Age (years since debut): 30
Debut Title: Pac-Man
Notable Skills: Eating ghosts, eating fruit, eating small dots… in fact just eating in general – he’d probably eat your dog if he got half a chance.
Distinguishing Characteristics: He’s a yellow circle with a mouth, and occasionally eyes, hands and legs (depending on which game you’re talking about). Sometimes the simplest characters are the best!
The story of Pac-Man owes its roots to just one man, Toru Iwatani – a game designer for Japanese game developer Namco in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In the current climate of multi-million dollar game budgets, teams involving hundreds of programmers, artists, level-designers, sound engineers, quality assurance teams and a practically endless list of other jobs, it seems a bit of an alien concept that back in the day a game could be conceived, developed and finished by one single person, but that’s exactly what Iwatani managed at the dawn of the 1980’s.
The whole project took him 18 months, which was quite a lot of time back in the days when it seemed that anyone with a reasonable level of programming knowledge could knock out a shoddy rip-off of an established title in a few weeks, but for Namco (and later Atari), those 18 months would be among the most important in their history.
The inspiration for the name comes from the Japanese phrase “Paku-Paku Taberu” which, we’re rather unreliably informed, roughly translates to the sound made when one opens and closes their mouth repeatedly. Yes, really. Quite why the Japanese have a word for this is still uncertain, but it led to the little yellow sprite being known as Puck-Man in his original incarnation. That name would have stuck too if it weren’t for the fact that American teens were garnering quite a reputation for defacing arcade cabinets with naughty words, and a particularly creative chap would clearly have seized the opportunity to remove part of the P in Puck-Man to give the franchise an entirely different meaning… and so Pac-Man was born.
In terms of the inspiration for the character itself, Pac-Man owes his original rotund featureless appearance to the healthiest of all foods, the pizza. Obviously the long hours of coding had begun to affect Iwatani’s mind, as well as his diet, and on seeing a pizza with a slice removed, he was struck by an idea. A plain, solid-coloured circle with just two frames needed (mouth open and mouth closed) would surely save a lot of time and effort in terms of sprite animation, so from laziness came a genuine masterstroke – a character which could easily be recreated with minimum expense on every type of merchandise imaginable. Of course this would not come until later, first the game had to capture the hearts of the gaming public…
Oddly, the initial reaction from the fresh faced Japanese gaming media upon the release of Pac-Man on May 22nd 1980 was one of relative indifference, with many publications outright ignoring the game because it failed to provide the same wow-factor as popular new titles like Space Invaders. It wasn’t until the release of the title in America, under the supervision of Bally (a subsidiary of Midway) that things really started to pick up.
In short, the American media, and gaming public, went crazy for the game.
The success of the title state-side thanks to its innovative level design and quirky nature signalled the birth of a phenomenon. Arcade units of the game couldn’t be made quickly enough to meet demand, and Pac-Man began to become as much a cultural icon as he was a video game one, quickly outselling Asteroids as the number one arcade game on the planet.
As is often the case with successful titles, sequels and unauthorised knock-offs followed in rather short order. Within three years following the release of the original arcade title, Pac-Man had managed to make a whopping seven outings (three of which were unauthorised Bally Midway titles) – the kind of over-saturation which typified the pre-crash video game market of the early 1980’s.
But it was the home market where Pac-Man really proved his worth. Everyone was sitting up and taking notice of the success story taking place, including mainstream publication Time Magazine, who wrote in 1982:
“Retailers have been unable to keep Pac-Man cartridges on their shelves since the Atari division of Warner Communications Inc. introduced the home version in mid-March (list price: $37.95). Richard Simon, an analyst with Wall Street's Goldman, Sachs & Co., expects Atari to sell a phenomenal 9 million units this year and to take in some $200 million in the process. He predicts that Atari's Pac-Man earnings will ultimately surpass 20th Century-Fox's profits from Star Wars, the bestselling film ever made.”
Unfortunately for Atari, despite Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 system selling over 9 million units in the end, the fact that they had chosen to manufacture some 12 million units in total meant that their profits weren’t quite as high as they should have been (a lesson they would fail to learn from, and a feat they would ultimately repeat in 1983, when five million copies of the utterly awful E.T. game were buried in a Mexican landfill following the video game market crash).
Following the market crash, Pac-Man continued to be a reliable cash cow with multiple new titles released in the arcade, and more importantly on the wealth of emerging home gaming systems. However the success of the franchise led to an unprecedented number of shoddy knock offs, which served to taint the reputation of the character.
The advent of more advanced home consoles, such as Sega’s Master System and then Mega Drive, and Nintendo’s NES and SNES resulted in the decline of in popularity of Pac-Man… something not helped by a seemingly continuous stream of shambolic attempts to reboot the series. This decline continued throughout the 90’s and into the 00’s, and it is only now that the original format of the title is starting to find popularity once more – either via nostalgic Generation X’ers or younger gamers curious as to the origins of their favourite past time, who become sucked into the high score mentality.
But the success of the Pac-Man franchise wasn’t simply restricted to the video game world. A Hanna-Barbera developed animated TV series aired in the States for two seasons and a combined 42 episodes between 1982 and 1984, a 1981 song by Buckner & Garcia entitled “Pac-Man Fever” made it to number nine in the American charts, a board game was released in the mid 1980’s and a slew of other musicians as wide ranging as Aphex Twin and Weird Al Yankovic have parodied, sampled or referenced Pac-Man in their work.
There was talk of a live action movie from Crystal Sky Pictures in 2004, but all mention of that went suspiciously quiet after a while (we assume when someone realised that it was an absolutely awful idea… or Uwe Boll got involved).
The absorption of Pac-Man into the collective consciousness of modern society is evident in the sheer amount of merchandise adorned by the character, the number of reference made towards the game in pop-culture and the seemingly universal recognisability of the character, even as the years since he has truly been relevant advance.
Although he may well be a relic of the past, Pac-Man’s impact continues to be recognised by those involved in the video game world. In 2008, the Guinness Book of World Records: Gamer’s Edition recognised the series with a whopping eight world-records based around it, including the first ever perfect Pac-Man game (awarded to Billy Mitchell for his flawless game in 1999) and most successful coin operated game of all time.
Now mainly an ironic reference to a time long since past, Pac-Man continues to be remembered fondly for his important role in saving the video game industry from complete implosion during the 1982 crash. For that reason, as well as helping to make video gaming a part of a wider popular culture than simply the realm of stereotypical teenage gamers, he will continue to be recognised as one of the most important characters in the annals of gaming history. Hopefully one of these days someone will give the series the quality reboot it probably deserves, and he can rise like a rotund yellow phoenix from the flames of mediocrity… either that or it’ll be left alone altogether to ensure that our memory of Pac-Man is left as untainted as possible.
Though we wouldn’t hold our breath.
Obviously with Pac-Man being such an established character, and video game trademarks/copyrights being a little looser back in the day, there were an absolute slew of unauthorised Pac-Ports to pretty much every format you could possibly imagine. For obvious reasons it would be silly to list them all (and to be honest it would be almost impossible to track them all down), so, as per Mario in the last issue, here is a selection of the major releases...
Pac-Man (1980) – Arcade
Ms. Pac-Man (1981) – Arcade, Atari 2600, Atari 5200
Super Pac-Man (1982) – Arcade
Pac-Man (1982) – Atari 5200
Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man (1982) – Arcade (Unauthorized Pinball Game)
Pac-Man Plus (1982) – Arcade (Unauthorized)
Baby Pac-Man (1982) – Arcade (Unauthorized Pinball Game)
Jr. Pac-Man (1983) – Arcade (Unauthorized), Atari 2600
Pac & Pal (1983) – Arcade
Pac-Man & Chomp Chomp (1983) – Arcade
Professor Pac-Man (1983) – Arcade (Unauthorized)
Pac-Land (1984) – Arcade
Pac-Mania (1987) – Arcade, Amiga, Commodore 64, MSX, NES, Master System, Mega Drive, Spectrum, Game Boy Advance, Wii Virtual Console, PC, Atari Jaguar
Pac-Man (1990) – NES
Ms. Pac-Man (1990) – Atari Lynx
Pac-Land (1991) – Atari Lynx
Pac-Attack (1993) – Mega Drive, SNES, Game Boy, Game Gear, CD-i, Wii Virtual Console
Pac-Man (1993) – Game Gear
Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures (1994) – Mega Drive, SNES
Pac-In-Time (1995) – Mega Drive, SNES, Game Boy, PC
Pac-Man VR (1996) – Arcade
Pac-Man Arrangement (1996) – Arcade
Pac-Man World (1999) – PlayStation, Game Boy Advance
Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man (1999) – PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Colour
Neo Geo Pac-Man (1999) – Neo Geo Pocket Colour
Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness (2000) – PlayStation, Dreamcast, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Advance
Pac-Man: Adventures in Time (2000) – PC
Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga Class of 1981 (2000) – Arcade
Pac'n Party (2000) – Arcade
Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga/Frogger Classic Combo (2000) – Arcade
Ms. Pac-Man: Quest for the Golden Maze (2001) – PC
Pac-Man All Stars (2002) – PC
Pac-Man World 2 (2002) – PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, Game Boy Advance, PC
Pac-Man Fever (2002) – PlayStation 2, GameCube
Pac-Man Crisis (2002) – Mobile
Pac-Man Vs. (2003) – GameCube, DS, Mobile
Ms. Pac-Man for Prizes (2004) – Mobile
Pac-Man Casino Card Games Pack (2004) – Mobile
Pac-Man Casino Slots Pack (2004) – Mobile
Pac-Match! (2004) – Mobile
Pac-Man Puzzle (2004) – Mobile
Pac-Man Pinball (2004) – Mobile
Pac-Man Bowling (2004) – Mobile
Pac-Man Pinball Advance (2005) – Game Boy Advance
Pac-Man's Arcade Corner (2005) – Mobile
Pac-Pix (2005) - DS
Pac 'n Roll (2005) – Wii, DS
Pac-Man World 3 (2005) – PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, DS, PSP, PC
Pac-Man: 25th Anniversary (2005) – Arcade
Pac-Man World Rally (2006) – PlayStation 2, GameCube, PSP, PC
Pac-Man Championship Edition (2007) – Xbox Live Arcade, Mobile
Pac-Man Pinball 2 (2008) – Mobile
Pac-Man Hold'em Poker (2008) – Mobile
Pac-Man Carnival (2010) - Wii
Pac-Man Battle Royale (2010) – Arcade