a review of Pac-Man: Championship Edition
a videogame developed by tooru iwatani
and published by namco
for iOS, java, the google android, the microsoft xbox live arcade, the nintendo 3ds and the sony playstation portable (playstation minis)
price: 800 god damn micro$oft point$
text by tim rogers
I’ve honestly never liked Pac-Man. At all. Here I will take a page from all of the middle-aged mohawkers submitting guitar effects pedals reviews on Harmony Central, and say that I’ve been playing guitar for 35 years, have owned Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, and SGs, used Bigsby tremolos and Gibson Vibrolas, have covered everything from AC/DC to Rage Against the Machine, and I’ve never found a better fuzz pedal than the traditional Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, so trust me when I say that the Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff is a pansy-ass piece of stuff.
Take all the guitar terms in the previous sentence, and replace them with the names of game consoles and software franchises.
Why don’t I like Pac-Man? In the past, when I had to stand on a milk carton, I played it in pizza joints because my dad figured I loved it; I played it on Atari 2600 because it existed, and eventually, I played Ms. Pac-Man on the Nintendo Entertainment System. I can’t say I hated Ms. Pac-Man — I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t enough. It didn’t have any balls, machismo, guts, or what have you. In later years — leading right up until Pac-Man CE was released for Xbox Live Arcade, in fact — I’d identify that I just didn’t like the way Pac-Man controlled. It felt too loose and weird, which just didn’t totally mesh with how tight the game was conceptually.
If you’d have asked me how to make a better Pac-Manning experience, I probably would have told you I’d think about it and then get back to you later. That night, when you weren’t watching, I would have cut you off of my LiveJournal friends list, and then set my own journal to “friends-only”.
It’s a hell of an IQ-test question: how do you make Pac-Man better? It’s like asking me to list, off the top of my head, as many verbs that start with “V” as possible (validate, verify, vindicate, et cetera). I couldn’t think of any possible solutions, probably because I’m not a genius game designer. Maybe I could be, I don’t know, though like my mother always told me, I guess I’m kind of lazy. Either way, it’s evokes ambiguously positive emotions that original Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani was reportedly responsible for the virtuosic Pac-Man CE — it makes me feel good to know that it took him nearly 30 years to come up with all these ideas.
Was Namco ever trying, though, to make Pac-Man anything more than an icon? Judging by the quality of every game starring Pac-Man, it would seem that none of them were made for any more generous reason than to keep bumping his name to the top of the gamer subconscious, to keep telling people who play games that, hey, this company called Namco has an archetypically deep heritage, and they’re not afraid of it!
They’ve been plopping remakes and reissues of Pac-Man out on the lunchroom tray of humanity for the better part of this most recent decade. They never hesitate to flop the original game onto one of their six-game “Museum” volumes, you know, which generously use up about 1/3000th of their storage medium. As of this writing, in addition to Pac-Man CE, there are two other Pac-Mans on Xbox Live Arcade — the original, and Ms. Pac-Man, both with six-dollar price tags, ugly borders and awesome online ranking leaderboards, which can only be accessed if you unlock the full version of the game.
(Really, for heck’s sake, Microsoft, let’s stop using the word “unlock”. It’s not like we’re using keys to play these games — nor even, in the gaming sense, are we using points or in-game currency. Using the word “Unlock” makes it seem like we can purchase the games using the “Gamer Points” we get from unlocking “Achievements”. Just use the word “Purchase”, please. It’s bad enough that you’ve made your own currency with “Microsoft Points”, and it’s precisely because you’ve made your own currency with which to buy things that it’s ridiculous that you award another kind of “Points” to people who do &^#$#ed stuff in games, which in turn makes it more ridiculous that you use the same word (“Unlock”) to indicate the option to purchase an Xbox Live Arcade game as you use to indicate a player being awarded an “Achievement”.)
Anyway, yeah, who wants to pay 400 “Microsoft Points” to play the original Pac-Man, when you can just pick up Ridge Racer 6 from a bargain bin and play Pac-Man to your heart’s content on the loading screen? When (not if) you get bored, you can just play Ridge Racer 6, which has nitro in it, which is awesome. However, it doesn’t have slipstreaming in it, even though Ridge Racer 5 did, because they wanted to save slipstreaming for Ridge Racer 7, which is as marginal an upgrade as you’re ever to see in videogames, though once you’ve played 7, 6 — and its Pac-Man loading screen — should seem utterly and horribly broken. After years of not upgrading the number in the series title, Namco sprung Ridge Racer 6, a statement of their staunch support of the Xbox 360, only to announce Ridge Racer 7 for the PlayStation 3 literally months later.
There’s a point to be made of this slipstream-talk, however muddy it might be: this is the sort of bullstuff Namco does. More to the point: the Pac-Man loading screen of Ridge Racer 6 isn’t even a loading screen. It’s just there. From the second it pops up, it says at the bottom of the screen: “Press the A button to begin Ridge Racer 6.” Why do they even put Pac-Man there in the first place? One slightly morbid reason is that it’s a throwback to Ridge Racer on the PlayStation, which let you play Galaxian at the pre-game loading scene. Many Namco games since then have let you play a game at the loading screen, so maybe Ridge Racer 6 was slyly trying to stir up nostalgia in the kinds of people who give a stuff. I wonder what happened to the guy who suggested the idea of putting a game in the loading screen. He’s probably 65 years old right now, with teeth the color of wooden stuff, and just finished paying off the loan for his mid-size condominium in a boring neighborhood in Tokyo. I’ve probably walked past his home a hundred times and never realized it. Probably some younger guy came up with the idea, and passed it on to the older guy out of “respect” so that the older guy could get a promotion, after which he would remember the younger guy and promote him some day. The younger guy probably never smoked a single cigarette until he was twenty-four years old.
Pac-Man is not just for loading screens — no, he’s also all over scoreboards in the Ridge Racer series, as well. Every time you hit a checkpoint, he pops up on your time display, chasing ghosts. This retro-gamer appeal is sprinkled into Namco games quite viciously, aiming to be the sort of thing some surreal-Dig-Dug-painting-owning poser on a UK games forum hears about and then says “SOLD”, maybe with some exclamation marks.
Also, a little Pac-Man badge appeared on Klonoa’s hat. Klonoa was Namco’s would-be mascot, star of a bland 2.5D game released for the PlayStation; some people still think that game was Jesus, and it kind of sucks to be those people. Klonoa had potential, anyway, though Namco didn’t care, and immediately resumed exhuming Pac-Man’s iconic profile and propping his corpse up in the weirdest places.
At the same time, developers all over the place claimed to love the original Pac-Man and tightened-up Ms. Pac-Man. Shigeru Miyamoto said, in an interview, that without Pac-Man, there would have been no Donkey Kong, and I guess he’s probably right. Donkey Kong is, subtly, about as inspired by Pac-Man as a game can get without also playing a lot like Pac-Man. The one game publisher in the world to understand the core of Pac-Man the least, ironically, has been Namco: since the success of the two “canon” games in the series, Namco has used and abused the “character” on numerous numbing occasions, such as the dull platformer Pac-Land, which no one likes unless they realize first that no one else likes it, or Pac-Man World, a 3D take on Pac-Land, where Pac-Man is now a sphere instead of a circle, which makes the fact that he has legs all the more freakish, and the fact that he has a speaking voice actually quite terrifying, and the fact that the stages lack actual design unforgivable. Recently, there’s been Pac-Pix on the DS, a game less tangentially related to the original Pac-Man than Pac-Man World, though jarring all the same: you have to keep drawing pictures of Pac-Man, his mouth facing in the correct direction, so that he munches the perpetually spawning ghosts. Pac-Pix, while a tiny bit interesting, misses the core of Pac-Man — the game is no longer about the “hunted becomes the hunter” dynamic, it’s just about drawing pictures big enough and quickly enough.
Arguably the most inspired of all the Pac-Man rehashes was Pac-Man VS, designed by none other than Shigeru Miyamoto. This was back when Nintendo was pushing the feature to connect a Gameboy Advance to a Gamecube, and use the Gameboy Advance as a controller. This era also brought us the dismal Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (it’s as much a challenge to try to enjoy it alone as it is to find three people willing to play it at the same time) and the friendship-wrecking The Legend of Zelda: The Four Swords.
It might be most accurate to say that, back in those days, Nintendo was forcing all developers to include some level of GBA-Gamecube connectivity in all games. Player two could use a GBA to control remote controlled bombs in Splinter Cell, for example. Games like Four Swords and Crystal Chronicles were big-scale brainstorms. Pac-Man VS was a lot smaller-scale, and as such, Nintendo and Namco had no clue what to do with it. Ultimately, they just slopped it onto some discs that included other games. I guess that was about the best place for it.
Pac-Man VS isn’t so much a game as a reason to scream. Essentially, it’s Pac-Man, where one player plays as Pac-Man and the other players play as the ghosts. Only the ghosts can’t see the entire playing field. Pac-Man, however, can see the ghosts. The Pac-Man player plays with the Gameboy Advance. The other players control their ghosts on the television. If it doesn’t immediately sound brilliant, it’s because it’s subtle. You really have to play it to “get” it, and playing it is, as you might imagine, kind of a hard thing to arrange: there is no one-player mode.
Yet none of these games cut to the heart of Pac-Man, where the ghosts hunt you until you eat a Power Pellet, at which point the tables turn and the ghosts flee in terror, because now you can eat them. This is a really good dynamic, and it’s just been sitting there locked up in a clunky shell for decades, reissued time and time again as-is by its shrugging, money-hungry parents, or else being shot in the feet and told to dance in monsterpieces like Pac-Man World 2, with its elbow jabbing, LOLing bullstuff cut-scenes wherein Pac-Man talks about constantly being hungry, and Ms. Pac-Man gives Pac-Man a birthday cake with a Power Pellet on top of it.
When Microsoft announced at their press conference at Tokyo Game Show 2006 that they would be holding the world’s first “Pac-Man World Championship”, I had to groan. First of all, hasn’t some guy played a perfect game of Pac-Man? How can you have a world championship of something that someone out there is perfect at? Aren’t you just asking him — and hundreds like him — to show up and dominate? Sitting there at the press conference, I couldn’t even begin to conceive of Pac-Man Championship Edition. Maybe it was because of how bullstuffty the whole presentation of it was. Peter Moore stood up there with a little headset microphone on his cranium, looking like he was either Madonna singing “Vogue” live or a high-rolling coach of a Halo team on Xbox Live. When he said that they were planning this Pac-Man world championship with the help of original creator Toru Iwatani, he repeatedly mispronounced Mr. Iwatani’s last name with such ferocity that I found it exceedingly hard to believe he’d ever met the guy. He kept calling him “Mistah Iwatawwy”. Seriously, Mr. Moore, I see only one “W” in the man’s last name, not sixteen of them.
For God’s sake.
Iwatani came out and gave a little speech. He talked about his plans to leave Namco in 2007 to become a lecturer on the subject of game design at Tokyo Polytechnic University. Listening to Iwatani’s speech, I figured this Pac-Man World Championship thing was just a big corporate flog, and Iwatani was only called in, thanks to a modest-sized envelope of money, to temporarily increase the number of Japanese people on the stage, making for a friendlier “photo op” (or, “shutter chance” as they call it in katakana) with which to infiltrate the Japanese juvenile consciousness via many games news services. Seriously, I’ve seen the notes on the PowerPoints they use to set these things up.
When Pac-Man: Championship Edition was announced and subsequently released, six whole days went by before I noticed and then downloaded the demo. Three days later, I played the demo, and purchased the full version after three play-throughs, making it the first thing I ever purchased with Microsoft Points.
Holy stuff, this is a hell of a videogame. Toru Iwatani, before walking out of Namco, put his balls on the table, and holy stuff, that’s a lot of balls. It’s like him flipping off decades of idiocy, and telling Namco to, seriously, heck Pac-Man as a “character”.
It’s basically Pac-Man with the aesthetic completed, and the dynamics mastered. Simply put: you can’t ever completely clear the board. It constantly re-seeds. The whole thing starts with just a few dots and a power pellet on each side. Eat all the dots on the right side and a fruit will appear on the left side. Eat the fruit on the left side to re-seed fresh dots and power pellets on the right side. Eat all the dots on the left side to reveal a fruit on the right side. Eat the fruit on the right side to re-seed the dots and power pellets on the left side. Et cetera, to infinity. As you repeatedly refresh the board, the layout changes, subtly. This gives the game a flow that no Pac-Man had ever possessed — the original is too stop-start to be nearly this much fun: eat all the dots to clear the stage, then start back at the middle of the maze with a completely fresh board of dots. Pac-Man CE nails the flow: the action never stops, and by staying alive, you start to feel like a hero. Every successful outwitting of ghosts, every eight-ghost combo scored, every time sparks shoot from Pac-Man’s body as he grinds around a corner, you want to pump your fist.
The longer you stay alive, the faster Pac-Man moves, and the more points the dots are worth. Being hunted by ghosts and escaping would-be run-downs is such a glimmering, pure experience that no car-chase in any 3D videogame can touch its primal thrills of success. Power pellets let you eat ghosts, as always; when you eat a ghost, the game pauses for a second, as the controller thumps, letting you savor your big point score. Eat several ghosts in a row to score increasing points — eat another power pellet before all four ghosts escape from the middle of the board, and you can find yourself lining up eight-ghost combos. If Pac-Man is fast enough and you’re a bad enough dude, you can eat twelve, sixteen, twenty ghosts in a row.
At first, scoring big in this game feels like luck. Eventually, the skill involved is undeniable. Look up some replays on YouTube after your first shot at the game, and feel the doors unlocking in your brain. I force everyone who sits on my sofa to play this game at least once, and every time I watch intently, always picking up little idiosyncrasies that I myself either possess or don’t possess. Every time, I learn a little something about my friend, the game, or — ideally — both.
So — final answer: Pac-Man CE has essentially made Pac-Man into a videogame I’m likely to enjoy for the rest of my life, and it gives Toru Iwatani good enough reason to lecture about videogame design. Maybe he has a whole lecture based around how and why it took him thirty years to wonder, “If the ghosts refresh constantly, why do the stages reset to zero every time?” Cheers, Mr. Iwatani, for having the guts to go back and complete what your company and your public had never doubted was a masterpiece.
There are a couple of other modes apart from “Championship Mode” in Pac-Man CE, including one where the power pellets don’t refresh, and ones with longer wraparound escape tunnels — where you can seriously get screwed by clever ghosts. Some people have complained about a lack of variety in the modes, or moaned about the lack of an endless mode, and I guess the latter complaint is kind of valid. It would be hella cool to see how long people could last, though I think the designers probably feared that the game might devolve into extreme, Tetris-Grand-Master-esque freakish speed, or else because they were getting conscientious, and didn’t want people losing their whole lives to this game. At any rate, the “Championship Mode” is pretty finely tuned as-is: get as high a score as you can in five minutes. I think that’s good enough. It’s good enough, even, for Japanese arcades: I could totally see this game working in Japanese arcades. Twitch masters would eat it up — figuratively. If they managed to hook it up to the internet, said twitch masters could even participate in the international leaderboards.
Then again, why pay 100 yen per play if you can just play the demo of this game for free? You don’t even need to pay for the game. All you really get out of paying for it is the ability to put your score up on the international leaderboards, which is kind of boring. I mean, I don’t suspect I’ll ever be not tied for 10,000th place, if you know what I mean. As willing as I am to admit that this game is a masterpiece by default, I’m not exactly jumping at the chance to spend my life playing it. I’d much rather continue cycling guitar scales (this week it’s the Spanish Gypsy Scale) in the dark when I should be sleeping, if you know what I mean.
When I do play this game, though, I find the Xbox 360 controller sorely lacking — either the D-pad or the analog stick is too wishy-washy about rounding corners. I wish I could play it with a joystick, though I never bought a joystick for the 360. I wish I could just get a Sanwa ball-type stick and one button (the Start button), and hack my own exclusive controller for this game, though the Xbox 360 is too complicated to work with. Damn it. There’s always the Hori Dead of Alive 4 stick, still clogging select Japanese retailers ever since that game tanked, hard. I could get one of those, I guess, though the prospect of another monolithic Hori joystick in my house — and of the tacky plastic-like boobs engraved into said special-edition stick — kind of turns me off. As it stands, the Xbox 360 controller is Pac-Man CE‘s biggest fault, though I really can’t dock its score for that.
The second-biggest flaw would have to do with the cheesy American glazed-over aesthetic. The glimmering rainbow colors of the playing field are a bit much. I mean, it’s high-definition enough, though I personally would probably prefer it more if the cute neon texture of the borders just stayed one solid color, and maybe changed just once every time both sides of the board re-seed. As it is now, it gives me a bit of a headache. There’s too much jumpy flashing going on, like the producers were trying to overcompensate for something. Leave it the hell alone, man! It’s Pac-Man. Next thing you know, they’ll release a patch that gives Pac-Man legs and eyes and a hecking snifter of brandy.
Also, the music is pretty terrible. It sounds something like what’s playing in any given club in Berlin the moment a hip German teenager first contemplates acting on the insecurity that his penis is smaller than that of other guys. It’s cute how it builds to a swell in the five minutes allotted for play-time, though really, it’s not even good techno. It’s like the record the DJ puts on when the club manager tells him they need to sell some drinks right now.
I know, I can use the Xbox 360’s excellent custom soundtracks feature, though isn’t that kind of cheating? It sounds almost like game companies are giving up, refusing to budget good music, and hoping that the player has good enough taste in music to make up for their games’ faults. As I’ll no doubt say again, ideally, a game should have music good enough to make me not want to use a custom soundtrack.
Even so, it’s convenient that a game of Pac-Man CE lasts only five minutes. There are many songs that are exactly five minutes in length, like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (off the “Scary Monsters” album). The Stone Roses’ “This is The One” is also precisely five minutes. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is 5:01, though that last second doesn’t really have too much going on.
After dipping deep into my memory banks, I recall that “Big Bikes” by Kyuss is 5:01, and would probably be really awesome to listen to while playing this game. It even has an awesome little false stop with twenty-two seconds to go, and then with nineteen seconds left it comes back, at double-time. That would be pretty badass for the closing seconds, rushing to kill just a couple more ghosts, to push the score up over your record.
I can think of a couple more songs off the top of my head, though I keep getting tempted to just check iTunes and sort all songs by length. In the face of this strong temptation to cheat, I’m just going to go ahead and quit writing this.
EXTRA BONUS PARAGRAPH. Hello and welcome to an extra bonus paragraph, written in celebration of Pac-Man: Championship Edition‘s induction to the Action Button Dot Net Manifesto Hall of Fame. Anyway, here’s Pac-Man. Since beginning this list, we have received literally dozens of emails from readers who promise terrible things if we don’t acknowledge some “Actual Great Games” on our pissy little contrarian list of videogames we possess the gall and nerve to pretend we like. Pac-Man is our way of throwing you lovable scamps a bone and flipping you off at the same time. On the one hand, it’s a Classic Japanese Videogame made by an Indisputably Wise “Genius”! On the other hand, it’s a remake! On the one hand, it’s Pac-Man! On the other hand, it’s Microsoft! On the one hand, it’s got retro-cool geek-chic in spades! On the other hand, it’s got Horrifying, Terrible Electronic Music!
All kidding aside, though, really, this is a brain-blastingly perfect videogame. There’s this cliche, about how music was great on the NES “because” of the limitations of the hardware, or how retro remakes are a key to the future of game design because they force us to examine what game designers used to do when they didn’t have normal maps, when they didn’t have the ability to drench any character’s skin in oatmeal and add six pounds of simulated fat into their chest with the click of a mouse. To this, we say “Duh”. Freedom will always breed laziness: compare yourself to a convicted bank robber Doing Hard Time. You have the freedom to leave your house; you also have the freedom to do this in your living room. However, it goes without (and sometimes with) saying that the guy Doing Hard Time is probably better at doing that than you are. Grand Theft Auto III is you — Pac-Man: Championship Edition is the convicted felon. We like the convicted felon more than we like you.
Anyway, Pac-Man: Championship Edition is a classic arcade game revisited with an attention to detail, money, and a newfound kernel of wisdom re: the very concept of games and their rules. It’s sharp, punctual, and entertaining. You can enjoy it as much as you want. For example, though the game was promoted well before its release as a proving ground for a Pac-Man world championship, and though we find that marvelous and precious, we have never bothered to check Wikipedia to see if the anybody won, or if the championship is still going on, or what. We don’t care! Pac-Man: CE is a brilliantly polished little product; it is the computer programming of 1977 graduated from Tetris university. It is an actual videogame. It is the Return of Awesome. Recently, Taito released Space Invaders Extreme, which is also pretty astounding, and kind of has better music, and Capcom released Bionic Commando: Rearmed, which has amazing music though now looks so good that the idea of being unable to jump is actually vaguely creepy (when a single chest-high stone brick blocks your progress in one direction, it feels funny to have all that HDR lighting); meanwhile, a man named Jonathon Blow makes a game called Braid, as serious a meditation on the core of classic game design as it is an exercise in making something absolutely new, which coincidentally might have actually existed twenty years ago. Then there’s Megaman 9: rather than simply remake an old Megaman game with slick graphics for a quick yen, Capcom have decided that they are Not Afraid of Death, that they are going to make a new installment in an old series, complete with old-like graphics: only now, the level design has the benefit of decades of wisdom. It could be glorious.
Thus it is abundantly clear that someone, somewhere, has sounded a giant gong, proclaiming that Games Today Kind of Suck. Cautious backward-tiptoe-steps (tipheels?) are being taken in the direction of Maybe It’s Not Just Nostalgia After All, and people are looking long and hard at the very essence of “fun”. We’d really love to see Takashi Tezuka take one for the team with New Super Mario Bros. 2, remove the “world map” segments, get rid of the “Whoa Crazy Huge” mushroom, shoehorn harder Mario Physics in, and actually make the triple-jumping and wall-jumping work in the context of the level design. That would make for something really excellent. For the meantime, Pac-Man CE is the best example yet of how to look backward and forward at the same time. Since making it, Toru Iwatani has bowed out of the games industry, though it won’t surprise us to see his former slavemasters at Namco exhuming Pac-Man and splattering him all over menus, loading screens, and car hood ornaments in Ridge Racer — nor will it surprise us to see level design and game design (Tenuous Namedrop: Gears of War (2), Uncharted (2?)) re-awakened to the awesome simplicity of Pac-Man. It’s kind of funny, and kind of sad — all these years, Namco has been looking for ways to make Pac-Man marketable, and all they could ever think of was to give him arms, legs, and a family. Really, what they should have been doing, is applying the delicacy, grace, and utter shocking nobility of the original Pac-Man‘s game design into other games starring new characters. In short, to use the phrase we hope you’ve caught on to by now: Artistic Conscience.
In closing, it has come to our attention that not everyone owning an Xbox 360 has purchased Pac-Man: Championship Edition or even downloaded the free demo. If one of you is reading this, please, stop being a jackass. Don’t let the fact that Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are also available for download fool you. It’s not a cop-out of a cash-in: it’s something real. Download it and make everyone you know play it. If anyone doesn’t enjoy it, tell them to hit the bricks.