A free-to-play Pac-Man game on mobile devices sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the recently released Pac-Man 256 pulls it off beautifully.
When once great, now fading game publishers make a last ditch effort for relevance by creating sleazy, free-to-play mobile games featuring your childhood video game heroes, it usually doesn't go well. Just ask Sega, which slapped Sonic on a number of free-to-play games that copy iTunes App Store hits like Temple Run. Even when they're fundamentally fun, free-to-play games are often annoying because they force you to pay or wait to continue playing, when it'd be a lot simpler just to pay a flat fee up front.
Pac-Man's publisher Bandai Namco avoids this trap with the help of indie developer Hipster Whale, which it partnered with to create Pac-Man 256.
Rather than letting you run around the classic blue stage, collecting dots and dodging ghosts, Pac-Man 256 is designed like an endless maze, where you rake up as many points as you can before succumbing to one of many deadly obstacles along the way.
It's named after the infamous glitch in the original Pac-Man arcade machine that filled half the screen with random characters once you reach level 256 and the game ran out of memory. In Pac-Man 256, you have an isometric view of the maze, and have to keep moving forward or succumb to the ever advancing glitch, corrupting all data in its wake.
Swipe in the direction you want Pac-Man to go, collect power pellets to turn the tables and eat the ghosts, and last as long as you can for the highest score.
It's remarkably similar to Hipster Whale's debut mega hit Crossy Road, but that's a good thing. It's the main reason it works so well.
Crossy Road looked and controlled similarly, but was modeled after another arcade classic, Frogger, with the player dodging cars and trains while constantly moving forward.
It was fun to play, but the more notable because it was free-to-play and incredibly profitable without harassing players with aggressive monetization methods. Players could buy new characters that looked different but didn't fundamentally change the game, or view video ads to get currency that unlocked the same characters.
Pac-Man 256 used the same business model, only you unlock power-ups—a laser that fries ghosts, an ice ability the slows them down—instead of characters.
It looks like Pac-Man, it sounds like Pac-Man, it's free-to-play, and it's on your phone, but it's somehow, amazingly, better than a straightforward port of the original.