Pac-Man 99: the pac-eat-pac world of online competitive ghost munching

By Neil Merrett

Pac-Man 99, released on Nintendo Switch in 2021, developed by Arika 

The Pac-Man series of games that revolutionised arcades when launched over four decades ago is no stranger to experimentation.

Over decades of hardware and software development, there have been a number of different approaches to try to tinker and overhaul the simple mechanics of Namco’s foremost ‘maze chase video game’.

This is a game based on the concept of navigating a maze of ghosts by avoiding and outmanoeuvring your spectral predators to pick-up every ‘pac-dot’ littered around the level.  However, the player would not spend the entire game as a victim and could at any point collect one of four ‘pac-pellets’ hidden within the corners of each maze.

In a classic gameplay mechanic, once a player consumes a pac-pellet, ghosts are temporarily turned blue for a brief period of time. This indicates they are suddenly vulnerable to being consumed by Pac-Man, if he can catch up with them of course.

The hunter suddenly becomes the hunted in this state, and the player has a chance to either hunt down ghosts to take them of out the game temporarily, or let them run away as Pac-Man continues to try and clear the maze.

The humanoid factor

Over the preceding decades, individuals have interpreted the character and narrative of Pac-Man in many numbers of ways; from a parable on the experience of drug taking; to a plea for the conserving of our resources and even a reflection on fiscal responsibility and general avarice.

Other, more cartoonish, interpretations paint the character as a devoted father and husband, as well as a two legged superhero battling against the forces of darkness and the rigours of parenthood.

These more esoteric readings of the character were perhaps only possible as a result of original designer Toru Iwatani’s revolutionary idea to make the main character of Pac-Man into a vaguely humanoid figure – a kind of sentient face if you will. This was a big shift for the games industry in the late 1970s where the player typically controlled impersonal cuboid tanks and weapons of destruction.

A 2015 interview with Mr Iwatani in the Financial Times suggested that the distinctive and iconic bright yellow design of Pac-Man – a chomping mouth based on a partially eaten pizza – paved the way for more personal, idiosyncratic games characters in the decades to come that could appeal to a wider group of gamers.

He told the newspaper that ensuring the relative simplicity of the character was a huge part of its appeal, leading designers to ultimately discard giving the creature eyes or a nose – at least initially.

Mr Iwatani was quoted as saying, “The discussion didn’t take very long. A few minutes. The character was all in the mouth.”

The simplicity of both the character design and overall Pac-man concept has seen decades of attempts at innovation to expand and modernise the game’s concept.

These attempts have included creating a more isometric maze runner game, to a series of 3D platformers, and even a Tetris-style puzzle game where ghosts and pac-people must be arranged strategically to clear out space.

In the early 2000s, Pac-Man VS was released as both a home console and handheld hybrid game where humans take control of the series’ ghosts and try to hunt down a single pac-person across a partially obscured maze.

Even before this, one of the first sequels for the game allowed for two players to work cooperatively as the husband and wife team of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. As opposed to the single player original game, two players could now work to gobble up the pac-dots on each level by pooling their resources as a couple. A trailblazer for a host of different multiplayer games to come.

Going online

More recent innovations of the Pac-Man formula have tended to focus on redefining the original game with more complex and technically sophisticated mechanics usually associated with modern online competitive games that see dozens if not a hundred players battling simultaneously.

This brings us to Pac-Man 99, published by Bandai Namco this year as a free to download game for Nintendo’s Switch Online service.

Much like Nintendo’s recent attempts to build competitive online experiences out of classic titles such as Tetris and Super Mario Bros, Pac-Man 99 is intended to breathe new life into traditionally one or two player game by introducing a Battle Royale mechanic from titles such as Fortnite. 

Rather than sharing a single grid with 98 online opponents, each player is required to play the game simultaneously, with their progress directly impacting and impeding their rivals. 

The objective is fundamentally the same as the original Pac-Man, but like Super Mario 35, success is less about clearing as many levels as possible and more about overwhelming rival players by flooding their screen with discarded foes.

A successful pac-person must continue to chomp down on pac-dots while also triggering ‘sleeping ghost’ icons on the maze that will be transformed into a train of edible ghosts when a player comes across a pac-pellet. Part of the game’s appeal is in working to build up a train of dozens of ghosts before suddenly turning the table on them to swallow them down all in one go.

The bigger the train of ghosts, the larger amount of obstacles such as ghost pac-men will appear on your rival’s screen. These pac-men can drastically slow down a player’s progress if they are touched.  

As more and more players are eliminated, the initially gentle pace of Pac-Man 99 can become increasingly intense as ghosts become much quicker and persistent in chasing you, while entire parts of the map can become almost impassable.  Further pressure is added with the introduction and sudden appearance of red pac-men ghosts on the screen that will destroy the player upon contact.  Suddenly, the simple and familiar map can become a literal minefield.

A huge focus of titles such as Tetris 99 and Pac-Man 99 is to choose how best to manipulate and target rivals to ensure your that the other pac-people fall before you do. 

This can boil down to countering rival players that are targeting you, or focusing instead on players who are deemed to be struggling or most under pressure. Sometimes it can be prudent to target the seemingly more vulnerable ones.  Much like with Tetris 99, you might decide it is fairer or easier to target a random player, or go directly for the most aggressive players to take out their threat early.

These reimagined 99 player games, as imagined for the Switch, can quickly become as much about personal politics as they are about strategy.

These changes to transform an arcade classic into a modern online multiplayer game makes the experience of playing Pac-Man 99 into a much more fast-paced and aggressive experience that you might expect.   Suddenly this classic game of patience and survival becomes more about trying to accumulate risk by building up large amounts of ghost to dispatch at once.

It also has a strong sense of pace, whereby a relatively gentle start to the game quickly escalates into a kaleidoscopic fireworks display of chaos as more and more players are eliminated. Suddenly a carefully defined strategy can quickly descend into a battle of luck and instinct – particularly with less than ten players left.

Who knows what classic games that might next be re-tooled to become an online competitive free-for all?  What is clear is that with a small small changes, there is still plenty of life and innovation in some of the most classic, retro game mechanics – not bad going for a 41 year-old.

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