A.I

Pac-Man 99 is a confusing, seductive blast of strategy

Jumping into a game of Pac-Man 99 is trivial. Learning how to play Pac-Man 99 is nearly impossible. I spent my first day with the game hating it, and my second day slowly falling in love.

The online multiplayer mode of the Pac-Man-themed battle royale is free with Nintendo Switch Online, although you can spend money on things like cosmetics, a score attack mode, and offline modes played against AI, if you’d like to. I wouldn’t bother unless you try the free release and adore it. The core game will be enough for most.

You and 98 other Pac-Men move around a single level, chased by ghosts, which you can yourself eat if you chomp on a power pellet. Eating all the regular pellets speeds you up, while eating the fruit at the middle of the board resets all the pickups so you can continue moving around the board forever. You can’t beat this level; you can only outlast your opponents. Like Tetris 99 before it, the designers of Pac-Man 99 were able to take the bones of the original game and fit them very neatly into the battle royale formula.

And I mean that literally. There is no direct way to attack the other players. You can only eat power pellets to eat ghosts, which sends Jammer Pac-Men to the boards of other players. These drone-like Pac-Men prowl around on your behalf, slowing down players who touch them.

The trick is to work up a strategy for taking out everyone else, while adapting to the changing conditions of the board as players get knocked out and your attractiveness as a target waxes or wanes. The whole game opens up once you’re able to understand the rhythms of play, and it gets real interesting, real fast.

A pizza-shaped assassin

For the first few hours, strategy felt just about impossible to formulate. The game gives you some control over your attacks and who you target, but it doesn’t bother to explain a damned thing about how they work. Turns out, your most precious resource in Pac-Man 99 is your speed. Your attacks are all dedicated to slowing everyone else down by sending over your Attack-Pacs, and your options for how to use them are arranged on either side of the screen.

On the left side of the screen you can choose between Stronger, Speed, Train, and Standard, while the right side of the screen offers the choice of Random, Hunter, Knockout, and Counter. You decide which players to target with the options on the right-hand side: set it to Knockout, for instance, and your Jammers will be sent to players who are close to getting knocked out already, piling on and hopefully getting them to panic and lose to a ghost.

Counter, on the other hand, seems to look for other players who are gunning for you, and fights back by sending those folks the Jammers every time you eat a ghost. What does Hunter do? I’ve found theories online, and it seems like it’s an assault on the current board leader, but I still don’t know for sure. There’s a lot going on in each round, and it’s hard to get a clear understanding of how you’re impacting the overall game.

On the left-hand side, you can choose how your attacks operate. Setting things to Stronger gives you a heavier attack, but less time to eat ghosts with each power pellet. If you select Speed, each power pellet will make you go faster, but you’ll be sending either fewer or weaker Pac-Attacks for each ghost eaten. (I’m not sure which, but that seems to be the trade-off.) Train lets you string together more ghosts to eat in a row, increasing your ability to do damage across the board.

Got all that? I hope so, because I’m only like 80% sure of my explanations, even with my own testing and spending plenty of reading theories from other folks trying to figure things out online. This is why I despised the game so much at first blush. It seems to have zero interest in giving you any information about how to play or what to do.

That will turn off a lot of players in the early going, but the more I played and tried to figure out these systems, the more I came to understand how they worked together to give me an advantage.

Set your attacks to Stronger and Knockout, for instance, and you’ll be pounding on the players who are already in the most trouble, scoring some easy kills, at least early in the game. Speed gives you a little extra time to think if you’re overwhelmed, although you risk sending yourself into a death spiral if the lack of Pac-Attacks keeps you from knocking out others while you’re barely hanging on. You can also set your targeting option to “random,” which does exactly what it says … based on everything I’ve seen in-game, at least.

That’s the beauty of Pac-Man 99. The design team was able to pack an amazing amount of information into a single screen, making attention the second-most important resource after speed. If you’re flicking through your targeting and attack options, you’re not watching your screen, but if you’re only watching your screen, you won’t be able to see how everyone else is doing. I’ve rarely been so aware of where I’m looking while I play a game, and how vulnerable I become in every other area when I’m focused on a singular part of the screen. Strategy begins to feel nearly unlimited as you learn how to anticipate what others are likely doing, and learn how to fight back.

I’m still often confused about what’s going on, and why, but it’s impressive how the bones of Pac-Man fit so neatly into a battle royale experience, with so much thought put into the use of intel and basic strategy that the skill ceiling is currently hard to fathom. Then there’s the fact that you can have the whole game loaded and be in a full match in just a minute or two. The result is both confounding and empowering. When I win, it’s of course due to my skill, and when I lose?

Well, I don’t really know what’s going on, do I?

Pac-Man 99 is out now on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Bandai Namco. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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