Within one week of pulling the plug on Super Mario Bros. 35, Nintendo announced another battle royale-style game: Pac-Man 99, a 99-player take on Bandai Namco’s arcade classic. As it did with Super Mario Bros. and Tetris before it, developer Arika has taken a well-known retro game and added a competitive twist to it–and even from just a few rounds with the title, it’s immediately clear that Pac-Man is better suited to the battle royale format than Super Mario Bros. was.
The reason comes down to the game’s immediacy. Given its roots in the arcade (where a developer’s primary concern was to wring as many quarters as possible out of a patron’s pockets), Pac-Man is about reflex. Super Mario Bros. also requires dexterity, of course, but it was designed for a home console. As such, it’s a grander, more methodical sort of game, featuring larger stages that are rife with secrets to discover if you take the time to poke around. This makes for a more satisfying single-player experience, but it doesn’t lend itself quite as well to battle royale-style competition.
This was especially evident in Super Mario Bros. 35’s late game. While the playing field would shrink fairly quickly as less experienced players were winnowed out, the final stretch of a round could be a slog, especially if everyone played cautiously and stockpiled their coins for the power-up roulette. Because of this, victory was often decided by the clock, which meant that one round of Super Mario Bros. 35 could last upwards of 20 minutes–not exactly the kind of game you could casually dip into.
Pac-Man 99 avoids this problem thanks to its relative simplicity. As in Tetris 99, there is only one stage, and the challenge comes from reacting not only to the on-screen hazards but the monkey wrenches that other players repeatedly throw at you while you play. This helps keep the gameplay brisk, and it makes it enticing to jump right into another round when you get eliminated.
Arika has also introduced some smart wrinkles to the Pac-Man gameplay to make the experience even more frenetic. The most notable are the sleeping ghosts. Chomp down on these stationary specters, and they’ll awaken and trail one of the other ghosts, forming a “train” that you can then devour in one fell swoop after grabbing a Power Pellet. Any ghost you chomp will be sent to another player’s screen as a Jammer Pac-Man, a roaming hazard that will slow the player down if they make contact with it–thereby making them vulnerable to being caught by a ghost. It’s fast and frantic and ensures you are always on your toes.
As enjoyable as Super Mario Bros. 35 often was, playing Pac-Man 99 makes it clear that it lacked the pick-up-and-play immediacy of Arika’s other attempts at turning retro games into battle royales, which is why it’s not much of a surprise that Nintendo only offered it for such a short time. It’s too early to say whether Pac-Man 99 is able to maintain its appeal long-term, but we’re eager to jump back into it–which is just what you’d want from a battle royale game.