Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Smart Bomb Interactive
Release Date: August 22, 2006
Pac-Man has a serious Mario complex.
This shouldn't shock anyone – Namco's been aping Nintendo's franchise character for years, releasing uninspired knock-offs that never quite feel like the real thing. The Pac-Man World series of platform titles may not be the most obvious example, but what about Pac-Man Fever? Without Mario Party, the Fever never hits bargain bins across America. But I'd be remiss to chastise only Namco Bandai for these indiscretions; the Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, and Shrek franchises have all intruded into such territory.
Namco co-developed 2005's Mario Kart Arcade GP and apparently got the idea that if Mario can do it, then certainly their yellow puck could. So here it is: Pac-Man World Rally for PlayStation 2. Don't be fooled; though it may be the first Pac-branded racing title, it treads largely familiar ground. Mario Kart is the obvious example, but I am more inclined to dig a bit deeper. Pac-Man World Rally is the 2006 equivalent of Chocobo Racing, the 1999 non-classic that defied both common sense and logic. Its characters had no business in a racing game, let alone an unremarkable one, but it still made for a good time. Pac-Man World Rally is the same – distinct mostly for being derivative, but still enjoyable while it lasts.
The quality of any character-driven go-kart racer is typified by the strength of the license that spawned it. Despite the previously mentioned spin-offs, the Pac-Man franchise has birthed just a handful of notable characters: Pac-Man, Mrs. Pac-Man, Pac-Junior, and the four colorful ghosts, Pinky, Inky, Blinky, and Clyde. Don't worry, the gang's all here. They pretty much have to be, as the rest of the cast is filled out by bit-players from the Pac-Man World games. Remember Toc-Man, Spooky, and Erwin? Yeah, I didn't think so. The most bizarre entry is Pac-Devil, essentially a demonic, red-tinted Pac-Man on a chopper. Honestly, the unlockable characters are more interesting than the starting cast, especially The Prince of All Cosmos from Katamari Damacy.
Just 15 tracks are available in Pac-Man World Rally, divided into cups (shocker!) named after fruit. The courses are generally fine, though they tend to follow the generic molds established by similar titles. There's the haunted estate (Ghost Mansion), the slippery circuit (Arctic Iceberg), and the volcanic enclosure (Molten Mountain), among others. Granted, it's probably tough to come up with unique course designs in such a packed genre, but the tracks themselves are repetitively designed. For example, the first course (Cloud Garden) conjures up some serious déjà vu by reusing the same bridge design several times, along with many similar turns. Considering the brevity of most tracks, Smart Bomb should have considered varying the course layouts a bit.
The best tracks in Pac-Man World Rally come in the Classic Cup, which bases its three (why not four?) courses on classic and contemporary Namco favorites. Galactic Outpost kicks things off with an outer-space romp inspired by Galaga. King's Kourse digs into the Katamari Damacy universe yet again for my favorite track, a sparse street course with a key distinction: the giant ball of nonsense rolling in the opposite direction along the road. Retro Maze is set within the borders of an old-school Pac-Man maze, complete with blue walls and giant, pixelated ghosts. If the creativity (and license milking) of these three tracks had been used more liberally, Pac-Man World Rally would be a much more interesting experience.
One track worth noting for its extreme obnoxiousness is Funhouse of Terror, the penultimate course in the Melon Cup. Conceptualized as a spiritual successor to (or clear rip-off of) Rainbow Road of Mario Kart fame, Funhouse of Terror challenges gamers to stay on the floating track despite a bevy of tight turns. One bordered section of the track features enough right turns in rapid succession to send you head-first into a handful of walls. This is just one of many instances I noted in which the tracks fail to come off as user-friendly. I don't get the impression that any pre-release play-testing led to significant track revisions. When I'm falling off of a course at the same spot on 90% of the laps, I have to doubt that it is entirely an issue of skill.
This leads to my chief complaint with the racing in Pac-Man World Rally: Due to several interruptions, you never find a great rhythm within the tracks. Many of the tracks have obstacles that are practically – or actually – impossible to avoid. For example, in Cloud Garden, a ringing bell causes vibrations that block off an extremely narrow section of the track. What's a Pac to do? You can either slam on the brakes or drive straight into the mess; regardless of your choice, you will come to a halt. On top of this, look forward to being slammed with several Pac-Bombs during your sprint to the finish line. Each seems much more devastating than its Mario Kart counterpart, further embellishing the lack of balance between racing and combat.
Though the core mechanics do little that we've not seen before, Pac-Man World Rally does toss in a handful of innovative changes with varying degrees of success. The shortcut system is surprisingly well done; fruit pieces are scattered around the track, and having one in your possession opens up the corresponding shortcut door later in the track. Having to actually earn the right to use a shortcut is a welcome change from the norm, and you will have to pick up a new piece for every time you open the gate. The Pac-Man license is put to logical use by having Pac-Dots scattered along the tracks. Collecting them fills up a meter, the activation of which transforms your kart into the Pac-Mobile, a kart-eating machine. On the rare occasion that you're not in first place, be sure to collect the dots and unleash the beast.
Aside from the Circuit, Quick Race, and Time Trials modes, the game features a deceivingly robust Battle Mode with five game types. Surprisingly, the game types are not as distinct as expected, and a slim amount of tracks further limits the action. Deathmatch and Free For All are essentially the same, but with a different end requirement (kills versus time). Last Kart Driving is an endurance test, while the Binge and Classic games task you with consuming pick-ups, be they fruit or dots. Thankfully, the weapons receive a significant upgrade in Battle Mode, with gems like the Strawberry Striker and Banana Ram. Anything would have been a step up from those infuriating Pac-Bombs, but these weapons are actually pretty inventive. I can't imagine anyone spending hours playing Battle Mode, but it makes for a decent diversion.
Pac-Man World Rally looks and sounds the part, with strong, though simple, visuals and a score created in part by Dweezil Zappa and Tommy Tallarico. Yet these are the only areas of the game that feel fully developed. Between the generic tracks and a cast of bit-players, Pac-Man World Rally fails to pack enough nostalgia to seal the deal. While also being a better-crafted game series, Mario Kart succeeds because of a shared history that many gamers have with the Mario franchise. To put it bluntly, Namco have not exploited their available resources well enough to make this a particularly compelling experience. It may provide decent fun in short bursts, but history will speed by Pac-Man World Rally without a single glance in the rear-view mirror.
More articles about Pac-Man World Rally