Key Takeaways99 is a furious and flashy multiplayer spin on Pac-Man that's perfect for killing five minutes at a time.It feels more random and more complicated than it should.Despite that, it's surprisingly addictive.
I'm having some fun with Pac-Man 99, but it feels more like I'm yanking on a slot machine than playing a competitive video game.
It reimagines the classic Pac-Man arcade game as a battle royale, where the winner is the last Pac-Man standing out of 99 players at the start of the round. You have to dodge ghosts, juggle power-ups, dodge hazards, and keep a combo going, sometimes all at the same time.
The natural point of comparison here is Tetris 99, a Switch Online freebie with a comparable gimmick. The two games even feature similar UI elements. The edge on T99, though, is that player-vs-player Tetris was already a thing, so the makers of Pac-Man 99 had to make up more new rules here. Some were decidedly more successful than others.
"I do appreciate some of the design work that went into it, but I'd be happier with Pac-Man 99 if it were a little simpler."
Bring the Noise
The start of a round of Pac-Man 99 is when the game is at its most sedate. You're dropped into a typical Pac-Man maze with four ghosts, the same as it ever was.
As the 98 other players in the round run their own mazes, however, yours gets increasingly more complex. Every maze has "sleeping" ghosts in two of the center lanes, and when you eat them, they become attached to the nearest ghost like the title monster in Centipede.
When you eat a Power Pellet and turn the ghosts blue, the sleeping ghosts activate, and you can eat them all at once for a combo. Doing so throws out "jammers," ghostly Pac-Men, to other players' mazes, which slow a Pac-Man down on hit.
A player who eats a lot of ghosts at once also can spawn red Jammers, which are an instant KO for any Pac-Man that touches them.
You also can eat dots to speed your Pac-Man up gradually, and eating enough of them will cause one of the bonus fruits to spawn. That, in turn, advances you to the next level, which respawns Power Pellets, eliminates all the Jammers on your screen, speeds up the ghosts, and lowers the period of time in which Power Pellets are effective.
It's a lot to keep track of, but you're essentially eating everything you can to throw a big plate of new problems in other players' ways while they and you still have to contend with the typical ghosts.
You also can try to clear your maze and eat all the dots, which will upgrade your Pac-Man's speed, but doing so means you aren't focusing on the ghosts and aren't impeding your competitors' progress. It's Pac-Man as plate-spinning.
Learning As You Go
It's worth noting that I had to learn a lot of this from Google. You can muddle through a few rounds of Pac-Man 99 if you're even passingly familiar with the arcade game, but knowing what the new elements do is down to either Internet research or trial-and-error.
It's not that hard to learn, but my primary issue is that about 30 seconds into any given Pac-Man 99 match, between the combos flashing, the jammers, and the extra ghosts, it turns into a kaleidoscopic blur. I've lost many close matches because Inky, Blinky, Pinky, or Clyde were hiding behind visual clutter.
Victory here is more about your ability to navigate that chaos than your skill at Pac-Man. By the time you hit mid-game in Pac-Man 99, your maze is full of a dozen other moving objects. That makes the entire experience feel significantly more random than I'd argue it should.
That's not the same thing as it being bad, though. It's got the same just-one-more-round addictiveness as Tetris 99, but doesn't exert the same grip. I find it a lot easier to hit the saturation point in Pac-Man than Tetris, I suppose, particularly when this is such a different spin on the basic formula.
The subtle genius of Tetris 99 is that they didn't change it that much, whereas Pac-Man doesn't feel right when it's this complicated. It's essentially a new game in nostalgic wrapping paper.
I do appreciate some of the design work that went into it, but I'd be happier with Pac-Man 99 if it were a little simpler. I spent most of my weekend on it, but the petty annoyances do stack up.