Re-release of Namco’s 16-bit take on the Tetris formula puts the old back in old school

Wanton nostalgia can play funny tricks on your brain – especially when it comes to video games. Take Pac-Attack, for example. It comes with a whole heap of warm, fuzzy signifiers – it’s a re-release from the fondly remembered 16 bit-era, made by one of the most respected Japanese developers around and starring the most iconic figure in gaming. It must be brilliant, right? Not really.

People forget that Pac-Man has never really made the transition from classic maze-runner to, well, anything else of note. Like Sonic’s attempts to move into 3D, the old yellow gobbler just isn’t at home in anything other than his original habitat.

Still, Pac-Attack is by no means a dud. It’s a moderately accomplished variant on the old Tetris formula, and it’s been competently updated for touch-screen play.

In the main Pac-Attack mode, blocks drop from the top of the screen in groups of three, each comprised of a random mix of standard and ghost (the kind who have chased poor Pac-Man around a maze for all these years) types. Standard blocks can be eliminated from the screen in true Tetris fashion – by forming them into horizontal lines. The ghosts, however, are far more awkward to deal with.

Every few moves, Pac-Man will attach himself to one of the block clusters that drops from the sky. This is a post-Power-Pill Pac-Man (try saying that 10 times fast), so he’s a ghost-munching machine – as long as said spirits are unobstructed by standard blocks and accessible according to the laws of gravity (unlike his original form, Pac-Man can’t travel ‘up’).

Pac-Attack Pac-Attack

Every now and then a fairy will pop down and get rid of eight rows-worth of ghosties for you. This feels like a rather glued-on attempt to address the game’s inherent toughness. Make no mistake, Pac-Attack is one hard nut to crack. You rarely if ever go on a run, ridding the screen of multiple rows of blocks in quick succession. Rather, the fiddly ghost-gobbling mechanic leads to a game of endless and unvarying chipping away, which can grow a little wearisome after a while.

Fortunately, Puzzle mode provides more instant thrills. Here you’re faces with a series of pre-loaded scenarios, each of which asks you to rid the screen of every last ghost with a limited number of drops. It suits mobile play far more than the slow-burning Pac-Attack mode, and has far more in common with more modern casual-puzzlers.

Overall, though, the contrast is telling. As a package, Pac-Attack just doesn’t stack up to the better (and more modern) block-matching puzzlers on the App Store in any way. The likes of Babo Crash and Piyo Blocks 2, while based more on the Bejeweled template than the Tetris one, offer better presentation, more satisfying gameplay and far more in the way of long-term appeal.

The lack of any kind of online high-score facility (such as Gamecenter, OpenFeint, or Namco’s own Unite) is a considerable knock to any aspiring score-based puzzler on iPhone, and so it proves here with Pac-Attack. Scramble mode’s Facebook Connect feature is no substitute for proper online connectivity across the whole game.

Still, if you’re after a puzzler with a little of that old-school sensibility that refuses to hand you everything on a plate, Pac-Attack might be the perfect time-gobbler for you.