By Paul Cockeram
Imagine a yellow circle the circumference of a pie-the kind of pie isn't important for now-with a slice taken from one side. Further imagine the missing slice forms a mouth, the pie an insatiable pellet-eating machine that's afraid of only one thing: ghosts. Afraid, that is, unless there's a power pellet nearby, which transforms the formerly humble pie into a lemon meringue monster. Suddenly the kind of pie is important, because this lemon meringue, all sweetness and acid, will eat ghosts alive, all but the eyes, and then finish the pellets and save the princess to boot.
There's something eternally elegant about the original Pac-man. Take a mythologically resonant maze, add the most ancient shape, a circle, and then set it loose to evade ghosts and you have a metaphor for life itself: the circle of life nimbly negotiating a labyrinth to evade death, a resurrection/immortality story as old as fear. Of course, Pac-Man struck a cord with the public and became a legendary video game for better reasons than its symbolic meanings. It was just fun to play.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Pac-Man has generated more sequels and spinoffs than Law and Order. Creature Labs' latest contribution to the Pac-legend is Pac-Man All-Stars, a 3-dimensional adventure that will appeal to Pac-Man fans and children of all ages. Of course, that's also the trouble with Pac-Man All-Stars: it only appeals to children and fans, which is like selling candy to babies. If you don't already like steering yellow spheres after lines of pellets, chances are you won't be turned on by this installment.
The story introduces a new character, Wandy the Wizard. Following a time of peace and joy when the ghosts were eliminated and the portal to their world sealed, dastardly Wandy kidnaps the fairies and their queen. Since the fairies make the pellets to which Pac-Man and friends are addicted, it's obviously ghost-whipping time. Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac Junior, and Professor Pac join forces to head into the Ghost Realm and rescue the fairies, knowing that whoever succeeds will claim the title of greatest Pac-Land hero of all time.
Of course, none of this is actually related in the game itself. Rather than the introductory film common in action/adventure games, All-Star players must make do with a brief back-story section in the instruction manual and a map depicting the Pac-Squad's progress through the Creepy Forest to Wandy's Garden, laboratory, and castle. There are presumably a few cut scenes in the final stages of the game. Why can't I say for sure? Excellent question.
I'll be honest-I didn't finish Pac-Man All-Stars. This was not, however, for lack of trying. Game play in All-Stars is frankly impossible with a keyboard. A game pad is required to really enjoy this game. Then again, I'm not sure even a game pad would help.
You play one of the four Pac-people mentioned above, and if you're playing alone, the computer takes control of the remaining three. The AI is so weak, however, that the other Pac-characters just run into each other or get in your way. The object of each level is to eat the most pellets, which releases one fairy and makes you that much more of a hero. If you don't eat the most pellets, you lose a life and have to play the level again. However, since the mazes are gone and the only environmental obstacles are the occasional bounce pad or hill or puddle of murky goo, the only real trick is to avoid the one or two ghosts that meander at a snail's pace around the map. The real challenge is steering your awkward Pac-person, who handles little better than an Impala on a frozen lake.
If All-Stars excels in any area, it's the graphics. The three-dimensional landscapes are rendered in lovely color, and the Pac-people look good in spherical rather than pie form. Even the ghosts, in their lumbering awkwardness, are easy on the eyes. But that's where it ends. All-Stars is a pretty face on a more or less empty head. If you've run through all the mods of the traditional Pac-Man series and you need a fix, or if you want to see the Pac-people with depth and arms, or if you have a young niece, nephew, son or daughter's birthday coming up, then Pac-Man All-Stars probably won't disappoint. Otherwise, you can have as much fun with a good Atari 2600 port.
Paul Cockeram (09/20/2002)