Last year Namco released Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures to tie-in with the new cartoon series my daughter has recently become annoyingly addicted to on Netflix. It's just the latest attempt to dust off the legendary early gaming pioneer and repackage him for the current generation.
Which they really need to stop doing.
Look, Pac-Man was great. There was even a Pac-Man section of Six Flags Over Texas back in the day. That said, every time they try and bring Pac-Man into the modern age it's an inevitable screw-up because...
3. Pac-Man is Not a Character There is no real story to the original Pac-Man and it doesn't make any narrative sense at all. That's fine because in 1980 you didn't need much to entertain players. Some of those early characters evolved fairly naturally into guys you could build a story around, such as Mario.
All we ever knew of Pac-Man was that he was a living circle that continuously ate pills, fruit and ghosts. That's more of the M.O. of a villain than a hero, and until she saw the cartoon my daughter was adamantly convinced that's exactly what Pac-Man was in the game, chasing innocent frightened ghosts.
Since he's a complete blank slate gamemakers keep projecting these increasingly bizarre character attributes onto him. In 1994's Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures they made him a depressed family man you have to guide through everyday tasks like fetching milk for his son. In the most recent reboot he is the beloved savior of the world because his skin color gives him super powers, which passively but strongly comes across really, really racist the more you think about it.
Without a solid core, there's no evolution of Pac-Man and therefore less and less investment of him as anything but a nostalgia-driven marketing force.
2. Pac-Man Looks Terrifying in Modern Gaming You can mock the limits of early gaming technology all you want but it got the job done just fine. Pac-Man as a circle worked, and speaking as someone who owns the Pac-Man-shaped Namco plug-and-play console it still works just fine for what it's intended to be.
But try and render that in three dimensions with high definition graphics and the result is a spherical nightmare. The Ghostly Adventures Pac-Man looks like a damned langolier with hands and feet and there's just something kind of junkie-like about his eyes. That's nothing compared to the silent, grinning alien monstrosity that showed up in Street Fighter X Tekken. There is simply no way to make a carnivorous yellow ball a dashing hero.
By the way, why is Pac-Man in all these adventure and fighting games, anyway?
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1. They Never Make Actual Pac-Man Games Every time there's a big budget attempt to bring Pac-Man back for some weird reason it never seems to happen within the genre that Pac-Man first became famous in. Pac-Man was a maze game. It largely invented the concept in the first place.
But every new incarnation of Pac-Man keeps getting dropped into things like Mario clones, which would be fine if Pac-Man had the personality or history to drive a game on his own but as I said before he just doesn't. It sometimes makes you wonder if the people who pitch these reboots have any idea exactly why Pac-Man was a success in the first place.
It wasn't because the character was unique or gripping. It was because it trapped you in an inescapable labyrinth and slowly released an army that could kill you in one touch as you desperately ran away from them. It was heart pounding. It was exciting and simple. It wasn't running around trying on new powers from eating bad guys, that's Kirby you're thinking of. Maybe if someone sat down and actually tried to make a modern version of an actual Pac-Man game these would stop being so mediocre.
Pac-Man remains one of the highest-grossing video games of all time and a beloved icon of gaming. There's a Pac-Man arcade cabinet in the Smithsonian. Pac-Man is in no danger of being forgotten, but every attempt to cash in on player memories with games that are increasingly distant from the original and what made it appealing feels like another unnecessary Rolling Stones album.