Developer: Blitz Games
Release Date: December 6, 2005
Why shouldn’t Pac-Man enjoy a popular reverence similar to the adoration that’s followed Mario and other way-back characters across genres, platforms and space-time? He and his brood have longevity on their side, at the very least. The right game could play on his history and elevate his reputation. Imagine a 3-D Pac-Man world you actually look forward to visiting, at least long enough to complete a new platforming adventure every couple of years.
Pac-Man World 3’s slight treatment of Pac-Man as a character fails to build on years of Pac-lore, preventing him from making the leap from simple franchise mascot to respectable game myth-maker. While it’s preferable, of course, for story and gameplay to influence each other to the benefit of both, throttle back expectations for a moment and consider a platformer full of familiar elements that are well executed, but with a stellar narrative worthy of a game legend. It’s not going to earn 9s across the board, but it might benefit from a knowing delight in genre conventions, especially if it spends time to develop a story that distinguishes it from the rabble even if the collecting, spin moves and crate-bashing don’t.
Pac-Man World 3 for the PSP isn’t that platformer. The action comes close with a playable competence that doesn’t actively discourage you from seeking the novelty of each new level. It does, however, leave character development and story to wither. On Pac-Man’s 25th birthday, Orson interrupts the celebration with the Ms. and Junior to recruit Pac-Man for a world-saving mission. Villainous brainiac Erwin is attacking the Spectral Realm with spectral syphons. With two ghosts already captured, only Pac-Man, Orson, Pinky and Clyde stand between Erwin and total domination. Think of the outcry if Nintendo were to reveal that Link will face an array of spectral syphons in Twilight Princess, and the dignity challenge facing Pac-Man becomes clear.
Levels shift between the solid world and the Spectral Realm, with traditional maze levels thrown in here and there. Standard platformer machinery fills the environments, with crates to bash and Gyrotrons to shock, and plenty of lifts to activate with tucked-away switches. Spectral vortices spew tougher-to-kill “spectral dudes” into the real world, while Pac-damaging, but ghost-recharging, spectral fountains dot the Spectral Realm landscape. And then there are the countless Pac-Dots, keys and crystals to collect, some just for score and others to activate Pac-Dot Chain Machines, for example, that allow Pac-Man to soar skyward gobbling a string of dots. Blue crystals replace crates in the Spectral Realm, ensuring that Pac-Man has plenty to smash in pursuit of the collecting completism.
The visual treatment of the environments, much like their mechanical construction, is not distractingly shabby, but neither does it dazzle. The desert wasteland of Gogekka Central, a few levels into the game, is the first to stand out graphically, partially due to getting to control Pinky and view your surroundings from her spectral point of view, but also thanks to the blowing sand and huge industrial structures. Levels with time keys and the massive circular platforms they activate have a bit of epic flair, but rarely does any environmental element appear to have been designed as a labor of love for a classic game character. A seizure-prone camera and a long perspective on the between-mission maze levels also don’t contribute to the visual experience any more than they enhance the gameplay.
Pac-Man’s moves offer more novelty than the levels you use them to navigate through. A standard set of jump, punch and yes, the Butt-Bounce, are at your disposal, but the power-up moves provide the (closer to) real fun, especially the Electro Shock pellet that doesn’t look like much but delivers the most satisfying destruction. The Rev Roll gets you up steep inclines while also downing enemies, but it also highlights the lack of environmental polish when you happen upon an invisible wall that looks like a Rev-Rollable passage. The uneasy alliance between the corporeal and the spectral puts you in ghost control occasionally, allowing you to summon Pinky, for example, to find platforms that are invisible to Pac-Man and to build up enough ghost energy to make them solid so Pac-Man can pass. Playing as Toc-Man feels sluggish, though powering up his spin move makes him feel less lumbering and more destructive.
Most characters animate smoothly, especially the enemies climbing up over ledges to attack, though a more active treatment of ghost movement would have made controlling spectral allies more rewarding. Pac-Man’s painted-on face doesn’t help his case as a thoughtfully conceived character. The gauzy red and orange spectral enemies look great as they chase Pac-Man across the PSP’s screen, and equally slick when they turn that vulnerable shade of blue when Pac eats a Power Pellet. Again, the camera keeps you from enjoying some of Pac’s moves, like when you’re trying to corral enemies in the Ribbon Loop and the camera leaves you facing the wrong direction, struggling to adjust your point of view as the baddies go up in smoke.
News-anchor stiffness in the writing and delivery works hand-in-hand with a sub-corny sense of humor (that even kids will dismiss) to erode further any fondness you may be keeping in store for the Pac-Man of old. Discussions about “weird technostuff” are the peak of local color in the dialogue, and there’s not too much chuckling to be had with insults like, “You’re starting to look even more spherical than usual.” Even when he’s saying something not so serious, Pac-Man seems possessed of an odd earnestness. The familiar Pac-Dot-eating sound-effect is omnipresent, though, and it’s easy to focus on the hypnotic repetition as an antidote to the voice acting.
Ad hoc multiplayer modes include maze races, a Pac variation on tag and a head-to-head game that lets you eat ghosts to transport them to your opponent’s maze. These lead off extra content that also includes a Museum for a wistful look back. You can play the original Pac-Man in the Museum, but it’s not such a great time using the PSP’s controls. More engaging, oddly enough, are the detailed Pac-Man timeline and the interview with creator Toru Iwatani, sitting among several Pac-pillows and discussing a quarter century of Pac-Man evolution. If the single-player game were more ambitiously realized, the extras would seem like an interesting batch of diverting fluff, but in practice they just reinforce the flatness of the rest of the experience, and remind you that a great deal of history continues to go un-capitalized upon.
The Yellow Problem
Games like Pac-Man World 3 underscore the necessity of nurturing solid characters when it comes to giving long-running franchises staying power. With few novel twists on basic platformer elements and passable visuals, Pac-Man World 3’s only shot at investing Pac-Man with the charm of a Ratchet or a Clank rests with its story. It disappoints severely on that count, however, with a story befitting a throwaway cartoon character, not a veteran game hero. Even a hint of respectability in the treatment of Pac-Man as a worthy protagonist would’ve helped lessened the burden of mediocrity, and though the game still may have surprised no one, it might have managed to entertain at least a reasonable number of longtime Pac-Man fans.
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