Pac-Man 99 Review

With the battle royale genre taking the video game world by storm over the past few years, a recent trend has been remaking classic video games in the style of this genre. At the heart of this trend is developer Arika, who teamed up with Nintendo to create Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, the latter of which was pointlessly discontinued after only a few months. Shortly after Super Mario Bros. 35’s cancellation, Arika announced that they were teaming up with Bandai Namco to give Pac-Man the battle royale treatment with Pac-Man 99 for the Nintendo Switch. And much like Arika’s previous efforts, Pac-Man 99 is a fun and addicting spin on one of the classics of the medium.

As its name implies, Pac-Man 99 takes a page from Tetris 99’s book, and sees ninety-nine players compete against each other in a game of Pac-Man all trying to outlast each other, with the last player standing being the winner.

Pac-Man still moves around the board eating ‘Pac-Dots’ and avoiding the ghosts (Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde). There are still the big ‘Power Pellets’ in the corners of the board, which temporarily supercharge Pac-Man and allow him to turn the tables and eat the ghosts! So the basic gameplay is as it always was, but there are some fun changes that come with the battle royale makeover.

Now, whenever Pac-Man eats a ghost, that creates a “Jammer Pac-Man” for other players. Jammer Pac-Men are basically white Pac-Man outlines that slow players down. The more Jammer Pac-Men you send to other players, the slower they’ll get, making them easy pickings for the ghosts, thus eliminating them from the competition. Of course, this also means other players are constantly sending Jammer Pac-Men your way as well. But you can eliminate all of the current Jammers at once by eating a Power Pellet.

Another addition are the groups of tiny “Sleeping Ghosts” on both sides of the board. When collected, these Sleeping Ghosts then trail behind the nearest proper ghost to create a ‘Ghost Train.’ The benefit to this is that, once the ghosts become edible with a Power Pellet, each ghost in the Ghost Train creates its own Jammer, thus bombarding your opponents.

Once a certain amount of the Pac-Dots on the board are eaten (I believe it’s half of them), a fruit appears at the center of the board which resets all of the Pac-Dots, Power Pellets and Sleeping Ghosts once Pac-Man eats it.

Also of note is how the game changes as it goes. Not only do Pac-Man and the ghosts move faster as a match goes on, but the Jammer Pac-Men will behave differently in different stages of a match. In the earlier portion of a game, the Jammers will stay in place, and will slow Pac-Man if he moves through them. Later, the Jammers start chasing Pac-Man. And the late-game introduces red Jammer Pac-Men, who may move slower than the others, but will eliminate Pac-Man just as the ghosts do. And Power Pellets merely freeze the red Jammers in place temporarily. Only getting the fruit will eliminate the red Jammers from the board.

These are all fun twists to the Pac-Man formula that make for a thrilling multiplayer competition. But there are some additional elements that add another level of strategy, though they could be better explained and presented. These are the power-ups and the targeting options.

The power-ups are added bonuses the player can equip at any time, that are activated once Pac-Man eats a Power Pellet. The power-up options are Speed, Stronger, Train and Standard. Speed – true to its name – will double Pac-Man’s movement speed for the duration of a Power Pellet, with the caveat that you’ll send less Jammers to other players. Stronger creates more Jammers per ghost that you eat, but reduces the length of the Power Pellets’ effects. Train adds more ghosts to the Ghost Trains, but also brings a Jammer to your own board for every extra ghost. Standard won’t give Pac-Man any bonuses outside of what Power Pellets usually do, but also doesn’t have a downside.

Targeting options refer to who you want to be sending your Jammer Pac-Men to, and can also be changed at any point. The targeting options are categorized as Random, Knockout, Hunter, and Counter. Random, of course, will simply target a random set of players. Knockout will target players who are on the verge of being eliminated. Hunter will go after the players who have eliminated the most competition already. Finally, Counter will target anyone who is currently targeting you.

It is possible to target individual players, but this is only plausibly done when played in the Switch’s handheld mode, where you just tap that player’s screen on the touchscreen. When played in docked mode, you have to press the ‘L’ or ‘R’ buttons to manually go through each player to find the one you want. But with 98 other players, that’s simply unreasonable, especially in a game that gets as chaotic as this.

As much fun as Pac-Man 99 is, I have to admit the implementation of the power-ups and targeting options could have been done better. Pac-Man himself is controlled by the D-pad, while the buttons change the power-ups, and the right joystick switches the target options. I suppose that’s fine, but if I’m going to be honest, as the game goes on and gets faster and faster, I tend to forget those options are even there. It doesn’t help that the HUD for these options are greatly obscured by all the other players’ screens. Tetris 99 also did something like this, but Pac-Man 99 has so many added visual effects (which look nice on their own) that the displays for the power-ups and targeting options are just drown out. It just makes things all the more chaotic and I lose track of the action.

Another problem is that the game fails to properly explain what the power-ups and targeting options do. There are no in-game options detailing them, and the effects aren’t immediately apparent during gameplay. Although the names gave me a general idea, I actually had to look them up online to know what they did.

A simple instructions section on the main menu and a clearer display would really benefit these aspects. Otherwise Pac-Man 99 is a very fun twist on a timeless classic. It’s highly competitive, and you’ll find yourself even competing with yourself to see if you can rank higher than you did the time before. You’ll find you catch on to the new mechanics pretty quickly, but will play game after game trying to master them. It’s one of those “just one more game” kind of video games.

Pac-Man 99 doesn’t reinvent the Pac-Man formula or the battle royale genre, but like Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35 before it, Pac-Man 99 proves that battle royales and classic games are a match made in heaven.

7

Replaying: Dark Souls III

In all the hustle and bustle of 2020, as I continue to procrastinate reviews for Animal Crossing and Paper Mario: The Disappointment King (what, isn’t that what it’s called?) – not to mention a few lingering reviews for 2019 games – I’ve decided to write about a different older game I’ve been replaying! That game, as I’m sure you’ve deduced from the title, is Dark souls III!

Come to think of it, I’ve had quite a Souls-heavy year in 2020. I replayed Dark Souls Remastered, beat Demon’s Souls for the first time, and completed Dark Souls II. Now that I’m replaying Dark Souls III, that’s all of the Souls games that actually have the word “Souls” in the title. Maybe I’ll bring it full circle and replay BloodbBorne before year’s end. BloodBorne is, for my money, the best Souls game.

That’s not a slight on any of the other Souls games, as Dark Souls is one of the best video games ever made, and honestly, I think Dark Souls III is just as good. Dark Souls II may be a fair bit behind its siblings, and unpopular opinion, but Demon’s Souls is considerably less enjoyable than all of its successors (hopefully the PS5 remake can make some adjustments to bring it up to speed with Dark Souls).

Anyway, Dark Souls III is the focus here. Like I said, I think it’s just as good as the first Dark Souls in many respects (in some ways better, in some not quite as good). I even named it my Game of the Year for 2016 here on this site! It’s easily one of my favorite games of the console generation, and of the 2010s decade (my best of the decade list won’t just be Dark Souls and Mario, but it will very much be Dark Souls and Mario).

What made Dark Souls III work so well – besides the series’ already winning formula and the return of director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who was absent for Dark Souls II – is that it feels like a smooth balance between Dark Souls and BloodBorne. The combat obviously mostly reflects the former, but it has a faster speed to it, closer to BloodBorne. It just feels right.

What mostly had me revisit Dark Souls III is that I never actually experienced its DLC, so I’m playing through the game again and seeing the DLC for the first time.

Last night I finished the first DLC, Ashes of Ariandel (which sounds like Arendelle, the kingdom of Disney’s Frozen, and is even a snowy landscape, which also features a girl with extremely long hair who loves to paint, similar to Rapunzel in Tangled. Now I want a Disney Souls-like). Per the usual, Dark Souls III continues the series’ consistently deep DLC content.

The Ashes of Ariandel campaign took a few hours to beat (I played alongside my brother, which makes things a little more manageable), and included a great, atmospheric setting (it is Dark Souls, after all), some cool (if maybe not series’ best) enemies, and some incredible boss fights. Mainly, the final boss of Ashes of Ariandel is now one of my favorites in the entire series. Definitely the hardest in Dark Souls III, and one of the hardest in any Souls game (I might only place it under some of the optional chalice dungeon bosses from BloodBorne. Specifically the Defiled Chalice Amygdala. Damn that guy!).

The DLC was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to delving into the second  DLC campaign, The Ringed City, soon. But revisiting Dark Souls III on the whole has been a joy. And I think, now that I’ve finally played through all of Dark Souls II and Demon’s Souls, I appreciate Dark Souls III all the more. While Dark Souls II is far from a bad game, it definitely had its share of questionable creative decisions, not to mention some forgettable locations. And Demon’s Souls, while again not bad per se, really lacks the polish of its successors, and shows its age. So Dark Souls III now feels like all the grander the achievement. A return to form for the Dark Souls trilogy that not only corrects course from the polarizing second installment, but also shows how far Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brainchild had come since Demon’s Souls. It, most appropriately, feels like a great crescendo of everything the series did up to that point.

Dark Souls, BloodBorne and (for some reason) Demon’s Souls seem to be the most beloved entries in the Souls series. The “proper trilogy” in most fans’ eyes. But if you ask me, Dark Souls III is far more deserving to sit alongside Dark Souls and BloodBorne as one of Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s finest achievements.

I can’t wait to play more.

Replaying: Dark Souls Remastered

Seeing as we’ve entered a new decade, I – being the sappy, festive person that I am – decided to replay an old favorite as my first game played in the new decade. So naturally, I picked Super Mario World.

And then after that, I picked Dark Souls. That’s two all-time greats back-to-back. Not too shabby.

Yeah, I know. I’ve mentioned I still have some 2019 games to review so I should really get back to them. I don’t know, I just felt like playing a game for the enjoyment of it for a change, instead of putting the pressure on myself to review it. Yes, I will still get back to those remaining 2019 games, notably Pokemon Sword. But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m finding myself struggling to get through Pokemon Sword. It’s actually inspired me to write a future piece about my overall opinion of the Pokemon series. I find that I love the IP, the concept, and the creatures of Pokemon. But I’ve kind of realized I’m not the biggest fan of the games themselves. Of all Nintendo’s franchises, Pokemon is the one that – ironically enough – just doesn’t evolve.

But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, we’re talking Dark Souls. Originally released in 2011 as a kind of spiritual successor to Demon Souls, Dark Souls would become one of the most beloved and acclaimed games of the 2010s. And frankly, it has very little in the ways of competition for the title of the most influential game of the 2010s. Seriously, how often do you hear terms like “Souls-like” these days? How many of its elements have you seen integrated into games of all different genres? As much as people want to pretend that Rockstar and Naughty Dog are the big influencers of gaming today, neither of those studios have seen their design philosophies reverberated into the works of others on such a deep level. Rockstar may have popularized open-worlds, and Naughty Dog has continued to make people think having a story equates to good storytelling, but Dark Souls has fundamentally transformed game design in ways akin to the grandaddies of the medium like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda.

When I originally reviewed Dark Souls Remastered, I awarded it a rare 10/10. While I don’t think awarding a game like Dark Souls with top honors is misplaced, I do admit I have (at least temporarily) lowered my score of it to a 9/10. Not because I think any less of it per se, but I might prefer Dark Souls 3 and (especially) Bloodborne in the ways of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s very specific series of games. It’s a case of “which giant is the biggest among giants.” Even Dark Souls 2, the supposed “black sheep” of the lot, is still a great game. This is a series which definitely feels like a 10/10 is warranted somewhere though, it’s just tough to say which one is the definitive installment.

The first Dark Souls still seems to be the most beloved overall (with Bloodborne being its closest competition). And it’s definitely a fair argument. There’s just so much about it, from its level design, monsters, intricate gameplay, countless atmospheric locations, and genuinely original lore that makes it all so memorable.

In fact, Dark Souls is a game so good that I bought the remastered version twice, the first time around on the PS4, and the second time on the Switch (because Switch has everything). With my current playthrough, I decided to take the Switch version for a whirl, though in retrospect maybe I should have gone back to the PS4 version first since I’m only one trophy away from platinuming the game…

Eh, another time. On the plus side of things, Dark Souls Remastered looks and plays just as well on Switch as it did on PS4. And the great thing about the Switch version of any game is, of course, that you can play it as a handheld. Sure, I usually play Switch docked as a console, but to have the option and ability to play something like Dark Souls as a handheld game is just wonderful. It’s such a huge advantage for Switch games, and I don’t think that detail about the console gets the recognition it deserves. Again, Dark Souls as a handheld title, with no compromise! I love the Switch.

Anywho, my current playthrough is reminding me why I love Dark Souls so much. You always hear people go on and on about the game’s legendary difficulty, and while it certainly is a steep challenge, there’s so much more to Dark Souls than its challenge. This is a game (and subsequently, series) that seems to have an intimate knowledge of game design. What at first seems simply like brutal difficulty is actually a lesson in patience and dedication. Approach Dark Souls as you would most other games, aiming immediately for action and to take out your enemies, and your haste is destined to fail.

When you die in Dark Souls, you lose all of your acquired souls (essentially experience points and currency rolled into one). But you’re given a chance to reclaim them. Learn from your mistakes, make it back to where you died, and succeed where you once failed, and you can reclaim your lost souls. It’s a terrific risk and reward mechanic that firmly asks the player to study every element of the game, as opposed to simply running in and killing stuff willy nilly.

Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2019 title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (another 2019 game I gotta get back to) was beloved by many, even receiving Game of the Year by a number of outlets. But that particular game has – so far – not clicked for me in the way the Dark Souls/Bloodborne games have. A large reason for this is that it removes the “reward” aspect of the aforementioned risk and reward scenario. In Sekiro, whatever experience you’ve accumulated is lost and gone for good immediately upon defeat. It’s a difficult game that seems to send the player into its challenges blindfolded, and then arrogantly punishes them for not being able to overcome said challenges the first time around. That’s not the case with Dark Souls. No matter how difficult Dark Souls gets, there’s always that semblance of hope that makes you want to persevere.

I’ve heard some people describe Dark Souls as being about “hopelessness,” and some even referring to its dark world as “nihilistic.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As grim and elegiac as the series (Bloodborne most definitely included) can be, Dark Souls is ultimately an incredibly hopeful experience. It may not be apparent at first, and surely the uninitiated will get angry a time or two at its seemingly unfair odds. But as you struggle, and endure, and pick yourself back up and carry on, you begin to realize what makes Dark Souls special.

Dark Souls isn’t simply a ‘hard game.’ It’s a work of art that teaches you the importance of even the smallest ray of hope in the face of hopelessness itself. The brooding, often-grotesque monstrosities of Dark Souls at first seem to mock you in defeat. But as you learn to press on, and learn from your experience, and know that with just a little extra effort you can conquer anything, you end up doing just that. And when you finally fell a particularly dastardly monster, the sheer joy and relief that washes over you as your foe vanishes into light is euphoric. And by the time you make it to New Game Plus, you are so wizened from your experience that you feel like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Superman, knowing every nook and cranny of the game while being able to topple foes that once seemed unbeatable.

It’s hope that got you there. Hope that Dark Souls beautifully, deceptively implants into you. So many video games these days are hellbent on proving the artistic merits of the medium by means of replicating cinema, but Dark Souls is one of those titles that becomes a work of art by fully embracing its nature as a video game. 

No other medium could instill hope in its audience in the same way Dark Souls does. Hopefully, its players will be able to take that message to heart, and let that same kind of hope help them in the real world as well.

Suffice to say, Dark Souls has earned its place as one of the best games of its decade.

Top 5 Most Wanted Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Characters

The release of a new Super Smash Bros. game always gets people hyped. And while the E3 Direct and playing the E3 demo accomplished just that, for me, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was something to be excited for, but one that seemed a bit familiar. That is until earlier this month with the second SSBU-focused direct, which revealed a host of new information on the upcoming entry, and kicked things into high gear with the announcements of Simon Belmont and King K. Rool!

Of course, being a series built on Nintendo’s history (or just plain video game history at this point), people always have their characters that they’d like to see make the Super Smash Bros. roster with every new entry. So far, the newcomers for Ultimate reads like a shortlist of winning selections: The Inklings represent a contemporary Nintendo franchise, Simon Belmont hails from the third-party franchise most synonymous with Nintendo’s early years (except maybe Mega Man), and Ridley and K. Rool have been among the most requested characters to join Super Smash Bros. for ages, so their inclusions feel like gifts for the fans.

The following characters are the ones I’d most like to see be announced in the coming months to join the ranks of Super Smash Bros. fighters in Ultimate. I know, people might bring up that Sakurai has already stated there won’t be too many newcomers (outside of echo fighters) this time. But this list isn’t called “Five Characters Who Will Totally Make the Cut in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in Addition to the Ones Who Have Already Been Announced.” It’s a list of the five characters I’d most like to see make it. Not expecting all five, but I like to think my top two picks have more than a fighting chance.

The funny thing is I had originally planned to make this list before the last Smash Bros. Direct, but never got around to it. And since Simon Belmont and King K. Rool were originally going to be on this list, I had to change things up a bit after they were announced.

Also, my list includes a mix of Nintendo characters and those of third-parties. Because honestly, Super Smash Bros. now has most of Nintendo’s most notable characters. There aren’t too many left that would make a big splash outside of an Assist Trophy. Kind of have to branch out at this point.

With all that out of the way, here are the top five characters I’d most like to see become playable characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But first, a runner-up.

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