Being a gamer on the wrong side of 30 that uses YouTube to keep up with a modest list of subscribed channels, this humble writer was unaware of PAC-MAN 256 until earlier today when a press release plopped into an inbox. A celebration of Pac-Man's 35th Anniversary? Sweet! It's on smart devices? Oh no!
Naturally I looked up the trailer to see what it's all about, and after getting over the fact that Bandai Namco chose poorly for its cover image on the video - Pac-Man looks like, well, something he shouldn't look like - had a watch to get a handle on what this would offer. You can see this announcement video below.
Initial observations were that it looks reasonable but could be rather one-note - riffing on the level 256 glitch of the original game, it seems like you scrabble for pellets and play fairly normal Pac-Man while trying to escape from a glitchy abyss that's progressing across the screen. It may mess around with the glitching mechanic more, it's too early to say, but it looked like a pretty if somewhat throwaway game. That's fine generally, but prompted a hint of despair in myself and editorial director Damien McFerran, who both share a sentiment that the old pellet gobbler probably deserves better.
Looking into it further I had to figure out who developer Hipster Whale was, and then look with trepidation to see what exactly Crossy Road - the studio's breakout hit - is. In summary it looks like Frogger with modern bit-style visuals, with loads of characters and not much else; you tap and swipe to move, which makes me shrug my shoulders so aggressively that there's a very real danger of dislocation.
While my creeping sense of dread and disappointment in this sort of project is real, I become increasingly aware that I'm out of touch with what pushes the (virtual) buttons of millions of smartphone users. Crossy Road has been described as Frogger meets Flappy Bird, which sounds terrible, yet it's been critically acclaimed. YouTube is jam-packed with videos of let's plays and guides to unlock all the characters. The video below from The Diamond Minecart shows what it's all about - it's had over 4 million views.
This game was only released in late 2014, but evidently went viral. Bandai Namco saw its retro style, recognised a social media trend and said "we'll have some of that for Pac-Man". It seems to be working, too, with many comments on the PAC-MAN 256 reveal being positive.
So, as suggested above, for a fuddy-duddy like me this is a franchise apocalypse but, on the flipside, I have a creeping realisation that this is part of the future. A future that's truly rooted in the past.
We've seen it already with various ports and smart device efforts from Square Enix, Capcom and Sega that retro remakes or concepts are a sensible option for smartphones. The reasoning is sound - there are limited touch and tilt-based control inputs, and those passing time on their phone are looking for addictive but snappy experiences. That's retro gaming, right there, or certainly specific aspects of the early 8-bit era, or further back in pre-NES arcades. Score chasing with simple addictive hooks for gameplay goes right back - as a broad concept - to the fundamentals of gaming history. When you strip away free-to-play models and micro-transactions some of the biggest smash hits on phones and tablets are, in design, essentially retro in approach.
Of course, there's a broad range of games on smart devices, including plenty that are complex. Yet when considering how established and classic brands can be portrayed on smartphones, the template of PAC-MAN 256 seems solid. In a segment of the market where millions of downloads, 'going viral' and creating one-more-go gaming to feed the free-to-play machine are the priorities, basic concepts truly are the best.
That raises interesting questions over what form Nintendo and DeNA's offerings will take. With one game due in 2015 and more to then follow in 2016, we have little indication of the approach the companies will take. If it's aiming for immediate recognisability a certain Mario will likely feature, but will it be solely Mario Bros.? Or some kind of blend across multiple franchises, flinging together classic gaming ideas into one quirky mix?
We already know, courtesy of repeated insistence from Satoru Iwata, that we won't simply get a re-release of existing games. Yet it's possible that, like PAC-MAN 256, we could see experiences that tap into gameplay from Nintendo's golden oldies and blend them with the hot-trending styles to be found on iOS and Android. Rather like Pac-Man being handed over to hugely successful yet relative newcomers, taking retro concepts and mixing them up.
It's just as possible that Nintendo will hammer match-three with Pokémon, or simply expand on basic concepts from free-to-play efforts on 3DS. It's hard to tell, yet I think retro gamers with a resistance to smart device gaming should beware. The classics are there to be tweaked and modernised, and no desire to have a larger game played with a D-Pad and buttons will make those free downloads go away.
There is a positive point to be made, though. YouTube is full of young gamers - many of them children and teenagers - that are hooked by simplistic score-chasers like Crossy Road. Nintendo is the master of addictive retro experiences, as it helped to build these foundation blocks that are now used to build start-ups into developers turning over millions of dollars a year. Nintendo is also a brand with plenty of power to sway and excite gamers of all ages, including those that'll grow up to bemoan the rise of holographic free-to-play gaming in 2030.
Maybe keeping it simple is Nintendo's best option.