Pac-Man is, and always will be, a legendary video game character. Whether it's in a puzzle or a platforming game, the big yellow sphere with a large mouth and an appetite for pellets has been around since the beginning of the arcade boom and has entertained gamers over the last 30 years. Interestingly enough, he is also one of the few game characters that has barely strayed away from his initial genre, the big exception being racing games like Pac-Man World Rally and Mario Kart Arcade GP. It seems that now is the time to finally take the leap to being a universal multigenre character with Pac-Man Party for the Wii. It may seem like he's leaping into a genre that's a bit overcrowded on the system, but that doesn't mean that it should be immediately dismissed.
Even though games in this genre generally don't need stories, Pac-Man Party has one. In Pac-land, someone is trying to steal the recipe to the world's most delicious cookie. To prevent that from happening, the land's best baker has sent the recipe to Pac-Man for safe keeping. However, before he has a chance to secure it, a gang of ghosts swipes it from him and tries to run off with it. As the titular hero, your job is to travel through the land and challenge the ghosts to a series of games, and the winner gets to possess the secret recipe.
The game features quite a few modes suited for multiple player configurations. The lone single-player mode is Story mode, which nicely features all of the game mechanics. Players start out on one of five different themes boards and are given a target goal of cookies to reach. Once all of that is set, players move around the board, eating smaller cookies along the way while landing on blank spaces. Landing on a blank space gives the player the chance to build a castle, and landing on adjacent spaces after a castle has been built allows the dwelling to increase in size. Once a player reaches the start point, bonus cookies are given for landing in the spot and the amount and sizes of castles owned. A winner is determined when one player only reaches the cookie quota for the board and makes it to the starting point.
Those are the basics, but there's more to do than just occupying castles and earning cookies. Ending your turn at any part of someone else's castle initiates a minigame battle, where the attacker tries to get the castle from the defender. The castle is taken if the attacker wins, but if the attacker loses, the defender wins some of the opponent's cookies for his efforts. The other two players, while having no stake in the outcome, can still participate to get a few cookies for themselves.
Each board also has a few events that permanently change the landscape of the play area. For example, one board has you passing a spot several times, each time calling upon small groups of frogs. Once enough frogs are gathered, a storm appears, flooding half of the map and causing a boss to appear. The next player passing that spot initiates a boss fight, and everyone cooperates to take down the boss while also fighting to earn the most cookies.
The boss fights add a nice wrinkle to the party game, and a few other changes are also much appreciated. The act of throwing dice has been completely replaced with simple minigames. Whether it's popping numbered balloons, throwing darts or dropping a ball into a row of boxes Plinko-style, you never leave things completely to chance when it comes to how many moves you're allowed to make. To make the proceedings go faster, everyone participates in the minigames simultaneously. Finally, the minigames are all quite amusing, with a decent mix of classics that you've seen before, such as rolling the opponent off stage, to newer fare like an on-rails shooting sequence or a small pinball competition.
An issue that players will have with the main game mode is that it still plays out as slowly as other party games on the market. The changes — i.e., simultaneous rolling and moving — help speed things along, but the time gained is offset by the other things that the game does wrong. Between every turn, you'll spend time seeing castles transform, castles being built, cookies being earned, and first-place crowns change hands. Each one of those actions is played out in separate scenes, and the amount of time taken for each one only multiplies as you have more and more people playing. They can't be skipped at all, and that leads to more frustration as you sit and wait for each result to calculate before the next move can be performed.
The other two modes are more multiplayer-focused than the Story mode but are still deeply rooted in what you've experienced. Party mode allows four players to choose the board and characters. It plays exactly the same as Story mode, complete with boss fights, so nothing is missed by playing multiplayer. The Minigames mode allows you and up to three other people to play any of the 52 minigames. Everything is unlocked from the outset, so you don't have to worry about unlocking things before playing.
As an added bonus, Pac-Man Party also features three classic Namco arcade titles that can be played at any time. Pac-Man is a given, and while it may seem odd to throw Dig Dug and Galaga into the mix, they make sense when you consider how the main game pays homage to them in a few of the minigames. The haunted house game, for example, has some enemies moving in the same pattern as the Galaga aliens while another minigame has you inflating a Pooka from Dig Dug without making it pop. The titles remain as fun now as they did all those years ago, and each game is arcade perfect in both controls and presentation. If there is one complaint, though, it's that all three games are displayed in a smaller than normal screen. Granted, each title was originally presented on more vertical monitors, but without an option to adjust the display so that they fill up more of the screen, it feels like you're seeing more of the background art than the game itself.
Wii games tend to look very good when a game goes for a bright, cartoon-like look, and this game shows just why that is the case. Even on an HDTV, the 480p visuals produced don't give out a slightly blurry effect that other games do when they try to go for more subdued color schemes. Everything looks more alive with the color scheme used, and the backgrounds for both the game board and the minigames look great. As for the characters themselves, Pac-Man looks good, especially since we've already seen him with appendages, and the new characters fit in with the universe quite well. What doesn't fit well are the redesigns of the ghosts, which not only change their body proportions but also give them hair. It's a bit off-putting and unnecessary, since there was nothing wrong with the old ghost designs from the other 3-D Pac-Man titles.
The controls for the game are as good as you would expect. There is support for the Classic Controller, but since it is only limited to the three retro arcade titles and none of them are complicated enough to use more than one face button, the Wii Remote is the better option. Each game makes good use of the motion controls, and those that require more precise movements simply require the remote to be turned sideways as opposed to using a Nunchuk. This should please those who are tired of fishing for more accessories during a party. Like the movement, the aiming controls are spot-on, with no sense that the game ever loses sight of your target.
The sound works, but it could be better. The music is lighthearted fare, as you would expect, though snippets of it pay homage to the character's arcade roots. The sound effects work; they aren't exactly speaker-blowing, but they don't sound tinny, either. The voices become the lone bad spot for the sound department. The team decided that instead of full voices, each character simply mumbles things, similar to how Banjo-Kazooie handles its voices. This is fine, but the pitch chosen for each character is much higher than expected. The new characters sound fine, but the ghosts don't sound menacing enough, and Pac-Man has a higher pitch than one would've expected.
Pac-Man Party is quite a surprising party game. The minigames are as good as, if not better, than some of the Mario Party games offered recently, while the board game elements are more engaging than most of the current party games. It also looks good and controls rather well, though the minimal voices need some work and the periods of downtime dampen the fun that can be had. If you're already burned out with all of the party games that the system offers, this one won't sway you into buying it. However, if you're in the market for another party game, Pac-Man Party is a pretty good choice.
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