Retro Video Game Review: Pac-Mania (NES)

by on March 8th, 2015
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Overall Rating: 3/5 Stars

The original Pac Man arcade game was aguably the “killer app” of the arcade scene and perhaps video gaming in general; in other words, it was the monstrously massive success of Pac Man play that made the arcades a viable place to hang out and pump quarters into the cabinets. While previous units had been line-based geometric adventures without any true characters, Pac Man came along as the first colorful, recognizable mascot-type figure for the gaming world and would plant a permanent stake as a legend in his own right.

Like most other arcade classics, the Pac Man title was ported onto home consoles such as the PC, Atari, and other systems, including a version on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Variant not-quite-sequels came along, such as the slightly different Ms. Pac Man, and eventually including the 1990 unlicensed release of Pac Mania from notorious developer Tengen.

Gameplay

Pac Mania follows the classic Pac Man gameplay formula: The player controls Pac Man, the yellow pie-chart, pizza-with-a-slice-missing character in an attempt to eat all of the pellets regularly distributed throughout a maze. Meanwhile, ghost characters pursue Pac Man through the maze and kill him upon contact; however, Pac Man can use special Power Pellets that grant him the ability to eat the ghosts, with more bonus points awarded if he can eat successive ghosts before the ability’s timer runs down. In addition to eating ghosts, Pac Man is also rewarded points for eating pellets (with a multiplier corresponding with the level number), completing stages, and consuming a piece of fruit that appears on each level.

This particular iteration of the Pac Man canon makes a few notable changes, however. The two most prominent features of Pac Mania are that the playing field is now rendered in an isometric, pseudo-3d point of view, and the fact that Pac Man can now jump. This fundamentally changes the gameplay experience, changing this from the typical, analytical challenge of remaining a step ahead of the ghosts, predicting their moves based on behaviors, and using every advantage possible to avoid and eat them. Now the fun is a bit more action-oriented, since Pac Man can jump over the ghosts and get out of a jam this way.

Other alterations include special items that may appear during a level, which are a green pellet that temporarily grants super speed, and a red pellet that doubles the bonus points for eating ghosts. Also, in a subtle-yet-significant switch, rather than a bird’s-eye view that can see the whole playing field at once, Pac Man is now centered while the level scrolls around him as he moves. Intact, at least, are the between-level cutscenes that strive to provide mildly humorous misadventures, and certain little tricks like being able to start pressing a directional pad before a turn to make it as quick as possible, though the few pixels’ worth of advantage seems to be missing. The last, but definitely not least, change from previous Pac Man games is that there are additional ghosts, including one that jumps, all adding up to a maximum of seven foes in later levels.

Graphics

This video game truly strives to impress with its visuals, and inherently succeeds on a certain level since the sensation of seeing Pac Man in two and a half dimensions can seem somewhat surreal, or at least intriguing. Also, rather than a simple change of color, each level has a theme, like being composed of building blocks or set in the desert. The barriers that form the walls, then, are no longer simple lines but now seem like actual objects set in conniving patterns. However, even the different scenery soon becomes somewhat dull and boring, as the repetitive constant themes never alter in different areas of the stage nor with any replay of the cartridge. Building blocks can only seem impressive for so long. Also worth noting is the fact that, when dealing with such an iconic franchise like Pac Man, such significant changes to its distinctive prior visuals can actually be seen as a step back in the process.

Sound

The music is potentially annoying, altogether chippy half-processed background tracks that risk losing the appeal of their upbeat beats rather quickly. Otherwise, the sound effects are basic but fun, and overall none of the noises starkly contrast or debilitate the gameplay.

Originality

The concept, obviously, is not entirely original; the idea to pop it into another dimension, though, is admirable in its especially bold audacity. Then, to top it off, giving Pac Man the ability to hop is an astoundingly foundational shift in the Pac Man paradigm. Pac Mania truly is a form of Mania, as though the developers were stark raving insane mad scientists bent on completely rearranging the much-beloved franchise.

The result is a game that, if a newcomer were to have his or her first exposure to Pac Man as a session of Pac Mania, may strike the player as a quirky arcade-style puzzle/action hybrid that is worth some play to get some high scores and reach the ultimate levels (and not just by using the stage select available at the beginning, to an extent). For those who do not like Pac Man, they will have no reason to like Pac Mania. Then, for those who were fans of Pac Man, they will likely either enjoy Pac Mania as a somewhat enhanced version, or decry it as a tragic blasphemy of the original. In any interpretation, it remains a provocative, interesting, challenging NES video game that jumps into a respectable three stars out of five rating.


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