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Pac-Man Collection

Video Game Reviews

Ratings are based on a five-point scale, in homage to the the late, great Next Generation Magazine.

Gameboy Advance

Rating: * * *
Pac-Man Collection - video game reviews
Pac-Man Collection screen shots - click for closeup

April 15, 2003

Just as every home movie collection is never complete without Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia, no game console is complete without a version of Pac-Man. It remains, simply, one of the essentials that everyone should be familiar with.

Pac-Man Collection is the fourth classic game compilation on the Gameboy Advance. Namco's first effort was a port of its Namco Museum. That cartridge was wildly uneven, perhaps owing to the small screen on Nintendo's handheld. For their next attempt, they chose instead to focus on games from the Pac-Man series. Personally, I think this formula works, but Namco commits the same crime as everyone else: there simply are too few games.

Included in the package are the original 1980 Pac-Man, 1987's Pac-Mania, 1993's Pac-Attack, and Pac-Man Arrangement, from the 1995 Namco Classics arcade. This is a fine selection, but there are some terrible omissions; given the scrawny size of these old games, there is simply no excuse not to compile them all together. The only justification is money, money, more money. It's so easy to charge another twenty dollars for the old cash cows; the corporate bean counters must feel guilty for not thinking of it sooner. The consumer, err, gamer, gets stuck with the bill. Such is the way game companies repay their fans' loyalty.

Why not include all the classic Pac games? It would be perfect to show the progression of the series in its heyday. Pac-Man is, after all, the first genuine pop culture icon of the computer age. Why not remind the world of the wonderful extended family Torou Iwantani birthed all those years ago? Show us Namco's own Super Pac-Man, Pac-and-Pal, and Pac-Land. Show us Midway's unofficial games, starting with Ms. Pac-Man, the legendary hacker classic; Baby Pac-Man, with the miniature pinball machine; Jr. Pac-Man, whose scrolling playfields are perfect for a handheld; Professor Pac-Man, the little-seen trivia game; Pac-Man Plus, the black sheep of the family.

Compared to that legacy, Namco's decision to include these three sequels seems somewhat tame. Of course, this collection is fine, but it's like listening to only a handful of songs from the White Album.

The original Pac-Man is, naturally, the best of the lot. You have the option of playing in full-screen or with a scrolling playfield, but since the Advance is so small, using full-screen is unpractical. Everything is a perfect copy of the original arcade, from the ghosts to the fruits to the intermissions. Even twenty years on, I still love moving that little yellow ball around the maze. It's easily worth the cost of the full cartridge for this game alone.

There is, however, something that puzzles me: have some frames of animation have been cut? This isn't something that affects gameplay, and goodness knows the animation is spot-on. But the musical rhythm is just off by half a beat.

Of the other games in the Pac-Man Collection, Pac-Attack is a fine puzzler in the Tetris tradition. The premise of dropping blocks littered with ghosts is clever, and the real joy comes from setting Pac loose on a long string of blue ghosts, causing chain reactions to the blocks. Even though the game is a glorified novelty (there's no real variety in blocks, and thus no deep strategy), Pac-Attack was a fun game when it appeared on the 16-bit consoles, and is still good for short bursts.

Pac-Mania is a spot-on translation of the 1987 arcade, Namco's first official sequel that stuck to the original formula. The catch is that the game is presented in an isometric angle, with a 3D Pac-Man and army of ghosts chasing around the different mazes. This game was largely overlooked in its time, which is a shame. The pacing is a little slow, and the ghosts are dim-witted, but munching through the brightly colored landscapes has its charms. I also have to mention the music, which remains as catchy as anything I've heard today.

Finally, we come to Pac-Man Arrangement, the best and the worst thing about this compilation. This version originally appeared in one of the Namco Classics arcades from the mid '90s, which offered their earliest hits with updated bells and whistles. This new Pac features a score of wonderfully painted mazes, dots that float and shimmer, and a Pac-Man who bounces and floats with a swift glee. This feels so modern, so fluid; even the classic Pac maze is included. If I could just play that board over and over, I'd never ask for another thing again.

Then Namco proceeds to wreck everything. Do you know the feeling you get when a really great movie is ruined by a tacked-on "happy ending?" That's exactly what happens to Pac-Man Arrangement. First, the game cannot be played forever. After about 20 boards or so, you face off against a final boss, and then the credits roll. What nonsense is this? Were the suits convinced that no one would notice their game without the conventions of modern games? Gamers today are coddled. Publishers are so afraid of turning off customers that they hold you by the hand at every step. This isn't Tomb Raider, and the point isn't merely to see the sights and then leave; high scores are meant to be broken, and I want to play as long as I want. The final insult: unlimited continues. Who needs skills when you can press the Start button and win anyway? This fault alone destroys the Arrangement; it defeats the whole point to playing.

Perhaps it's time for the hackers to go to work. After all, it's been two decades since they first hacked Pac-Man, and the result was the greatest video arcade game of all time. With a little bit of tinkering, someone could recapture that genius.

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