Pac-Man The power-pill munching sprite that became a video game legend

Pac-Man The power-pill munching sprite that became a video game legend
When "Pac-Man" made its debut in Tokyo four decades ago, nobody could have foreseen its unprecedented success as the most triumphant arcade game ever created. Despite the prevailing trend of violent shooter games, a young game designer named Toru Iwatani, working for the Japanese games firm Namco, dared to deviate from the norm and pursue an entirely different approach. Recognizing the need for a change in the gaming landscape, Iwatani sought to transform arcades into vibrant spaces that would appeal to women and couples, in contrast to their predominantly male and somber atmosphere at the time. Despite his limited experience, being only 25 years old and primarily involved in pinball machines rather than video games, Iwatani's initial attempt with "Gee Bee" in 1978, a digital adaptation of pinball, did not meet with notable success. However, the arrival of the first "Pac-Man" machine in Tokyo's lively Shibuya district on May 22, 1980, defied all expectations and forever altered the course of video game history.
"Pac-Man" is the most successful arcade game of all time.
"Pac-Man" is the most successful arcade game of all time. Credit: Courtesy Bandai Namco

During its initial release, the game went by the name "PuckMan," providing a glimpse into its origins. The name was derived from the popular Japanese phrase "paku paku taberu," which captures the concept of devouring or gobbling something up. The phrase combines "paku paku," imitating the sound of a mouth opening and closing, with "taberu," meaning "to eat."

Iwatani shared his thought process, stating, "Initially, I considered themes like fashion and romance, assuming they might resonate with a female audience. However, it occurred to me (perhaps presumptuously) that women also enjoy the act of eating, or 'taberu' in Japanese. This realization became the foundation of my focus on the concept of eating."

While brainstorming ideas for a food-based game, Iwatani stumbled upon inspiration while holding a slice of pizza from a box. The remaining pizza slices formed the distinctive shape of Pac-Man, leading to a groundbreaking moment in gaming history (according to Iwatani's account of the story).

Game designer named Toru Iwatani created "Pac-Man" in 1980.

In 1980, game designer Toru Iwatani brought "Pac-Man" into existence. When the game made its way to the United States, the original name, "PuckMan," was considered unsuitable. While the game's central character did bear a resemblance to a hockey puck, Midway, the American distributor, expressed concerns that mischievous kids might alter the marquee by scratching off the initial "P" and replacing it with an "F." Following the name change, the game skyrocketed in popularity, selling approximately 300,000 units globally between 1981 and 1987.

In 1980, game designer Toru Iwatani brought "Pac-Man" into existence. When the game made its way to the United States, the original name, "PuckMan," was considered unsuitable. While the game's central character did bear a resemblance to a hockey puck, Midway, the American distributor, expressed concerns that mischievous kids might alter the marquee by scratching off the initial "P" and replacing it with an "F." Following the name change, the game skyrocketed in popularity, selling approximately 300,000 units globally between 1981 and 1987

"Pac-Man" was created by game designer Toru Iwatani in 1980. However, when the game was introduced in the United States, its original name, "PuckMan," was deemed inappropriate. Despite the character's visual similarity to a hockey puck, the American distributor, Midway, worried that playful children might modify the arcade machine's marquee by scraping off the initial "P" and replacing it with an "F." After undergoing a name change, the game experienced a phenomenal surge in popularity, resulting in the sale of approximately 300,000 units worldwide between 1981 and 1987.


Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  plays "Pac-Man" at an exhibition preview in 2013.

The allure of "Pac-Man" resides in its simplicity. Unlike most games, it doesn't necessitate pressing numerous buttons (except to initiate a one-player or two-player game); instead, a single joystick suffices as the control system. However, don't be misled by its straightforwardness, as "Pac-Man" is deviously challenging, reminiscent of classic arcade games that devoured countless quarters.

Remarkably, it took nearly two decades for someone to accomplish a flawless game of "Pac-Man," completing all levels without losing any lives and amassing the maximum number of points. In 1999, Billy Mitchell became the first person to achieve this feat, joining the exclusive ranks of just a few individuals worldwide. Reflecting on his achievement, Mitchell revealed, "It took between five to six hours. The most challenging part is maintaining unwavering focus, avoiding distractions. You develop a systematic approach to play. Any deviation from that system, even for a moment, unleashes utter chaos on the game board."

Mitchell acknowledges that the enduring success of "Pac-Man" lies in its simplicity, transcending age and time. He states, "Regardless of your age or how long it has been since you last played, everyone understands what 'Pac-Man' is. Moreover, if you observe someone playing from behind, you can grasp the unfolding drama."

During Mitchell's perfect game, he reached level 256, amassing an impressive score of 3,333,360 points. At that point, the game's memory is exhausted, rendering it unable to display a complete board. Consequently, half the screen becomes distorted, preventing further progress. Anticipating that no one would ever reach that stage, Toru Iwatani and his team never programmed a celebratory ending.

Billy Mitchell reached the final level of "Pac-Man" in 1999. Unfortunately, at that point, the game ran out of memory and could no longer draw a complete board.

In 1999, Billy Mitchell accomplished the remarkable feat of reaching the final level in "Pac-Man." However, this pinnacle of the game marked a point where the limitations of the game's memory prevented the display of a complete board (Courtesy Bandai Namco).

Prior to this achievement, significant effort was invested in programming the behavior of the game's ghosts. Named Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, each ghost possessed a unique "personality" dictating its strategic approach.

"We implemented an AI-like algorithm that directed the ghosts to encircle Pac-Man from all directions," shared Iwatani. "We also introduced additional elements, such as restarting from a slightly easier difficulty after the player made a mistake and was caught, or occasionally diverting the pursuing ghosts back to their original positions, providing the player with a moment of respite. We made various adjustments to ensure that the game did not solely induce stress in the player."

The inspiration for the appearance of the ghosts drew from multiple sources, including a Japanese manga called "Little Ghost Q-Taro" that Iwatani read during his childhood, as well as the American cartoon character "Casper the Friendly Ghost."

"The relationship between Pac-Man and the ghosts was designed to create a superficial but non-malicious rivalry," explained Iwatani. "It is a dynamic influenced by the concept of the 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons."

"Pac-Man" gave rise to numerous sequels, with the highly acclaimed "Ms. Pac-Man" emerging as the most beloved among them. Furthermore, it served as a trailblazer for narrative-driven games like "Donkey Kong," breaking free from the prevailing shoot 'em up genre.

Even today, the allure of "Pac-Man" remains undiminished. An illustration of its addictive nature can be seen when Google replaced its logo with a playable version of the game in 2010. A study estimated that this diversion resulted in a staggering loss of almost 5 million man-hours and a financial impact of approximately $120 million due to decreased productivity.

A gamer plays "Pac-Man" at a trade fair in Cologne, Germany in 2019.

In 2019, a gamer immerses themselves in the world of "Pac-Man" at a trade fair held in Cologne, Germany (Credit: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images).

Toru Iwatani, the renowned Japanese game designer, last contributed to a Pac-Man title in 2007. Currently, he imparts his knowledge as a game design teacher at Tokyo Polytechnic University. Expressing his sentiments towards modern games, he remains unimpressed, noting that the evolution to smartphones and smaller screens has led to a diminishment of ideas.

Reflecting on the legacy of "Pac-Man," Iwatani highlights its significance as an introduction to video games for many individuals when the medium was still novel and unfamiliar to most beyond avid gamers.

He muses, "After 40 years, it continues to be cherished by people worldwide, transcending gender, age, and generations. If we were to draw a comparison to music, it would be akin to a universally recognized and familiar popular song."

Certain games become embedded in our cultural consciousness, even for those who may not consider themselves gamers. Icons like Mario and Pikachu have achieved this status, and their prominence owes much to the influence of the first gaming phenomenon. Let's delve into the captivating history of Pac-Man and explore how this character reshaped society's perception of gaming.

According to Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man was conceived as a response to the dominance of violent-themed games such as Space Invaders and Galaxian during that era. The arcade scene was saturated with shoot 'em up titles, prompting a deliberate choice to create something innovative and inclusive, particularly aiming to attract a female audience. In the early 1980s, games had limited character presence, often placing players in control of generic spaceships, but Pac-Man revolutionized this landscape. The game's promotion heavily relied on its main character, with Pac-Man prominently featured on arcade cabinets.

The irony of Pac-Man's design lies in its origin from a food item. Iwatani recounts, "I ordered a round pizza, and one slice was missing. In a eureka moment, the shape of what would become Pac-Man flashed through my mind." The simple yet iconic design of the yellow circular character was easy to animate. In fact, a May 2008 report by the Davie Brown Celebrity Index revealed that Pac-Man was recognized by 94% of US consumers. As for the name, it derived from the Japanese term "puck-puck," an onomatopoeic representation of eating (and the sound the character makes). The original name was Puck-Man, but it was altered in America due to concerns about potential vandalism.

In its debut year in America, Pac-Man's earnings surpassed $1 billion in quarters.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Pac-Man involved maneuvering the titular hero through a maze, earning points by devouring dots. Four different-colored ghosts named Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde roamed the screen, and colliding with them resulted in losing a life. When Pac-Man consumed a power pellet, the ghosts turned dark-blue and could be temporarily eaten. Bonus objects, including fruits, added to the score. The game looped until Pac-Man lost all of his lives, making it simple to grasp and irresistibly captivating for gamers.

Upon its release in Japanese arcades in 1980, Pac-Man received a lukewarm response. However, when it reached America the same year, the difficulty and pace of the game were heightened. Despite initial doubts from investors, it swiftly became an overnight sensation, surpassing revenue records previously set by Asteroids. In its inaugural year in America, Pac-Man generated over $1 billion in quarters. By 1982, an estimated 30 million

Pac-Man captured the nation's attention, even inspiring a song by Buckner and Garcia that climbed the Billboard Top Ten charts. In 1982, the character graced the cover of Time magazine, representing a feature on game lobbyists. Pac-Man's influence extended beyond gaming, as he had his own Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, which aired from 1982 to 1984. The game's popularity alarmed many parents, leading to the implementation of regulations and restrictions. Towns like Des Plaines, Illinois, prohibited individuals under 21 from playing video games without parental supervision, while Marshfield, Massachusetts, went as far as banning games altogether.

A Pac-Man-themed Google Doodle released on May 21, 2010, absorbed a staggering 4.8 million hours of gameplay, potentially resulting in $148 million in lost productivity.

Given the game's tremendous success, numerous spin-offs emerged. Ms. Pac-Man initially debuted as an unauthorized game in 1981 but was embraced by Namco and later became an official title. While it followed the same fundamental formula, it introduced variations in the number of dots, additional lifelines, and different enemy names. As time went on, the Pac-Man franchise explored unconventional directions. Pac-Land, released in 1984, featured side-scrolling gameplay and introduced Pac-Man's iconic "limbed" version. Super Pac-Man introduced peculiar power-ups and locked doors within the maze, while Baby Pac-Man combined an arcade game with a pinball machine. Jr. Pac-Man featured scrolling mazes, and the character even starred in an educational puzzle game called Professor Pac-Man. These are just a few examples of the numerous Pac-Man games released over the past four decades.

Pac-Man remains an immensely significant cultural phenomenon. In 2013, Disney XD aired the quirky cartoon series "Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures." Furthermore, discussions about creating a Pac-Man reality TV show took place in 2011. The concept, described by Roy Bank, the head of Merv Griffin Entertainment, envisioned a lively and energetic show similar to "Wipeout," translating the world's largest game of tag into a television format. Unfortunately, the idea never progressed beyond the initial pitch. Additionally, a Pac-Man Google Doodle on May 21, 2010, attracted an astounding 4.8 million hours of gameplay in just one day, potentially resulting in $148 million in lost wages.

Today, Pac-Man stands as Namco Bandai's beloved mascot and continues to release games almost every year. The most recent installment, Pac-Man Party Royale, was launched for the Apple Arcade last year. Pac-Man has also made numerous cameos, battling Space Invaders, participating in PlayStation golf, engaging in combat in the Tekken series, and even facing off against Mario in the Mario Kart arcade experience. As a family-friendly gaming legend, Pac-Man's inclusion in the Super Smash Bros series was almost inevitable. He made his debut in the 2014 version for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U and has remained a prominent character ever since.

Pac-Man was a revolutionary force, infusing gaming with distinct character and reshaping the way developers and fans perceived the games they played. Moreover, he played a pivotal role in elevating gaming to a cultural phenomenon, setting the stage for the industry's immense popularity. When Toru Iwatani enjoyed a pizza in 1979, he had no inkling that his lunch would play a pivotal role in transforming video games into the cultural force they are today.

No Pressure Selling

Please take your time and come back again if you're not ready to buy today.

Global Shipping

We ship to anywhere on Earth (except Russia)

Speak to a Human

You can phone us on 0118 959 6005

Pay in your own Currency

We accept Multiple Currencies