Hipster Whale brought endless Frogger to its hit, Crossy Road, and it gives the same treatment to Pac-Man in Pac-Man 256.
The concept is simple: Take a game with a simple arcade board and extend it into an endless, procedurally generated strip. Pac-Man thrives under this treatment, and a mobile platform seems perfect for its simple gameplay. Developed by Hipster and Bandai Namco Vancouver, published by Bandai Namco, Pac-Man 256 is available now free to play on iOS and Android (version reviewed).
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For more on the development process that went into this game, see the GamesBeat interview with Hipster Whale.
What you’ll like
Pac-Man 256 endlessly scrolls in front of you in an isometric 3D view. Its name comes from the famous glitch in the original game, which turned the right side of the screen into garble on level 256, making the level impossible to beat.
Here, that glitchy mess lines the screen beneath you, slowly chasing you upward. The glitch appears as a new ghost as well, but more on that in a minute.
Because the level is endlessly generated, you’ll get no built-in breaks, no opportunities to learn patterns by rote. That adds a layer of suspense the original didn’t capture. You end up continually scanning ahead, looking at the patterns of ghosts and power-ups, adjusting on the fly.
Unlike the original, you don’t have to clear the board before moving on. Instead, you’re strategically looking to eat as many dots as possible — each time you hit 256, it auto-clears the visible board of ghosts — and hit both power-ups and the blue ghosts you create with the traditional power pills.
New ghosts to give chase
The original squad of spooks — Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde — still work to hunt your cheerful yellow avatar down. But a new crew joins them in Pac-Man 256. Spunky makes up his own sleeper cell, dozing until you get too close and then springing on you. Glitchy looks like the ASCII jumble at the bottom of the board, but he’ll eventually start to emulate one of the other ghosts on the board.
Sue and Funky are chains of ghosts — terrific if you have a power-up and are looking for munchies, not so great if they’re on your tail. Both move reasonably slowly, and only in a horizontal line, but they’re always tracking you and moving to intercept (rather like Blinky, who will hunt you across the map for as long as he can.) They’ll stop dead in an intersection if they see you coming.
Even traditional ghosts have separate strategies to hunt you down. Inky goes around in circles; Pinky hovers until she sees you and then dashes in your direction. (Pinky’s fast!) Clyde likes to travel vertically, and Blinky will take the shortest route to wherever you are.
New board dynamics and power-ups.
The board itself looks familiar, but it contains a few surprises, including “conveyor belts” of arrows that speed you up or slow you down. While moving against a conveyor will slow you, ghosts can’t do it at all, making them decent escape routes.
The new power-ups add a terrific dynamic to the game. Just about the time you’d get bored playing an endless game of traditional Pac-Man — even against some fun new ghosts — they start popping up onscreen.
If you ever wanted a Pac-Man with lasers, bombs, freezers, traps, tornadoes, huge-ification, and the like, your wish is granted. And if you didn’t wish for it before, you will after you see how fun they make the board.
What you won’t like
Play in landscape, at least to start
The early board design is quite wide, and if you play in portrait mode, it clips the edges. Even later, the portrait mode makes it difficult to see what’s happening on the opposite side of the board. That’s important when you’re using the occasional warp tunnels that pop up at the edge, teleporting you across the board (as in the original game.)
This game definitely works best in a widescreen view, but that limits your capability to react to the oncoming board, so it’s a compromise.
Yeah, it’s still Pac-Man
This game works exceptionally well on the mobile platform, where you’re likely to pick it up and put it down with some frequency. If you’re looking to play it for hours at a time … this may not grab you. The power-ups are tremendous, and the new ghosts are piles of fun, but the gameplay still remains simple, and after long gameplay sessions, it eventually got a little tedious.
You’ll eventually pay-to-play
As with most free-to-play games, you’ll find slowdowns built-in, and there are some bonus packs you can buy to help boost your gameplay. You’ll start with six credits — lives, as in the original coin-op game — and they accrue at one per 10 minutes to a maximum of six. You can watch annoying videos if you’d like to play longer.
If you’re as bad as I was starting out, you’ll burn through those six credits quickly. The saving grace is the buy option: For $8, you can purchase unlimited credits and play forever. How I wish more free-to-play games offered that option. That said, you’re not going to play for long if you don’t opt for some kind of purchase (unless you’re a Pac-Man rock god.)
I’ve played quite a few spins on the Pac-Man franchise over the years (and I was pretty competent with the original arcade games.) This is the best since Ms. Pac-Man first hit the screen. The endless-runner platform gives the game an edge the original lacked, and the different ghosts and power-ups add strategy to what was a rote memorization game.
The light swipes of the controls can take a gentle touch, and you’ll definitely want to just buy the unlimited credits rather than put up with the freemium annoyances. It won’t entertain you for day-long stints. But if you like Pac-Man, this version is a must for your phone.
Pac-Man 256 is available now from Bandai Namco on iOS and Android.