After several attempts to make a Pac-Man battle royale game work, Pac-Man 99 may have finally cracked the code. Nintendo’s new freebie for online subscribers is the latest in its line of surprising retro elimination games. Like Tetris 99, it fits classic gameplay into a Fortnite-style mass-multiplayer structure.
As far as battle royale experiments go, Pac-Man 99 is more of a winning combination than Nintendo’s limited-time Super Mario 35. While that game struggled to fit the platformer into a multiplayer gauntlet, Pac-Man is a much more natural pairing with Tetris 99’s mechanics. In fact, it only emphasizes the best thing about Pac-Man.
Pac-Man is all about reaction and adaptation. In the original arcade game, players would have to clear a board full of pellets. Being quick was only half the battle. Getting through some of the game’s later stages involves efficiency more than anything. Players have to optimize their routes to grab the most pellets possible without having to turn around and go back for another pass.
Planning is only half the battle. The little ghosts that chase Pac-Man around are colorful menaces with a mind of their own. The strategy comes in trying to predict where the A.I. will move next and try to manipulate it as best as possible. A successful board clear requires a lot of quick thinking that players can bounce back from without missing a beat. It’s like a GPS recalibrating its route after a missed turn.
Pac-Man 99 only doubles down on those ideas by making the board far more chaotic. The main difference is that opponents can attack each other by sending “Pac-Man Jammers” to other players’ mazes. Bumping into one temporarily reduces Pac-Man’s speed, forcing players to think more carefully about how they navigate the game. In the arcade game, it’s viable to let a ghost follow closely on Pac-Man’s tail to lure it into a power pellet trap. That same move can lead to an unexpected death in Pac-Man 99.
Players can encounter deadly red jammers too, which is where the strategy of the original game really starts to shine. Late in a round, these slow-moving obstacles will start to appear on the board. Running into one results in an immediate death, but their movement can be stopped by eating a power pellet. That turns them into roadblocks that force players to quickly figure out a new way around the maze.
Those little distractions force users to master the more subtle skills that are at the heart of the classic game. It’s not about clearing boards and running up the scoreboard. Players need to think on the fly and navigate a maze that’s constantly changing. It’s about maintaining control amid the chaos to earn that coveted “Pac-One” win.
Pac-Man 99 is a wickedly fun little online freebie that takes the best ideas from Tetris 99 and puts them into something that’s less technically demanding. Whether or not it has long-term potential remains to be seen, but it shows that Nintendo is onto something with this brand of left-field online games. They’re clever final exams for games we’ve been studying for decades.
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