Wafers also serve a valuable new function, in that making your way through the maze grants you a permanent speed boost once you’ve eaten each wafer. You can stack these effects with each new clear level, which is a crucial part of survival when the match is confined to its last 10 competitors. There are also two rows of little ghosts on either side of the maze, and eating them creates ghost trains, which you can then devour under the influence of a power pellet. It’s not quite the same as the ghost trains in Pac-Man CE DX, but it’s pretty darn close, and it’s great to see each one sent to an enemy’s screen.
Finally, the fruit spawns right under the ghost spawn box once you’ve eaten enough wafers. Cut one and the board will reset: the pellets and pads are back and you start the process all over again. Fruit spawns long before you’ve eaten all of the wafers, so resetting the board means you lose a speed boost. However, there’s another risk-reward element built into the fruit’s functionality: eating one destroys the cursed red Pac-Men. As the field shrinks to fewer and fewer players, a new red Pac-Man line art appears – sometimes several at a time. These enemies cannot be eaten (a power pellet will simply freeze them, not make them edible), and a single touch means the game is over. The only way to make them go away is to eat the fruit.
I absolutely loved how Pac-Man 99 made me rethink my entire approach to this classic game multiple times in each game. I spend the first half of every match working hard to increase my speed as much as possible, and once the Red Pac-Men join the fight, I let go of my quest for speed and focus on survival. When there are five Red Pac-Men chasing me, my goal ranges from banking speed bonuses to eating just enough wafers for the fruit to spawn so I can take out the red demons, avoid the slowing down of the Hollow Pacs legions, and trying to grab a power pellet to send a torrent of my own troubles to my unsuspecting enemies. All of this change in playstyle happens in seconds, sometimes multiple times, and makes the last part of every match as stressful as it is exhilarating. I still haven’t won a game, but I’ve come in second place a couple of times and can make it to the top 10 more often than not.
And that’s all. This is the entire free version of Pac-Man 99. There are no other mazes, no other modes and no difference to the base game in the free version. This is where it falters: Every game plays essentially the same way once you get the hang of it. I didn’t consult any guides while playing, so much of my personal joy came from unboxing its many intricacies, slowly working to create a (almost) winning strategy. Super Mario 35, which I reviewed at launch, was way too heavy for World 1-1, but at least you had a good chance of seeing a different level once you completed it. This is not the case with Pac-Man 99: the maze is the same every time.
With Pac-Man 99 being so new, I had no trouble finding a match. The longest I waited for a new round to start was maybe 20 seconds, but matching up with 98 other players only takes a few seconds. Frustratingly, I have had several instances where I waited for a game and got fired for a network error. This has happened quite rarely, but just enough to keep it on my mind. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced a server disconnect during a live match, so while it’s annoying, it’s not revolutionary.
The 5 SNES games on Nintendo Switch online that you can go ahead and skip
You can pay to unlock different skins and some offline modes. The skins are all tributes to the bygone arcade days, and I love them in principle, but in practice I have found them distracting. If you want to deposit $ 2 to reskin the unique Pac-Man 99 maze, there are tons of options, or you can unlock everything for $ 30. Personally, I don’t see the appeal: offline modes don’t offer anything particularly different from battle royale mode. The CPU Battle pits you against CPU-controlled players rather than actual humans, and Score Attack is just a contest to get the highest score possible. Blind Time Attack also uses the same maze … the same enemies … and the same rules, but you’re fighting a countdown. You score some combos (grab a fruit or eat all the ghosts on the board, for example) and get some time back. And that’s all. Slight variations on the same game, and I didn’t find any of them close to the fun of Pac-Man 99.