Has Pac-Man always had arms and legs? Back in his pill-chomping, maze-dashing, ghost dodging prime, we don't remember him throwing a left hook at a ghost that got too close, nor jumping up onto his legs to make a speedy getaway - but perhaps that's what he gets for scoffing a load of mysterious glowing pills...
Either way, the Pac-Man that's featured in Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures isn't the Pac-Man you used to know. A family friendly tie-in game, based on the new cartoon of the same name, Pac-Man here not only has spawned four limbs of his own, but he's also developed an (annoying) voice, turned his eyebrows into things that appear to double as a pair of ears, and taken his game in a decidedly different direction. Rather than a maze-based gobble-'em-up, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is instead a 3D platformer. A surprisingly good one at that.
While there's a tendency for TV tie-ins to be cheap cash-ins, hastily thrown together with the least of effort, there's no such sign of any such corner cutting with Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures. For starters, it's a pretty good looking game, with bold, colourful, yet nicely detailed environments that provide a fitting backdrop for Pac's platforming action. There's the Futurama inspired Pacopolis, with vacuum tubes that shoot you between the brushed metal platforms; some Aztec-alike ruins, and the obligatory snowy stage, too. And in even more of a pleasant twist, not only do these stages look good, but the game's camera manages to keep up with you surprisingly well, too. Automatically rotating to keep you looking in the right direction, and helping avoid too many pratfalls, it's an essential feature for the game's younger target audience that means they only really have to worry about one analogue stick - but it's one so many platformers seem to get wrong.
While there is a bit of a naff story tying things together, with a terribly named Professor (Sir Cumference) letting Pac know that it's up to him to save the city - and the entire Pac-world - from the evil Betrayus, and his legions of ghosts, what little plot there is is mostly an excuse to plonk you into one of the levels, stomach a-rumbling, with the intention of gobbling as many ghosts as you possibly can.
But while you'll still be gobbling up the yellow dots as you run around the stages, and each level is populated with no-good ghosts who'll do their best to put an end to your never ending eating spree, how you handle the ghosts is a little bit different to the arcade games of yore. The different foes you come across in the stages may each have different powers, but they can mostly be dispatched in a similar way - just run up to them, and press square (on the PS3) to chow down on them in a single bite. While the turquoise ghosts can spew a load of green goo in your general direction, the red ghost can vanish underground, before popping up when he's least expected, and the pink ghosts dart at you before you've had chance to dodge, all ghosts are vulnerable to Pac, whether they've been stunned or not. By chowing down on five ghosts in short succession, you'll be able to make Pac-Man shriek to turn them blue, and freeze them in their tracks - but it's not at all necessary to defeat them.
Along with having varied styles, though, the levels themselves have plenty of different gameplay tricks they throw at you too, to help keep things interesting, mostly thanks to Pac-Man's all new abilities. Seemingly another side-effect of popping one too many radioactive pills, Pac's acquired a variety of alternate forms, which he can activate by finding special pills hidden in the levels. Whether it's Chameleon Pac, who can use his tongue to both gobble up ghosts and swing from poles (great for reaching higher ground), Fire Pac, who can (you guessed it) lob fireballs at his foes, or the slightly stranger Boulder Pac, which turns the yellow hero into something that wouldn't look out of place in an Indiana Jones film, complete with a retractable nose that folds in when you get rolling, there's plenty of different "forms", each of which have their own uses in the levels.
So far, so good then - but Pac-Man does have a few oversights that may hamper its appeal with the younger audience, not least of which is the game's difficulty. While the LEGO games have got this down to a T (be as kind as possible to players, and they'll keep playing), Pac-Man feels very much like an old school platformer - and it shows it at times with its fiendish difficulty.
Half of the problem here is just daft design decisions, that leave the player losing a life through no fault of their own. As an example, you'll often find yourself coming across large groups of ghosts, yet Pac-Man can only gobble up one at a time - and he pauses for a moment while he finishes his meal. Leaving him rather vulnerable when you're surrounded by a gang, you'll suck up one ghost, only to be attacked by another while Pac finishes his eating animation. It's a bit annoying to be losing precious hearts through no fault of your own - and even worse when Pac dashes to chomp the ghost, but misses, falling off a cliff to his doom.
Later levels add further frustration with controls, too, with the boulder being particularly precarious, especially for younger players. With an uncanny ability to pick up speed even on the flattest of ground, you actually have to hold circle to apply a brake, of sorts, to get the thing to come to a stop before it blissfully rolls into the nearby lava - but for some reason, this doesn't always work. While on solid ground, it works well, if you're trying to keep your boulder steady on one of the game's rather narrow, floating platforms, holding circle will actually throw you backwards, into the drink, in what seems more of a glitch than anything.
Even then, though, these aren't as annoying as the flipping platforms, which we've dubbed to reflect both how annoying they are, and what they do. Often making up large sections of the floor, these tiles will flip over or rotate if you stand anywhere but perfectly centred on them - which is more than a little bit frustrating. Try to chomp a ghost, and you'll be stuck on the spot for a few seconds, giving the tile just enough time to flip over, and dump you into the lava below. And while touching the lava usually just causes Pac to leap into the air to safety, if you've fallen prey to one of these blocks, you'll find yourself buried beneath it for good, unable to pop back up. Insta-death. Oh, and did we mention you only have three lives?
While these glitches and annoyances are thankfully fairly far apart, they do put an otherwise sour note on what's otherwise a pretty solid platformer. Harking back to the days of old (and not just because it stars a classic arcade character), this is well worth a look if you need some more platforming in your life. While it may not have the sensibilities (not to mention the co-op) of the LEGO games, this is good fun nonetheless.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360