The selection of Xbox Live racers on Windows Phone varies widely in quality. Hydro Thunder GO and Need for Speed Undercover occupy the top end of the quality spectrum, while Cro-Mag Rally sits in a pool of ick at the bottom. Sadly, Cro-Mag Rally was also the only mobile Live kart racer for almost a year. Fast-forward to May 2012 and Namco Bandai surprised us all with Pac-Man Kart Rally. While it never matches the lofty quality bar set by the Mario Kart series, Namco’s racer still manages to be pretty fun, easily surpassing its only other Windows Phone competitor.
The road to Windows Phone
Pac-Man Kart Rally (PKR) originally debuted on older mobile phone platforms in 2010, including Windows Mobile and Blackberry. The title drew inspiration from Pac-Man World Rally on Playstation 2-era consoles, but was not a direct adaptation. In late 2011, PKR received a serious graphical upgrade when it made the trip to the Android platform, exclusively for Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play handset. Fast-forward to May 2012 and the Xperia Play version of PKR has been ported to Windows Phone by Namco Bandai Networks Romania. Kart Rally hasn’t made the trip to iOS or the main Android market, so it’s practically an exclusive like Pac-Man Championship Edition DX.
Red light, green light
Windows Phone obviously lacks the Xperia Play’s physical d-pad and buttons (darn it), so this version relies instead on tilt or touch-screen steering. Tilting is enabled by default, but can easily be turned off in options. Either way, you can always steer by tapping the left or right sides of the screen. While the steering controls work fine for getting around the tracks, the collision detection for picking up items is a bit too strict. I often tried my best to point at one only to drive right past it.
Brakes, jumping, and item use have their own on-screen buttons. I never bothered to use the brakes, but jumping actually comes in handy thanks to occasional mud patches on the track.
Pick me ups
Those elusive pickups come in two varieties: pac-dots and question boxes (random items). The pac-dot system is kind of wonky and seems to be a way of discouraging contact with other racers more than anything else. Players start with five dots; you lose one each time you bump into an opponent. The more dots you have, the faster you go, up to a maximum of 10 dots. Unfortunately the enemies do not lose dots when hit, making for an imbalanced system. Still, catch enough of a lead on the other racers and collisions stop being an issue – for that race, anyway.
Some question box items offer protection from wrecks as well. Each item comes from one of Namco’s games, but in practice they function identically to Mario Kart items. Power pellets provide mushroom-like speed boosts; Katamari balls can be held as shields (very useful) or fired like turtle shells; the Pac-Man symbol provides temporary invincibility like a Starman; and Cherries initiate auto-pilot for a brief time.
Last and definitely least, the Drill from Dig Dug/Mr. Driller works like a Mario Kart banana peel, dropping behind you and knocking off-course anyone who touches it. In practice, the drill might as well be a power-down, though. Computer players virtually never hit it, causing you to either run into it yourself or dodge it on subsequent laps. Holding onto collected items prevents you from getting new ones, so you basically have to use the drills you get, like it or not.
I’ve seen readers mistakenly label PKR a clone of the 16-bit Super Mario Kart. In truth, Nintendo’s first Mario racer actually kick-started a new and enduring genre: the kart racer. Mascots and kart racers go hand-in-hand and tend to run the full gamut of quality. The best ones include the beautiful Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (which we played at E3), Crash Tag Team Racing, and a handful of others. Then you have perfunctory ones like Konami Krazy Racers and this game, PKR. The latter don’t excel at anything, but don’t offend much either.
So how well does PKR capitalize on the Pac-Man and/or Namco brands? Character-wise, we have 10 racers to choose from: Pac-Man and all four ghosts, plus two from Dig Dug/Mr. Driller, two from the Katamari Damacy series (which has previously appeared as a decent Windows Phone game), and the fighter from Galaga for some reason. A few more characters like Ms. Pac-Man or Mappy wouldn’t have hurt, but it’s not a bad roster. I’ll take Pac-Man and 9 of his friends over Cro-Mag Rally’s two hideous cave people any day of the week!
Cups full of tracks
I’ve already touched upon the power-ups, which do a so-so job of tying in to Pac-Man and other Namco games. Let’s look at the tracks then. The main Tournament mode offers four themed cups, each consisting of three tracks: the Pac-Man Cup, Ghost Cup, Katamari Cup, and Dig Dug cup. Frankly, the only set of tracks that resembles its source game in any way is the Katamari cup with its angular cows and mushrooms. That’s the area where the designers really dropped the ball, as the tracks would definitely benefit from some game-themed set pieces.
Each cup does at least feature music from its series, with the Katamari and Mr. Driller themes as the standouts. Getting back to the track design, the courses are actually fairly wide and not overly-dense with obstacles (again, unlike Cro-Mag Rally), making them well-suited for mobile play. The game also includes five bonus tracks (two exclusive to Windows Phone) that reuse the other cups’ themes but with slightly more creative designs. There’s no incentive to play them as they don’t apply toward any Achievements, but more tracks are always appreciated.
PKR made Windows Phone history by being the first Live title to feature local Wi-Fi multiplayer for 2-4 players. Why such a basic feature took more than a year to show up, we’ll never know. In Multiplayer, one device hosts, selecting the track, options, etc. and then other devices can join the game. The devices can all be registered to the same Live account, meaning people who own more than one phone can experience multiplayer by only purchasing a single copy of the game. The only downside to multiplayer is that if everyone wants to play again after a race ends, the host must recreate the game and everyone has to reconnect. The developers should’ve allowed players to remain connected for more than a single game. For a demonstration of multiplayer in action, check out our video review below.
PKR has its share of easy Achievements, but also a few downright terrible ones. First off, only a select few with multiple phones or Windows Phone friends will be able to get the multiplayer Achievement ‘Unbeatable.’ Also, its description incorrectly stated that you have to complete 50 races, which would be excruciating. Thankfully the Achievement unlocks after only 6 races; let’s hope Namco Bandai doesn’t enforce the 50 race requirement in a future update.
‘Gear Head’ is the worst Achievement though. See, to unlock all kart upgrades, players must complete Tournament mode a stupefying 36 times (three with each character). That’s 240 races across just 12 tracks. PKR is a fun game, but ‘Gear Head’ just turns it into a needlessly lengthy grind. Plus the upgrades are meaningless since by the time you unlock the best ones you just have to move on to the next character anyway. Blech.
Pac-Man Kart Rally has its share of rough edges, from the repetitive music (which can be switched off) and visually boring tracks to that horrible ‘Gear Head’ Achievement. Yet it still manages to be a pretty fun racer thanks to good controls and forgiving track design. Multiplayer is also a welcome option, even though many folks won’t have an opportunity to use it. If you like kart games, PKR is undoubtedly the best option available on Windows Phone. It wouldn’t be too hard for someone to port a better iOS racer like the wonderful Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, but until then, I’ll be chomping dots with Pac-Man.
Pac-Man Kart Rally costs $2.99 and there is a free trial. Pac-fans, get it here on the Marketplace.