Namco's iconic yellow hero Pac-Man is probably the most recognised game character across the entire planet. He has appeared in dozens of spin-off games, on a monstrous amount of merchandise, and even been sighted by over-enthusiastic academics as a metaphor for Margaret Thatcher's greedy capitalist politics.
It's likely he is known in communities where electricity is still a mystery, and despite a surprising lack of clones of his original game, he has been aped and parodied as a character across the world. Not bad for a circle with no eyes and no personality.
The ravenous dot-eater is back again, and this time it's another outing on Xbox LIVE Arcade, which has already seen a carbon copy of the original game, and the slightly less popular Ms Pac-Man. That might sound like a little too much Pac-Man for one machine, but thankfully the Championship Edition version is the best yet. Sadly it does not feature the continuous edition of the original, but it does do a premium job of updating a classic to modern standards without destroying its soul.
Championship Edition's visuals perfectly demonstrate Namco's sensitive handling of their most precious asset. They certainly stay faithful to the original Pac-Man, with the renowned font and heavily pixelated bonuses instantly recognisable, and ghosts Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde barely looking a day older. The maps, however, while still featuring the same cartoon-bubble stylistic flair, now shine in HD resplendence, and throb and flicker in a way that will remind many of Rez. The warm glow of the retro neon colours on the solid black background superbly captures the radiance that used to emanate from countless old arcade cabinets throughout the 'golden age of gaming', and a revamped soundtrack that adds a pounding bass line to the famed bleeps and beeps gives the whole package the feel of being an industrial techno remix of a classic dance record.
Minor modifications to Pac-Man's basic gameplay mechanics have resulted in a new pace and intensity that the original lacked. Now, as you play you and your pursuers gather speed by the second, whipping things into a frenzy that will likely warm the nerve endings of the hardcore and terrify the casual player. The ghost AI also feels more savage, and though the famous four are not necessarily more intelligent, they are definitely more aggressive. The analogue stick control has changed too, after a substantial negative response to the first two XBLA Pac-Man games. Now it feels flighty and loose, but simultaneously more responsive and reactive, creating a drifting shmup feel to the control that works surprisingly well.
What Championship Edition offers beyond this tinkering under Pac-Man's yellow bonnet is five new game modes, which are perhaps better described as 'game versions', as each essentially provides a slightly different take on this new kind of Pac-Man. As always, weaving through a maze gobbling dots and avoiding the four ghosts is at the game's core, and the pills that turn Pac-Man's foes into harmless point bonuses return.
The real difference is that rather than the endless games of old, the new modes are more like set piece Pac-Man challenges with concrete time limits and flexible maps. Championship Mode for example, lasts five minutes, and starts with only a tiny fraction of dots and pills in place. Collect all these and the famous fruits that defined the look of arcade game bonuses for years appear next to the ghost pen. Rather than just offering a point boost, collecting the fruit now activates the next pattern of dots and pills. These patterns vary hugely, from those that fill the entire map to ones that feature half-a-dozen pills and barely any dots at all.
The real strategic game mechanic here is that the game maps, which are widescreen for the first time, are divided in half. The dot patterns that appear mostly only cover one half of the screen, with the fruit to activate them appearing on the opposite side. What this means is that you can compliment one dot pattern on the left with another on the right. For example, you could leave a pill-heavy pattern on the right, while working through a complex, pill-free pattern on the left, until a situation arises that justifies nipping back to the right to use the ghost gobbling pills.
Along with the championship mode that is supported by an online leaderboard with high-scores based on overall and weekly player performances, there are four other modes that only subtly adapt the details of the first. Challenge Mode One simply adds a ten-minute time limit and makes every new pattern either very pill-heavy or completely pill-free. Challenge Mode Two places the player in an under-lit maze, meaning it is only truly easy to navigate when the dots work like a digital Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail.
Extra Mode One boosts up the speed to intense zone-gaming levels that will likely overwhelm your mind and leave you shattered, unless your idea of a good game is comparable to most people's idea of an evening charged with stress and blossoming panic. Extra Mode Two offers a course in part based on Manhattan's network of streets, and Extra Mode Three offers a compilation of all the above, meaning a very intense game with a continually changing map.
Overall this is a great, if slightly limited package, that is a little overpriced at 800 points without the original continuous mode included. The five 'modes' will quickly leave you hungry for more, but as an example of a perfectly pitched retro remake, Pac-Man Championship Edition is inspired.