With the recent demise of Super Mario 35 and the continuing popularity of Tetris 35, it’s not surprising that Nintendo and friends thought it might be a good idea to release a new “battle royale” game based on a retro classic.
Next to get the treatment is Namco’s venerable dot-eating mascot with Pac-Man 99, now available for free to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers, with a host of additional DLC available if you want to take your experience a bit further.
The basic gameplay of Pac-Man 99 unfolds like a blend of the original arcade Pac-Man and the hyperkinetic Pac-Man Championship Edition games. You have a fixed maze, but there are also “ghost trains” that you can trigger, allowing you to eat considerably more ghosts than the usual four at once.
You also don’t need to eat all the dots in the maze in order to progress; you just need to consume roughly 50% of them in order to make a fruit appear, and chomping on said fruit causes the maze to reset. However, if you do clear the maze completely before eating the fruit, you’ll increase your speed, which can be a bit of a mixed blessing!
Pac-Man 99’s broader concept, outside of the basic Pac-Man principles, is similar to Tetris 99 in that it’s a “parallel solitaire” game. That means rather than directly competing with one another, you instead concentrate on playing your own game, and performing well allows you to have a more significant impact on your opponents. The ultimate aim is simple: survive the longest. You’re not aiming for a high score, you’re not aiming for the cleanest game of Pac-Man possible; all you’re trying to do is last longer than everyone else.
Eating ghosts — and particularly large ghost trains — adds to your combo, and the bigger your combo, the more significant the threats you’re able to send at your opponents. Like in Tetris 99, in Pac-Man 99 you have the option to focus your attacks on a particular type of player, such as those who are near knockout or those who have been attacking you, but no means of directly targeting a player or indeed knowing exactly who each player is. This minimises the opportunity for griefing and harassment and helps keep things competitive in a friendly sort of way.
The hazards you can send and receive take several forms. Initially, static hollow Pac-Man figures appear on the stage, which slow you down when you pass over them. Later, moving variants of these hollow Pac-Man figures come into the maze, and finally red Pac-Man figures will actually kill you outright if you touch them. Most of these obstacles can be destroyed with a Power Pill — which, of course, also allows you to eat the ghosts — but there are some which you just have to wait out until they disappear.
Pac-Man 99 is a multiplayer game that is easy to understand and tricky to master — and, in true Nintendo tradition, it’s fun without requiring any direct interaction between players. This means no opportunity for any sort of unpleasantness through chat or emotes — because the game does not feature the facility for either — and the whole thing remains feeling delightfully cheerful and chipper throughout as a result.
The free version of Pac-Man 99 that you can download if you are a Nintendo Switch Online subscriber is a lot of fun, but the package becomes significantly more substantial if you pick up some of the DLC. You have a few options in this regard: you can buy individual visual themes for £1.69 each — more on those in a moment — or you can unlock some additional modes for a £12.99 outlay.
Alternatively, you can buy a complete bundle of all Pac-Man 99’s DLC for £24.99, which gets you all the additional modes plus all the visual themes. It might seem pricy for a Pac-Man game, but you get a decent amount of “stuff” for your money, and none of it is essential to your enjoyment of the game; the core multiplayer game will always be free, and that will be enough for many players.
The new modes in the £12.99 pack include a CPU Battle mode, where you can play the multiplayer game against computer-controlled opponents offline; Score Attack mode, which challenges you to survive as long as possible with a limited set of lives and score as many points as possible in the process; and a Time Attack mode, which tasks you with clearing a set number of mazes before time expires, with time bonuses on offer for performing particular actions during your playthrough.
All of these modes are fun — and different enough from previously released Pac-Man titles to make them worthwhile. They also present a pretty stiff challenge, and as such are a good way to hone your skills for multiplayer matches — even though there are a few tweaks to the basic mechanics, such as the hollow Pac-Men following you around and slowing you down for a longer period than just the time you’re passing over them.
Where things get really interesting is with the visual themes. A selection of these pay homage to various past Pac-Man releases, such as Pac-Mania and Pac-Man Championship Edition, but the real attraction here is the number of classic Namco arcade games that the developers of Pac-Man 99 have chosen to pay homage to.
And we’re not just talking established classics we see all the time here — stuff like Rally-X, Mappy and Galaga are most certainly present, of course, but alongside them we also have a selection of more obscure or Japanese-only stuff. There are some deep cuts here, like The Genji and the Heike Clans, Wonder Momo, Metro-Cross, The Legend of Valkyrie and even Cosmo Gang, whose puzzle game spinoff was reskinned as Pac-Attack in western territories.
The skins don’t change the gameplay at all; they just change how it is presented, including the maze background, the dots, the power pills, the fruits and the ghosts — though some elements remain the same as default, such as the ghost trains and the ghosts when they are in their “blue” state after eating a Power Pill.
Even the background music and sound effects change to match their source material, and there’s an optional animation based on the original games that can be played in the background of the main play screen — though this can be turned off if you find it a bit distracting.
It’s abundantly clear from the number of Namco Museum releases that we’ve had over the years — including some excellent compilations for the Evercade retro gaming handheld — that Namco is a company that loves and respects its own history. And Pac-Man 99 is yet another way that they’ve chosen to celebrate it.
It’s particularly admirable that Namco has chosen to celebrate a number of games that non-Japanese audiences might not be familiar with, as these are just as important a part of the company’s legacy as the worldwide successes. Plus with the release of the PC Engine Mini and its variants in 2020, a fair few more western players will be familiar with some of these games than they would have been a few years back!
All in all, Pac-Man 99 is another great Pac-Man game. It’s a pity that you can’t buy just the single-player modes and play the 99-player battle as an optional extra if you have a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, but given that mode is supposed to be the main attraction it’s sort of understandable.
The core gameplay is solid and enjoyable, the optional extras are worthwhile and fun if you’re a retro gaming enthusiast — and they won’t be missed if you’re not — and the whole package is a great addition to the Switch’s library. I suspect people will still be playing this for quite some time to come yet, if Tetris 99’s enduring popularity is anything to go by!
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