Nintendo Switch Online might have it's fair share of shortcomings, but easily one of its greatest assets is its free-to-play games that are exclusive to subscribers. These battle royale versions of classic gaming franchises like Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35 are unlike anything seen from its competitors and their accessibility makes them great to jump into every so often. With Super Mario Bros. 35 sadly being axed at the end of last month, Nintendo has prepared a replacement, and it's Pac-Man that is taking the spotlight.
Just like the two aforementioned titles Pac-Man 99 handles like the classic 1980 arcade game, but there have been some adjustments made to help transition it into multiplayer. I probably don't have to explain how Pac-Man works at this point, but for the few of you who haven't played, allow me to explain: Just like the classic game, you'll manoeuvre around a grid, gobbling up pellets and avoiding coloured ghosts that are trying to swallow you up. By consuming bright-flashing Power Pellets you can turn the tables on these pesky ghosts and can gobble them up yourself.
The goal in the original Pac-Man was to accumulate the most points possible, but here, you're tasked with staying alive against 98 other players. For each ghost that you consume, colourless clones known as Jammer Pac-Man are sent into another player's game and these cause them to slow down upon collision. You can opt to send these pesky hazards to random players or you can be more strategic and use the right analogue stick to either select attacking opponents or those who are growing close to defeat.
You also have what are known as Sleeping Ghosts, which are also colourless and remain motionless within one particular area of the grid. Swallowing up these enemies will spawn several duplicates behind one random ghost and you can eat these up to cause some serious chaos to an opponent's game. You do need to be careful, however, as these lines of ghosts can be long and they can transform back into their normal coloured selves whilst you're mid-meal. You also need to occasionally go on risky runs for fruits on the grid and have to avoid playing offensively, as these restock both the Sleeping Ghosts and Power Pellets.
I found the action in 99 to be addictive and frantic, and it only worked to get more chaotic with the overall speed and amount of oncoming obstacles increasing over time. Something I also enjoyed was that you could strategically switch between different buffs. Using the Y, X, B, and A buttons you can switch the game to either Standard, Train, Speed and Stronger and each of these contain their own advantages. Speed, for example, allows you to move faster and Stronger prevents Jammer Pac-Man from slowing you down as much.
Something that I wish Pac-Man 99 included was a better sense of direction. When you jump into a battle royale game there are no instructions guiding you on what you need to do and I found myself having to resort to its eShop description in order to get a grasp of its mechanics. I also wish there were more grid layouts present to help keep things fresh. As of writing, there is just one classic layout, and this feels lacking compared to Super Mario Bros. 35, for example, which included several levels and even boss fights from original entire game.
When I booted up the game I was surprised to see that all the modes besides the standard battle royale mode were concealed behind a paywall. To be able to access the self-explanatory CPU Battle, Score Attack, and Blind Time Attack modes you'll need to purchase the Mode Unlock pack from the eShop for £12.99. Given that the game is free-to-play, this isn't necessarily a huge criticism, but it's worth noting that you won't be able to enjoy the bulk of the experience unless you're willing to part with a bit of cash.
Along with the new modes, there's also several different themes and character emblems that you can purchase and equip that are inspired by beloved Namco franchises such as Dig Dug, GALAGA, and Dragon Buster. These packs cost £1.99 each and they significantly shake up the look and feel of the grid you compete in (the layout, however, does remain the same). If you're really enjoying your time with the game, then you can also opt to pick up the Deluxe Pack, which includes all the game's modes and themes for a total cost of £24.99.
Pac-Man 99 as a free-to-play game may feel like a pretty empty package, but the one core mode that is present is both frantic and addictive. I like how its take on the battle royale formula has a lot of strategic depth, and its accessible nature and fast-paced rounds made me keep wanting to return. I do wish, however, that it was a bit more clearly explained in-game and that there were more grids available than just the classic one present. Still, it's great to see Nintendo continue to revitalise classic games in this way and I hope it will remain ongoing.
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