Nobody Eat The Brown Ghost
There isnít a bigger 80ís game icon than the only character to ever get the coveted Time Man of the Year award, our old yellow pal Pac-Man. Pac has already been the subject of the sublime Pac-Man Championship Edition DX this generation and now heís back again in Namco Bandaiís Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures on your PS3. Mr. Pac has branched out in the past with titles that stretch all the way back to the mid-80ís like Professor Pac-Man and Pac-Land along with many, many console games that cover a wide range on genres. Iím not sure there has ever been anything quite like this game though.
To be fair, Ghostly Adventures is based on a new cartoon rather than claiming to be a direct descendant of any existing Pac-game. I figured I would watch an episode or two of the cartoon to get a feel for the material but I couldnít get through more than a half an episode before it became too banal for me. I am not a prude, but guys named Butt-ler and Dr. Buttocks are pretty dismal attempts at humor to me. Also, somehow the ghosts arenít really bad guys, just a little mischievous. Totally not canon!
Thankfully that foray into the cartoon helped brace me for the shock of seeing just how tangential this game is to anything resembling my nostalgic view of the great Pac. Those who are looking for mazes and monsters are going to have to look a bit further. Pac-Man is a platformer very much in the vein of Mario and friends (a Mario 64 derivative, not Super Mario Bros.) and not the sort of frantic twitch-fest of its ancestors. Sure, there are still pellets to eat, but theyíve been reduced to the analogue of coins or rings in other platformers, there merely to be grabbed and traded in to unlock more levels. There are ghosts, tons of ghosts to be sure, but they are more like cannon fodder there to be gobbled up and barely ever presenting a threat. No, most of the threats are environmental in this game.
When I say ďthink MarioĒ I really mean it. The Ghostly Adventures story is spread over six or so worlds, each of which features around six levels to beat. Those levels are set up along a branching line and have to be done in order (think more Mario 3 here) and generally culminate in a boss battle to unlock the next world. Itís a very familiar pattern for games in general, if not Pac himself.
Within those levels youíll run across falling platforms, avoid toxic slime, make daring leaps and scale walls and all that jive. At the end of each level youíll grab a fruit (another nod to the arcade, although Pacís fruit choices seem limited to cherries, bananas and a couple other items and you wonít find keys or galaxians here) and move on. There are maybe three dozen levels total and it will take you maybe 10 hours or so to make your way through all of them.
Of course the iconic power pellet makes a return as well, only now itís ALSO be Mario-fied and various power pellets with transform Pac into a wide array of alt-Pacs. You might find yourself turned into ice-Pac, rock-Pac, balloon-Pac, rubber-Pac and many others. Each version has a special power that ranges from freezing ghosts to bouncing higher to rolling around Rock of Ages style. Levels are designed with a specific power or two in mind and youíll only find pellets that pertain to that levels so it doesnít really give you freedom but it does break up the core Pac gameplay of chomping ghosts and sometimes scaring them.
Somewhere in there is a story, but itís so steeped in weird little-kid stuff that you arenít going to pay attention to it. I can tell you that my little kids sure didnít care about it. They did get some enjoyment out of the game (at least a bit more than me) but then they ran into some of the weird difficulty spikes. Overall the game is pretty breezy easy and youíll find yourself with a dozen or more extra lives after the first world, but then every once in a while they stick in some punishing jumping puzzle on top of a river of toxic goo that strips lives away faster than layers of paint being doused with turpentine. Alas, it isnít the type of challenge that you feel good about, it is usually the type of challenge that comes from bad camera angles. Ugh.
Games like Ghostly Adventures make me a little sad because it feels like they are taking advantage of older gamers by putting heroes of their youth into games designed for their kids but they arenít respecting the product. That might come across as a bit haughty and high-minded for video games, but the fact remains this game has next to nothing to do with the Pac-Man we grew up with. They bastardized it for their cartoon, then took that bastardization and laid it on top of some fairly generic game design that has very little to do with the original IP OR the TV show and it ends up feeling like a very cheap cash-in.
There IS something to be said for both the liberal use of original Pac-Man sound effects (still great 30 years later) and the variety of gameplay introduced by the pellet system. Itís a shame that everything else feels so shoddy. The graphics seem like they were designed for the least common denominator platform (in this case the 3DS) and just ported wholesale over to each system. The colors are splashy, but the environments look cheap. The game is too generic for most hard-core gamers but the target audience of kids probably arenít going to be able to handle some of the trickier powers and finicky platforming. In the end this doesnít feel like a game that pays respect to its roots, but rather one that was rushed out the door to raise awareness of a new TV series. Viewed as a tie-in product itís probably as successful as most in that genre, but looked at as a continuation of the rich Pac history it comes up very lacking.