Here’s a lesson I thought we learned in the ’90s: When you turn a videogame character into a children’s cartoon, bad things happen. Writing storyline after storyline centered around largely silent characters devoid of any real personality means you inevitably need to fill in the blanks and color out the margins, and that’s where everything falls apart. Sonic inexplicably loves chili dogs. Mario and Luigi rap. M. Bison does whatever the hell this is.
Pac-Man, as I was heartbroken to discover, continues this tradition in his new cartoon, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures. He gets limbs and a sassy cast of multicolored supporting characters. He becomes the sole survivor of a race known as the Yellow Ones, the only Pac-Worlders who can defeat ghosts by eating them. (Sidebar: Since the name of his planet is “Pac-World,” he’s essentially the equivalent of a human boy named “Earth-Man.” Mull that one over for a bit.) He fights an evil ghost general named, I kid you not, “Betrayus.”
This game adaption of the same name, developed by Namco Bandai, does nothing to remedy any of these travesties. In fact, the switch back to interactivity makes it doubly obvious how far the character has strayed from his simple, addictive, gameplay-driven roots. It’s like the end product of a long game of adaptation telephone, confused and nearly unrecognizable from its original form. Pac-Man is now a purple monkey dishwasher.
But he still eats stuff! Oh, man, does he ever love to eat stuff. Hamburgers, cherries, pineapples, the tragically limboed souls of deceased Pac-Worlders. Sometimes he burps after he eats, because kids think being impolite is just hysterical.
For the most part, though, the actual gameplay in Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures isn’t truly bad, just uninspired. It’s a throwback to the bad ol’ days when simply having a platformer operate in three dimensions was enough to wow audiences into believing they were having fun. Mechanics and design are yoinked in equal measure from the whole backlog of 3D Mario and Sonic titles, from the principles of movement to how various attacks function. The one quasi-gimmick here is that Pac-Man can eat special berries to change his appearance and earn special abilities that range from mildly interesting to frustrating to use. Really, it’s just a shamefully late redux of Mario 64’s caps.
Level design follows suit. You get an ice level, a lava level, a city level, and an ancient temple level, assuredly checking off boxes in someone’s Intro to Game Design workbook from 1994. As icing on the vapidity cake, there’s even a school hub area that behaves a lot like Mass Effect’s Normandy, only 100-percent more useless.
The one thing that eventually drags Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures down from mediocrity to badness is the camera, which has, rather unfortunately, also been borrowed from the ’90s. The best video game cameras do all they can to follow the action unattended, allowing you to take direct control in the rare moments it guesses wrong. Pac-Man’s requires constant babysitting, even as you’re making a series of time-sensitive jumps, and the end result is just unpleasant.
Of course, the target demographic for this game is quite clearly children who watch and love the source material. I’m not entirely sure how they’ll react. I’ve always taken exception to the idea that kids’ games should be judged by different criteria than anything else, since that mindset is based on the cynical and sinister view that children have no taste and should be talked down to. But maybe exploring the world of the show is enough to get them through with smiles and laughs.
To me, however, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures feels like a desperate, floundering bid to keep the character “relevant” and give Namco Bandai a mascot on the level of Sega’s Sonic or Nintendo’s Mario. Pac-Man deserves every bit of the nostalgia and respect he commands, but he can only hold onto that dignity if he keeps sight of how he earned it in the first place. This? This is an old man wearing Hollister and trying to convince everyone he’s still full of life. This is a deluded George Lucas tinkering away on The Phantom Menace. This is just sad.
As a 3D platformer, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is subpar but largely tolerable. As a new take on the character, however, it'll make you wish Pac had never left the second dimension.
E10+ – Everyone 10+
|Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox 360. Product was provided by Namco Bandai for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.