“Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”
-The Babe, The Sandlot
Mr. Masaya Nakamura, known as “the Father of Pac-Man”, has passed on at the age of 91. He is remembered as a pioneer of the gaming industry and founder of Namco, and in remembering him I thought we’d time travel back to the early days of neon game centers and musky arcades for a look at a true legend: Pac-Man. Video games have never been the same since.
Pac-Man was created by game designer Toru Iwatani (Pole Position, Libble Rabble) and developed by Nakamura’s company, Namco (short for Nakamura Amusement Machine Manufacturing Company). It was distributed in North America by Midway.
But whence cometh the Pac-Man? The story goes that his creators got the idea at a pizza parlor by looking at a pie with a single piece missing, though it’s possible this isn’t at all true. Also, the character almost ended up with the name “Puck-Man” in the US, after his hockey puck resemblance, though they wisely decided against it given the all-American pastime of using strong language. They didn’t want to risk the arcade machines being vandalized by young teens thinking they were being crudely clever.
In Japan, the gluttonous protagonist is called “Pakkuman”, from the Japanese onomatopoeia paku-paku which is the sound of the mouth moving when eating or chewing. It’s the equivalent of “Om Nom Nom”. You could call him “Omnomnom-Man”. But that’s stupid. With paku-paku at his roots, it was easier just to go with Pac-Man for North America and the rest of the world.
Stick your finger in your ear and wiggle it to make the iconic Pac-Man noise. Now your finger is dirty.
Upon its release, Pac-Man was widely popular. Insanely popular. It attracted more players than anything else had before it. Americans dropping billions of quarters into arcade machines just in 1981 (Pac-Man’s first full year in North America) was unprecedented, and Pac-Man was at the forefront of that craze since 1980. He redefined the arcades.
Alongside Tetris and Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man might be the most iconic and recognizable video game ever. How many other games and specifically game characters from 1980 can you recall instantly to mind? The centipede from Centipede, maybe? Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Galaga didn’t even come out until a year later. Pac-Man has an enduring legacy, while so many others from his time have been forgotten. Put it this way: Pac-Man debuted alongside Namco’s Rally-X, but which of the two ended up being more memorable?
I’ve no doubt his image appears in the heads of many who hear the words “retro”, “arcade”, and “80’s”. Even people who don’t play video games out of principle know who Pac-Man is, and they probably even played Pac-Man at one point or another in some fit of unchecked passion.
Pac-Man’s effect upon the gaming industry is beyond measure, which helps to explain its immediate success and lasting appeal.
First off, it was the first video game marketed to women. That’s unusual considering nearly every video game up to that point was a space shooter or a racer or a sports game firmly sitting in the realm of boyishness. Before Pac-Man there was Pong and Asteroids. Not too colorful or character driven. With Pac-Man, the idea was to create cute characters with actual names who could appeal to girls out with their boyfriends in the arcade. Or in Nakamura’s own words:
“When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” – after eating dinner, women like to have dessert.”
Yeah, you definitely couldn’t say something like that today. Of course, the game ended up appealing to just about everyone and not just gals, but it did pave the way for games reaching a much wider audience.
Pac-Man also helped shape the future of gaming with new innovations like cutscenes! It also had new “smart” enemies with different behaviors between the four ghosts. This was also the first game to include power ups, which would inform just about every game since. I mean, can you even think of a modern game without power ups?
Pac-Man may have just been the first “viral” video game, with a frenzy that turned grocery stores and laundromats into arcades and even spawning a cartoon and a top-ten hit single: “Pac-Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia. Merchandising was a big part of Pac-Man, unlike anything the world had seen before. We don’t often think that getting a plushie or a pillow or pajamas with video game characters on them began first with Pac-Man.
Pac-Man created a new genre: the Maze Chase genre. This new innovation of escaping enemies rather than shooting at them helped influence multiple future genres like Stealth games. Also, its maze designs had a say in future first-person shooters. You can thank Pac-Man for the Metal Gear Solid and Doom franchises, as well as innumerable others.
This is a classic example of how infrequently people understand this industry. Developers and marketers think they know what will catch on but nobody really does. Not even Nakamura himself thought it’d be so big. It was a surprise hit when no one expected it to be.
Nothing demonstrates that fact more than the evidence of Pac-Man still to this day being consistently published, remade, ported and remixed across nearly every platform that you can play video games on. I can play it on my phone, my PS4, Xbox 360, and NES. And presumably on my Atari 2600… but we won’t talk about that travesty:
That’s all a lot of jaw about how influential Pac-Man has been but how does it actually hold up under a microscope? Let’s examine a few of its elements in isolation.
The 8-bit Review
Take a quick survey of video games leading up to 1980 and you’ll find many that feature some pretty drab colors or crude lines which evoke shapes rather than define them. There are some particularly flat and ugly video games from this era. Heck, many games after it for several years remained uglier than Pac-Man.
So Pac-Man comes onto the scene with this screen that just leaps out at you with its now iconic neon-cobalt maze walls and bright yellow pellets and protagonist, and each of the four candy-colored ghosts. It’s a very small detail, but something as simple as the eyes on the ghosts moving as they change direction through the maze is something which ultimately breathed life into these characters. The cutscenes also helped to give the game personality.The pace at which the game moves is also something to take note of. A lot of games from its time were choppy, with images that flickered (infamously). There’s none of this clumsiness in Pac-Man. It’s smooth like butter. Delicious, delicious butter. Audio: 7/10
So I was fiddling around recently with a few modern collections of ancient games from this era, and some of them sound ancient. The Arcade Game Series and Atari Flashback Classics are great, but there are a few titles in there which have the musical equivalent of experiencing a seizure. Maybe some of them even induced seizures. True a lot of them don’t have any music at all, or even much in terms of sound effects, but I was playing Millipede (1982) and the absolute din that came out of my TV speakers made me think something broke. Mad dash for the mute button! Like was the game punishing me for dying, by letting out a shriek that could kill me?
With Pac-Man, on the other hand, there’s a lot of cheeriness to its sounds. The bit of music at the start and during the intermission is fun and lively. It’s a step up from the awful sound design of so many of its contemporaries, especially those coming out of Atari.
Don’t forget the iconic wocka-wocka–wocka noise! I guess it’s actually paku-paku-paku. ONE HOUR!
And then of course there’s always “Pac-Man Fever”. That’ll make you feel old.
I don’t know. Does anyone not know how to play Pac-Man? Just in case, here it is.
As Pac-Man, you’ve got to run around this maze (there’s only one in the whole game) and eat all of the little pellets. Once you eat them all, you clear the stage and move onto the next one. Easy, right? No. Not right.
There are the four ghosts, otherwise identified as monsters. I don’t know what the heck they are because there’s a cutscene in the game I kid you not where one of the “ghosts” snags the hem of its ghostly robe on a nail in the ground and tears it off revealing a human leg. There’s another cutscene where the whole robe comes off and it looks like a flesh-colored worm underneath. That was the moment I realized there is true horror in the world. Anyway, the “ghosts” Shadow, Speedy, Bashful, and Pokey otherwise known as Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde will track you throughout the maze. They’ve each got different patterns of movement with Blinky being the most aggressive and Clyde being the most random, apparently.The big dots are power ups that make Pac-Man temporarily invisible and capable of eating the ghosts. After doing so, the ghosts return to their central spawning point and then come back out to hunt you down in cold blood.
I think the most impressive thing about Pac-Man are the four ghosts. Their behavior is clearly different but its tough to explain entirely how. They do follow set tracks but then they deviate when you’re least expecting it and they can even trap you in corners. It’s not random but random enough to be baffling. Things like using the side tunnels and making quick turns are the only way to escape them indefinitely.
Finally, I’ve got to mention that you gain extra lives through racking up points. You get a big chunk of points for eating the ghosts in quick succession and there are eatable items like cherries and keys(?) that appear in the center of the stage for Pac-Man to gobble up.
We’re talking about a game that can explain itself in a single screen:
Pac-Man is simple enough for absolutely anyone to play. Grandma, kid brother, mom, dad, your snooty Uncle Billy Bob who only plays Call of Duty. The beauty of arcade games stems from this inherent accessibility, however don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Pac-Man can be easily explained that it is easy to master…
With each new stage, the ghosts seem to get faster and faster and Pac-Man turns into a sluggish oaf by comparison, even though his pace increases too. I’ve read that he travels faster over empty channels without eating pellets but the difference seems minuscule. Also, the duration of invincibility gained from eating the big power pellets shrinks dramatically as you progress through stages.
Your only hope is your innate human ability to recognize patterns and then take advantage of them. Good thing its something our species is great at. We do it all the time. Pac-Man taps into that subconscious ability and I think that’s fascinating.
I should just swap out the word Replayability for Addictiveness. That’s what Pac-Man is. I returned to it to inform this review and intended to play it for a few hours to understand all of its corners and quirks, then write about it and move on. Only moving on from Pac-Man has been harder than a Taylor Swift breakup. I’ve seriously stopped writing just so I could go back to play it again, and that doesn’t happen too often to me.
There’s something about this style of game that constantly tempts you to think “You could do better next time”. And there will always be a “next time”. Because vengeance is a dish best served frequently.
I do believe we’ve sufficiently described what made Pac-Man unique. Just look at how it sent aftershocks through the gaming industry. How many other games could boast being so groundbreaking and so influential? In our world, fads come and then quickly go. Remember that YouTube video you thought was the most hilarious thing in the universe last year? Yeah, what was it about again? Exactly. Yet while cultural consciousness is consistently jumping from one thing to the next like a baby with too many jingly keys dangled in her face, Pac-Man has remained a constant.
Ask yourself: 30 years from now, how many games on PS4, Wii U and Xbox One do you think will still be honored, remembered, played and considered truly iconic?
My Personal Grade: 7/10
In our day, Pac-Man is one of the few video games from its era at the Smithsonian American Art Gallery. That speaks volumes to its impact on our culture. What would the gaming world be like without this challenging, fast-paced, maze game about a yellow hockey puck running from ghosts? Who knows?
Pac-Man is an arcade staple. With all of this being said, I do have to make the admission that personally this isn’t my favorite arcade game. I can recognize everything about it that made it great but I’ll gladly pop a quarter into Galaga over Pac-Man, which is less Pac-Man’s fault and more the fact that I’m just no good at it! Getting to stage 10 is just about the furthest I can get. I’ve no idea how anyone could reach the infamous stage 255!
Aggregated Score: 8.8