In the mid-90s, video games were changing. We had fantastic new technologies becoming available for the average consumer. CD-ROM drives expanded the storage capacity and gave games almost 700MB of space to work with compared to the barely 5MB they had before. Increases in computer speed and power brought a third dimension successfully to video games, letting fan-favorite characters like Mario run around like never before. It was a weird, wonderful, and completely strange time. It was also a time of change.
Nearly every single video game franchise began the movement to the third dimension. Some, like Mario, landed running like it was the most natural thing in the world. Others took a while to join in, like Sonic the Hedgehog, but still had games that were some of the best-selling games of their generation. Others…well, Bubsy 3D is rather infamous for a reason.
Pac-Man’s character had been evolving with multiple arcade game reinventions and new game genres on the home console. Puzzle, side-scrolling platformer, even point-and-click adventures flourished under the Pac-Man banner. Not too bad for what was essentially the first-ever video game mascot character. It did take him a few years of watching others make the jump to be reinvented into a 3D Platformer, however.
Pac-Man World was that leap to the third dimension. Originally released for the Sony PlayStation in 1999, Pac-Man World saw the player wandering the hub world of Ghost Island to rescue his friends and family from the ghosts who kidnapped them and the mysterious Toc-Man, a robot Pac-Man who leads them. Released to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the franchise, Pac-Man would bop his way through six themed worlds and twenty-three stages to fight his way to the top. It was released to positive scores, landing an average of 81% back in the day.
With game franchises bringing back fondly-remembered games with remastered visuals or even complete remasters, Namco tasked developer Now Production with updating their fondly remembered classic for a modern audience.
The question is, does it hold up? Does Pac-Man still bop and hop the way he should?
The answer is complicated.
While some reviewers will be coming at this from a view of nostalgia and fond memories, I will admit that this is my first time even playing Pac-Man World, much less the 3D platforming branch of the Pac-Man franchise.
As another side note before we begin, the remaster has made a few non-essential changes. Due to some legal disputes with AtGames, Ms. Pac-Man and several other characters have been renamed and redesigned. This doesn’t change the game one bit in the long run, but it does feel incredibly weird to have “Pac-Mom” show up rather than the familiar Ms. Pac-Man.
Ghost Island is a varied landscape with five different themes in the hub world. The function of the hub world is much akin to games like Spyro the Dragon or Crash Bandicoot 2, with a set of levels leading to an eventual boss stage. You have the pirate levels, levels based on ancient ruins, levels set in space, a factory setting, a funhouse theme that draws heavily on clowns, and the game wraps up with a haunted mansion theme. It is a little weird that there’s no default “basic” world theme, but the developers went all-in on the theming by even giving the ghosts themselves a themed outfit for each world. When it comes to level presentation, this game is nothing short of great.
Each level has its own obstacles to get through and fits its theme well. The open-ended setting of Ghost Island allows you to choose which of the initial three worlds you wish to play through first, then the next two also can be played in either order. This also means the game will slowly ramp up in difficulty as it goes, with a steeper curve towards the end. However, there are still areas where the game expects you to know advanced techniques just to proceed, which are not covered in the tutorial. For example, the first space stage requires you to not only know the standard speed roll technique but also that you can jump to increase your height while rolling off a ramp. The timing to do so is also remarkably fiddly, resulting in a lot of damage taken or even lives lost that feel cheap.
Similar issues pop up with later levels as well, with cheap damage and deaths being very common. As a relatively early 3D platform game, the genre was still being explored and fleshed out. Pac-Man does have a shadow when he jumps, but there is no marker or highlight to establish where he will land. Adding a static camera to this can only add to some incredible frustration in levels where precise platforming is required. To make up for it, checkpoints are relatively common, and extra lives are ludicrously plentiful. Even with dying an embarrassingly large amount of times over what felt like it should have been a simple jump, I still had over 40 lives going into the last world.
The music is also fairly good. Remixes from industry legend Tommy Tallarico’s original music can be found here, paying tribute to the original music found in the older Pac-Man games. Each world has their own theming, but each state does feel unique among the other ones. Combine this with classic sound effects from the franchise being used in new ways, and you genuinely have a game that sounds like it’s trying to pay tribute to what came before while making something new.
While the overall art direction of each world is fantastic, the level layout doesn’t quite live up to the promise as it goes on. While the Pirate and Ruins are fantastically laid out with clever jumps and pitfalls that fit their theme, the Carnival stages are not. Instead, they feature floating platforms, clown heads spitting poison gas, and oven heating elements just randomly placed in the middle of the stages.
To further complicate how I feel about this game, almost every stage is artificially lengthened due to an excessive amount of backtracking. If you want to get all of the fruit, all of the letters in each stage to spell PACMAN and obtain the bonus stage, if you want to free Pac-Man’s friends, if you want all the points, you need to open specifically-labeled doors. Each door has a fruit above it, which will unlock once you grab it. However, the fruit is always further down the stage. Sometimes it is hidden. Sometimes the fruit is in plain sight. Other times, it will be on a side-path you need to follow and can easily miss. However, the core gameplay mechanics shared by all of these stages is “find the fruit, go backwards and find the thing.”
As a result, the game just starts to feel rushed and incomplete. This certainly was excusable in the crazier world of 1999, when the concept of a platform game in three dimensions was still being developed and hashed out. In 2022, it certainly feels lacking compared to other remasters of content from the day.
And that is the core of the problem, if there is one with Pac-Man World Re-Pac. While the developers at Now Production have certainly done their best to make this content sparkle and shine like the Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy or the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, this is just one game from over 20 years ago with not a whole lot of meat to its bones. Had the sequel game from the next generation of consoles also been remastered and included, this likely would have stood up as a much stronger offering.
Instead, we have Pac-Man World Re-Pac being offered for $29.99 as a digital download on the various marketplaces, which puts it at the same price point as those previously-mentioned remasters.
If you have fond memories of the original game, this will likely be a delightful trip down memory lane. It’s like your favorite chair at the library: comfortable and safe, but it’s been a few years now, and the seat has developed an annoying squeak, and one of the springs in the cushion is poking at you. If you’re new to this corner of the franchise, I strongly recommend waiting for a sale.