Never before released for the NES in the west, Namco has dropped its Pac-Man platformer Pac-Land onto the eShop to celebrate the announcement of Pac-Man in the new Super Smash Bros. games. A departure from the simple, addictive gameplay the Pac-Man series is known for, Pac-Land attempts to expand the scope and appeal of its iconic star, but it's held back by unimaginative level design and a general lack of exciting gameplay.
Pac-Land replaces the dark, ghost-infested mazes of earlier Pac-Man games and trades them in for villages, forests, mountains, valleys and other side-scrolling stages. Pac-Man, wearing a fairy tale adventurer's hat, travels through three stages, jumping over gaps, picking up fruits and avoiding the familiar ghosts who seem intent on chasing him for no apparent reason. Luckily, the ghosts are still vulnerable to power-ups, and one or two are available per stage for Pac-Man to eat and gain the ability to defeat them. This time around, the ghosts appear usually appear in hovering UFOs, airplanes, copters and other cutesy vehicles. The most dangerous ghost this time around is the purple Sue, who will appear if Pac-Man stays stationary too long. Although the ghosts appear regularly, it's never hard to avoid them; most players will have more trouble with the slightly floaty controls that make it harder to time jumps.
After three stages, Pac-Man arrives in Fairyland where he is given the infinite jump ability which must be used to overcome the next stage. According to the game's story, there is a fairy hiding in Pac-Man's hat, and when he returns her to Fairyland she thanks him with magic boots. Unfortunately, none of this is communicated in-game, so in our case the infinite jump was discovered by accident after falling into too many pits.
The stage format is clever, as travelling back home makes each four-stage trip feel like a self-contained adventure. That said, the level design is fairly uninspired, with few obstacles that pose much of a real challenge. Most gamers will be have no trouble timing jumps across falling bridges and large pits, and the challenge ramps up rather gently. Most deaths will feel cheap, as hit detection with the ghosts is finicky. Luckily, there are extra lives to be found throughout the stages by pushing tree stumps and other small obstacles. Levels are also timed, which adds a bit of urgency to the proceedings — especially in later stages. Occasional hidden warp zones will definitely make players look for secrets throughout each stage.
Visually, Pac-Land attempts a whimsical, childish art style and mostly succeeds, but it's unclear if the squiggly, lo-fi graphics are intentional or the result of hardware limitations — given that the PC Engine version of the game looks a lot better than this, we're guessing it's the latter. The music is largely forgettable, but the right-to-left stages have nicer, pleasant tunes that feel very much like codas to Pac-Man's adventures.
Pac-Land isn't a bad game, but it's not a memorable one, either. A fairly generic platformer, Pac-Land is best viewed as an interesting relic of the past and an early attempt by Namco to reinvent the wheel with one of its most beloved franchises. Like so many of the Pac-Man spin-offs that followed, Pac-Land brings to mind an age-old adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Stick to the mazes, Pac-Man.