Pac-man’s never had it easy. Guy had to change his name from Puck-Man when immigrated to the U.S. back in 1980 because of just how easy it was to turn that into an obscenity. And you thought Xbone was bad. That first game and its sequel Ms. Pac-Man are foundational classics in the video game canon, but everything that followed down the years were mere footnotes. Particular failures were the show Pac-man: The Animated Series and the Super Mario 64-wannabe platformer Pac-man World. They were woeful attempts to broaden the little yellow glutton’s appeal, but no dice. The original games were perfect, and no reinvention would be as powerful. Hence why the classically styled Pac-Man Championship was so successful in 2007. Now Namco’s up to its old tricks with Pac-man and the Ghostly Adventures, a cartoon series and 3D platforming game for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U. The cartoon looks like yet another bust, but the new game is actually pretty slick.
Part of the problem with those old cartoons and 3D platformers were the attempts at forcing into a story on Pac-man other than “he’s a yellow ball that eats dots.” The tale of Ghostly Adventures is alternately bizarre and boring as hell. Pac-world is a land of technologically advanced spherical people that have been at war with a race of space alien ghost monsters led by a real dingus named Betrayus. Seriously. A junior high school nerd named Pac-man is the chosen hero to destroy the ghosts because he likes to eat. Or something. The weirdness of ball people being at war with ghosts is unfortunately evened out by the banality of destined savior nonsense.
This is where Ghostly Adventures actually earns its keep. The free-roaming 3D platformer is an all but extinct style of game in the 2010’s. Even the Ratchet and Clank series has abandoned platforming in favor of tower defense combat. Ghostly Adventures keeps it like it’s 2002, though, letting Pac-man run around a vibrantly colored futuristic city, collecting dots, jumping across disappearing blocks, and eating ghosts. Tapping X on an Xbox controller makes him chomp, A jumps, and once a meter is filled up from eating pellets in the environment, tapping Y will trigger a super mode just like a power pellet of old.
There are also power ups found in the environment, just like a Mario classic. Find a green pellet, and Pac-man turns into a little chameleon that can turn invisible and use its tongue to swing across flagpoles. The pace is slow but smooth while maintaining a mild challenge. The simple exploration and the freedom to bound around is effervescent compared to the grim, violent 3D patformers of today like Tomb Raider. Plus, the jumping isn’t nearly as guided. Pac-man can’t grip ledges or just hop along a pre-determined path, you actually have to pay attention and carefully time your leaps.
Spare but appealingly colorful. Green trees, baby blue buildings, yellow Pacs, primary colored ghosts; no one besides Nintendo makes games that look like this anymore, but most of Nintendo’s games tend to look the same these days. While it may seem wasteful for Namco Bandai to not put its game on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the extra processing oomph would not have helped make it any more than what it is.
The truth is that Namco Bandai wants to get kids buying Pac-man toys manufactured by Bandai and watching the new Ghostly Adventures cartoon series on the Disney Channel. This is an explicit push to use an old icon to make some scratch. In the process, though, producer Kunito Kumori and his team have made a what seems to be a lovely little game. When you get exhausted of the gunplay and epic adventures flooding all game machines later this year, this will make one hell of a palette cleanser.