Unrepentant retrophiles may scream bloody murder, but to everyone else it should be a truth self-evident: Games are getting better. Pac-Man Championship Edition and its various micro-iterations could never hope to define an industry like the original did, but it managed to provide the most succinct realization of its two core concepts: survive by evading your pursuers and doing so in the most score-efficient way possible. It presented us with the pinnacle of a template laid out three decades ago, which raises a question that has followed this latest sequel since its announcement. How does a developer improve on perfection?
Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 does not start off on the right foot. Instead of action you’re greeted with a long-winded, un-skippable tutorial, as if the game harbors a secret grudge against instant gratification. Making things worse, each of its brief, single-screen sections not only has to load separately but takes its sweet time doing so—a fact that’s doubly aggravating to PC players considering the game’s preposterous hardware requirements. Adding to that version’s woes, it currently has compatibility issues with Xbox One controllers and no support for PlayStation pads or remapping the keyboard controls. These quibbles reflect the game’s general air of work left unfinished and ideas casually thrown into an incongruous mix, such as the stars you’re given for completing objectives—fit for a Facebook farming simulator but entirely out of place here—and the incorporation of utterly meaningless “boss fights,” essentially a special type of cinematic triggered at the conclusion of certain stages.
Its immediate predecessor brilliantly subverted the series’ traditions simply by introducing a time limit. Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 retains the focus on contained bursts of five-minute action and attempts to insert a few elements of its own. The problem is every innovation runs counter to a series where the appeal has always been high-speed chases and narrow escapes, where ideal performances produce uninterrupted sprints around each maze-like stage.
Take the new brake button, for example. If there’s one thing that encapsulates the experience of playing any Pac-Man game, it has to be the constant movement of the iconic dot-gobbler. The image of a yellow blob being followed by a string of colorful ghosts, much like every car chase scene in the history of film, is a whole medium’s quintessential representation of the concept of pursuit. These are games where the gap between thought and action is collapsed, where the fingers react to what the eyes perceive with nary a conscious stop in between. Yet, here we are, presented with the dubious option of pausing to ponder our next step, almost as if the developers, unable to extract new ideas out of the series’ canon, decided to take a leaf out of Dig Dug’s book instead.
Almost every new element similarly fragments the game in halts and bursts, disrupting the marvelous sense of flow that has long been the series’ raison d’être. Bombs no longer serve to disperse the encroaching ghost armies; now they teleport you back to your starting position. It’s useful for grabbing the pieces of fruit that appear there to take you to the next level, but it’s also momentarily disorientating, especially when combined with the camera’s flair for dramatic shaking. Level transitions are even more jarring, freezing the action to transport you into an entirely new area rather than seamlessly reshaping and repopulating the one you’re currently navigating as the original Championship Edition did.
It’s doubtful that any of these changes will be as controversial as the new role bestowed upon Pac-Man’s traditional nemeses. Ghosts are no longer instantly lethal. In order to become so (and, even then, only for a few seconds) you have to bump repeatedly against them. Collisions push you back temporarily and eventually enrage your enemies, at which point they become slightly faster and more focused on hunting you down. Since the game adopts its predecessor’s idea of amassing ghost trains (a series of dormant enemies that wake up and start following when you pass by), your movement becomes restricted in later stages, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself frustratingly bounced around by these trains like a pinball caught between bumpers.
Still, Pac-Man’s fundamentals are simply too strong, especially when married to the urgency of the ticking clock, and Championship Edition 2 eventually finds a groove. After the tutorials have been completed; after the single-train levels (the equivalent of an easy mode) have been identified for the dull chores that they are and rightfully skipped; after all the unnecessary crutches have been discarded from your playbook because this is still a game about making that perfect lap—no brakes, no bumps, no teleportations—it all starts making sense and even becomes fun again. It’s just a shame that, for a game whose core theme remains non-stop pursuit, Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 proves so stubbornly reluctant to cut to the chase.