A DEFINITIVE, CERTAINLY CORRECT AND INARGUABLE ranking of classic-style Pac-Man games

Guys. GUYS. Did you see that list ranking all of the Mario games? Holy crap! New Super Mario Bros. U at number one, for reals??? Why, clearly this is a horrible judgement that I must take to the internet to express my displeasure over– oh, no, wait, everybody else has already done that. Dangit!

But… hmm. This list has generated a lot of attention and discussion. Clearly, Gaming Dot Moe needs a real kick in the pants, an article that will drive vistors to the site in droves and make them read about Raimais and spur heated debate and conversation! We need to make a ranking list involving a popular, long-running videogame character!

Let’s see… Mario’s been done… Sonic? Oh jeez, that’s a debate I don’t even want to wade into, what with the differences between Classic and Modern Sonic… I mean, hell, even if we just limited it to Modern Sonic, nobody can agree which ones are actually the good games and they will hate you for whatever you say! Megaman? I mean, that’s pretty cut-and-dry, the debate is basically between 2, 3, and X.

Wait… I’ve got it!

Yes! Pac-Man! Nobody’s done a comprehensive list talking about the best Pac-Man games yet! We’re going to have another GAMING DOT MOE EXCLUSIVE on our hands here!

But lay something down first, because there’s a lot of Pac-Man games out there covering different genres. The main rule in this ranking is that the game has to adhere to the basic tenets of classic Pac-Man gameplay, which means roaming mazes while collecting objects. So no, no Pac-Man World, Ghostly Adventures, Pac-Attack, or Pac-Land. Sorry if you’re looking to see if Pac-Man Party is better or worse than Pac-In-Time, but someone else will have to make that list.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about a few other Pac-Man games first, though…

Special Mentions

Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures

Out of all the games Pac-Man’s ever starred in, this one deviates the furthest from the concepts established in the original, meaning that there’s no way I’d put it on the list with the rules I established. However, it’s worth mentioning because it’s a game you simply have to experience, preferably vicariously.

It feels like somebody at Namco woke up one day and said, “Hey, we have a beloved videogame icon here, but the style of game he pioneered is just too old for the purple-stuff addled kids of the 90s. We need to make something unique and original to make Pac hip and relevant again!”

And the result was… a point and click adventure game. No, scratch that — it’s a point and click adventure game with an added layer of obfuscation. Pac-Man is not under your direct control — instead, you have a slingshot to hit objects (and Pac-Man) with and the ability to yell “LOOK!” in the hopes that you can direct his attention somewhere. Unfortunately, Pac-Man rarely does what you actually want him to do, resulting in amazing moments of frustrating as Pac-Man winds up in stupid, stupid situations that would have been wholly avoidable if you could just tell him what to do. This is where the “smug asshole Pac” meme began, and once you see the game, you’ll understand why.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to play this yourself, but you absolutely should watch somebody else suffer through trying to get Pac-Man to do very simple tasks. It’s a good time for everyone… except the player.

    TRUTH

Pac-Man Battle Royale

This one’s tough to slide into the list just because how much fun you get from it is wholly dependent on how many players you have. If you have a full group of four people, then yes, this is going to be one hell of a time. However, with every player you subtract, Battle Royale becomes noticeably less enjoyable. It doesn’t really seem fair to fault an inherently multiplayer game for being less fun with less players, so I’m going to exclude this one from the ranking.

Anyhow, that’s enough preamble, let’s get to

THE RANKINGS

15. Baby Pac-Man

Released at the height of Midway doing everything they could to milk their Pac-Man license, Baby Pac-Man is a horrible videogame and pinball machine fusion that is both extremely hard to find in good working condition and also a garbage game that should be played by nobody. Its major problem can be summed up in a single sentence: What if you had to play Pac-Man with no power pellets and, in order to get them, you had you play a really badly designed half-size pinball table that you could only attempt a few times? Why, that sounds absolutely miserable! Yet somehow the designers of Baby Pac-Man figured that the novelty of “You got your pinball in my videogame!” would make up for the inherently poor gameplay design. Unfortunately, the hardware that linked the video and pinball halves of the machine was also notoriously finicky and prone to malfunction, and once it inevitably died many arcade operators just decided not to even bother getting the stupid thing working again. 30-some years later, we now have a situation where Baby Pac-Man cabinets that function are extremely rare, but they’re still not worth your time.

14. EXCITING NEW Pac-Man Plus

Much like Baby Pac-Man, you can sum up the big issue with Pac-Man Plus in a single statement: “Sometimes the power pellets cause random effects that make the game harder for no good reason.” Yes, you can eat a pellet and have the maze turn invisible while one of the ghosts that should turn vulnerable doesn’t. Why would you do that? Well, I guess there were a lot of unauthorized Pac-Man bootlegs at the time that did crazy nonsense like invisible mazes, and it’s not hard to see some Midway executives looking at this and deciding to try their hand at remixing the game a bit. But there’s a reason why nobody remembers the likes of Hangly Man: these changes simply weren’t fun, and neither is EXCITING NEW Pac-Man Plus. No wonder so many operators declined to get this upgrade and just ran Ms. Pac-Man instead.

13. Jr. Pac-Man

There’s a common thread among a lot of the Midway-developed Pac-Man games: it’s all about taking the base Pac-Man game and then either adding (or taking away) elements in an attempt to make the gameplay more interesting, but ends up ruining the simple Pac-Man appeal by making it stupidly hard. Jr. Pac-Man is yet another example. The levels are two screens wide, necessitating distracting scrolling and being unable to see the whole maze at once (which is never good, as we’ll see in later examples), which also means they take a very long time to finish — and even though some mazes add more power pellets, it never seems like you have enough to stave off the ghosts that chase you relentlessly. Also, the bouncing bonus collectible turns any dot it touches into a super-dot that gives bonus points… but makes you move more slowly when munching them, which is a wholly unnecessary drawback. Oh, and the bonus items nuke power pellets if they touch them, too. It’s slow, it’s frustrating, and it just feels soulless. But at least it’s better than Baby Pac-Man!

12. Super Pac-Man

An early example of developers not understanding why a game was popular and successful, the Namco-developed Super Pac-Man is a stunning disappointment in the wake of the US-developed Ms. Pac-Man. While it avoids the pratfalls of most of the bottom-tier Midway original Pac-Man games (“Let’s remake the original Pac-Man but add elements that make it stupid and hard”), it reinvents the game in a way that’s confusing, messy, and just plain not fun. For starters, you have a bunch of locked doors blocking items: not just the fruit you need to eat to clear the level, but essential resources like power pellets and the screen-wrap passageway. You need to open these doors with keys scattered around the maze, but there’s little indication as to which doors are opened by which keys. Adding to the confusion are two different types of power pellets: yellow ones let you eat ghosts as usual, while the green ones make Pac-Man large, temporarily invincible, and able to open any doors — but not able to clear out ghosts. (Oh, and Pac-Man’s larger size makes things harder to see, too.) It’s a mishmash of different ideas that never properly congeals into a enjoyable videogame, and playing it, it’s not hard to see why Midway was convinced they could do Pac-Man better than Namco.

11. Pac n’ Roll

It’s easy to forget that Namco actually made two Pac-Man games for the early Nintendo DS lineup. They’re both wildly different takes on the Pac-Man character and gameplay, and they’re both unfortunately saddled with obnoxious touchscreen gimmickry that infected a lot of early DS software. While the rather dull Pac-Pix had you drawing pizza shapes to eat onscreen ghosts, Pac n’ Roll has you using the touchscreen to roll a perfectly spherical Pac around various maze environments, gobbling up dots and avoiding hazards. It’s like a trackball game with the trackball replaced by rubbing a stylus over an imaginary trackball — and if that sounds really awkward, it is! That sort of weird, unintuitive touch-screen gameplay was somewhat forgivable in the mid-00s when it was new, but 13 years after the DS made touch controls commonplace, that control scheme really hasn’t aged well. The game itself is honestly pretty forgettable as well, with some incredibly frustrating level design in spots and a weird, pervasive feeling of being far more helpless than you ever were in any other Pac-Man game. There’s a Wii remake of in some of the Namco Museums which I, admittedly, haven’t played, but I get the feeling that even if the controls were improved (which, given that this is the Wii we’re talking about, I highly doubt), the game would only be marginally better at best.

10. Pac-Mania

Pac-Mania was one of Namco’s first attempts to “modernize” Pac-Man for a rapidly evolving game market, and it’s… kinda not great. Oh, it looks good — the pseudo-3D visuals were pretty impressive for 1987, and the happy-bouncy soundtrack is very charming indeed. Actually playing the game, though, reveals just how rickety things are under the hood. The biggest problem is the perspective: the quasi-isometric view combined with the larger sprites mean that you only see a small portion of the maze at any time, allowing for ghosts to come barrelling at you out of practically nowhere. And holy crap, there are a LOT of ghosts! You have an extra defense mechanism with the new jump button, but its usefulness is limited: the perspective often makes it hard to properly judge distance going into or out of the screen (meaning missed jumps leading to deaths), and once the ghosts also start jumping, you’ll want to peace out pretty fast. It’s not the worst Pac-Man, but probably the most mediocre.

9. Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness

Somehow, I forgot this game even existed until a friend of mine brought it up. Yes, I remembered Pac-N-Roll, but not Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness. Go figure.

Anyhow, I totally missed this one when it came out, so I fired it up on a PSOne emulatore for a bit. I was expecting one of those awful Hasbro Interactive-styled PSOne remakes of Pong or Q*Bert, but this is a surprisingly solid — if rather forgettable — overhead-view maze exploration game. As in the original Ms Pac-Man, you have to eat every dot in each of the game’s mazes. They’re more involved than the simple single-screen mazes of the early arcade Pacs, as they implement basic puzzle elements like block-pushing, switchs, and destroying barriers, but they still keep things simple enough that you can play easily just by understanding basic Pac-Man rules. It’s not an earth-shattering masterpiece, but it’s pleasant to play and has a lot of nice little extras.

8. Pac-Man

The one that started it all. It wasn’t the first dot-eating/maze collection game — that honor likely goes to Sega’s Head On — but it added many, many innovations and improvements to the formula that made it infinitely more interesting: multiple enemies with unique behavior, special bonuses, and a fun way to turn the tables on your pursuers. It even had a little bit of humor in the “cutscenes” sandwiched between levels, which was quite rare for the time. But nowadays, with so many follow-ups that have improved on the ideas Pac-Man introduced, it’s a lot harder to return to. It’s a classic, yes, but it’s a classic that’s been outclassed.

7. Pac-Man Championship Edition

Pac-Man CE is Tohru Iwatani’s last game, and it’s a fine title indeed, succeeding in giving Pac-Man a modern makeover while keeping the simple, addictive gameplay intact. Rather than focusing on survival, Pac-Man CE revamps the game into a timed challenge, giving you an infinite supply of pellets to munch and ghosts to chomp to try and rack up as many points as possible before the time ticks down. The neon visuals boast a distinct audiovisual flair that manages to feel both very retro and smartly modern, and a pumping dance music soundtrack keeps you eager to zip around the mazes before the clock hits zero. A very fun game that was improved further in a later installment, which we’ll get to in a bit…

6. Pac-Man Championship Edition 2

I was actually debating with myself a fair bit about whether or not to rank this one under the original Pac-Man CE. I eventually decided it’s slightly better, but not without much gnashing of teeth. See, Pac-Man CE 2 adds a lot of neat new stuff — high-speed corner turns, a “ghost anger” system, and big boss battles, among many other things — butby doing so, it overcomplicates a simple formula to a degree that feels almost ridiculous. I mean, you have to sit through over a half-hour of tutorials to learn how to play friggin’ Pac-Man. That’s not a good thing! It is pretty darn fun once you get the hang of everything , but some other weird little rules and annoyances (why can’t I eat certain ghosts?!)  are still rather puzzling. It’s still very good, but if you’re looking for the easy sit-down-and-play experience of CE or CE DX you’ll be a bit disappointed.

5. Pac-Man 256

I’m suprised it took Bandai-Namco so long to hop on the endless runner train, but given the quality of Pac-Man 256, I don’t think I can complain too much. This free-to-play mobile game takes the “kill screen” concept to fun new levels by introducing an encroaching, invincible layer of glitchy corruption that chases Pac-Man throughout an endless, randomly generated maze. You’re trying to score as many points as possible while outrunning the encroaching kill screen and avoiding a variety of ghosts with unique behaviors. Fortunately, you’ve also got a bunch of different power-ups that unlock over time to help blast some ghosts into a different dimension, prolonging your game before your inevitable death. It’s a lot of fun, and the paid elements aren’t terribly intrusive (you can buy extra coins to upgrade power-ups faster), but due to the nature of the timed power-up unlocks it’s not something you can marathon easily. There’s a degree of grinding and waiting you have to do before everything is available, and that’s bound to frustrate some, but overall it’s one of the best ways I can think of to kill five minutes at the dentist’s office.

(Disclaimer: I know this has been released on non-mobile platforms, but I haven’t been able to play those versions. I suspect that, given the quality of the core game, they’re also quite good.)

4. Pac and Pal

What if Super Pac-Man was charming and good? That’s basically Pac and Pal. It seems that Namco realized that Super Pac-Man was pretty bad, took a long hard look at things that didn’t work, fixed those, and then added a cute little buddy. While you’ve still got the issue of key resources being locked behind doors, your little pal Miru does her best to help bring the goodies over to you and make your life a bit easier. Interestingly, Power Pellets are gone, replaced by a variety of different power-ups — some themed after other Namco games like Galaga and Rally-X — that are all used in different ways to stun the ghosts. The variety adds a lot: you want to get to later levels to see what kind of new stuff they’ll have for you to play with, even though the maze layout remains the same throughout. The music’s super catchy, too, and will stick in your head long after you’re done playing. Unfortunately, finding a Pac and Pal in the wild is tough: it was never released officially Stateside (though Brendon Parker made a really slick custom cabinet), and very few machines (dedicated or conversions) exist in Japan. Thank god for emulation, huh?

3. Ms. Pac-Man

I don’t think anyone will argue that Ms. Pac-Man isn’t the best of the early-80s Pac-Man Fever era games. Everything here is a substantial improvement over the original: alternate maze patterns, improved enemy patterns, and moving bonus items that take fancy footwork to grab. It also established a proper Pac-Man universe, giving us a whole weird Pac-World that would be expanded upon in further games (and, as Steve Golson explains in this GDC panel, bring about several lawsuits about creation of the extended Pac-family). Really, what is there to say about this that hasn’t been said?

I was going to write a little essay here about how Ms. Pac-Man was the Sonic Mania of its day, but I felt like it was a bit of a stretch — while the uppity kids at General Computer Corporation made a much better Pac-Man followup than Namco themselves did with Super Pac-Man, they also made Jr. Pac Man afterwards, and look how that turned out.

2. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

A little under a decade ago, Namco had a big initiative to modernize several of their older titles. Only two games ever came from this: Pac-Man Championship Edition and Galaga Legions, leaving interesting-sounding projects (including a modernization of the utterly bizarre Dancing Eyes) to wither on the vine. Pac-Man CE DX was by far the more successful of the two games. It’s not hard to see why it was a hit, either: It’s Pac-Man crossed with Nibbler with the delightful audiovisual style of Pac-Man CE. The feeling of getting a huge train of ghosts on your tail before snarfing a power pellet and eating dozens in a row for BIG PUNTOS is an absolute delight. I know putting this above Ms. Pac-Man is sacrilege to some, but honestly, if you put this and Ms. Pac-Man in front of me and said I could only play one, it’d be this. It’s easily the best Pac-Man game in my mind… but, wait, it’s number two? Then that means…

Raimais

Oh my GOD! Can you believe my audacity?! Why, I made a list of the best Pac-Man games and number one isn’t even a Pac-Man game! It’s not even made by Namco! Quick, somebody alert Gamer Twitter so they can scream with frothing outrage about my ETHICS!

… Yeah, well, this was supposed to be the punchline to this whole article — a SHOCKING number one choice that would leave EVERYONE angry! That is, until I realized I was 100% serious.

Raimais is pretty much the best evolution of the “dot eating” formula started by Head On and refined to massive success by Pac-Man. It expands upon the concept in interesting and enjoyable ways, giving you 125 mazes, a variety of different enemies, hidden collectibles, and a whole mess of secrets — and a story, too! When you compare its ideas to the innovations later Pac-Man games tried to introduce, you see just how smartly designed it is: compare how good the speed control in Raimais feels next to the awkward, slow movement and clunky jumping of Pac-Mania (released the year prior), for example. It really is among the top games of this sort, and that’s no clickbait opinion: that’s the truth.

So hey, have you read about Raimais yet…?

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