Review: Namco Pac-Man Remix
As much as we've been disappointed by Namco's past efforts to release Pac-Man games for the iPod and iPhone, we've hungered for an improved version -- something along the lines of the 1996 arcade and console title Pac-Man Arrangement, or the 2007 Xbox Live game Pac-Man Championship Edition, both of which we've previously purchased and loved. Today, Namco released Pac-Man Remix ($6), which offers visual and sonic improvements on past Pac-Man titles, but also steps backwards from the family's best titles in gameplay, in part because of the iPhone's controls, and in part due to less impressive maze designs.
Not surprisingly, the core of Pac-Man Remix is a familiar game: you control a little yellow globe who runs through 2-D mazes eating dots, alternating between chasing and running away from ghosts. Power pellets transform the ghosts from one-touch killers into vulnerable blue targets that can be eaten as easily as the dots; pieces of fruit appear in the mazes for bonus points. You progress through 30 stages in order, in clusters of five similarly-themed stages per level.
First, some good news. Pac-Man Remix adds a number of elements from Pac-Man Arrangement, including dash arrows that whip you at high speeds, invulnerable, across the screen, as well as teleporters, and more sophisticated backdrops that vary in playful themes and contain bouncing animated dots. Like Arrangement, there are intermission screens and nice music that persists throughout the levels. Remix also goes beyond Arrangement in adding new elements such as frequent boss encounters, doors that open and shut, moving platforms that separate two areas of the maze, and a Free Play mode that lets you continue to play any of the levels you’ve unlocked. On rare occasion, extra power-ups will appear—speed-up feathers in a boss stage, or a random gift icon that turns every dot into a power pellet—but they are in no way common throughout the stages. In short, Pac-Man Remix gives fans of the old Pac-Man games something new to play, and for that, some players will be thankful; others will like the fact that the mazes and characters are rendered as simple 3-D objects. Based on what’s here, Remix is deserving of our general-level recommendation, something we couldn’t say about any of the earlier iPod or iPhone versions.
Even so, there’s an inescapable feeling that Remix is a poor man’s attempt at updating the excellent Arrangement, which for its less sophisticated graphics and music was actually a lot more fun. Like other major Pac-Man releases, Arrangement’s mazes had a smooth flow—you could roll through them with little more than a tap of the joypad or joystick—and Namco added ghosts with dashing and jumping powers, the ability to merge into bigger ghosts, and other neat little tricks that made the levels fun and unpredictable. Here, the mazes lack that sort of polish; dash arrows and power pellets are often placed in dead ends, later levels include clumps of dots that can’t just be grabbed by riding the rails in straight lines, and design innovations seem to be there for the sake of being there rather than actually enhancing the gameplay. Doors, teleporters, and platforms sound somewhat interesting, but in practice, they’re just more things to litter the mazes and slow down the action. Notably, Remix’s pace felt slow the first time we played the game, and felt even slower by comparison when we whipped out Arrangement.
Boss encounters are a good, not great break from the standard mazes. Every five stages, Namco brings out an oversized ghost boss and a mostly open maze with power pellets, forcing you to grab the pellets to break the big boss into multiple eatable mini-ghosts. Though these encounters are fairly repetitive and simple, challenging you to eat as many of the mini-ghosts as you can before the remaining ones re-form into a big, invulnerable threat, they’re a nice addition to the formula; more exciting bosses would have been even better.
Control also remains somewhat of a concern. Namco includes a tappable on-screen joypad as its default control scheme, and allows you to switch to a swipe-to-control option if you prefer; we found the virtual joypad to be under-responsive relative to a real joypad, and the swiping controls to be better but still not as precise as the Pac-Man controls of the 1980’s. Except in later levels where dots are clustered in box-like shapes that require fast directional changes to be eaten, Pac-Man Remix’s slower gameplay and level designs seem to accommodate these imprecisions better than Arrangement’s would have; still, we can’t say that the experience of playing Pac-Man on an iPhone or iPod touch matches what we’ve enjoyed on Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft consoles, full-sized or portable.
Overall, Pac-Man Remix is a considerably better Pac-Man game than Namco has previously released for the iPod or iPhone. It clearly required a lot more development effort, and consequently delivers a deeper experience that is also more visually and sonically interesting than its predecessors. While Remix is more expensive than the overpriced iPod renditions, it’s less expensive than the really overpriced prior iPhone versions when they debuted at $10; today, Namco offers Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, and Pac-Man Remix on the iPhone for the same $6 asking price. There’s no doubt that we’d pick Remix over the others; that said, those with old PlayStation or Nintendo Game Boy versions of Pac-Man Arrangement will find a better overall play experience to be had there. Our hope is that Namco’s recently announced iPhone OS version of Pac-Man Championship Edition offers a more compelling experience, particularly in the control and speed departments, but for now, this is a good start.