Playing through the games we had gathered for this month all about advertisements showed me that two very different attitudes exist towards these corporate tie-in games. Some were almost insultingly easy, making sure everybody could play through them and receive the intended message. Others, especially those developed in Japan, compensated for their short length by being ridiculously hard. Suffice it to say, Pepsiman is a very Japanese game.
Allow me to give you an idea of what we are dealing with here. Pepsiman is a superhero without powers. He is a muscular, featureless man with a body coated in the colors of the Pepsi logo, who is enlisted by various people to go ahead of actual rescue workers and deliver refreshments to people in need. Between levels, you are awarded with cutscenes of an American man drinking dangerous amounts of Pepsi and blurting out mistranslated marketing slogans. Most of the soundtrack is stock music with repeated “Pepsiman!” chants.
This is a surreal game filled with Japanese-style slapstick comedy that will be familiar to those who played games like No One Can Stop Mr. Domino. Actual gameplay takes on the form of a runner game where you move side-to-side to dodge obstacles as Pepsiman continuously runs forward. You can jump and slide to avoid obstacles, but also perform a dash to move faster, which can be chained into a longer jump or slide.
Each level is cut into two stages and a boss-fight in the form a chase segment, reminiscent of the classic boulder stage from Crash Bandicoot. You have to dodge a wide variety of creative traps and people, like trucks that are dropping their wares from the back, angry bikers, or oncoming trains. A lot of these are rendered as simplistic sprites that look like they came from the background of a sports or racing game.
The levels are based on various American locales and all of it is good for a laugh, but as a game, it does have its shortcomings. After the first level the difficulty ramps up fast. You have an unforgiving timer to complete the level in, which means those comedic slapstick animations when you get hit will lose their charm quickly. If you take multiple hits without collecting enough Pepsi cans to refill it you lose a life and start over at a checkpoint. HOWEVER, it is entirely possible to miss these checkpoints and dodgy hit-detection will make this very likely if you aren’t expecting them. On top of that, lose all your lives and it’s back to the start of the level either way.
A big problem is that Pepsiman is too specific when it comes to movement. That dashing might be cool and look good in speedruns, but the game’s traps and events are all set to specific timers and triggers. Dashing upsets these, which can mean you entirely bypass obstacles without even seeing them, or end up in situations where it’s entirely impossible to avoid damage. It’s taken away entirely during the chase segments, but there you are left dealing with a tiny window of time between an obstacle becoming visible and it blatting you across the face. 3 hits of anything and it’s back to the start once again.
Pepsiman delivers a lot of laughs and I am especially fond of its cutscenes, but it does ask you to persevere through some annoying level design. It makes you want dash a lot to cut back on the repetition, but doing so gets you into more trouble unless you know where you can afford to dash. I had to replay some stages several times, at which point the novelty and slapstick become more of a nuisance than a boon.
If you’re confident in your arcade reflexes, I can recommend Pepsiman as a surreal and comedic little runner game. My reaction times have slowed down a bit in recent years, so I do have to conclude that it wasn’t the game for me.