The History of Pac-Man

Tegan Jones August 16, 2013 4
pacmanTo call Pac-Man a mere game would be an injustice.  It’s a cultural icon, a symbol of an entire decade, as well as an entity that redefined gaming itself. Evidence of this can be found not only in its initial success, but also by the fact that it continues to be loved and valued by every new generation of gamers. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the history of Pac-Man and the way in which it changed the world of video games forever.

It began with pizza.

Back in 1979, 27 year old Namco employee Toru Iwatani claims he was staring at a humble pizza when he had an idea for a video game that centered around eating. What inspired him? The pie was missing two slices and thus resembled a mouth. What resulted was Pakkuman – a name that was derivative of the Japanese phrase “paku-paku taberu”. This is a onomatopoeic slang term that is used to describe the sound that a mouth makes when it’s opened widely and then closed again in close succession. In short – exactly what the Pac-Man character does to eat up his delicious dots. Speaking of eating, the inspiration behind Pac-Man consuming food to gain power was reportedly derived from Popeye.

Up until this point in time, the most popular arcade games (such as Asteroids and Space Invaders) were primarily targeted towards and enjoyed by young boys and teenagers. Iwatani wanted his game to appeal to a far wider demographic, which led him to add both the maze element of the game as well as the ‘kawaii’ ghost enemies (Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde). The game was changed to Puck Man before release due to the shape of the character.

Once the game was released in the United States, several things were changed. Firstly, the difficulty was increased  in order to appeal to a Western audience, as was the pace of the game and the artwork on the cabinet. Most importantly though, the name was changed out of fear of vandals turning the “P” into an “F”. Smart move.

Another vital difference was its reception. In Japan, the game received a mere lukewarm response, but the US was an entirely different story. Investors themselves didn’t see much merit in the game, and weren’t overly impressed by it at trade shows prior to its release. In fact, a race car game by the name of Rally-X was expected to be the most popular of the year. Of course, they were wrong and Pac-Man was an overnight hit in the States, quickly surpassing Space Asteroids in revenue and made over a billion dollars in quarters within its first year; by the 1990s, the arcade game had generated about two and a half billion dollars.  That’s a lot of quarters. Today, Pac-Man is often cited as the highest grossing video game of all time.  Now just imagine if Toru Iwatani had decided to go out for Chinese that night instead of pizza…

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Bonus Pac-Man Facts:

  • The intense popularity of the game has spawned at least 31 sequels, ports, re-releases and remakes over the years – and these don’t include compilations.
  • Only one of thee aforementioned sequels involved Iwatani, and a large number of them were unauthorized and definitely not produced by Namco. The worst perpetrator was Midway (if the name doesn’t result in the Mortal Kombat theme invading your head then you’re not old school enough) who bought a hacked version of the original game from General Computer Organization. Originally called Crazy Otto, the game eventually became what is now known as Ms. Pac-Man. Naturally, Namco sued Midway and eventually a deal was made to release the game as an official sequel. However, this didn’t prevent the latter from releasing four other unauthorized games – Professor Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man and Pac-Man Plus. Suffice to say, the two companies no longer did business with one another after the continuous breach of copyright. Perhaps it’s this poor attitude that resulted in Midway filing for Bankruptcy in 2009.
  • It’s worth mentioning that the most recent sequel is set to be released in Fall 2013 and will be titled Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures. It will be released on multiple platforms – PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360. This will be a good chance for veteran gamers to indulge in their roots, and a newer generation to discover why Pac-Man is still a relevant and enjoyable part of the gaming industry.
  • Some of Pac-Man’s other impressive statistics include:
    • In its first 18 months, more than 350,000 Pac-Man arcade machines were sold. Retailing at roughly $2400 a piece, this resulted in nearly a billion dollars in cabinet sales alone.
    • There were an estimated 30 million active players of Pac-Man in the USA by 1982.
  • Pac-Man’s popularity and revenue generation aren’t what makes it an important and ground breaking game.  Sure, both of these factors are impressive, but they aren’t what make it the most influential title of all time. Pac-Man pushed the conventions of the arcade game genre and opened up the world of gaming to entirely new audience. It also included a ridiculous number of firsts for the gaming industry, some of which include:
    • First gaming mascot
    • First game to purposely target a female audience
    • First maze chase game
    • First licensing success in gaming
    • First power-up
    • First cut scene
    • First instance of stealth gaming (Pac-Man avoids his enemies, rather than attacking them)
    • First game to be consistently, and popularly, published over the course of three decades (now four)
  • Hanna-Barbera created a Pac-Man TV show called Pac-Man Fever in 1982
  • There are IRL recreations of that are still be played today. One of the most popular is Pac-Manhatten -  a ten player variation that was started in 2004. The ‘Pac-Man’ character is chased throughout the city by four ‘Ghosts.’ Each character is guided by a ‘controller’  player who keeps in contact with him or her via a mobile. The controllers can keep an eye on their players, and in the case of ‘Pac-Man – his progress. If Pac-Man touches a street sign at a street intersection that counts as a power pellet.

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4 Comments »

  1. Nathan August 16, 2013 at 1:32 am - Reply

    Such a well written article about a subject close to the heart of many! Tegan’s articles are always well researched and very interesting. I really hope there are many more to come.

  2. Aaron August 16, 2013 at 1:44 am - Reply

    Great article! Although in my head it was being read by Scott Pilgrim’s voice.

  3. Naomi Hoeppner November 4, 2013 at 6:07 am - Reply

    Yeahhhhh PAC man I loooooveeeee him and the game.

  4. David November 18, 2013 at 3:01 am - Reply

    I thought this would have mentioned the fact that the game could eventually end – if you completed level 255, an overflow error would cause the game to go haywire, so there is a highest score it is possible to get in Pacman, which somebody has achieved, though I can’t remember who.

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