Look back at all the old arcade classics and Pac-Man is the one game which has aged the best.
It’s simple munch the dots, collect the fruit gameplay is both mindless and addictive, compelling and competitive. It’s mechanics stand the test of time better than any of the rest, further reinforced by how Bandai Namco are still able to iterate and evolve the license. They proved that with Pac-Man Championship Edition, and now they’ve done it again with Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Plus.
You still have the funky techno music blaring in the background, the flashy neon aesthetic blinding and dazzling you as you dart around corners and blast yourself around each maze, and the insane acceleration and pace the deeper into a challenge you go. But it’s more than that. The rules have changed – quite dramatically in some cases – but in a way that feels appropriate for a current gen title.
For starters, touching a ghost without a power pill doesn’t mean a life lost or game over. You can actually touch them a couple of times and even nudge them out of the way to carry on chomping. Once you do that, though, they’re on the warpath and immediately get on your tail. There’s also hordes of sleeping ghosts scattered around each maze and whenever you zip past them they’ll wake up and join a chasing chain. In the short-term, that’s a problem because it restricts your movement along different routes. Long term, however, once you pop a powerpill that’s a seriously long train of points to devour.
You can also ‘bomb-jump’ your way back to the middle of each maze in order to get yourself out of a sticky situation or bring yourself closer to a fruit or power pill. There’s only about three of these per stage though, so they’ll need to be used tactically and wisely, but again it’s a big evolution for the series and fundamentally changes the way each run plays out.
You don’t even need to clear a stage out of all dots, and that’s something else to consider as you’ll occassionally need to weigh up whether it’s worth pursuing that stray cluster at the other end of the map being surrounded by a pack of spooks, or just jump into the next maze, skipping them entirely. Then again, that shift also means the reactions of your enemies are faster and they’re a whole lot meaner. Decisions, decisions.
The good news is that all the mazes do look different and each present their own set of unique challenges. Some have tight, one-way pathways, others are multi-layered with routes that see you pop out at all sides. Though you’ll obviously have to be mindful of bumping into your nemesis when not at full strength. The ability to customise each run is really welcome as well, such as tweaking the difficulty, to changing the music, the look of your character, and even the style of the mazes. It helps make sure everything looks and stays feeling fresh.
PCE2 is built on its Adventure Mode as well as it’s traditional, five minute Score Attack. Each Adventure features levels with a set requirement – eat 2 lots of fruit, collect x amount of lives – with a major boss battle at the end of it. Yeah, Pac really has to try and munch his way through a super-sized Blinky in order to reach the next world and it’s damned sure not easy. You’ll usually have to plough through 9 or so mazes, collecting lives and eating fruit as you do, before the time runs out. If you manage to make it through, you, and the amount of ‘lives’ you collected, turn into extra Pac-People to gobble up ghosty in a neat little animation at the end of each level. It’s completely uninteractive, yet still wholly satisfying.
The big switch-up is 2P Plus, which allows you to either play co-operatively with the computer or a buddy in order to complete the mazes. Again, the gameplay has undergone some dramatic changes. While the CPU can ghost through the ghosts – how’s that for a paradox? – if you and a friend are on the Joy-Cons and one of you runs near a ghost, you can be caught. You do have seconds to reaction as time slows long enough for you to slam on the breaks or re-plot your course to get out of dodge. If you’re caught, though, your Pac-Person will yell for help and you partner only has a short space of time to get over and butt Blinky off. Your buddy will even say thank you if you save the day, but if you don’t, you’ll both lose a life. How’s that for incentive?
Co-op synchronised play is essential for 2P Plus as you’ll both need to collect the dots on either side of a maze and once done, head towards each other face to face and pop a piece of fruit between you to move onto the next stage. The same rule applies to ghost gobbling. One player will need to herd the ghosts along the maze once the powerpill has been collected, and the other needs to trap the old spookster between them to pop it. It’s such a smart way to make sure you’re both paying attention but also means you have to keep focused in order to build up the highest score possible.
Boss battles are also completely different with the two pacs actually able to jump! You’ll both need to use gravitational forces to leap between surfaces to collect the dots and as usual, once they’re all scoffed a powerpill will appear. Once activated, both partners will then have to jump at the big boss ghost, gradually chipping away at his health until he is weakened enough to enter the next phase. It’s so cool, and just one more unique thing this game threw at me that I wasn’t expecting.
And that’s something PCE 2 keeps doing, impressing and delivering. It throws out these unique gimmicks and surprises, but they all feel pertinent to the core of the game. What’s more, I can’t imagine playing a Pac-Man game without them now. During this review, I actually revisited an older version of Pac-Man and surprisingly, I not only find it too slow, I almost found it too bland as I kept looking for the new powerups and gimmicks. I actually enjoy what Bandai Namco have done in order to make Pac-Man feel current and relevant again, and it helps that I also get to play it portably wherever I am, however I want.
There is one major problem with PCE2, though, and that is the frame-rate. Sometimes, it’s fixed itself before you’ve even noticed. Sometimes it chugs just enough to affect the action, and then there are occasions when it’s really bad, usually when the games’ tempo has gone into fifth gear. It gets particularly bad in some of the later Adventure Missions, to the point where it can cost you the round on a time-sensitive haul. It’s not enough to spoil the game entirely, but it is an irritating distraction as it often breaks the momentum and flow of a run which is both irksome and irritating, especially if you’ve already lost a life or tow.
That said, frame rate problems rarely hindered my progress on Score Attack and 2P Plus, so hopefully it’s something Namco look to address in a future update.
But in case it wasn’t already clear, I’m a big fan of all the changes, I absolutely adore the multiplayer component and think PCE 2 also has one of the finest singleplayer Pac-Man experiences to date. The difference between Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Plus and many other games I get for review is that this one will be staying on my system for weeks, months, maybe even years to come. It’s quickly become an essential ingredient in my daily gamer diet and not only am I finding it hard to put down, I then can’t wait to pick it back up again.
PCE 2 is, by far, the best handheld Pac-Man experience ever designed, but it’s also one of the finest, most fun multiplayer experiences you can find on the market on any system.
+ Fast-paced and frantic fun
+ Beautiful looking aesthetic
+ Excellent, rip-roaring soundtrack
+ Exceptional multiplayer mode
+ Immediately addictive
– Some erratic and occasionally seriously bad frame rate
Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Plus
9 out of 10
Tested on Switch