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.