Of all the traditional games publishers to try their hand at the mobile market, I think that Bandai Namco is probably my favorite. Instead of merely selling their retro games again with graphical “upgrades” or awkward touch controls, the house of Pac-Man have shown a willingness to experiment with their legacy properties in a way that is admirable. Barely any mobile games get more than a passing interest from me, but I still have the Tekken/Galaga mash-up from last year installed on my phone to this day.
PAC-MAN 256 is another concept with a lot of potential, combining an endless runner structure with the ghosts and Power Pellets that we know and love. Sadly, the original version of the game was rotten with free to play mechanics. These mechanics overshadow any fun that someone trained on traditional gaming experiences might have had. Therefore, the Steam release of 256 is an occasion worth celebrating, as it preserves what’s great about Hipster Whale’s riff on the 80s classic without delving deep into business dealings, alternating currencies, and watching an ad for some Game of War knockoff.
The setup here is based on the kill screen of the Pac-Man arcade game. For those unfamiliar, after playing through 255 mazes without hitting a game over, the 256th screen will be garbled on the right side. In PAC-MAN 256, the glitchy mess is overtaking the maze, and you control Pac-Man as he tries to outrun the wave of random code while also consuming an endless stream of dots and trying to avoid his typical ghostly opponents.
Players of the arcade original will find that their skills apply to this new version, with some slight caveats. Instead of completing mazes, PAC-MAN 256 is all about staying on one continuous path of dots and building up a combo. The viewing angle of the maze might throw players for a loop at first, but I found myself eventually doing better at outmaneuvering enemies than I ever did before. Players will also find more aggressive ghosts in 256. This including the dreaded Pinky, who will rush Pac-Man as soon as he enters its line of sight. Give a Pinky enough of a straightaway, and there’s nothing you can do but load in another figurative quarter and start again.
The variety of ghosts can ramp up quickly, and you can be trapped pretty easily if you’re not paying attention. Thankfully, the game’s design makes you want to dive back in after every death. Instead of forcing you to sit through ads or tempting you with Best Values, PAC-MAN 256 on PC simply rewards players for performing simple challenges. From time to time, the game even throws out bonus currency if you go long enough without completing a goal. This system lends a purpose to the game that was missing on phones, which is much appreciated.
Of course, what is a currency without something to spend it on? Likewise, what is a Pac-Man game without Power Pellets? The regular Power Pellets from the arcade game come standard from the start. In addition, 256 offers a wide arsenal of options, including giving Pac-Man a fire trail and making him grow larger to crush foes. One of my favorites saw Pac-Man spawning mini Pac-Men that darted around corners towards any nearby ghosts. These power-ups are great fun, adding layers of depth to the mazes. With some deft navigation, you can chain together several different powers into an amazing run. Even better, since currency is easy to come by, you’ll always have enough to upgrade your favorite abilities and get deeper into the game as a result.
Since this is an endless runner, you’re eventually going to have to die, and that death sometimes comes quicker than you’d like. Due to the procedurally generated levels, I found that it was easy to get into a situation where I had no choice but to end a chain of dots prematurely. The game also ramps up the number of ghosts it throws at you ridiculously quickly, and your average game is probably only going to last for five to ten minutes if that. This makes sense on phones and calls back to the game’s arcade roots. Still, I can’t help but feel that some sort of longer lasting mode is missing from this console release.
When you focus in on the screen in front of you and get into the zone, PAC-MAN 256 stands among the arcade greats. It takes a mobile genre and applies a retro style to great effect, creating a game that both young and old can find reasons to enjoy. The game stumbles while making the transition from F2P money generator to complete gaming experience, but the end result is still a great spin-off that leaves only one question. When are Bandai Namco finally going to release Mappy Championship Edition?
PAC-MAN 256 was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. This version is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The F2P mobile version of the game can be found on iOS and Android.
PAC-MAN 256 is everything you'd want out of a modern reinterpretation of the arcade classic. It may not have all the substance in the world, but it's a great time waster to put into the rotation whenever you have a podcast to listen to.