All rolled up and nowhere to go.
Pity poor Pac-Man, the world's most compulsive quadriplegic. Endlessly he rolls, nibbling on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tasteless dots just to thwart the machinations of what might be the saddest excuse for a ghost gang since that Old West episode of Scooby-Doo. Even when Pac-Man had legs, he couldn't run from his pill-popping destiny.
But thanks to the Nintendo DS, he's at least enjoying some creative circumstances in which to incessantly gobble. His last outing, the entertaining but thin Pac-Pix, took the plastic surgery approach by giving him freakish new shapes. It wasn't great, but it was at least different, and for Pac-Man that means a lot.
Now he's back to his original ball form in Namco's Pac 'n Roll, an odd little platformer that exclusively utilizes the DS touch screen. Equal parts Mario and Super Monkey Ball, this isn't a bad arena for the old yellow blob, although like many before it, the game ultimately falls prey to the DS habit of emphasizing gimmickry over deep content.
In order to justify the loss of Pac-Man's legs, the developers concocted the kind of hackneyed story you'd expect from, well, Pac-Man. Fed up with their inability to handle the rotund, mouthy hero, the four nimrod ghosts perform a dark ritual to summon Golvis, a hitherto unknown uber ghost from outer space. By way of his evil guitar, Golvis manages to turn the denizens of Pac-Land into helpless balls. Pac-Man escapes and promptly sets out to fix the situation by limblessly leaping about on platforms, gobbling ghosts and eating billion and billions of dots. But of course.
This retarded drama plays out through about 30 levels spanning six typical worlds. Much like the original Pac-Man, your task is to reach the goal in each level by chomping on dots and avoiding or eating ghosts. Unlike that classic, however, you control Pac-Man by using the stylus to roll a Pac-Man ball on the touch screen while watching the action unfold on the top screen. It feels a lot like playing with a trackball, for those of you old enough to remember such things (R.I.P Missile Command).
This control scheme works well and gives the game its unique charm. Rolling Pac-Man about is intuitive and smooth, giving the game virtually no learning curve. The addition of a speed burst to nail longer jumps or bust open boxes adds some life, though it requires you to quickly swipe the stylus over Pac-Man and stop it in a very narrow edge of the screen. It's not the easiest thing to do and the move becomes essential in the later levels, but by and large the stylus control gets a thumbs-up.
The level design meets with mixed success, however. Some levels offer creative puzzles and require deft manipulation of the ball, while others are pretty boring dot-collecting routines. Spicing it up are two Pac abilities required to pass obstacles: the knight armor and the feather cap. The heavy armor slows you down, allowing you to travel underwater to grab pellets and keeping you lodged firmly in place in case you encounter a gust of wind. The feather cap has the opposite effect, lightening your load and allowing you to hover a bit in the air after jumps. Both power-ups appear right before you need them, so there's never much guessing involved as to whether or not you should swap hats.
The game finds its stride when it focuses on navigating tricky ledges and avoiding traps, as it recalls the great Marble Madness. Boost pads enable Pac to hop around a little, and the game avoids typical platforming cheapness by excluding long, repetitive segments of bottomless pit jumps.
Unfortunately, eating ghosts is made pretty dull since they don't respawn. You'll find a power pellet, nail every ghost in the area and then take your sweet time collecting the remaining dots, which gets boring. The boss fights don't help since you're always fighting a different incarnation of Golvis, who, as video game bosses go, sucks enormously.
The audio, on the other hand, is continuously grating, especially during the world's worst cut-scenes. Pac-Man and the rest of his species have one defining characteristic " a mouth " yet they all speak in some weird foreign gibberish. "Booka booka booka'booka booka'bookaa booka".booka booka boooka"" Come on, they could have at least given poor handicapped Pac-Man a larynx.
And if he could speak, he would probably agree that Pac 'n Roll is another interesting DS idea that doesn't really go the distance. You have to appreciate the fluid control and decent gameplay, but the lack of depth and marginal delivery should keep it from gobbling up your cash.