Hard to say if there are video games that have had the same importance as Pac-Man for our industry, as we will see in the course of the article. There are certainly fundamental and more influential ones, but in different and more mature contexts for the sector. Pac-Man was in many ways a precursor of everything that came after, so it is important to celebrate the forty years… many, but not too many, if you think about it.
When Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia entered that restaurant they just wanted something good to eat. They were located in Marietta, Georgia (United States), a small town with some very popular clubs, including the one they had chosen, the Shillings. They were two Atlanta musicians with many plans and few successes, but that day they met their destiny. In the middle of the room there was a strange table that immediately attracted their attention. It was a cabin cruiser by Pac-Man.
The two knew nothing about video games, as many did at the time, and they were not regular arcade goers, but they were literally kidnapped by that yellow ball eating pills chased by colored ghosts, to the point that they came back to play several times while doing chores in a nearby recording studio. Pac-Man was already a worldwide success when they decided to dedicate a song to him. They called it “Pac-Man Fever“, a very light pop rock song which, however, managed to summarize that period and the influence that video games began to have on popular culture:
“I have a pocket full of coins and I’m headed to the game room.
I don’t have much money, but I brought all my savings.
There is a callus on my finger and a shoulder hurts.
I will eat them all as soon as they turn blue.
Because I have Pac-Man fever.
He’s making me crazy.
I have Pac-Man fever.
I’m losing my mind.”
Pac-Man Fever quickly became a huge success, so much so that the duo made an entire disc whose songs had the titles of some of the most famous games of the time. To say, in 2011 People Magazine added the song to the list of the most important pop events of the past fifty years.
The story of the song Pac-Man Fever is particularly representative of the success of Pac-Man, in particular in the United States, where it was difficult not to meet him by wandering around places that offered cabin cruisers. The coin op of Namco it was not the first video game success of the time, since in 1980 there were already Pong on the market, with all its variants, Night Driver, Lunar Lander, Asteroids and Space Invaders, just to name a few, but it was certainly the first to have such a success that it transcends its videogame dimension, making it a mass phenomenon.
The golden age of video games
What is seen as the prehistory of video games was actually a thriving and vital era. When Pac-Man came out, Gunfight had long introduced microprocessors in coin ops, the Magnavox Odyssey was already history, Steve Sinclair’s ZX80 had just arrived on the market, the Commodore was moving like a pinch to outperform its competitors in the field of micro computers, Miyamoto had been working for Nintendo for a few years and soon he would make himself known with his Donkey Kong and theAtari by Nolan Bushnell, at the time in the hands of Ray Kassar, dominated the slender and incredibly fragile console market with the Atari 2600, pursued by Mattel Electronics’ Intellivision.
From a creative point of view we were in what is called the golden age of video games, which was well summarized by Mark Cerny, known as the system architect of the latest PlayStation consoles, but at the time a budding developer who was about to move the his first steps in the industry and which in 1984 would have given birth to the exceptional Marble Madness:
“Until 1986 there was the idea that every game had to be completely new and different. To say, if someone had made a fight game, the rest of us couldn’t have made a fight game because it would have been a derivative product. This attitude kept the market flexible. I think the players in the arcades of the 80s were more flexible because every time they tried an Atari game they had to overcome the obstacle of learning a new control scheme, a new philosophy of life.”
Cerny’s speech does not deceive: i clones there were also then (Pac-Man had many, for example), but its reference is to the attitude of the big producers, who challenged each other with innovative ideas, carefully observing themselves not to repeat what others had done.
The arcades were video games and they would have been throughout the 80s and part of the 90s, even if we tend to forget it. He was in the coin op that concentrated the greatest investments of the newborn publishers and, despite some limitations due to the economic model of the token per batch, was in game room that were born and developed most of the video game genres of the macro together “action arcade”, many of which are still alive and well today.
It was in this context that Toru Iwatani, in force in Namco since 1977, decided to develop Pac-Man. Iwatani was a pinball fan, but Namco only produced video games, so he had to adapt. His first products were little-known video pinballs in our area (Gee Bee, Bomb Bee and Cutie Q), so he decided to do something completely different. The market trends of the time did not like him very much because he thought they excluded a large portion of potential gamers and, above all, videogiocatriciwho still frequented the arcades. His goal was to create a non-violent game that could also please the female universe, as he confessed:
“At the time, as you will remember, there were a lot of games where you had to kill alien creatures. I was interested in developing a game for the most enthusiastic gamers. Instead of starting from the character, I started with the idea of eating and concentrated on the Japanese word “taberu”, which means eating.”
Pac-Man was developed by a team of nine people. The character was born of one Pizza. Iwatani was eating it for lunch and, having removed the first slice, one of the most important icons in the world of video games literally materialized before his eyes. The four ghosts colored, Akabei, Aosuke, Pinky and Guzuta (Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde in the west) were conceived soon after.
In Iwatani’s intentions, they had to be pleasant-looking creatures, so as not to indulge the female audience. History reminds them as the first characterized enemies, that is, with their own personality that was reflected in their appearance and in their behavior at play (it is not surprising that such an innovation came from cultured Japan and not from the more pragmatic United States). In total it took seventeen months to develop Pac-Man, not a little, considering the standards of the time.
Pac-Man was a conceptually simple game: the protagonist, a yellow sphere with eyes and mouth that opened and closed, had to to eat all the pills scattered across the levels, gods labyrinths contained in a single screen, avoiding being caught by the ghosts that haunted them. His only weapon of defense were larger pills which, when ingested, made the ghosts turn blue making them devourable, so as to give the hero a few seconds of rest.
Once eaten, only the eyes remained of the ghosts, which ran towards a room in the center of the maze to resume their complete shape and go back to chasing Pac-Man. Eating all the ghosts was one of the only two ways to get bonus points. The other was to collect the fruit (cherries, strawberries, apples and more) that appeared from time to time in the fixed points of the labyrinth. As the levels progressed, the ghosts became faster and seemingly shrewd, while the duration of the effect of the super pills was reduced more and more, increasing the level of difficulty.
Pac-Man was launched in Japan under the name of Puck-Man. At home it had little resonance and still today it is not remembered with the same ardor with which other videogame icons are celebrated, such as Mario. In the West it was decided to change its name for fear that some vandal would transform the P into an F, making the title a dirty word. Namco initially had no great confidence in the game. David Marofske, the president of Midway (US publisher of Pac-Man) thought that Rally-X, another Namco title from 1980, had a better chance of success. Nobody imagined that it could become such an international hit of such great magnitude, as the late President of Namco, founder of the company, Masaya Nakamura, confessed.
History tells us that more than 100,000 Pac-Man cabinets were sold in the US alone, while the number of total game cabinets sold worldwide reached 300,000. Only in its first year of life and only in the USA, Pac-Man grossed a billion dollars in nickels, becoming the object of desire of an entire generation, to the point of also driving the sale of home consoles. Guides were published on Pac-Man by various publishers, the phenomenon grew so much that Time Magazine came to dedicate a cover to it. In the following years Pac-Man became the protagonist of a cartoon, in which he appeared together with Ms. Pac-Man and son. Given the success of the game, Atari paid a large amount to make the home conversion anexclusive right of the Atari 2600 (Atari and Namco were in excellent relations, with the second that a few years earlier had bought the Japanese division of the first for 500,000 dollars, exceeding SEGA’s offer by 80,000 dollars), but the clones multiplied however crowding the market and reaching virtually all gaming platforms back then.
Pac-Man changed the video game industry in more than one sense. From a strictly thematic point of view, Iwatani’s game imposed the archetypal figure of the labyrinth in the world of video games. There are countless titles that will exploit her from then on, including many official sequels and spin-offs, such as the beloved Ms. Pac-Man, released in 1981 and immediately became a hit. With this we are not saying that Pac-Man was the first game set in a maze, but only that it was his success that pushed many developers to take advantage of the structure for their concepts, creating more or less original variants.
Think of Pengo, Mappy, Nibbler and a host of other more or less famous titles, all related in some way to the titles of Iwatani.
Still with regard to design, Pac-Man was the first game to introduce short films interludes in which he and the ghosts gave life to some nice skits. Despite the simplicity, those purely comic narrative intervals (Pac-Man chases the ghosts, but ends up being chased) served to better characterize the character, giving him that extra dimension that allowed him to emancipate himself from the dominant models, in which the avatars videogames were only a function of action and had an essentially symbolic nature. Iwatani had imagined Pac-Man as: “A creature that exists only to eat, without much emotion, but also a good boy who eats all the evil he sees in the world“, but his protégé had gotten out of hand. If there weren’t those skits to tell him outside of the action, it is likely that things would have gone very differently.
Another epochal change brought by Pac-Man was the birth of the concept of mascot in the world of video games. Horace, Super Mario and Sonic arrived later and they all had something to learn from the stratospheric fame of the yellow eating ball and its relationship with the mass audience. Over the years, its star has darkened somewhat, while some of its putative children have thrived, but it is undeniable that everything started from there, so much so that they could talk about a before and after Pac-Man in relation to the diffusion. of a videogame brand in other media.
What about Iwatani? As often happens, the father of what we can consider one of the biggest and most important phenomena of the video game industry received almost nothing for what he had achieved, at least in monetary terms. There is talk of a $ 3,500 bonus on his normal salary, as confirmed by Iwatani himself, who does not remember other particular rewards for having created one of the most successful video games ever. However, Pac-Man’s father remained in Namco and became one of the company’s top executives, employed in the research and development sector. After all, that pizza really changed his life …
Play Pac-Man today
Pac-Man original it is available for a multitude of platforms and is still easily playable today. For example, you can play it on PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PS4 as part of the Pac-Man Museum, a collection that also includes Super Pac-Man, Pac-Land, Pac-Man Battle Royale, Pac-Man Championship Edition and many other games theme. If you prefer to play on the move, you can download the free-to-play application “Pac-Man” for mobile systems, available for iOS and Android.
Among the best modern variants stand out Pac-Man 256, for mobile and fixed systems, a hybrid between the Iwatani title and an endless run, and the Pac-Man Championship Edition, probably the best among the reinterpretation projects of the classic formula, which is distorted and made more dynamic, without losing its essence. For the most passionate Pac-Man is also playable via dedicated hardware, like that of My Arcade, or on the portable console Evercade, as part of the Namco Museum Collection 1.
- Pac-Man, Namco, 1980
- Buckner, Jerry / Stewart, Mike. Pac-Man Fever: The Story Behind the Unlikely ’80’s Hit That Defined a Worldwide Craze. Digital Music eBooks.
- Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games: from Pong to Pokemon and beyond … the story behind the craze that touched our lives and changed the world. Crown.
- Craddock, David L. Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room. Press Start Press. Kindle edition.
- Retrogamer number 207