A Ghost of a Chance.
In my book, a true arcade experience should leave you feeling exhausted. Walking out of a humid, bright, loud sweatbox after hours of staring at blinking lights should leave you over-stimulated and overwhelmed. Growing up when arcades were still a thing, times like those were when I knew I had a great time, and were the times I look back on most fondly. And for a few brief, fleeting moments, Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 brought those feelings rushing back.
Expounding upon ideas laid out in the first entry, CE2 is a fast, flashy, and furious little product. Players will have to make twitchy, split-second movements if they hope to survive, planning everything out ten steps in advance. All the while, loud techno music pumps into your ears, bright colors flash across the screen, and scenery changes every few seconds. The whole thing is both visually arresting and aesthetically exhausting. I kind of love it for that, though. After every session, I felt like I was walking out my childhood arcade, out in the cold A/C of a dying mall, just from exiting out of the program. The whole thing expertly captures the sensation of being in an arcade.
It doesn’t hurt that the core gameplay is rock-solid. At this point, we know what to expect from a Pac-Man outing: Get in a maze, eat some pellets, run away from ghosts, then eat said ghosts. Occasionally, fruit happens. Pretty simple stuff, and CE2 doesn’t really shake that formula up significantly. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
The thing is, though, is that Namco Bandai did take it upon themselves to tweak the formula a bit. Some people might be a bit peeved with the changes. For starters, the iconic ghosts aren’t as much of a threat as they used to be. Make no mistake, they’ll still make Pac-Man deflate into nothingness as always. However, they won’t do it instantly this go-round. Ghosts have to be “angered” to kill you this time, which means you have to ram into them a certain amount of times. On lower difficulty levels, that amount is pretty generous, and on higher ones, you get one bump until they come after you. They cool their heads after a while, though, meaning that you just have to outrun them.
My thoughts on this change are pretty much split down the middle. On the one hand, the way the whole package is laid out necessitates the change. The primary focus in CE2 is leading minions to ghosts, then gobbling up massive “ghost trains” for higher scores. These trains coil around corners, and even through warp corridors, sometimes taking up a large portion of any given maze. If it were a “one hit, one kill” situation, the game would be ten times more frustrating, and it would just be a flatout bad design choice.
And yet, I question whether or not placing focus on “ghost trains” was a particularly good one to begin with. It fundamentally alters the core of what this series has always been about. While I appreciate a break from the formula, perhaps doing that in a sequel to a more traditional game was a bad choice. People coming into this game expecting more of what they loved in the original might come away disappointed, considering the alteration in strategy. It almost feels like it was something that should be reserved for a certain mode, and not a core pillar of the game itself.
This isn’t to say that it’s not a fun concept, because it very much is. Chasing around literal dozens of ghosts on-screen at once is a frantic thrill, and gobbling up several in a few seconds is immensely satisfying. Plus, the forethought that the game now requires makes the whole thing like a lightning fast puzzler, which I do appreciate. I just feel as if it’s not a solid basis for an entire game.
Neither did the developers, either, if the sets of levels are any indication. There are several modes, yes, but all of them end up running together. Dungeon allegedly offers tighter corridors, but I barely noticed a difference. Hexagon makes the maze a hexagon, but it’s still basically the same game. Highway gives you more warp corridors, and that’s about it. The only thing that really shook things up for me was Mountain, which sends Pac-Man bouncing all over the map like a maniac, as players rush to keep up with him. But even then, it feels very same-y. CE2 has a novel, if perhaps too overtly implemented, concept, but the ways in which it tries to wring life out of that concept just fall apart.
That’s not to mention the incredibly disappointing Adventure mode, which is an unlockable after getting some bare-minimum scores in a few modes. It’s a copy-paste affair, with players choosing from a set of levels, beating all of them, then facing a boss. At no point in my time with the game did anything resembling a significant change occur. In fact, mission objectives are often carbon copies of each other, in the exact same level sets, to boot. It’s all very disappointing, and a total waste of great potential.
Maybe that’s what peeves me most about Pac-Man Championship Edition 2. There’s a solid idea at the core of the game, one that’s endearing and compelling despite some major changes to the formula. But nothing backs up that idea. It’s just that—an idea, and not much else, though the familiar Pac-Man gameplay still holds up. While I’ll probably attempt to best some of my own scores in the coming weeks, though, there’s not enough engaging content to keep me hooked in the long run.