This is how the cookie crumbles.
So. That Pac-Man guy, eh? How about him, huh? He turned 30. Yep. That do anything for ya? Yeah, me neither. Funny how Mario and Zelda turn 25 and we all view that as a big deal, but Pac-Man turns 30 and no one bats an eyelash. The reason is probably because the prior two franchises are still relevant and iconic while Pac-Man has kind of lulled around in the background, his recent Championship Edition being the only wave he's made in quite some time.
Pac-Man Party, the celebration of this momentous anniversary, released last November. It's all right if you didn't even notice, and perhaps it's for the best. While the game does a good job at representing Pac-Man and some of its characters from a presentation standpoint and provides a family-friendly environment, it suffers from a lot of tedium that makes it hard to recommend.
The game has a “story” mode which involves good ol' Pac being tasked by 'Mr. Cookie' [insert groan here] to protect a special cookie recipe “with his life” [double groan]. Remember those yellow pellets that Pac-Man eats around the maze? Somewhere along the line those apparently morphed from pellets to cookies. For whatever reason, Pac-Man and his ghost rivals decide that hoarding thousands of these cookies is how to establish street cred and superiority.
While you try figuring out all of that nonsense, I'm going to move on and discuss the obligatory board-game structure of Pac-Man Party. The different boards don't amount to much, really, aside from the length of the board and the atmosphere. No branching paths, rarely any special kind of spaces aside from coin-toss bonuses... there's not even dice rolls.
Some may like this and some may hate it, but there's a batch of micro games that allow players to try to earn a specific set of spaces to move, whether by throwing darts at balloons, spinning a slot machine, dropping a ball down a pachinko-style wall. When players land on empty spaces – which is most of them at the start – they will claim the space as their own and build a castle. Owning neighboring spaces will expand the size of the castle. Castles produce cookies for every lap a player makes around the board. Why the castles serve to bake cookies is beyond me. Landing on your own castle will yield extra cookies, and landing on an opponent's castle will give you a chance to steal it from them. This entire process is a bit convoluted compared to things like Mario Party or Wii Party, and while it's admittedly unique, it causes problems.
The first issue is that a game requires a fair amount of cookies in order to win. The lowest amount is 12,000, and players start with 1,000. It can take quite a while to earn up 12,000, and it's fairly easy to lose cookies (and cookie castles?) as well. There are no mini-games in between turns – minigames only happen when one player lands on another's castle. And this is where one of the biggest problems comes to the forefront.
Pac-Man Party's pacing is total rubbish. Games start out incredibly slow and dull with players having to sit and wait for castle-building animations to play out as players scoop them up with no min-igame action. As the game drags on, each turn becomes entirely too long, because every time someone lands on someone else's castle, a mini-game has to played. Mini-games will often include four players, but only two players are affected at all: the one defending their castle and the one attacking. If the attacker gets a higher ranking, they steal the castle, and if the defender is in a higher place, they pilfer some cookies. The other two players pretty much just take up space, and if one of them happens to get first place, they are awarded with a bonus Power Cookie (ie Power Pellet to old-school players).
In the end, this results in a lot of tedium because you have two players whose presence is basically irrelevant. There is rarely (if ever) a time when a mini-game involves four players and the stakes are equal and meaningful to all players. It often feels inconsequential and irritating, especially when playing with AIs in the story mode when a human player could care less whether CPU 1 or CPU 2 keeps a castle.
Did all of that come across as overly cumbersome and complicated for a party game? Because it is, frankly. It's admirable to see a party game trying to break the mold and try new things, but like Dokapon Kingdom before it (which at least had more consistent pacing), Pac-Man Party is simply weighed down too much to be much fun as a pick-up-and-play party game. The mini-games are cookie-cutter affairs (gotta love those puns, right?) with dull settings that generally don't relate to Pac-Man in any way.
Power Cookies do add a nice twist – a player can consume one during a mini-game to get an edge, like increased mobility or even insta-wins in some circumstances. This is admittedly interesting, and the mini-games themselves control just fine and play competently. The problem is that makes them feel distinguished or connected to Pac-Man. Looking back at older Mario Party titles reveals mini-games that were often more original in concept and atmosphere, and sported elements of actual Mario games, characters, and settings, so things felt cohesive. Not the case here.
The one thing that Pac-Man Party does pull off with some passion is its overarching presentation. It's oozing with childish tomfoolery, which is probably for the best, and it's got spunk. The ghosts all have specific and easily identifiable designs, and some new 'Pac-Man World' characters are added to the mix, who somehow seem to fit in - though the absence of Ms. Pac-Man is bizarre. The game is colorful and cheery as a whole, which is appropriate, and character animations are fluid and lively. The soundtrack hits the right notes for a festival feel, with a few retro-inspired tracks, which certainly helps, but can't save players from the tedium and laborious task of actually playing it.
Pac-Man Party tries pretty hard to be an engaging party game and offers some fresh concepts in a worn-out genre with kinetic presentation, but in execution these concepts come together to form a half-baked cookie with a soft outside but a tough center that's hard to chew. With those puns out of my system, I think it's important to note here the lamentable truth: Pac-Man has never truly risen to be a cohesive world or franchise like the greats of old, and it is made apparent here. If you're starving for Wii content and missed this one last year, it might be worth a buy in the bargain bin, but it's just too uninteresting and drawn-out to be entertaining in any party setting.