Pac-Man has been around for a long time. After a number of arcade sequels starring his family and a 1990s stab at turning the famous character into an interactive onscreen buddy, how can Pac-Man remain relevant and fun in the twenty-first century? What at first comes off as a touchscreen tech demo gimmick - drawing your own Pac-Man - becomes quite fun and challenging in the 2005 Nintendo DS release from Namco, Pac-Pix.
Pac-Pix is not quite the Pac-Man you remember. The central objective of the series (eat the ghosts) remains, but that's about it. The game is divided into Books with each Book divided into twelve Chapters, each of which contains five Stages and, occasionally, a boss fight. Using the DS's stylus, players must draw Pac-Man on the touchscreen, and once drawn that Pac-Man scurries off in the direction he's facing when drawn, munching on any ghosts that are in his path. The larger the Pac-Man, the slower he moves, and if a Pac-Man wanders off the screen then he is gone, forcing players to draw another Pac-Man (if there are any in reserve). It's a good idea to keep the same Pac-Man around for a long as possible, as the number of points earned per devoured ghost rises if the same Pac-Man is eating them. Complete each stage by eating all of the ghosts before running out of timer ticks or available Pac-Men.
The familiar mazes are gone, replaced with a single open screen for Pac-Man to traverse. Obstacles can change his path. Players can use the stylus to draw strokes that act as directional barriers and change Pac's direction, while some levels contain blocks that, when touched, bump our hero back along the direction he was traveling before hitting the block. Some ghosts hide behind energy barriers which also cause a change of path. By the time players master drawing Pac-Man, the game tosses in some extra drawable objects. Drawing an arrow causes an arrow to shoot off towards out-of-reach enemies or switches. Bombs (once lit) can explode and demolish certain barriers and stun ghosts. Being able to quickly and accurately draw the needed tool is essential to progressing through Pac-Pix.
Pac-Pix would be far too easy if our hero was up against the same collection of ghosts he's been eating for the past twenty-five years. Some ghosts, such as Pinky or Blue, scurry away when Pac-Man approaches. The Numboos must be eaten in numerical order, while the mighty Biggaboo boss is far too large for a tiny Pac-Man to munch. Some ghosts hide inside armor that must be bombed away, others float on the top DS screen in little bubbles, requiring a well-aimed arrow shot to knock them down to the lower screen. The top screen also contains the Item Road where, if Pac-Man exits the lower screen on the upper righthand or lefthand corner, he'll move along a preset path and gobble up bonus fruit and any ghosts that are in the way.
Like Yoshi Touch and Go, Pac-Pix is more score-based than progression-based, but unlike Yoshi, Pix actually features different levels and bosses. The basic Item Road and touchscreen playfield remain constant, but the various ghosts and items that appear change with every level. While the game is certainly a lot of fun and can be quite the challenge on later stages, it's not perfect. Although the game offers a "sandbox" in which to practice sketching Pac and friends, even the best-drawn Pac-Men can sometimes zoom off in a direction other than the one players expect, and the game doesn't always recognize drawn bombs (worse yet, sometimes bombs are mistaken for Pac-Men and vice-versa).
Pac-Pix is one of the strongest third-party Nintendo DS offerings released to date. It's not a port of a Nintendo 64 title and it's not a watered-down piece of shovelware. It's a unique experience, and while it may not stand up to the test of time, it will certainly keep players occupied until the next big wave of DS titles hit stores. "Pix" this one up. You won't be disappointed.