Days ago it was brought to my attention that somehow we had received a review code for Pac-Man: Championship Edition DX, but had not yet reviewed it (something which rarely happens). Having been hopelessly enslaved by the title for the past couple of months personally, I saw this as an opportunity to expertly judge the game after many, many hours of play. And so here I sit in an attempt to translate my adrenaline to words…
There’s a reason the DC staff and I have begun referring to Pac-Man’s newest venture as Pac-Man: Championship Addiction DX: if you possess the arcade gene, this game will possess you. Perhaps more successfully than any other arcade franchise revival in recent memory, Championship Edition DX merges new, stylized concepts with a beloved old-school gameplay template—and it all adds up to one of the most spellbinding classic design evolutions to date.
At the core, the concept remains true. It’s still a game of pattern recognition and lightning-quick reflexes, guiding Pac-Man through an assortment of two-dimensional mazes while gobbling up pellets. Rather than contort the concept into something entirely unfamiliar, the wise folks at Namco Bandai chose instead to stick to the roots this time and concentrate on enhancing what makes Pac-Man great.
Specifically, that would be the classic hectic action itself. The trance that sets in while staring at the entire game board in totality, subconsciously planning your route and adjusting as necessary. And, of course, the sheer satisfaction of chewing up hapless ghosts under the influence of a power pellet. Pac-Man: CE DX takes all of this to the next level, complete with a pounding electronica soundtrack and beautiful colorful (and customizable!) visuals.
While Pac-Man has always been about the high scores, in CE DX, the focus has shifted even further away from merely staying alive, with instead a heavier emphasis on ghost combos. For starters, most of the ghosts don’t even actively pursue you until they’re awakened from their sleep by Pac-Man zooming past them. You’ll find them dozing quietly, arranged in characteristic patterns around the game board which can be exploited with carefully-planned paths.
Naturally, as you improve your skills, the goal becomes finding the quickest, most efficient path through each part of the game board to lead you by the lines of sleeping ghosts. Before long you’ll end up with a couple dozen of them trailing behind you (Snake-style), at which point you’ll want to devour a power pellet and get to the good stuff—eating them. And oh, is it fun; as Pac-Man begins powering through a line of ghosts, his chomping grows ever more rapid as the climbing scores fly out of them. It’s hard to describe, so hit play on the embedded video below to witness it for yourself.
Eating a fruit on either side of the maze, meanwhile, will immediately result in the other side of the maze being morphed into a different design. This means that the game board dynamically shifts the entire time you play, making things even more exciting and hectic. It isn’t chaos, however; as with all things Pac-Man, there is a sequence to the maze morphing segments, so after playing a level enough times, it almost becomes second-nature. You’ll find yourself planning ahead and not even realizing it, aware also of the fact that many ghosts actually carry power pellets with them, thus replenishing your invincibility meter and boosting your opportunities for ghost combo high scores as a result.
But that’s not all. As your score rises, so does the game speed, which starts at anywhere from 10 to 25 and eventually climbs to 50—at which point the action moves so quickly that it’s almost disastrous to blink. Any mistakes you make—such as deaths or the use of a bomb (which we’ll get to in a moment)—will once again lower the speed accordingly. When you’re aiming for a spot on the leaderboards, it’s critical to keep the speed as high as possible for as long as possible (that way, you can do more in the same amount of time).
If you happen to get stuck (something which can usually be avoided with good route planning), you’ll be happy to know that the game is on your side. CE DX does its best to keep the player alive—and one of its most effective forms of assistance is a sort of bullet-time slow-motion effect that activates in the event of a close call (or an impending disaster). This allows the player a moment to respond, which generally prevents a death from occurring. However, in the event that it’s not enough, you’ve got yet another option at your disposal: the use of a bomb. See, each Power Pellet that Pac-Man devours while invincible adds to a limited stock of bombs, useful “last resorts” which can be employed in dire situations to send all of the ghosts momentarily back to their home in the center of the game board. Yes, it penalizes you by reducing the game speed, but it’s better than a death, which will drop it a whole 10 points.
So again, the focus is not so much survival in Pac-Man: CE DX as it is score accumulation. This is a positive adjustment for a couple of reasons. First off, it allows for a smoother learning curve for newcomers or anyone not yet accustomed to the patterns of a particular level. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it allows the game to constantly invoke dopamine, providing a near-spiritual experience sometimes while zooming around corners and amassing points at speeds which don’t even seem to be consciously possible. It’s a game which is fun even when you’re failing; the entire process of reaching success is infectious.
Speaking of which, another critical design decision which supports the game’s arcade addictiveness is the ease of replaying a level. When things don’t go perfectly in games like these, the urge to start again and give it another shot is constantly pushing against the urge to put the controller down and call it quits. Thus, anything the developers can do to encourage you to continue playing is a powerful choice. In this case, it’s the ability to simply press Select twice, which immediately restarts the current challenge with little more than a couple seconds of preparatory downtime. It’s perfect, and it makes it far too easy to lose yourself for hours in perfecting your strategies.
And there’s plenty to perfect, too, because the game features eight completely different game boards, each supplemented by several different ways to play (all of which are fun). Most of the mazes are pretty traditional in design, though a heavy use of wrap-around passages applies to many of the more challenging ones. Apart from confusing pathfinding (which requires practice) through these various levels, there’s nothing fancy or gimmicky to speak of until you reach the ninth level, Darkness, which is actually just all of the previous levels in the dark.
The different ways to play also call for entirely different strategies, even on the same level. There are three different game modes:
Score Attack – A timed mode (there are 5- and 10-minute flavors) where the goal is to simply score as high as possible within the given time frame.
Time Attack – There are multiple versions of this as well. The first is just a full-length trip through all of the various level patterns, start to finish (and the goal, of course, is to complete it as quickly as possible—score doesn’t matter). However, in addition, each stage features multiple mini-Time Attack segments which are each broken out into their own selectable challenge (there are anywhere from 8 to 21 of them in all, depending on the level). Once you complete them all, your times are totaled, and you’re scored based on the aggregate time it took you to complete them all.
Ghost Combo – A completely different way to play where the only goal is to remain invincible and consume as many ghosts as possible. This sees you planning your paths through the levels based on the placement of power pellets and ghosts which carry power pellets, such that you reach each subsequent pellet just before your invincibility meter empties. It’s very challenging and requires lots of practice.
When you tire of one style of challenge, it’s easy to switch to another (or even another level entirely) and find renewed interest in the game. There’s a great deal of content here overall—and the way it’s arranged, it’s as accessible as can be. For the competitive arcade gamer, there is enormous intrinsic incentive to keep playing.
The only real gripe, in fact, is the inconvenient leaderboard design. On my PS3 version of the game, completing a challenge is not immediately reflected on the leaderboards, so you can’t simply flip over and check your current standings. Generally, it takes several minutes for any new scores to be placed on the boards. Plus, scrolling through the scores of others is slow and clunky and riddled with load times—so it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. Having said that, it is pretty cool that it’s possible to view replays of the top 500 performances on each level’s 5-minute Score Attack—and it’s just that much one more resource with which to study and improve your own techniques.