I’m glad games like Pac-Man 256 are being made. It’s really interesting to me that the mobile game market paved the way for a revival of simple arcade games, which had been somewhat of a niche thing for many years. Score attack games have made a huge comeback too, which is even more surprising to me. Pac Man 256 is available on most major platforms, including consoles, but it’s a mobile game at heart. I’m going to be reviewing this game and also offer some tips to help you get higher scores.
The original Pac-Man arcade game was supposed to go on forever as long as the player could survive, but a glitch in the game’s code made this impossible. Reaching level 256 results in the right half of the screen being filled with garbled sprites and the dots you’re supposed to eat to beat the level disappear, so you can’t go any further. Without going too much into the details, this happens because of something called integer overflow where the 8 bits used to hold the level counter can only hold a number as big as 255 and reverts back to zero if you go any higher. The part of the game’s program responsible for drawing the fruit level counter goes crazy and tries to fill the screen with 256 fruits and ends up getting sprite data from the wrong parts of memory, which is why you see a bunch of numbers and letters everywhere.
This excellent video explains this glitch in detail: Pac-Man Kill Screen Explained (Youtube)
So, developer Hipster Whale had the clever idea of making a spiritual sequel to the original game where Pac-Man is being chased by this glitch and has to traverse an endless maze to outrun it. It’s a dynamite concept to build a Pac-Man game upon, and the game is already a winner just by its basic idea alone.
How many times have you seen an intentional glitch in a video game?
In the past, there has been no shortage of Pac-Man spinoffs. And unfortunately, most of them were terrible, usually due to Pac-Man being forced into genres where he doesn’t particularly fit into.
This should have never happened.
Pac-Man 256, however, feels exactly like the original Pac-Man while nonetheless breaking tons of new ground. It’s a wonderful twist on the classic gameplay, and letting Pac-Man escape out of the single-screen maze format and munch his way upwards towards infinity is definitely a smart way to give new life to the classic franchise.
The classic moments are still here, such as eating a Power Pellet and gaining the power to slaughter ghosts.
Since Pac-Man is endlessly traveling upwards this time around, a lot of mechanics had to be reworked to make sense in this new context. Eating pellets is no longer a requirement to advance your progress, so you’re eating them mostly to increase your score. However, if you can eat dots in an unbroken chain 256 times, you’ll do sort of a Mega Crush attack that clears all enemies off the screen.
It’s hard to overstate how satisfying it is to pull this off.
This game is very interestingly designed in that this “pellet bomb” is an optional thing to do, and can be very risky to pull off. There are several breaks in the dot chains randomly placed through the map, and this can limit your options on which routes to take to keep the chain from breaking. You can try to take the long way around to eat more dots and build to 256 dots faster, but you’ve also got the glitch crawling upwards which will kill you if you get swallowed by it. Ghosts are constantly threatening you, so you might need to break your chain to prevent yourself from dying. Lots of times I’ve gotten a Game Over because I was too stubborn to drop a chain instead of dodging a ghost coming my way. It’s hard to resist because Pac-Man’s “wakka wakka” pellet munching sound effect keeps raising in pitch as your chain gets higher and higher, which really motivates you to keep it going.
The controls are solid. You play with the d-pad or control stick and there’s no buttons you need to press, you’re just moving Pac Man around. The game has a nice control mechanic where you can queue up a turn against a wall by pressing into the wall’s direction, and Pac Man will automatically turn as soon as he reaches the next junction. This works well with the fact that Pac Man is constantly in motion and you don’t have to hold the direction to keep him going.
Because the game is an infinite scroller instead of a screen-by-screen game, ghosts have been completely re-imagined. There’s also 8 different colors of ghosts instead of the original game’s 4, and they mostly have different behavior. Knowing how ghosts move and being able to predict where they’re going to go is crucial to playing this game well, and luckily it doesn’t take much time to learn.
Blue ghosts have a block that they like and they go in circles around while hugging it. They’re pretty easy to get around, and they are only dangerous when other ghosts are helping out to trap you from multiple sides.
Blue ghosts spawn with a block of the maze and continuously move around its perimeter.
Orange ghosts took me a little bit of time to figure out. They basically want to travel downwards whenever they can, and will go left or right if they can’t, and sometimes upwards if that’s the only direction they can go. As best as I can tell, when they hit a T junction and they can only go left or right, they’ll pick a direction randomly (if this isn’t the case, feel free to correct me in the comments). I find it’s best to assume the worst-case scenario and plan for them turning towards you, even if they don’t.
Clyde has always been the stupid ghost, and in this game he always travels downwards towards the glitch.
Blinky has always been the most aggressive ghost, and that’s definitely the case here, too. The red ghost takes a while to show up, but once he does, he’s an enormous threat. Red ghosts will try to take the shortest distance to the player, and will follow you everywhere. These are the ghosts you want to prioritize killing when you get a powerup, because they can accumulate and eventually end your game.
Red ghosts are vicious.
Pink ghosts remain stationary, and will move in a straight line towards you whenever you enter their line of sight. They move faster than you do, so make sure you have plenty of space if you’re trying to charge past one.
It’s really easy to predict the movement of pink ghosts, but their speed makes them very dangerous.
Spunky originally appeared in Pac Mania, and makes an appearance in this game as well. Grey ghosts hang out on the play field sleeping, and will wake up when you get too close. They’ll aggressively chase you for a couple seconds before going back to sleep again.
Grey ghosts are dangerous, but lazy.
Funky, the green ghost, is another Pac Mania alumnus. They appear in groups of four and slowly move left to right on the map, switching direction when they reach the end. These are big obstacles, but can be worth a lot of points when eaten with a Power Pellet.
It’s always a bad idea to try to pass green ghosts when you don’t have enough room.
The purple Sue shows up in a line of 3 ghosts, similar to the green ones, except they will slowly try to move horizontally to block Pac Man.
Purple ghosts can be trouble if you aren’t aware of how they work.
Sometimes little glitch portals will appear and deposit coins and powerups onto the field. But watch out, because Glitchy can come out of them too. Only move over these portals if you have no other choice, because Glitchy could pop out and instantly kill you.
Glitchy comes and goes randomly, so you need to pay attention to the portals.
Pac Man 256 was made by the same team that made the wonderful mobile game Crossy Road, and shares a lot of the visual style and some sound effects. Pac Man 256 can definitely be seen as the Pac Man franchise being given the Crossy Road treatment, and it works perfectly. The adorable chicken from Crossy Road is playable, and you can select a visual style from that game during gameplay, as well as several others.
Pac Man 256 very much wears its Crossy Road heritage on its sleeve, which I find endearing.
Pac Man 256 is a score attack game, which means the only motivation to play is to try to get the highest score you can. You can compete against yourself, your friends, or just play the game over and over for fun. Score attack games used to be ubiquitous in the golden age of arcades, and fell out of popularity around the time the NES came out. Audiences began to prefer games where you move through a defined set of levels with a discrete ending. Score attack games have continued to exist throughout the years, but I honestly haven’t seen them become a phenomenon again until mobile games became popular.
This is an important point to consider when you’re deciding whether or not to buy this game. Some players won’t see the point of playing a game over and over simply for points, and if that applies to you, this might not be a game you’d enjoy. Pac Man 256 has no ending and no ultimate goal, so if you’re not interested in score attack, you might get bored very quickly.
Pac Man 256 does utilize some modern contrivances to give a sense of progress to the player and keep you motivated to keep replaying. You will gradually unlock new powerups as you play, and collect coins which you can spend to upgrade your powerups.
This game has a cute fascination with numbers that are powers of 2.
You can load 3 different powerups into your game, and mix and match any you want. This is where the game begins to become extraordinarily deep, with the wide variety of abilities to choose from. Your 3 chosen powerups will appear on the play field and you can activate them by picking them up.
Powerups are extremely useful, and most of them can wipe out large groups of ghosts quickly. The game is balanced around these powerups and the large number of ghosts chasing you still makes the game challenging.
Beam can clean up the board very quickly.
Electric’s long range and duration make it a very reliable choice.
A great thing about powerups is they’re not entirely based around killing ghosts. Some give defensive effects, such as slowing down all the ghosts onscreen, and some are based around increasing your score. Making “non-combat” powerups a big part of the offerings wonderfully increases the different playstyles and strategies you can develop.
Magnet helps you collect dots in a wide radius and build your chain quickly.
Stealth makes you both invincible and invisible.
So, the main draw of Pac Man 256 is the multiplayer mode. Up to 4 players can play together and cooperate. Interestingly enough, the more players that are onscreen, the easier the game becomes. This is a great incentive to get your friends to play, because your scores will tend to be a lot higher.
More players in-game increases the devastation of powerups.
Being able to rescue other players from trouble makes this an engaging co-op experience.
If you’ve ever tried to get a friend or loved one to play games with you, and they aren’t particularly gamers, it’s extremely difficult to find games that they will like, even more so things they won’t get bored or frustrated with quickly. You really want to play co-op games with them rather than competitive games, because you’ll win too many times and kill their interest.
Pac Man 256 works great as a casual local co-op game because the game is very self explanatory. You can just throw your friends into it and the mechanics and controls are so obvious they’ll get up to speed very quickly. It’s also extremely fun, and since you’re playing a survival score attack game, you don’t have to commit to long play sessions. With the exception of notable examples such as Wii Bowling and Jackbox Party Pack, this is one of the few games you might actually convince your grandmother to play with you. And that’s really cool.
Pac Man 256 brilliantly caters to both extremely casual audiences and hardcore players, without needing difficulty levels or different game modes to achieve this mass appeal. This is a game you can pick up and play for short play sessions, or you can agonize over the mechanics and spend weeks attempting to master it.
A Note On The Mobile Version
This game is available on consoles and PC, but the mobile version is different. It’s still the same game essentially, but with a slightly different progression system and some freemium elements. The game is still very good on a mobile device, even with touchscreen controls, but I would say the console/PC versions are the definitive experience, due to the microtransaction stuff being removed, being able to use a controller, and the local co-op.
My recommendation is to download the app for free on your phone and try the game, and if you like it, purchase the home version.
Pac Man 256 is addictive, beautiful, and simply a fantastic game. I really hope this game company gives more classic franchises the Crossy Road treatment, because it’s working brilliantly so far.