The nationwide release of the arcade version of Pac-Man in July 1980 marked a pioneering moment in the history of video games, introducing a rare nonviolent character for players to control and sowing the seeds for a cultural and commercial legacy that continues to endure to this day.
Pac-Man is believed to be one of the most influential video games ever made. Not only did Pac-man establish the maze chase genre, it was one of the first games to give characters individual personalities, it appealed to female audiences in a way that hadn’t been seen before and was one of gaming’s first licensing success stories.
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According to a 2016 report by USgamer, Pac-Man has established itself as one of the highest-grossing arcade games in history, selling more than 400,000 units worldwide by 1982 and pocketing revenue of more than $3.5 billion by 1990. The franchise also remains one of the best-selling game series of all time, generating revenue of more than $14 billion and sales worth $43 million as of 2016.
The overall success of Pac-Man can almost certainly be attributed to one man: Toru Iwatani, who saw an opportunity in creating a video game character that wasn’t designed around war or sports.
A star is born
In the early 1970s, arcade games were essentially violent in nature. The first coin-operated arcade game, Galaxy Game, appeared in 1971 (based on a 1962 home video game) and was, as most games tended to be at that time, based on the concept of war: Two opposing ships fight to the death in a dogfight in space.
Such games conflicted with the gentler vibe of the manga and Disney films Iwatani grew up with.
Working with video game developer Namco, Iwatani initially created the pinball-meets-block breaking hybrid Gee Bee in 1978 — a first for the company after having acquired the flailing Japan branch of Atari in 1974.
Iwatani then assisted on two sequels that were released in 1979: Bomb Bee and Cutie Q, the latter introducing sprites (two-dimensional graphic objects) that, in retrospect, are perhaps a taste of what was to come.
All three releases, however, were essentially digitized pinball games and nonviolent in nature. It was this pacifist, egalitarian approach that the developer channeled when working on his next project, Pac-Man.
“Back in the ’70s, many video games were centered around violence, which made video game arcades a place mostly for men and, consequently, didn’t feel very welcoming,” Iwatani says. “This inspired me to create a game that targeted a female audience, so that women and couples who are dating could also enjoy video game arcades. I remember thinking at the time that people are interested in eating, and so I decided to center an action game around that.”
Iwatani confirms the oft-repeated piece of Pac-Man legend that the character was inspired by the shape of a pizza that has a slice missing.
“I was having pizza for lunch one day while thinking about a game centered around eating,” Iwatani recalls. “I looked down and caught sight of my pie without a slice in it, and it struck — it was Pac-Man with his mouth open. I then used that image as a concept and built the game design around it.”
Iwatani initially envisioned Pac-Man as “an existence without much personality” — a character that simply consumes the evils of the world without a second thought.
“This is the reason why I created Pac-Man without any eyes — to prevent Pac-Man from revealing emotion,” he says.
The design stuck. Its simplicity — its lack of limbs, of a face even — feels like something of a precursor to the kawaii (cute) principles that began to take hold more readily in Japan in the 1990s more than a decade later. One could even argue that Pac-Man is proto-kawaii.
However, the design of the game successfully appealed to Iwatani’s primary audience: women.
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And having successfully won over that demographic in Japan, Pac-Man was primed to attempt to win global acclaim.
Video game arcades in the early 1980s may have been dark, male-dominated spaces in Japan, but it was a completely different story on the other side of the Pacific.
Mike Mika, a veteran video game designer and studio head of Digital Eclipse, describes video game arcades in the United States at that time as “the stuff of fantasy.”
“(They were) palaces of light and sound,” Mika says. “Every arcade had a theme: Westworld, Videodrome, etc. As a kid, it felt like the future. Huge spaces that celebrated the technology of gaming, a place to step into and, for a quarter a game, you became a hero. It was pure magic.”
Mika was 9 years old when Pac-Man was first released in the United States, remembering clearly the time a Pac-Man arcade unit was installed at his local movie theater.
“The crowd around the machine was so big I couldn’t get close enough to really see a game in action much less play it,” Mika says.
The hype surrounding Pac-Man was significant for Mika, who remembers kids at school learning to draw the iconic character’s likeness and arguing over strategies on how to beat the game (a technically impossible feat given the infamous “level 256 glitch” that was part of the original programming).
“Weeks later,” Mika says, “every public space with a power outlet had one.”
Pac-Man fever had well and truly hit — something its creator hadn’t even been banking on.
“I thought the game lacked what’s necessary to make a big splash, especially for players overseas who were seeking excitement from games,” Iwatani says, “which is why I was honestly surprised to see how much of a hit it was in the United States and Europe.”
He had hoped to attract more female fans in order to widen the target audience, but he ultimately believes the game’s success can be put down to something a little more simple.
“I believe the game’s success is largely due to its cute design, the easy learning curve and simple controls,” he says.
Before long there were cartoons, lunchboxes, music, bed clothing and a whole range of other Pac-Man memorabilia, inching the pixels ever further into reality and into the psyche of popular culture.
“I even had a Pac-Man phone,” Mika says.
Likening it to the 1978 success of “Jaws” in becoming the first cinematic summer blockbuster, Mika says Pac-Man was the first video game blockbuster.
“Before Pac-Man, it felt as if video games were a novelty … but after Pac-Man, it felt like video games were becoming an important form of entertainment,” Mika says. “They became the first real threat to movies, and the normal backlash followed: Are video games bad for you?”
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Video games, it seems, had finally become an accepted part of mainstream culture.
Although Iwatani created Pac-Man with a female audience in mind, the game’s central character was more a broader reflection of what the designer thought video games should be.
“I like games without excessive violence,” Iwatani says. “I also thought we needed games that didn’t feature violent scenes in arcades patronized by men and women, young and old.”
Such a concept was somewhat groundbreaking at the time.
“No discussion of women as electronic gamers would be complete without a deep bow in the direction of Midway’s incomparable Pac-Man,” writes Joyce Worley in “Women Join the Arcade Revolution” (1982), an article in video games magazine “Electronic Gamers,” which Worley co-founded and co-edited. “The game’s record-shattering success derives from its overwhelming popularity among female gamers. Oh, it does well among men, too, but it was heavy play by women that enabled Pac-Man to set earnings records in 1981.”
In a 2013 article for Polygon titled “No Girls Allowed,” Tracey Lien touches on the power of marketing and advertising in designating not just where and when you should be using a product, but who should be using it, and references a 1982 advertisement in particular that depicts a woman at the controls of Pac-Man, with her date standing by her side.
Gamers and video game journalists themselves weren’t the only ones to notice the appeal of Pac-Man. Even people who hadn’t even played video games before were getting hooked, Mika says.
“When we finally got a home version (of Pac-Man), it was incredibly frustrating — it was the first time my mom played Atari,” Mika recalls. “I’d have to wait for hours until she was done playing Pac-Man. … Unlike the war games at the time and what (those) insinuated, Pac-Man was something everybody could relate to. Who didn’t relate to eating? Or mazes? It was way more inclusive than (games such as) Tank or Depth Charge.”
In Pac-Man, the player attempts to eat all of the dots placed in an enclosed maze while avoiding four colored ghosts that each have their own unique “personalities.”
This is an interesting concept in itself and yet Iwatani introduced a revolutionary element that could allow players to turn the tables on the ghosts. He placed four flashing “power pellets” at the corners of the maze that, if eaten, would disorientate the ghosts and allow Pac-Man to eat them for bonus points. The ghosts would be sent back to the center of the maze before they could rejoin their attempts at chasing Pac-Man again.
“It would be stressful to be constantly chased by the ghosts throughout the game and we thought players would be turned off,” Iwatani says. “Hence, we created the power pellets, which would allow Pac-Man to chase the ghosts instead. … I suppose it’s similar to the spinach that Popeye eats in the cartoon.”
Mika says this element remains one of the defining aspects of the game.
“(It was) the first time you truly turned the tables on an enemy. It was incredibly satisfying to eat those ghosts,” Mika recalls. “I think this singular design in the game is responsible for so many power-ups that would come later in other games like the ‘POW’ block in Mario Bros. or the mushroom in Super Mario Bros.”
It’s easy to think of Pac-Man as a relic of the past, a famous game of yesteryear, but its legacy is certainly much bigger than that. Even putting aside the influence it has had on the games that followed and the gaming community in general, Pac-Man is a masterclass in game design.
What’s more, Pac-Man continues to thrill. Additions to the Pac-Man family have come and gone — from Ms. Pac-Man to Baby Pac-Man — while in 2014 Pac-Man appeared as a playable character in Super Smash Bros., a frantic beat-em-up game in which players can go up against other well-known video game characters in history. And that, surely, is an accolade worth celebrating in itself.
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