You'd be hard-pressed to find a round yellow man more popular than Pac-Man. Making his debut in 1980 in arcades, Pac-Man received widespread critical and commercial success, solidifying its titular character as a cultural icon ever since. The world came down with Pac-Man fever, and the only cure was more Pac-Man.
Of course, the videogame landscape has dramatically changed since Pac-Man's heyday. So how does a 40-year-old videogame icon bring in a new audience? By turning into a battle royale, of course. The battle royale-ification of videogames continues with Pac-Man 99, the latest in the series of unique battle royale style games found exclusively on the Nintendo Switch by way of their Nintendo Online Service.
Like Tetris 99 and the dearly departed Mario 35, Pac-Man 99 follows the same established formula, but is it worth your time and is it actually as free as it claims? Pac-Man 99 captures the "one more game" spirit of the arcades and the competitive nature of a multiplayer game, though it is held back from greatness by an unfortunate amount of paywalls.
It's like your dad's Pac-Man
Pac-Man 99 is just Pac-Man in its purest form, in the same vein that Tetris 99 is still just Tetris. The core of the game is still the same. You guide Pac-Man through a maze, chomping dots and grabbing Power Pellets that make the four ghosts chasing Pac-Man edible. Pac-Man's seen a few worthy revisions in the last few years, most notable the Pac-Man Championship Edition games, and you can see some of their influence here. Pac-Man drifts around corners if you turn at the right time, setting sparks off in the process, and the music is lively and fast-paced, ramping up as you inch closer to the top of the leaderboard.
Pac-Man 99 uses the same template as Tetris 99 and Mario 35. You play the game in your own isolated window while 99 others duke it out around you. You can choose to target different players with a flick of the right stick, and every ghost you eat will send a Jammer Pac-Man to your opponent. Jammer Pac-Man litter the board and slow down opponents, allowing ghosts to strike. The trick is to add more ghosts to the fray by eating the ghost trains found on the sides of the maze. Build up a giant conga line of ghosts and chomp them all once for a huge combo.
And it's incredibly satisfying to do so. The game becomes frenetic as you dodge ghosts and Jammer Pac-Man while trying to build a huge ghost train. Eventually, red Jammer Pac-Man appears on the maze and can kill Pac-Man if he touches them. It's hectic, and it's a lot of fun.
The new addition to the 99 formula is the addition of different Power-Ups you control. On the left side of the screen, you're given four options: Standard, Stronger, Speed, and Train. Each Power-Up activates when Pac-Man grabs a power pellet, and they each affect Pac-Man's state while the Power Pellet is in effect. Speed makes him go faster, Stronger slows him down but sends more Jammer Pac-Man, and Train adds more ghost to the ghost train but drops a Jammer Pac-Man on your screen. The strategy is there, but of course, you can easily win a game by just playing normal Pac-Man.
Not as free as previously thought
The core experience in Pac-Man 99 is fun, but it's not without faults. The Power-Up system, for example, is not explained at all. In fact, nothing is. You're just thrust into a game with 99 others. It's a little annoying losing a game because you didn't know that the red Jammer Pac-Man kills you, for example. The trial and error gameplay is reminiscent of playing an arcade cabinet for the first time, but that doesn't mean it's not annoying.
What's worse is that it seems like Pac-Man 99 is missing some of the features found in Tetris 99, which brings me to my next point: Paywalls. This game might be free for Nintendo Switch Online users, but a lot of the game is locked away, and nothing seems to be unlockable. Score Attack, Blind Time Attack, and CPU battle must be bought separately for $15. Even Password Match, which would allow you to join a lobby with friends, is also locked away in that DLC pack. It's a shame because a game like this would be even more fun if you could coordinate games with friends. Also, themes are paid DLC and not unlockable like they were in Tetris 99.
You can get everything Pac-Man 99 offers for $30, and it's not like Tetris 99 doesn't have DLC either, but the nickel & diming on display here with Pac-Man 99 just feels a little too egregious. However, $30 for a multiplayer isn't the worst deal in gaming history, so your thoughts may differ.
Pac-Man lives on, despite the odds
Despite its flaws, Pac-Man 99 captures that feeling of just one more game perfectly. It's easy to play, and once you understand how the game, it's incredibly fun. I just wish they explained things, and the DLC makes Pac-Man 99 feel less like a "free" game than Mario 35 and Tetris 99 did. With that being said, it is still one of best free games on the Nintendo Switch.
If I had to rank Pac-Man 99, I'd put it below Tetris 99 but above Mario 35. Arika, the developer of these games, has proven that they can take timeless classics and rework them as multiplayer games without losing what makes them so great. They're not your typical 99 player experience, and that's good because in a world stuffed full of battle royal games, it's nice to see the formula flipped a bit, even if the core game is something we've seen for more than 40 years.