Perhaps we should have seen this one coming. What makes the "99" series ingenious is it takes the foundation of games that have proven their timelessness over the decades and instead of disrupting their flow by changing what worked, it simply sprinkles on some modern layers of its own. Vanilla PAC-MAN is already one of the most addictive games out there, but when you introduce a fast-paced competitive component that feeling of "just one more game" is heightened exponentially. This 41-year-old classic has simply never been this hard to put down and even with everything it adds, at its core it's still just PAC-MAN — which speaks volumes for how well the original still holds up.
So how exactly did they make PAC-MAN into a 99-player game? Well, much like its predecessors in the 99 series, everyone is playing on their own isolated screen but what you do can impact and hinder the other 98 players. Using the right stick, you can target an opponent or protect yourself against incoming ghosts and every single time you swallow a ghost on your screen it sends a little ghostly Pac-Man to theirs. These aren't as deadly as Goombas or Koopas from Mario 35, but running into them temporarily slows your Pac-Man down — if your screen is full of them, the four iconic ghosts have a major advantage against you. You can amplify the carnage with new pickups that multiply ghosts during the vulnerability phase giving you a similar all-you-can-eat ghost buffet to that found in PAC-MAN Championship Edition.
This all sounds pretty simple so far, right? Well PAC-MAN 99 has a couple more extra layers and it doesn't exactly explain... well, any of them. For instance, in addition to being able to target other players there's actually a secondary wheel that changes how power pellets operate. If you select "stronger" before picking up a pellet you'll notice ghosts only become vulnerable for four seconds, but if you manage to catch any of them in that time you'll deal far more damage to your opponent than usual. It's tricky to balance both the targeting system and power pellet system all while playing a fast-paced game of PAC-MAN and in this respect, PAC-MAN 99 isn't as instantly intuitive as previous entries. That's not to say understanding these mechanics is essential to victory, but those who master them will surely have an upper hand — especially as the average skill level of the player base goes up over time.
It may not be instantly understandable, but when it clicks this game becomes something special. There are so many playstyles and options to take — picking up a chunk of regular pellets will spawn a fruit in the middle of the screen and collecting this causes all other pickups to respawn, but if you ignore it and waka waka your way around the board like a regular game of PAC-MAN, you'll get a permanent speed boost for eating up every pellet. So, do you use your time to boost your stats or do you use that time to chomp on as many ghosts as possible? Maybe you sit in a corner and try to waste as much time as possible while your opponents slowly drop out like flies. We found ourselves adapting and improvising more than we have in any other PAC-MAN game in our lives. It's simply exhilarating.
In terms of pacing, this is by far the most pick-up-and-play '99' title yet. Winning our first game barely took five minutes and we've taken the first place spot in as short as four. Not only does this make PAC-MAN 99 the perfect game to play in short bursts, but it makes it incredibly hard to stop playing. If you start a game and come 50th? "Eh, that one doesn't count, try again." Top 10? "Nearly made it...try again." First Place? "...let's go again". If anything, we feel the need to warn you this game can kill your productivity. Nintendo Life? We're living the PAC-MAN 99 Life now.
Tetris 99 is likewise one of our Switch favourites, but it didn't launch in such a robust state — thankfully PAC-MAN 99 debuts with many of the features Tetris fans had to wait months for... though much of it is paid DLC. It's hard to feel too aggravated when the core mode that matters is free to all Nintendo Switch Online Subscribers, but if you want to play with a Dig Dug or Galaga theme be ready to shell out real world money. It's certainly not as offensive as other free-to-play games, and these skins are legitimately great with far more dynamic elements than those found in Tetris, but not a single one cost a penny in that game.
Offline modes are also behind a paywall, much like in Tetris, and importantly one of these modes preserves the core PAC-MAN 99 gameplay in an offline state against bots. You may wonder why that's so important; well, it assures this gameplay style will never be lost to time, unlike the dearly departed Super Mario Bros. 35. The servers inevitably turn off for every online game but forty years from now we'll still be able to enjoy PAC-MAN 99, even if it's just against bots. There's also simple score and time attack single player variants adding a teeny bit more value, though they aren't the main attraction by any means.
PAC-MAN 99 is certainly more money-hungry than previous iterations, but the core 99 mode plays the same regardless whether you open your wallet or not. Almost everything is just extra dressing... almost. In Tetris 99 you and a friend could share a password with each other to assure you're matched in the same game and thankfully PAC-MAN adopts a similar feature with a completely private lobby with friends — but only if those friends pay up and buy the PAC-MAN 99 bundle. We can get behind other monetised components, but this one's a step too far and limits what has the potential to be a remarkable community feature.
Even with a few bumps surrounding the package, though, it's hard to be upset when the core game is as good as it is and is essentially "free". This is gaming in its purest form, each match starts great and simply gets better the longer it runs. PAC-MAN can't be bogged down with pacing issues and downtime because it's PAC-MAN. Developer Arika has taken one of the most addictive, polished and timeless games and somehow made it better than it's ever been before.
PAC-MAN 99 may seem initially daunting with mechanics it simply doesn't explain but once you experiment and learn by fire, it won't take long to realise its true potential. Arika and Bandai Namco have barely touched the formula of this 41-year-old classic, and yet with just a few new layers it feels like a brand new game. We've invested more time than we care to admit into the previous '99' entries and it's clear PAC-MAN 99 is destined for evergreen greatness.