviors (though the miasma will also occasionally summon more erratic, color-changing ghosts as well) so you can mostly tell what they’re going to do once you see them and plan accordingly. Pac-Man also has access to many power-ups beyond the standard Power Pellets, including lasers that wipe out anything in their path, tornadoes that seek out ghosts, bomb enhancements that make the first ghost to touch Pac-Man explode and even more crazy effects. In short, this is Pac-Man mixed with Jetpack Joyride, and it’s pretty exciting when you get down to it.
As you’d expect, Pac-Man 256 looks like an updated version of Pac-Man, meaning that everything you’d expect to see replicated here is, but in high definition. Pac-Man and his ghostly antagonists look spot-on, and the mazes have a retro-futuristic feel thanks to the solid neon palette the game uses to render them that looks great in action. The game also uses plenty of interesting visual effects, especially when dealing with the miasma and your power-ups, and the game has a bright, dynamic feel to it that makes it a joy to see in action. Aurally, the game also utilizes the standard Pac-Man effects you’ve grown up with to great effect, and long-time fans of the franchise will recognize the classic chomping and “waka-waka” noises immediately. The new effects added into the game also compliment the standard bearers well, and everything fits into the game just fine. The one downside is that the game mimics the same musical design of its predecessor, meaning that while the introductory screen features the standard Pac-Man theme, the rest of the game is almost wholly devoid of musical score. It’s a fine stylistic choice, and when you’re far along in a stage you almost certainly won’t notice, but in the early goings of a stage it can be noticeable how barren the aural backdrop is.
On Power-Ups and Payouts
As mentioned, Pac-Man 256 combines elements of the standard Pac-Man structure with runner mechanics, meaning that the game is designed in part to be about gobbling pellets and dodging or chomping ghosts while also pushing players to move forward as quickly as possible. Along the way, you have to deal with increasing volumes of ghosts, using power-ups and the maze itself to survive, not only by moving past enemies, but also by using special sections (such as speed paths and tunnels) to make it through. Of course, the game isn’t just about surviving longer over time, as it places emphasis on high scores and completing missions to keep you interested. High scores aren’t exclusively related to one thing here, either, as you can score points in multiple ways, from eating dots to vanquishing ghosts to eating fruit, so high scores reward smart play as well as fast play. Further, fruit often gives you high multipliers for every action you perform, as does vanquishing multiple ghosts in succession, so later sections of the maze can often pay out supremely high scores in return for the heavier challenge they offer. The game will also routinely challenge you to perform specific tasks, such as eating a specific thing or vanquishing a specific ghost a number of times, which can be accomplished over cumulative plays. Accomplishing these things nets you coin payouts, making them worth aiming to complete, though the game is also nice enough to give you random coin payouts as you play as well, or even pick them up as you move through the maze.
Coins are used in the game’s power-up shop, as you can use them to upgrade the performance of your power-ups you have equipped. As the game progresses, you’ll unlock new power-ups at specific dot gobbling milestones, and you can have up to three power-ups equipped at any time. You can use the coins on your store of power-ups to improve their duration and the bonus payout they give you when you use them to destroy enemy ghosts, which helps to improve the power-ups that most coordinate to your style of play so you can spend less time without one active as you go. In a nice touch, the game will also make the next power-up you’re about to earn active in the maze in addition to the three you select, so you’re not stuck trying it out in one of your active slots and hoping you can test it. The game is also nice enough to limit the available power-ups to the three active power-ups, the upcoming power-up, and Power Pellets, so you won’t have to hope for a specific one and come up disappointed.
On Playing With Friends and Playing for Days
Pac-Man 256 is definitely a game that’s meant to be a long-term endeavor, as it’ll take you hundreds (if not thousands) of play sessions to unlock all of the power-ups and all the coins needed to boost them up, so you’ll get plenty of time out of the game that way if nothing else. It also offers local multiplayer for up to four players, which is not only incredibly hectic, but also a surprisingly large amount of fun, making it a joyful, bright party game that anyone can jump into and enjoy. There’s also the standard compliment of Trophies to unlock as you play through the game, and those who love the option of picking up high scores will almost certainly love the ability to constantly try and top their best scores through repetition as you go. On the other hand, however, it’s worth noting that Pac-Man 256 has a couple of minor issues that bring it down a notch. For one thing, the local multiplayer can get insane in a hurry, and even with varied player icons there can be moments where keeping track of yourself can be a challenge. The game also requires a lot of environmental awareness to keep yourself moving, since you’ll need to know what the different ghosts do at all times and this can be a beast on higher levels, and while Power Pellets give you visual cues they’re counting down, other power-ups don’t, so you’ll need to count them out in your head or risk failing at critical moments. Finally, the power-ups also have a brief delay window before kicking on in some cases, which can make rushing for a power-up when being chased a risky endeavor, since you might well get the power-up and still die because it didn’t kick on instantly.
If you like runner-style games or Pac-Man, though, Pac-Man 256 is a splendid experience you should check out, as it’s a five dollar game that captures the essence of Pac-Man, shakes it up in a bag full of Jetpack Joyride, and mostly ends up creating an experience that’s familiar, but special. The game is faithful to its roots while being smart with its tech, meaning that the visuals retain the bright neon garishness of the original while upgrading their pop and flair, and the aural matches spot-on but also sounds clear and crisp. The mechanics are instantly understandable for anyone, whether they’ve played Pac-Man or not, and there’s a lot of unlockable and upgradable content to keep you coming back, as well as a hectic and exciting multiplayer mode that’s great for local friends. The game requires a good amount of visual and mental awareness to make progress beyond a certain point, between the hectic design (especially in multiplayer), memorization of ghost actions and counting down power-up timers, and you can’t always rely on power-ups in a pinch, but for five dollars, these are mostly minimal concerns. Pac-Man 256 is fast, frantic, colorful and joyful, especially for its price, and if you’re a fan of the character or the genre it’ll be easy to jump into and easier to come back to, especially for the price.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Pac-Man 256 is a surprising experience, combining the core mechanics of Pac-Man with the pacing and power-ups of runners like Jetpack Joyride, and it’s an enjoyable and hectic experience that’s worth the investment, even with its minor hiccups. The presentation is outstanding, as the game retains the aesthetic and aural charms of the original but the tech behind it brings it effortlessly into the modern era, presenting players with bright neon mazes and interesting effects while still retaining the elements that made Pac-Man a classic. The gameplay is simple to pick up and understand, but features complexities such as an endless maze, large varieties of ghosts with varied AI and variable, upgradable power-ups that keep the game fresh for far longer than one would expect, alongside crafty scoring mechanics and a local multiplayer mode that’s chaotic and fun. The game gets a bit punishing in later sections, of course, and really taxes players mentally as they retain ghost pattern information while counting down power-up timers, which is doubly hectic when multiple players are involved, but honestly, these are mild and mostly subjective issues at best. For five dollars you won’t find too many games that are as authentic to their source material while still being as unique as Pac-Man 256, and it’s a great experience no matter how familiar with Pac-Man you are, as it’s a fun, frantic game that’s full of depth, challenge and vibrance.