Many of the Nintendo DS's first batch of games first originated as simple system demonstrations for the unique hardware's debut at 2004's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Pac-Pix
started its life as a concept demo during this time, using the next few months to gradually evolve into a releasable product for the portable system. The incredibly unique idea -- a Pac-Man spinoff that involved drawing and manipulating the yellow icon with the touch-screen -- has managed to pull through as a successful concept on the Nintendo DS in its final form. Pac-Pix
holds its own as both a demonstration of new gameplay concepts on the new platform, as well as a completion of this idea in a final product.
No videogame character is as recognizable as the most simplistic of them all. Pac-Man is nothing more than a pizza with a slice taken out of it, and it's this construction that's the basis for Pac-Pix: just how well can you draw this yellow guy? Using the touch screen of the Nintendo DS, the task is simple in concept but challenging in practice: use Pac-Man drawings to clean up the ghost infested screens of the Nintendo DS system. The backbone of Pac-Pix is its character recognition engine, something similar to what handheld devices such as the Palm Pilot have been using for years. The game recognizes specific elements and brings them to life on the game screens, and it's up to the player to draw and manipulate these figures in order to wipe out the ghost enemies in each of the 12 different stories of five levels apiece.
Pac-Man, for example, must be drawn mouth first in any of four directions, and when the drawing's complete that scribble will, if sketched correctly, leap to life and start munching its way across the screen in the direction its facing. Players can guide this sketch by blocking its way with drawn horizontal and vertical lines which will bounce Pac-Man into the direction of the line drawn. Using this basic concept, the idea is to make Pac-Man munch ghosts wandering the screen, much like he did in the original Pac-Man arcade game created more than two decades ago. Except this time, no power pill is necessary -- just a steady hand to draw the hero. Munching on ghosts net the standard incremental point structure familiar in Pac-Man games: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600...but Pac-Pix advances it further with 3200 and 7650 bonuses as the combo moves along with the same Pac-Man sketch.
This concept is expanded in later levels to make the game a bit deeper in its design. Level 5 introduces an "arrow" mechanic that enables players to draw a projectile that will shoot quickly in the direction drawn, hopefully releasing ghosts "trapped" on the upper screen. By chapter nine, players will be sketching bombs with fuses in order to blow up well-protected ghosts out of their shells so that Pac-Man can consume them properly.The "draw Pac-Man" concept is surprisingly successful, but its idea is also its one continuous problem. In a perfect world, every drawing would be recognized by the software as the figure that you intended to draw, but unfortunately there are times -- more frequently than there should be -- that what you'd think was a successful Pac-Man, arrow, or bomb symbol just won't register during the action. It's a frustrating element because many times failing a level happens simply because a drawn symbol never springs to life like you expect it would. Granted, it's completely up to the player to work within the game's restrictions by doodling that symbol as best as you can, but with the time and drawing space limitations, the surrounding elements make it tough to perfect sketches on the fly.
Luckily Pac-Pix does let players take it easy and practice in a freely available sketchbook, which offers a much more relaxing way of learning to doodle the required in-game symbols. And here players can even toy around with discovering other non-gameplay oriented symbols that'll spring to life, though the funnier and more controversial "icons" -- like those relating to flatulence -- have been pulled from the Japanese version released just a couple of months before. Still, these little edits aren't enough to recommend an import over the local release because they really don't add anything to the playability other than a brief, "hey, look what I discovered" element.
What Namco does do to add to the replay is offer a simple card collecting element that encourages players to aim for the highest score possible. After completing each of the challenges within a "Chapter", the score's tallied and ranked with a grade letter. Though "A" is what you want to shoot for, it's the even higher "S" ranking that's even more coveted. And since getting a score high enough to rank in the A or S requires playing the game using the fewest Pac-Man characters and completing each round in the shortest amount of time, it'll take a lot of practice to hit this rank. The cards earned aren't all that great since they're essentially basic descriptions of character sprites and objects in Pac-Pix, but the high score ranking is definitely what will keep players hitting the levels even after they're complete.
That's not to say Pac-Pix is everlasting. It's not. There are really only 12 "chapters", and no real way to play the design in a continuous "marathon" fashion. Nor is there any sort of multiplayer mode. And even though Pac-Pix records the high score in each chapter, it doesn't hold multiple high score rankings so players can challenge scores earned in each level. These are all elements that would make a sequel that much sweeter, but without them Pac-Pix is still an excellent game production that offers up something new, unique, and fun for the Nintendo DS.
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