There’s not a lot that I can say about Pac-Man that 35 years of interviews, play throughs, record breaking events, and re-releases haven’t already covered. In short: Pac-Man is an icon in the truest sense of the word. A phenomenal kind of game whose combination of challenge, control, and looks continue to resonate well into today whether it’s Google celebrating his 30th Anniversary or as a download on your mobile device. Generations of hardware have come and gone, but Pac-Man seems to be able to soldier through each one entertaining new generations of players at the same time.
By now, most people probably already know the story of Pac-Man’s beginnings. Developed by Toru Iwatani and his team at Namco, Pac-Man was born from a number of innovative ideas whose elements have been finding their way into games ever since. As Iwatani tells it, Pac-Man’s shape was inspired by a pizza with a slice missing and played into the theme of “eating” that the gameplay would revolve around. But Iwatani also wanted to make it appealing to women who, he noted, seemed to have little to interest them in the arcade when it was filled with “male” centric shooters like Taito’s mega-hit, Space Invaders, which came out in 1978.
That’s where the look of the four ghosts came from. They’re not particularly fearsome; they’re colorful, bright, with big eyes, and almost cute in comparison to the critters in Space Invaders that slowly marched their way down the screen, row by row. The game also included a “power cookie” that would temporarily turn the invincible ghosts vulnerable to Pac-Man’s chomping, allowing the player to briefly take each one out of the action for points.
There were only four of these power-ups, which everyone would refer to as power pellets, set up in a dark blue maze whose line walls were muted to allow players’ eyes focus on the characters and the trail of dots that they needed to gobble up as Pac-Man. At the center of the maze was the pen where chomped ghosts would re-emerge — and start coming from at the beginning of the game — with bonus “fruits” showing up just below it for extra points.
The concept was simple — guide Pac-Man around the maze gobbling up dots and try not to get killed by the ghosts looking for him. The power up pellets were scarce for a reason, but it was up to the player when to use them. Even the ghosts had their own AI routines: one could be aggressive, another act a bit shy and confused, and so on. They even had names to go with their colors such as, in North America’s case, Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde. After every two stages, an interlude would play showing a comic scene featuring Pac-Man and the ghosts.
The game was initally called “Puck-Man” in Japan because of the circular shape of our hungry hero, but when it came over to North America thanks to Midway’s licensing, Midway wanted to avoid dealing with any embarrassing vandalism to the original name. Iwatani and his team came up with an alternate name – Pac -and the name stuck ever since.
May 22nd isn’t even a launch “anniversary” — it’s the celebration of a location test in Japan where Pac-Man first came out to the public according to an interview Wired had with Pac-Man’s creator who still regards it as the game’s birthday because it was seen by others for the first time. The game was popular with couples who Iwatani wanted to be involved in playing the game, but not so much the “males only” crowd. In some ways, Iwatani was aiming at a ‘casual’ audience who didn’t often play games and didn’t think this style of game would be a hit overseas. But as history has proven, it went viral in the West eventually becoming a hyper-franchise that garnered billions of dollars.
Not only that, but it was also a game of many firsts. It was the first game to use the “power up” concept with its power pellets. The interludes featuring Pac-Man and the ghosts were among the first “cut scenes” used in gaming making them unusual rewards for players adding an additional incentive beyond points. The distinctive look of the characters in the game, and thanks to the ensuing craze that followed, created the first recognizable “mascots” in the industry. It was also heavily licensed.
Pac-Man was featured on lunch boxes, lighters, t-shirts, bags, would get its own Saturday morning cartoon show along with its own cereal with marshmallow characters and round puffs as the dots. It even had its own hit song, Pac-Man Fever by Buckner & Garcia, which came out as a single in 1981 and even made it to #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
It was as if it won the arcade Olympics, but it also helped that Pac-Man and his ghost buddies also gave themselves easily to being highly marketable. It’s hard to imagine a game like Defender or Qix on a lunch box, but Pac-Man? That’s easy. Everyone knew Pac-Man!
It even found its way into countless ports across generations of systems. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 is often cited as one of the nails in Atari’s coffin because of its superficial take on the arcade original. At the same time, it was also a herculean programming feat as it was done by one guy: Tod Frye. Not only that, but he was working against a brutal deadline and had to find solutions to technical problems such as how to recreate a game running on much higher end hardware in the arcade into something that could be playable on a fraction of that power. You can even try it out at the Internet Archive.
In a way, the Atari 2600 game also was a capsule of the kind of business decisions that would eventually bury Atari. The choice of a smaller ROM cartridge (4kb as opposed to the more expensive, but much larger, 8kb cart), failure to heed internal warnings that it would put off fans familiar with the game, and the overproduction of game cartridges based on pie-in-the-sky estimates that it would move more consoles — a problem passed down to retailers and customers who returned masses of cartridges.
But it wasn’t the end of Pac-Man at home. Far from it. Other ports followed, and many more followed after those, and so on. Today, Pac-Man can be found on nearly everything from TI-83 and TI-84 calculators to the latest mobile devices running Android or iOS. It’s spawned countless spinoffs since then from Ms. Pac-Man to platforming adventures like Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures in 2013. I’ve also got a soft spot for Super Pac-Man.
So Happy 35th Anniversary, Pac-Man. Keep munching!