Review: Namco Pac-Man
Updated! Nearly 25 years after Atari released its infamously ugly Atari VCS/2600 translation of Namco's 1979 arcade game Pac-Man, the iPod version ($5) has proved that it's still possible to screw up the classic maze game in new ways. To be fair, Pac-Man has demonstrated great staying power over the past quarter-century despite numerous translation challenges - most of them visual - and its least impressive iterations have still satisfied hundreds of thousands of younger players. Aesthetically, the iPod version is ahead of most of the pack: Apple's 2.5" 320x240-pixel screen lets you see apparently pixel-perfect renditions of the game's mazes, ghosts, dots, and main character, and its sound effects and small bits of music similarly sound arcade-perfect. There are even enough pixels left over on the right side of the screen to fill with old-fashioned Pac-Man cabinet artwork and a picture of a joystick.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason for that joystick: it’s there to let you know the direction Pac-Man’s just been pointed in. Rather than allow the iPod’s four cardinal face buttons to control Pac-Man definitively, Namco’s control scheme here forces you to tap or sweep your finger across the Click Wheel’s surface to signal direction changes, a decision that will remind fans of the simple, efficient, classic Pac-Man controls of how the arcade machines used to play when the joystick was broken. Even when you’ve tapped in the right direction, Pac-Man will sometimes veer unexpectedly in a different direction, such as off into a tunnel or a ghost. The precision motions needed for fakes and turns become harder with the iPod’s control scheme, and the lack of other control options doesn’t help matters, either. Pac-Man on the fifth-generation iPod feels worse than it has on cell phones and other devices, which is a real shame.
Given the dozens of possible ways you can play a decent game of Pac-Man these days - as part of a compilation cartridge or disc for a real handheld, or as a download for a cell phone or other device - we’d advise you to pass on the iPod version of Pac-Man unless your standards are pretty low (think 1989 or so), or something is done to improve its control schemes. Other iPod games will be a better use of your $5.
Update: Our original review of Pac-Man for the iPod was published on September 25, 2006. On July 30, 2008, iLounge published iPhone Gems: Cards, Gambling + Arcade-Style Games, a feature article looking at seven assorted games developed for the iPhone OS, including an iPhone version of this title. Our new review appears below.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Namco’s one of our all-time favorite game developers, but the games it’s releasing for iPods and iPhones are seriously unimpressive. In 2006, Namco released the early dot-gobbling maze game Pac-Man for Click Wheel iPods, following it up with the early 2007 release of Ms. Pac-Man, and the 2008 release of Pole Position—all roughly 25-year-old arcade games that hardly seemed worth their $5 asking prices. This month, Namco re-released Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man for the iPhone and iPod touch, doubling their prices to $10, and doing little to justify the price increases.
Pac-Man for the iPhone and iPod touch is the same game as previously released for other iPods, except for one difference in visuals, one in audio, and three in controls. Though the original version was virtually identical aesthetically to the dated arcade game, the iPhone’s larger, higher-resolution display let Namco add a few more pixels of detail to the mazes, dots, and characters, none of which you’re likely to actually notice or care about given the simplicity of the graphics. On the audio side, Namco has preserved the same audio from the arcade and iPod versions, but has left out a volume control option, apparently presuming that most users would have iPhones with integrated volume controls. As such, iPod touch users will either have to live with the fixed volume level, or turn off audio entirely.
The bigger differences are in control. While the Click Wheel iPods suffered from a single poor control scheme, Namco now includes three for the iPod touch and iPhone. Swipe Mode lets you “swipe your finger across the screen to move Pac-Man in that direction;” D-Pad Mode places a four-way directional pad on the bottom of the screen, and Accelerometer Mode lets you “play by leaning or rotating the device in the direction that you want Pac-Man to travel.” Simply put, all three of these control schemes work, but they all stink by comparison with the original arcade game’s joystick. None offers the sort of predictability or accuracy you’ll need to fake out the ghosts or otherwise make pinpoint turns; swiping often has you covering Pac-Man accidentally as you’re trying to control him, and the accelerometer tries to register both tilts and turns of the device as motions, making control even more of a question mark. D-Pad Mode is the closest to acceptable, but still not great. We preserve our original rating on this title.