Neon Pac-Man arcade game as the main image in the 40 Years of Pac-Man blog post

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. 

Image of Gun Fight
Gun Fight (1975)
Image of Space Invaders
Space Invaders (1978)

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.

Pizza with missing slice showing how the Pac-Man shape originated
Iwatane got the shape for Pac-Man from a pizza missing a slice
Image of Toru Iwatani with Pac-Man merchandise
Toru Iwatani with Pac-Man merchandise

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.

Image of Pac-Man ghosts and their names in the 40 years of Pac-Man article
The ghosts have their own personality
Image of Pac-Man cut-scene
First shot of cut-scene
Image of Pac-Man cut-scene
Second shot of cut-scene

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. 

Image of chase mode in the 40 years of Pac-Man blog post
The ghosts in chase mode
Image of Pinky targeting Pac-Man in the 40 years of Pac-Man blog post
Blinky targeting 4 tiles in front of Pac-Man

Pac-Man Gameplay

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.  

Image of chase mode in the 40 years of Pac-Man blog post
The ghosts in frightened mode
Image of scatter mode in the 40 years of Pac-Man blog post
The ghosts in scatter mode

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.

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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 😉

Mini Arcade

Pac-Man Mini Arcade in the 40 Years of Pac-Man blog post gift ideas

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.

Game Console

This Gameboy console has 400 games and will keep you busy for ages as you journey through early gaming life. You can hook it up to the TV which makes it even more awesome. 

 

Check it out on Amazon.

Yoga Leggings

Pac-Man Yoga Leggings in the 40 Years of Pac-Man blog post gift ideas

The gift ideas on my site are mostly for guys, but I like to include a few cool gift ideas for girls especially when they’re as cool as these yoga pants. 

Check it out on Amazon.

Tin Tote

Pac-Man Tin Tote​ in the 40 Years of Pac-Man blog post gift ideas

This tote is great for kids or any adult Pac-Man fan who wants to secure their lunch in style. It’s big enough to hold containers and ice packs if needed. 

Check it out on Amazon.

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26 thoughts on “40 Years Of Pac-Man”

  1. OMG Pac-Man is definitely a part of my childhood memories! My sister and I am the super fans of it! This reminds me about the happiness of my childhood and I do remember how cute is the ghost icon in this game. It’s such a great invention since it suits all walks of life. This article helps gain me lots of knowledge about the game I played before! 

    Thanks for sharing this amazing information!

  2. Awinikistevie

    Wow! I was thrilled going through this article, it has always been awesome playing pac-man. 40 years of pac-man  and it still rated as the best selling coin-up in history. The game features are great an truly exceptional when it comes to gaming world. I remember those days playing pacman but I had no idea of the design complexity behind it. Such a simple yet sophisticated AI, who knew!

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. I was blown away by the personalities of ghosts too which is Pac-Man’s unique form of AI. It’s the unpredictability of the ghosts that makes it so much fun to still play.

  3. Certainly I remember Pac-Man! There were hit pop and other songs written with a Pac-Man theme. And that’s a diversion from the fact that I spent way too much money in quarters losing!! But I always loved it. When tech picked up to where we could have Pac-Man on a box at home, I didn’t lose the quarters (except for “playing” quarters… another subject!), but I lost a lot of time. Now, to be honest, Pac-Man wasn’t my favorite, although I did enjoy it and spent 18 bazillion hours a week on it at times. One of my favorites was another you mentioned: Space Invaders!! That game kept me out of so much trouble by keeping my butt on the shag-carpeted floor in front of the TV instead of doing other things that may have not been so good. 

    Then, along comes Seinfeld with the episode where George has a Pac-Man machine he is trying to roll across a busy NYC street (now that’s redundant! Busy is covered with NY!!). 

    Anyway, thanks for the site! It’s nostalgic for me!!

    Darrin
     

    1. Darrin, we share similar memories with regards to Pac-Man. My sister had the console at home and I would play it whenever I was sneaky enough to steal it from her. Pac-Man wasn’t my favourite it either, I preferred Mr. Do and Jail Break.

      And regarding the Seinfeld episode, that wasn’t Pac-Man, but Frogger. George imitated the frog getting across the road by pushing the Frogger arcade game across the road. Of course he can’t get it up the curb which has hilarious results. 

      It’s one of my favourite episodes because Jerry and George are so affected by the nostalgia of firstly going back to their old high school hang-out, Mario’s Pizza, and secondly of George getting to relive his glory days in seeing his unbeaten high score on the Frogger machine. 

  4. Hi,

    I enjoyed reading this and learned a lot. I know it has been a while since I played Pac-Man, but I would never have guessed it was already 40 years old.

    I also didn’t know that the ghosts had their own names and personalities. It’s fascinating to see this early form of AI in such a seemingly simple game.

    Thanks again and keep up the great work!

    1. The personalities of the ghosts are truly what make Pac-Man innovative and fun to play. And not only did they have names, they had nicknames too. The detail that the characters possess really shows how much Namco loved each and every one of their creations.

  5. Great history on a game legend. I loved playing Pac Man at the arcades back in the 80’s. While games like Pac Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong pale in comparison to modern day arcade game graphics, there’s a nostalgic feeling when I play these and they bring back memories of a simpler time. I had no idea about the naming of the game which I found interesting. This was an interesting post on the history of Pac Man and some of the games you can buy really sparked my interest. Well written blog on the all time favorite game Pac Man!

    1. It’s all about getting that nostalgic feeling! It doesn’t always last for very long though. Initially, as you’re reliving those moments, it’s magical, but after a while the shoddy graphics and simplistic gameplay seep in and detract from the experience. Some games, though, still stand up and I would say Pac-Man, Mr. Do and Double Dragon are good examples.

  6. wow. I’m getting flashbacks from over 35 years ago. I remember literally begging my mom to buy me a family computer which she did for 2,000 pesos, about a little under $50US which was quite a sum back in the day. Pacman was all the rage and other games like BattleTank, Galaga, Adventure Island, and dozens of other games that I forgot the titles. 

    Thank you! You brought back good memories!

    1. Galaga and Battle Tank were both great. I used to play Pac-Man, but it wasn’t my favourite game. I do find the Pac-Man backstory fascinating, however, hence this article. 

  7. The game! Pac-man of those days, That made me popular among my peers back then when I was growing up, everyday in school during the break hours every one will come to play pac-man with me. So nobody offends me because if you do, I won’t allow you to play my game, you can imaging the fun then.
    The rundown of this review reminded me a great deal of how much fun i do derive from having and playing pac-man game. I guided it jealously so that it won’t get bad. I loved spending time playing pac-man as a child.

    1. Winning friends and influencing people – through Pac-Man! Kids with cool toys or good junk food were always popular in my school too. Not much has changed in the adult world.

  8. Wow,  reading through this post has just brought a lot of memory to mind how me and my sibling would play pac man and if dad is arond on weekends its usually a challenge between the guys an the girls and dad would allow mum and her girls win Lol,  I used to be very angry at dad then,Lol,  but its really so good to really know the history of the game that made my childhood fun. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Toru Iwatani would be happy to hear that both the boys and girls in your family enjoyed Pac-Man. That was, after all, his major goal, to make a game that would appeal to all. 

  9. Great article! I haven’t played or even thought of Pac-Man for at least 20 years. I used to play Dig Dug and Mr. Do when my parents took us on holiday. I played the Google Pac-Man thanks to your link and really enjoyed it. Thank again for the blast from the past.

    1. Ah, yes, I’m so glad you mentioned Mr. Do. That was one of my favourites as well. Dig Dug was always more popular it seemed, but Mr. Do was a way more interesting and stimulating game. I still enjoy it now. Glad you liked the Google Pac-Man game. I had fun playing it too.

  10. I’m a ’90s kid. But I still feel nostalgic about this game! I remember my childhood when I played pac-man and similar games with friends all night long. I remember the first game console I played this game. It was called Sega. I didn’t have a console. Only a few of my friends had game consoles. We gathered almost every day to play those kinds of games. It is one of the greatest childhood memories!

    I play video games to this day. But somehow I believe that 90s games had more value to it. Nowadays many games are soulless. 

    Also thank you for pac-man google link mini game!! It brings back so many memories! I sent this link to all my childhood friends.

    1. I like what you said about games these day being soulless. You can say the same thing about a lot of the movies being churned out by Hollywood. 

      Glad you enjoyed the Goole Pac-Man. The Google-shaped maze make it a unique Pac-Man experience.

  11. israel Olatunji

    Amazing how time flies! I definitely played with Pac Man during my childhood. The question is who didn’t? What I find more interesting than the game is the history behind Pac Man.

    I’m sure Toru Iwatani never knew how successful Pac Man would be when he created it.

    This is the most interesting article I’ve read in a long time. And to think that the article is about a game character that is 40 years old.

    Thank you Murray for bringing me down memory lane with this post!

    1. I agree Israel, the history of Pac-Man is fascinating and I’m way more into the game now having learnt its backstory. I hope Iwatani has been well rewarded for creating one of the most influential games in history, but I’m not sure it works like that at a Japanese gaming corporation.

  12. What a fascinating article you have written! Thank you for sharing this information.

    Pac-man made up a big part of my childhood, and i always loved it, but finding out the detail behind it from what you have shared has made me love it even more. Who would have thought it was created from a missing slice of pizza!

    So many people will find this such an interesting read! What a great job you have done.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the Pac-Man article Emma, and yeah, amazing how the pizza missing a slice was instrumental in giving Pac-Man his shape.

  13. Thank you for taking the time to put all this info together! So interesting to read about the history and definitely useful knowing the attack patterns of all the different ghosts. My dad is obsessed with this game so I’m looking forward to chatting to him about all this.
    I remember once we were on a family holiday in the Drakensberg and my dad discovered a Pac-Man machine in the games room and we couldn’t get him away from it! He played so much and so vigorously he actually got blisters on his thumb! Madness. The game came out when he was a teenager so I’m sure the nostalgia is what kept him so enthralled, over and above his determination to match the high score. Nice to know there are other fans out there who are just as passionate.

    1. Anabel, your dad and I are kindred spirits because I get similarly immersed in nostalgic games from my youth. When I was in New York 5 years ago, I found Barcade, which is a fantastic gaming arcade and craft beer bar. I played a lot of the games from the 80’s while slurping down premium micro brewed beer. A match made in heaven without a doubt.

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