“I like 99 a lot—the modern take is introducing more chaos over the simple gameplay,” says Lapetino.
Deep Down, 99 Is the Pac-Man You Know and Love
Jeff Pickles knows a little something about the enduring appeal of the game. In December of 2013, Pickles achieved gaming immortality, becoming only the eighth man in history to achieve a perfect score on an original Pac-Man arcade cabinet.
Everyone’s journey is different—some take years, even decades to develop the skills necessary for such elite play, but Pickles estimates he spent only about 350 total hours over 18 months in order to go from never having played the game as an adult to a perfect score. It’s a result the developers didn’t really even anticipate, as the screen glitches out toward the game’s end.
For Pickles, it’s all about the ghost’s hunting algorithm, the one used in the original as well as Ms. Pac-Man, and which is apparently also present in 99. What clued him in right away is that “if you have a ghost on your tail, pass through that T-intersection area above the ghost house—the ghosts will not track you through that area. I love that, because that tells me: this is the algorithm I know,” he says.
Roughly, Pickles explains that “the red one is the only one who will target you directly. The pink one will always go to a spot about two squares in front of your mouth—so he’s always trying to cut you off.” He continues, “The blue one, he’s a weird geometry problem I’d kind of have to draw out to explain.” Pickles says that since all ghost movements are based on the movements of Pac-Man, your joystick is de facto controlling them all—to really excel at the game, you simply have to think about five things moving at once, instead of one solitary Pac-Man. That’s all.
But, Pickles says, “It’s simple once you see the AI logic, but unless you study it, you wouldn’t know … that’s the brilliance of it. I’m glad to see the game getting back to that, and not just heatseekers.”
In some variations, for instance 1982’s Baby Pac-Man, a Pac/pinball mash-up, “the algorithm is awful. The ghosts just seek you out directly, and that started a line of different Pac-Man games where the ghosts didn’t behave the way they should, they didn’t have the same personality.”
“And what’s the fun of 4 ghosts all converging at one point? Homing missiles aren’t very interesting.” So a game can have a maze, some dots, and ghosts–but the algorithm is what lies at the heart of any proper Pac-Man title.
“When Toru [the game’s creator, Toru Iwatani] and his team made those algorithms, they did a great job of making it feel like the ghosts have their own personalities, and that’s part of the lasting appeal. It almost feels personal.” I nod, because it’s true—I do hate Pinky, on an oddly personal level.
Ryan Harris is the writer and host of Nerd Alert! Trivia, as well as a member of my global Mario Kart online group, where he routinely eats red shells for breakfast. He picked up Pac-Man 99 after enjoying playing its battle royale forerunner, Tetris 99. “The 99 titles initially freaked me out due to the ‘battle royale’ designation, but once I realized they were the same games I loved from my youth—just infused with a manic energy and clever tweaks to the gameplay—I was hooked,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love a good, interminably long open-world RPG, but no games I have played in the last year or so have sucked me in like Pac-Man 99 and Tetris 99.”
For a variety of reasons, Harris has been struggling to make headway in games recently. “I racked up about 30 percent completion on half a dozen games during quarantine. Maybe that’s due to just being older, having less time, more arthritis, shorter attention span, or needing to find my glasses just so I can read a fucking skill tree,” Harris says with a laugh.
When he recalled his run at Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Harris says, “I found myself not even wanting to boot it up, because I knew there is no scenario where I have enough time in my day to really accomplish anything in-game.”
For 99 the pick-up-and-play factor is also extremely high. “I love the quick-fix aspect. Matches can be over in a heartbeat, they’re never more than a few minutes, yet I keep coming back for more. If anything, I find myself playing Pac-Man 99 for much longer sessions than I’d put in on any other game.”
An Arcade Legend, Made Multiplayer
While some players have found the new mechanics (speed boost, ghost train, etc.) and the opportunity to target specific segments of the competition (it’s possible to choose to direct obstacles/attacks toward those in the lead or those trailing the pack) confusing, it’s not something that has bothered Harris.
“The great aspect of the new battle royale mechanics is that if you are a Pac-Man or Tetris savant, you can completely ignore them if you want. It’s entirely possible to not even understand how the different attacks work, and still crack the top ten. That being said, once you figure out what enabling ‘train’ or ‘power’ means, it opens up a whole new world of strategy.”
For Lapetino, the sheer size of the endeavor is something to appreciate. “I really applaud the large scale. Bringing in 100 players? I like that. I think it just shows Pac-Man is always relevant to any gaming audience, with just a few modern tweaks.”