Pac-Man 99 Review
Developer: Arika Co., Ltd | Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment | Genre: Arcade, Battle Royale | Platforms: Nintendo Switch | Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
While Bandai Namco Entertainment’s plans for a massive celebration were soiled by the world’s ongoing pandemic, the yellow arcade sensation Pac-Man still was able to observe a rather successful year. From music videos and arcade cabinet reprints to upcoming First4Figures and history books personally signed by his creator, Pac-Man fanatics were given a stellar batch of items to pick and choose from over the course of the franchise’s big 40th anniversary. And though his gaming days may have seemed numbered after numerous mediocre titles over the last decade, Pac-Man 99 is an absolute knockout of a shadow drop to close out his next milestone with. In a time where Super Mario Bros 35. has abruptly gone missing and Tetris 99 continues to dominate Nintendo Switch Online, Pac-Man 99 is a fantastic free addition to Nintendo’s slowly growing catalog of online exclusives. Developer Arika is back for more battle royale action and this time they have perfected their already successful formula.
In the same glorious pixel fashion as their last two Switch-exclusive battle royales, Pac-Man 99 is all-out single-board warfare. As you and ninety-eight other players battle on a standard level one Pac-Man arcade board, only one opponent will be able to come forward as the Pac-One to survive them all. On the surface, it may seem as if players are just playing an ordinary endless game of Pac-Man until they’re eliminated, but as audiences are likely aware after Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, the game adds multiple elements to the endless arcade formula players are familiar with. As to be expected, Pac-Man 99 leans far more on Tetris 99’s structure than Super Mario Bros. 35. The game expects players to avoid ghosts and chomp down as many pac-dots as possible all while multitasking two separate wheels controlled through the joysticks.
Just as the standard game of Pac-Man works, players are placed on a field that features random pac-dot patterns with the same recurring four power pellet placements. Rather than completing the maze and moving on to a new level, though, to refresh their randomized pellets and energizers players have to rack up enough points and then collect a different bonus fruit or item that appears under the ghost spawn point to continue. However, Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde are not the only obstacles in your path. Pac-Man 99 adds Jammer Pac-Men to the mix, evil outlines of Pac-Man spawning in herds that will either slow you down or instantly kill you depending on their color scheme. As the player builds ghost trains and eradicates them for a high combo, Jammer Pac-Man will be sent to opponents being targeted. While these elements may sound like minor extensions to the Pac-Man formula, Arika’s tweaks completely change how players will approach the classic title. Like Tetris 99, eating ghosts and pellets is just as important as eliminating other players.
With the right joystick, players can choose at any given moment whether they want to target other players via Random (up), those who are on the verge of elimination via Knockout (down), individuals targeting them via Counter (left), or only go after those with the most kills via Hunter (right). The player can also choose who to target in handheld mode by simply touching the screen or using L and R when docked; although this option is certainly distracting from the second-to-second gameplay you need to pay attention to, it’s a useful alternative only the most skilled players will take advantage of. Meanwhile, with the left joystick, Stronger (up) will allow Pac-Man to send more obstacles to enemies upon defeating ghost, Train (down) adds more ghost to your train, Speed (right) increases your momentum when collecting power pellets, and Standard (left) gives players a balance of the other three abilities. Akira has also added a way to swap between moving Pac-Man with either the joystick or d-pad — in other words, Tetris 99 fans who were initially frustrated with how the game never allowed you to alternate control schemes will be happy to know these later accessibility changes are here at launch.
The culmination of both the additions to the standard game of Pac-Man and the player elimination approach ultimately leads 99 to be a quick-witted test of endurance that is never short of being massively strategic or extraordinarily entertaining. It is still as hectic as any other battle royale, yet it is controlled chaos that never feels unfair or unwinnable by any means. Its added elements to the arcade game grapple almost flawlessly to its original intentions of being something that you will want to keep putting another round into even after all your quarters have been swallowed. Best of all, though, on top of being a free download, Pac-Man 99 continuously feels respectful of the player’s time as its lightning-fast online matchmaking and short playtime per round ensure that one hour of a player’s time can easily lead to a solid twenty or even maybe thirty matches. Pac-Man 99 is definitely the best way to play the classic arcade game online against others.
Fans should similarly be pleased with the paid single-player DLC. While the content does not add anything as significant as a new core mode, there’s still a substantial amount of content to enjoy. For those looking for some classic solo Pac-Man action, the optional CPU Battles, Score Attack, and Blind Time Attack modes included in the $14.99 DLC “Mode” package will add entertaining though limited ways to test just how good your skills at the game are. As players race to collect all the fruit, items, pac-dots, and power pellets they can feast on, you’ll have to survive as efficiently as possible in every extra mode under specific constraints.
If you enjoy the gameplay elements Pac-Man 99 has stacked onto the classic formula then you will no doubt be delighted playing these three extras as they provide offline ways to indulge in the game without the worry of another player dominating the competition. However, not having an endless feature for the Score Attack mode does limit its replayability quite a bit. Furthermore, Score Attack and Blind Time Attack have unlockable emblems for online player profiles, but outside of a personal high score with no online leaderboard to compare to, these paid-for modes disappointingly provide no other completion incentives that are actually worth tackling. The only mode restricted to this DLC that the vast majority of players will likely desire is the ability to play Private Matches. This particular game mode is the only way you can play Pac-Man 99 with friends online, but it also notably does not come with any settings; it’s essentially just a party hosting system that can hold up to 98 other real or computer players.
Finally, 29 bonus themes can be purchased either individually or all together through one megapack. While they are certainly not essential to your battles and come in at a slightly questionable standalone price, the downloadable themes that pay homage to the arcade mascot’s history along with his fellow cabinet neighbors are nothing short of a niche throwback that will delight certain audiences. From Brick, Igloo, and Vector stylized boards to Namco titles such as Xevious, GALAGA, and Dig Dug, the $1.99 themes available right from the get-go are entertaining add-ons that only provide a reskin to Pac-Man 99. All the themes look exactly as you would imagine and are certainly treated with a lot of passion visually, but some can drop the ball when it comes to sound design. Some themes oddly play with nostalgia too much as they ultimately create drawbacks. For a game that is constantly growing tenser and portrays its finish line through that of music, playing on a silent GALAGA board for example can feel perplexing to say the least. It is a shame that Arika did not go the extra mile to create new renditions of older arcade tracks for all the retro-themed boards (or even the Pac-Man ones that keep the same soundtrack), but at the end of the day it’s not a huge loss.
Pac-Man 99 is not just the best Nintendo Switch Online exclusive currently available; it’s also the most pristine entry in the franchise since Championship Edition premiered digitally on the Xbox Live Arcade almost a decade ago. Developer Arika’s latest triumph for Bandai Namco Entertainment is a special occasion more than worthy of ending Pac-Man’s 40th anniversary, but more importantly, it manages to resonate with Professor Toru Iwatani’s original intention of the character and his deadly hostiles. It may not bring us all together physically around an arcade cabinet, but Pac-Man 99 is another battle royale experiment that is a blast to play with ninety-eight fellow and foreign Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Men around the world. Whether you are paying for all those shiny extras or downloading it for free, grab yourself a slice of pizza and the best batch of fruit you can waka waka down on because once you hear that iconic opening jingle you will be glued to your seat until you can jump up and proudly yell that you are the Pac-One. You will no doubt be having Pac-Man Fever by the time that first match ends.