One of the most interesting inclusions in the Nintendo Switch release of Namco Museum is Pac-Man Vs.
Originally released for GameCube in 2003, it’s an unusual title for Namco in that it wasn’t developed in-house as an arcade game; rather, it was designed by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto and developed by Nintendo specifically for the GameCube, which perhaps explains why we haven’t seen it rereleased for anything other than Nintendo DS (via that platform’s own Namco Museum release) and, most recently at the time of writing, Switch.
It’s also noteworthy as one of the first examples of asymmetric multiplayer gameplay, which makes the fact it never got a release on Wii U somewhat baffling. But, well, it’s a bit late for that now!
Pac-Man Vs. is, as the name suggests, a competitive multiplayer variant of Namco’s classic Pac-Man. The asymmetrical component comes in the fact that one player takes on the role of our favourite spherical hero, while up to three other players control the ghosts and attempt to capture him.
In the GameCube original, the asymmetry was achieved through use of the Game Boy Advance link cable, which allowed a GBA to be plugged in to one of the GameCube’s controller ports and effectively used as a “controller with a screen”, and a spiritual precursor to the Wii U’s GamePad. Pac-Man would thus have his own screen on which he could see an overview of the whole maze, while the ghosts shared the TV screen and were only able to see a small, 3D-rendered area of the maze at once, with their field of vision temporarily expandable by eating one of the items of fruit that appear in the centre of the maze.
The Switch version works rather similarly, though you need two Nintendo Switch consoles in order to play the game as originally intended, with one Switch dedicated to whichever player is in control of Pac-Man, while the other (preferably hooked up to a TV, since it’s only possible to play a two-player game if both consoles are in handheld mode) displays the three ghosts’ whereabouts as in the original. The Switch version also offers the option to play using only one console, though in this configuration only three people can play while Pac-Man is controlled by the computer.
The game is presented simply but effectively. Pac-Man’s screen is very no-frills, presented from a top-down two-dimensional perspective that emphasises clarity. The ghosts’ view, meanwhile, is deliberately claustrophobic, with each player only having a very limited area of the screen, plus an abstract “radar” in the corner that allows the ghost players to see their positions in relation to one another. A number of different levels are available for variety, with each having a different maze layout, background aesthetic for the ghost players’ 3D view, and musical accompaniment, with many of the tracks being drawn from past Pac-Man titles such as Pac-Mania and Pac Man Arrangement. As in the GameCube original, Charles Martinet’s Mario is also on announcement duties.
Mechanically, the game is pretty simple: the first player to obtain a specified target score wins. This can be achieved in a variety of ways: Pac-Man can eat the pellets on the board, the fruit that appears in the middle, and even the ghosts after ingesting a Power Pellet, just like in the original Pac-Man games. Pac-Man also gains 1,600 points for clearing an entire maze of pellets and starting a new one.
The ghosts, meanwhile, earn 1,600 points for capturing Pac-Man (who also loses 1,600 points for such an indignity), at which point whoever made the successful capture then takes on the role of Pac-Man until they are caught. As previously noted, the ghosts can also collect the fruit in the centre of the maze, which not only provides bonus points, but also zooms out their view a little so they can see further.
The game balances itself for less than the full complement of players in an interesting way: any non-human ghost players are controlled by the AI and initially grey in colour, indicating they are safe for Pac-Man to touch or pass through. Should a ghost player touch one of their grey comrades, however, that ghost will take on the player’s colour and become part of their “team”, making that particular player more likely to be able to score some points.
The entirety of a match’s duration sees scores going both up and down a fair bit, particularly when playing with the full complement of four players. Since both Pac-Man and the ghosts are able to steal points from one another — Pac-Man by eating the ghosts while under the influence of a Power Pellet, the ghosts simply by capturing Pac-Man — the outcome of a match is by no means a foregone conclusion if someone seems to pull ahead early.
The fact that there can only be one winner also means that the alliance of the ghost players is an uneasy one; while capturing Pac-Man is easiest when the ghosts coordinate their efforts and work together, everyone, of course, wants to be the one to actually make the capture and score the points… which promptly makes them the target by turning them into Pac-Man.
Pac-Man Vs. is a simple but immensely effective idea that anyone can learn to pick up and play very quickly — which is exactly the kind of game Nintendo platforms have always thrived on. While the Switch version’s requirement to have two consoles for the full experience may prove restrictive for some, the system’s inherent portability coupled with the fact that those who do not own or wish to buy Namco Museum can install a free downloadable version of just Pac-Man Vs. means that it’s not as impractical as you might think to set up a session. And while the single-console variant isn’t quite as fun, it’s good that the option is there for those who don’t have any Switch-owning friends.
While, as noted, it’s baffling that this didn’t get a rerelease on the Wii U, a console that would have been ideal for it, it’s good to see it getting another chance on the Switch — and it’s great for it to be part of an already solid package of other titles rather than something people have to buy separately. So if you’re looking for your next multiplayer party game to, I don’t know, make a drinking game out of or something, you could certainly do far worse than firing up Pac-Man Vs. for some highly competitive pill-popping.
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