40 Years Of Pac-Man
A Gaming Icon
Pac-Man is turning 40 this year and what an incredible life it has been. The game is the best-selling coin-op in history and its hero is the most famous and recognizable character in the gaming world.
Created by Toru Iwatani at Namco in 1979, the first Pac-Man machine was installed in a movie theater in the upmarket Shibuya district in Tokyo on May 22nd, 1980. It quickly became a critical and commercial hit in North America after a rather slow start in Japan.
It was ported to most home gaming platforms causing it to become a household name within just a few years.
In this post I’ll be exploring the past 40 years of Pac-Man to understand the brilliance of it and why its impact is still being felt.
The Need For Pac-Man
In the late 70’s, arcade halls were dingy, smokey and rather unwholesome environments. The majority of games involved shooting or fighting which meant they largely appealed to boys.
Iwatani wanted to change that by making a game that was fun without being violent, a game that had bright lights and colours with cute characters, a game that would find favour with younger players, girls and couples.
My aim was to come up with a game that had an endearing charm, was easy to play, involved lots of light-hearted fun, and that women and couples could enjoy. Toru Iwatani
What's In A Name?
The original Japanese title was Puck Man, but this was changed to Pac-Man for international distribution in order to prevent the defacement of the arcade machine by converting the P into an F. This would no doubt reduce Pac-Man’s cute and lovable appeal.
The name, Pac-Man, is a blend of the Japanese word for mouth turned on it’s side, a pizza and the term paku paku which is a onomatapeoia expression for eating something. Iwatani explains it as follows:
In Japanese the character for mouth (kuchi) is a square shape. It’s not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out. There was the temptation to make the Pac-Man shape less simple. While I was designing this game, someone suggested we add eyes. But we eventually discarded that idea because once we added eyes, we would want to add glasses and maybe a moustache. There would just be no end to it.
Food is the other part of the basic concept. In my initial design I had put the player in the midst of food all over the screen. As I thought about it, I realized the player wouldn’t know exactly what to do; the purpose of the game would be obscure. So I created a maze and put the food in it. Then whoever played the game would have some structure by moving through the maze.
The Japanese have a slang word–paku paku–they use to describe the motion of the mouth opening and closing while one eats. The name Pac-Man came from that word.
Read the full interview here.
Giving Characters Character
What made the characters fun and unique was the fact that they all had their own name and personality. Pac-Man, it could be argued, was the first real video game character. The characters in previous games were typically nameless and void of any memorable, defining features. Pac-Man had a name, a cute face and a lovable personality. It’s no surprise that he originated in Japan, a land that has always been besotted with cute cartoon characters and mascots.
The ghosts were actually inspired by Casper the friendly ghost and each one of them not only has a name, but a nickname too. We know them as Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde and their personalities are manifested in the way that they chase Pac-Man. More on that here.
The power pellets, which shift Pac-Man’s state from powerless to powerful, come from Popeye and the short-term invincibility he achieves from wolfing down cans of spinach.
What further added character and story to Pac-Man was the coffee breaks, as Iwatani called them, between stages. This was the first time that the gameplay was interrupted by non-interactive movies. Iwatani believed that these cut-scenes were necessary, despite opposition from colleagues, because they gave players a few moments to rest their arm and regroup after a stressful level.
Iwatani masterminded a novel and engaging algorithm for the gameplay of Pac-Man. This featured three modes of movement for the ghosts that shift depending on what is happening in the game.
Chase mode is the most aggressive and occurs when the ghosts are actively hunting down Pac-Man and this is where their personalities shine through because each ghost has own unique way of chasing.
Blinky, by far the most aggressive, targets Pac-Man himself. Pinky and Inky both try to get in front by targeting a few spots ahead of Pac-Man. This creates the illusion of co-operation as the three often catch Pac-Man in a pincer movement. Clyde, the shy spectre, operates on the periphery and actually moves away from Pac-Man when he gets too close.
The real genius behind this early form of AI is that it makes the ghosts unpredictable and the game far more fun and enjoyable because it’s different every time. Compare this to the aliens in Space Invaders who are stuck in a rigid pattern of movement.
When Pac-Man munches a power pellet and goes on the offensive, the ghosts enter frightened mode as they try and avoid getting eaten by Pac-Man.
Every so often, the ghosts are instructed to give up the chase and scurry to the corners of the game. This is scatter mode and its purpose is to break up the tension thereby giving the player a moment to breathe.
I felt it would be too stressful to be continually surrounded and hunted down. So I created the monster’s invasions to come in waves. They’d attack and then retreat. As time went by, they would regroup, attack and then disperse again. It seemed more natural than having constant attack.
For more details on Pac-Man and the gameplay watch this awesome video on YouTube.
If you would like to play online, it became a Google Doodle to celebrate the 30th anniversary in 2010. The maze is in the shape of Google so it creates a completely new gaming experience. Play here.
What are your thoughts on Pac-Man and its legacy? Let me know in the comments section below.
For more cool stuff about the 80’s, read 17 Cool Things From The 80’s.
Pac-Man Gift Ideas
There is a lot of Pac-Man merchandise out there, especially on Amazon, Etsy and Ebay. Amazon is usually cheaper with more selection and so I’ve chosen them. And if you’re not super satisfied with what you’ve bought, their returns policy is really good.
With so much to choose from, where do you start? My focus has been on cool, fun and quirky items, all garnering decent ratings from well-priced sellers. Celebrate the past 40 years of Pac-Man by getting a cute piece of merchandise.
Please note that I am an Amazon Affiliate and receive a small compensation if you use my links, but it will not increase your purchase price. If you use my links, I truly appreciate it 😉
This is the cutest little arcade game. It is very well rated on Amazon and perfect for any Pac-Man enthusiast who wants to get their game on, but doesn’t have the space for a full-sized arcade machine.
Check it out on Amazon.