Pac-Man, in case you hadn’t realised in all your years on this earth of ours, is fantastic. The very definition of simple to grasp game mechanics resulting in a perennially engaging affair whose compelling nature could easily be conflated with chocolate crack, Toru Iwatani’s timeless classic is something that everybody should experience in their lifetime. So it is then that the latest iteration of Pac-Man has arrived on PS4. A toweringly thoughtful port of what began life as a mobile title, Pac-Man 256 is an emphatic confirmation of two things; firstly, you shouldn’t hold the platform origins of a game against it; and secondly, Pac-Man is back and better than ever.
Movin’ on Up
Acknowledging the age old maxim that if it ain’t broke, you definitely do not fix it, at all, ever, the premise of Pac-Man 256 remains identical to that of its over three-decade old forebear. As the titular Pac-Man you are thrown into a top-down maze with the goal of gobbling up as many pills as possible whilst avoiding the different coloured ghosts who would do you harm.
Munching these pills increments your score while collecting various types of fruit adds multipliers which in turn allow your total to climb even higher. Elsewhere, Pac-Man can collect power pills that allow him to gobble ghosts for a short time; providing a welcome reprieve from their deathly attentions and more importantly allowing the player to get back to the important business of nailing that brag-worthy high score.
The ghosts themselves that follow Pac-Man are a markedly unique bunch. Blue ghosts will follow a slow patrol route around a fixed area, slumbering grey ghosts will give chase once awoken but also fall asleep quickly after extended movement, pink ghosts move extremely quickly back and forth along a pre-set path while Red ghosts will pursue the yellow-hued pill muncher in all directions. This in turn introduces a wonderfully nuanced and deceptive brand of strategy to the proceedings, since by knowing the colour of ghosts that lie ahead, you are able to far more astutely predict safe passage beyond their spectral threat.
To Infinity and Beyond
Now, while Pac-Man 256 is resolutely keen to adhere closely to its original design DNA, the game nonetheless introduces a number of tweaks to the formula that rather than seeming out of place actually augment its base concept in a variety of effective ways. Chief among these is the shift in level design. No longer consigning the player to a series of enclosed mazes, Pac-Man 256 instead shifts the action to an endlessly vertically scrolling labyrinth where individual stages are replaced by procedurally generated level design.
As an aside, in case you’re wondering where the ‘256’ suffix comes from, it stems from the fact that level 256 of the 1980 original was effectively unplayable due to an integer overflow in the game’s construction; owing to the fact that the 8-bit code couldn’t properly render the level correctly. As it turns out, Pac-Man 256 takes advantage of this infamous footnote of its storied heritage, forcing the user to move ever upward as a crackling mess of disjointed 8-bit code slowly encroaches upon them while devouring everything in its path.
The upshot of this constant, creeping menace is that it makes Pac-Man 256 feel far more intense and pressure-intensive than any instalment before it. Indeed, when combined with the infinitely scrolling maze that demands a tremendous amount of improvisation in order to successfully navigate its myriad of unknown twists and turns, this latest entry in the series arguably feels like the most challenging, if not most refreshing entry the Pac-Man franchise has ever seen.
As well as the sizeable change in level design, Pac-Man 256 also brings with it a new set of power-ups that can be used to stymie the ghosts that are forever the bane of Pac-Man’s existence. Lasers, bombs, freezing attacks, invisibility, and much more in addition find themselves in the player’s employ and at no time do they ever feel disruptive to Pac-Man’s pristine base formula. In fact, if anything, they actively contribute to it since new weapons can only be unlocked by eating the requisite number of pills and as the armaments become more and more exotic in form and execution, so too does the pill cost similarly increment; creating a palpable reason to indulge Pac-Man 256 with repeat play.
In a further measured concession to contemporary game design, Pac-Man 256 introduces a progression system, though any potential worries are soon assuaged by the fact that much like the rest of the affair, it’s pulled off with flair and the sort of simplistic elegance that is synonymous with all other aspects of its design. Essentially, you may only choose a ‘loadout’ of three different power ups before setting out and while I can feel the earth spinning off its axis at the collective rolling of eyes into the top of skulls at the mention of that term, let me assure you that system works and works extremely well. Each weapon you see can be upgraded to become stronger versions of itself while the currency available to achieve this can either be found in the maze or, in greater abundance, by completing special side-missions.
As much as the quest to devour pills to unlock new and increasingly shiny power-ups favourably extends the life of Pac-Man 256, so too do the side-missions; their numerous stipulations ranging from eating a set amount of score multiplying fruit to collecting a number of specific power-ups all helping to galvanise the game’s steadfastly evergreen appeal.
The cherry on top of the cake of all this of course, is that Pac-Man 256 chucks in up to four-player local co-op into the bargain. With Share Play extending the domain of this mode beyond the living room quite effortlessly, Pac-Man 256’s frantically feverish dash for pill consumption becomes an eminently entertaining prospect that whole groups of folks can enjoy, rather than just the lone wolf score hunter as years of old would have demanded.
If there is a sour note to any of this, it’s that Pac-Man 256’s rigid adherence to what brought it to the dance still won’t make that much more palatable to those old crusties, who though perhaps few in number, were unable to grasp the appeal of the pill-gobbling fiend in the first instance. For the rest of us however, both those who are tragically unfamiliar with Pac-Man and the stalwarts who have tracked its maturity since 1980, Pac-Man 256 is a stellar effort that triumphantly marries the old with the new with such stated verve that it easily soars to the zenith of the series.