The Nintendo Switch’s battle royale-afying (is that a word?) of a handful of well-loved classics has been a nice bonus for those still begrudgingly committed to Nintendo’s so-so online service. For some these experiments have sunk their hooks in (just like a Fortnite or Apex: Legends) while for me, seeing both Tetris and Super Mario Bros. unexpectedly turned into a mass online elimination-style affair has lead to an entertaining week or so but nothing more. Perhaps PAC-MAN 99 can keep me engaged.
The main draw of PAC-MAN 99 is its online multiplayer mode that like Tetris and Super Mario Bros. before it pits you against a group of players (98 in this case) as you attempt to remain the last person standing. At its core you’re essentially playing your own game of traditional PAC-MAN, darting about avoiding ghosts, gobbling up pellets and using the odd power pellet to turn the tables. As players start to drop off though, PAC-MAN 99 starts to reveal its twists.
Similar to Tetris 99 in that you’re sending junk Tetraminos rows to your opponents in order to try and eliminate them, gobbling up ghosts will send Jammer PAC-MANs over to them that will either slow their PAC-MAN down or outright kill them. Of course, they will be doing the same to you, so you’ll want to make sure you’re steering clear of nasty enemies on the grid and keeping up your PAC-MAN’s speed.
When you gather enough pellets, you’ll spawn a fruit capable of resetting everything on the grid and this includes removing any deadly Jammer PAC-MANs and replenishing the super useful power pellet vital for those moments you find yourself between a rock and a hard place. The downside of this is you’ll skip over the chance to increase your speed by gathering more pellets. It’s a great risk versus reward battle you’ll constantly find yourself in with every match.
As well as controlling PAC-MAN, you’ll also have two other tricks up your sleeve. The right-hand side of the screen displays your options for attacking other players each of the four types selected by flicking the right control stick. Knockout for example targets those close to elimination while Hunter… focuses attacks on top performers… or at least I think it does (more on this in a moment). On the left side of the screen are your special power options – these selectable using the four face buttons – and include favouring intensity of Jammer PAC-MAN attacks at the expense of the length of time power pellets last as well as increasing PAC-MAN’s speed whilst sending weaker Jammer PAC-MAN armies. Switching between your different power-ups proves essential especially as the numbers whittle down. Much like the attacking options, my certainty of what each power does rests on what I’ve read online or deciphered for myself, which brings us to…
Arguably the game’s biggest downfall is its inaccessibility. Unfortunately, just like Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, PAC-MAN 99 makes absolutely no effort to teach you its mechanics leaving a lot of (if not all of it) down to playing, looking up online or plain assumption. This made the first several hours of playing PAC-MAN 99 a rather clunky experience, trying my best to pick up what each brightly coloured thing in an assortment of brightly coloured things might do whilst also figuring out what the eight options on the left and right of the screen meant and of course simply surviving as long as I could. In Tetris 99 this lack of tutorial was annoying sure but as a first attempt something I managed to overlook. Three games in now with developer Akira and it’s just downright perplexing why nothing is explained once again. In fact, while I’m doing my best to cover the rules and mechanics of the game, there are some areas I still don’t feel 100% on, something easily avoidable with a simple explanation in-game.
That being said once you push past the question marks and head-scratching, there’s an enjoyable battle royale experience here and more importantly one that stands out from a genre often heavily focused on shooters. While it’s not the kind of game I found myself losing hours upon hours in – the gameplay loop reaching repetitive levels after a handful of rounds – it is one I found myself kicking off an evening of gaming with before jumping onto something more substantial.
Interestingly the game launches with a number of in-game purchasable extras and modes. First up you have a healthy number of skins to purchase either as a bundle or individually most based on a range of older Bandai Namco properties. They’re a neat addition but with so many, you might be better off picking a couple you really want as opposed to springing for the whole bunch. I rarely used more than a handful in my playtime with the game. Similar to Tetris 99, the game also offers extra modes playable on your own against AI or competing for high scores. They’re fairly standard stuff and to be honest you’ll likely be more than happy with the free PAC-MAN 99 mode alone.
PAC-MAN 99 is yet another decent battle royale distraction that suffers from the same terrible level of guidance and explanation both Super Mario Bros. 35 and Tetris 99 were guilty of too. While it’s unlikely to become my next big time sink, it might perhaps kill five minutes or so between bigger games every now and again.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment