Taking clear inspiration from Geometry Wars pretty much across the board--from the thumping techno and pulsing neon lights to the perpetual sense of escalation and pure speed--2007's Pac-Man Championship Edition made Namco’s old pie-chart feel more vital than it had, arguably in decades. As unlikely as the success of Pac-Man CE was, we're talking straight-up Powerball odds that the follow-up, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, would be able to match it, let alone exceed it. But not only does DX make CE feel like weak tea, it all but makes that game obsolete. This is sensory overload of the highest order, the kind of game that leaves your eyeballs dry, your nerves shot, and every last bit of you wanting more. Pac-Man Fever has been effectively weaponized.
As Championship Edition was a modern evolution of the original Pac-Man, DX expands specifically on the work done by CE, creating an experience that’s anchored by a lot of the classic Pac-Man sights and sounds and the fundamental gameplay concepts, but whose resemblance to the old quarter-chomper is rapidly slipping away. Like Pac-Man, you are constantly nagivating a series of mazes, eating up dots and using Power Pellets to turn the tables on the marauding ghosts. Like Pac-Man Championship Edition, the widescreen mazes are split into left and right sides, with different maze patterns appearing on one side as you clear out all of the dots and Power Pellets on the other, giving the whole game a relentless sense of momentum, and putting more of a focus on high scores than simple survival. In addition to loading the game up with a well-considered number of visual styles that recall or reimagine past incarnations of the Pac-Man, as well as a good fistful of new mazes that feature varying balances of straightaways and tight corners, DX introduces three key gameplay concepts, the total sum of which is an experience that feels fresh precisely because it still feels so familiar.
First and foremost are the green, static, "sleeping" ghosts that litter the mazes. Once you pass by these sleeper ghosts, they begin intently chasing you, showing none of the patterned behavior found in the regular ghosts. As you work your way back and forth across the changing maze, you can build up a pretty significant ghost train behind you, regularly numbering in the dozens. Once a rare Power Pellet appears, I have to tell you, the sensation you get when you about-face and just start plowing through these ghosts, with the recognizable arcade sound cue registering faster and higher as your combo points multiply... it’s one of the most purely enjoyable feelings I’ve gotten from a game in a long, long time. Considering how much time I’ve spent being stressed out and terrorized by those awful specters over the years, there’s something downright therapeutic about it. In their original arcade incarnation, the ghosts in Pac-Man were terrifying. The four of them hunted you for sport, with the scattered Power Pellets providing only brief reprieves from their malevolence. Championship Edition definitely strengthened Pac-Man’s position against them, but in DX they’re cheap fodder for the mighty Pac-God.
As your score rises, so does the speed of the game, which is where the other two DX additions come into play. While the maze layouts are decidedly circuitous, the dot patterns are laid out into very deliberate paths, and high scores almost always hinge on how closely you can keep to that track. The increased speed, plus the rogue ghosts that still patrol the maze, as well as the increasing danger of running into your own ghost train as it grows longer and longer, all conspire to throw you off. It’s manageable up to a certain point, but the speed eventually just makes it overwhelming. When you’re close to having an unfortunate encounter with a ghost, the game will effectively go into bullet-time and zoom in on your position, giving you time to choose an alternate path, or elect to trigger a bomb, which momentarily bumps all of the active ghosts on the maze back into their central holding pen and lowers the game speed slightly, giving you time and room to breathe.
One of the net effects of the bombs, the slow-down, and the sheer volume of ghosts is that the challenge lies not in survival, but in besting the scores of your friends and climbing your way up the leaderboards. Though it won’t point out when friends beat specific scores, DX is more than happy to let you know where you stand in the global rankings in the maze-specific five- and ten-minute score attack modes, as well as the time trial and ghost combo modes, both of which go and put their own unique spin on the DX gameplay. There's a weird misstep with the leaderboards, in that your own score doesn’t show up integrated into your friends leaderboard. It’s easy enough to flip back and forth between your score and your friends leaderboard and figure out where you fit, but still, a goofy choice.
The only thing I really wish Pac-Man Championship Edition DX had was just more. More mazes, more modes, more ways for me to subjugate ghosts and rub my high scores in my friends’ stupid, stupid faces. It’s not that this package feels particularly anemic, it’s just that what’s here is so damn good, I wish it didn’t have to end.