You'd think Pac-Man would come with more baggage by now. He's older than Mario, Master Chief, the faceless soldiers of a million FPSes, and most of the people gaming today, but after all this time his simple core gameplay of “eat dots in a maze while avoiding the ghosts” remains almost as pure as it was in 1980. (Does anyone really remember Pac-Man World? Pac-Man Rally? No? Good.) No giant mythologies based on overwrought storylines, no midnight releases at the gaming store of your choice, and very little need to strip away the accumulated clutter of decades worth of tweaks and additions to the gaming mechanics. Eat dots, avoid ghosts, and everything will work out just fine.
Which isn't to say that Pac-Man Championship Edition DX doesn't shake things up quite nicely. DX builds on the framework of 2007's Championship Edition update, but strikes out in its own direction by jettisoning the more methodical pace of the series and replacing it with flashy high-speed action. While this can make DX feel more like a spin-off than a proper entry in the Pac-Man series, there's no denying how ridiculously fun it is.
There's no denying how ridiculously fun it is.
In Pac-Man CE, the maze full of dots was replaced with a maze where the dots only covered a few paths. Eating all the dots on either the left or right side of the maze caused fruit to appear in the opposite section, and eating that repopulated the empty side with the dots in a different pattern. As points rack up, Pac-Man's speed increases, and that also make the dots worth more. This system is back in DX, but it's been given a new wrinkle in the form of multiple boards to choose from populated by a new enemy: the sleeping ghost. Ghosts still pop out of the corral in the center to chase after you, but stationary ghosts also snooze away on the maze's paths, and will only wake up when Pac-Man zips by. Once awake, they'll trail after Pac-Man, eventually forming a giant rainbow conga-line of ghosts just waiting for a power pill to let them be eaten for a huge point bonus.
Having a tail that wants you dead does make for some pretty significant changes to the flow of the game, though. Reversing is tricky, for one thing, and a long trailing ghost tail can block off other escape routes if you're not careful. This is alleviated a bit by the dot patterns, which encourage a smooth flowing path through each section of the maze. With a bit of practice it soon becomes easy to see optimal paths, which become defined not just by tracing the dots but also cruising past as many sleeping ghosts as possible so that when the power pill becomes available your score can shoot through the roof. In the meantime, of course, the regular ghosts are also patrolling the maze, although this time around they're more a nuisance designed to throw you off the best path than a real threat.
Two new additions lessen the possibility of death: bullet time and a bomb. Bullet time happens when Pac-Man gets too close to a ghost, slowing down and zooming in the action to give you the time and focus needed to come up with a different plan. If there's no way out, a bomb will send all active ghosts back to the corral for a few seconds, including the conga line. While this may seem a cheap way of making the game easier, DX is a score attack rather than a game of survival, and each life-saving feature steals away valuable time you could be using to rake in the points.
Time and points are the two major goals of Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, and two separate game modes focus on each one individually. Five- and ten-minute Score Attack modes give you a set amount of time to score as high as possible, while Time Trial gives you about ten (more or less, depending on the map) short courses to clear as quickly as possible, with points being irrelevant. The two modes play roughly the same but require very different strategies to do well in, especially seeing as high-scoring actions like eating a ghost come with a small pause. When trying to shave hundredths of a second off a best time, anything that slows you down is a good reason to restart.
Make no mistake, once you've had a bit of practice on a board, whether it's chasing after a high score or best time, you'll be restarting a lot. DX is just ridiculously addictive, thanks to bite-size challenges that gently lure you in to multi-hour gaming sessions. Working on a high score while dealing with Pac-Man's increasing speed leads to time-consuming errors that throw you out of the maze's rhythm, and it's very easy to do a double-tap on the Back button to jump back to the beginning. It's only a five-minute challenge, after all. One more round won't take that long. And then a sunbeam pokes through the window, and you realize a good night's sleep is going to have to wait for another day.
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX is a perfect arcade game. It's instantly accessible, feels great to play, and has a nearly-invisible learning curve. DX is faster and flashier than its predecessors, and a good argument could be made that this makes it feel more like a spin-off than a proper series entry, but there's no denying how amazingly fun it is. Switching between the two primary score- and time-based modes keeps things fresh, and the leaderboards are always taunting you to do just a little bit better in the next game.
After years wandering mazes Pac-Man should be feeling at least a little tired, but the relentless yellow chowhound is as great today as he's ever been. For a series that's just turned 30, that's pretty impressive.