Pac-Mania’s debut on wireless phones is special to Namco in two ways. First, it opens up an additional dimension to the traditional Pac-Man by enabling a 3D setting. And while you may think you need a super duper phone to run the game, Pac-Mania is supported by plenty of modern phones from different carriers. Second, it is being released to commemorate Pac-Man’s 25th anniversary, which Namco made a big splash about at this year’s E3 show (although, this isn’t a 25th anniversary for Pac-Mania itself, whose concept and namesake appeared previously on the Sega Genesis). Celebrating the life of a yellow chomping game character might sound a little pretentious or excessive but when you make a video game that ends up enshrined in the Smithsonian for all time that lets you get away with a lot of things.
When I first heard about Pac-Mania, I fully expected it to be 3D in the traditional sense of games like Centipede; a behind-the-back 3D action game. Instead, Pac-Mania takes a more conservative approach to 3D; more to the roots of the Genesis game. The game takes a slanted isometric view with the addition of the z axis meaning there’s a playing field above the ghosts and Pac-Man. Think of it being 3D like the original SimCity being 3D.
As simple as these changes might be, they manage to change the pace and the focus of Pac-Mania. The original game pressed you to ration power pellets and predict where the ghosts were going so you can use those important power-ups to turn the table on the enemy spirits. In Pac-Mania, the isometric view gives you a more tactical look at the gameboard. I’m not sure if the speed is the same as the old arcade game but to me, Pac-Mania moved at a noticeably faster pace. Since you can’t see the entire level, there’s a greater chance you’ll bump into a ghost by accident.
Pac-Man’s ability to jump allows him to jump over obstacles and into lanes that are not threatened by ghosts. Or, if you time it right, you can also jump over or even ahead of ghosts. This takes a little practice to do but not long before for you master that, Pac-Mania will send in new jumping ghosts. Thus, jumping becomes crucial to solving some of the later levels. Pac-Man’s jump is also a little ‘floaty’ allowing you to jump along some L-shaped corridors.
There are still power pellets scattered at the corners of each level. The ghosts continue to start from the middle of the level. However, the levels do not mirror the static labyrinth of the classic arcade game. They differ in design and visual motif depending on what level you’re on. Some levels contain special power pellets. A pink pellet can give you more points for each ghost you chomp on. A green pellet, on the other hand, will give you additional speed.
Also unlike the original arcade game, Pac-Mania loses the continuous chomping sound that made the original Pac-Man so memorable. Sound effects, such as those for being killed by a ghost or eating a power pellet, have been updated with a modern and lighter version of the original tune. I still wish there was a way to somehow a toggle to switch between the new and original sound effects. The pre-level soundtrack that starts off each level has also been updated with a modern version. Disappointingly, it doesn’t play through the whole level.
Admittedly, it’s probably very difficult to come up with any concept to follow up on the success of the iconic Pac-Man game. Pac-Mania takes the original formula, skews the perspective a little and tweaks the gameplay by adding a few new tricks. But it’s not anything revolutionary. While it appears to work great with the smaller display and limited gaming interface of a cellular phone, there’s a je ne sais quoi factor that’s missing from Pac-Mania that will prevent it from reaching the success of its predecessors. It’s definitely going to be a long shot before it ever gets considered for entrance into the Smithsonian. Ms. Pac-Man would qualify much earlier.