Original version: Pac-Man, released in 1980 for arcade
Waka waka waka waka waka waka waka waka. I guarantee that the sound effect of Pac-Man eating pellets is etched in your brain (unless you’re a Shakira fan and you hear the song “Waka Waka,” but the less spoken about that, the better).
There’s no hiding the influence that Pac-Man has had on our culture. Space Invaders was the first blockbuster arcade hit–with the possible exception of Pong in 1972–but Pac-Man was and is the biggest, generating $2.5 Billion in revenue by 1990. That means it was played 10 Billion times; and that’s just the original arcade version!
Whenever something is successful, countless competitors will rip it off to make a quick buck. In 1975 there were a ton of Pong clones (some released by Atari itself). In 1980 the most popular games were shooters in the vein of Space Invaders and Asteroids. Iwatani Toru was not one of those competitors and wanted to make something different. He conceived of a non-violent, lighthearted game that would win over females as much as males. Games like Death Race, in which the player was tasked with running over and killing screaming pedestrians; and Gotcha!, which eschewed buttons in favor of breast-like devices the player fondled to control, somehow failed to appeal to women. Pac-Man was successful in changing that, becoming the first game to be equally loved by both genders. It was also parent-approved, as the absence of guns and such made parents happy to let their children enjoy it.
Pac-Man was originally named Puck-Man. This name is derived from the Japanese パクパク (paku paku), which is onomatopoetic for eating sounds (the equivalent of om-nom-nom). When the game was set to be distributed in North America, someone at Midway suposed that an enterprising youth would scratch away part of the “P” in “Puck,” leaving an obscenity. The name was changed to its current form and the cabinets were shipped out. The cabinet itself was made yellow to stand out, and its three-color artwork reduced costs. Pac-Man was in development for almost a year and a half, the longest development period of any game at that time; and was worked on by a team of ten, also huge for that time. For comparison, each Atari game was made by a single person in six months.
The popularity of the game was certainly helped by its accessibility. It was very easy to learn to play, but very difficult to master (see below). The premise of the game is beautifully simple. All you have to do is guide Pac-Man through a maze and eat all the pellets while avoiding ghosts. It’s a simple game principle that is mesmerizing to play. Back before the invention of technology, video games were required to have great gameplay, something Pac-Man exceeds at. Each of the ghosts follows its own pattern, and all four share three common behaviors. The red ghost targets Pac-Man himself, the pink one targets the spot four spaces in front of Pac-Man, the blue one targets a special space found by drawing a straight line from Blinky (red) to two spaces in front of Pac-Man and then continuing to the opposite edge of the playfield, and the orange ghost targets Pac-Man but when coming within eight spaces of him targets the bottom-left corner of the playfield, and then targeting Pac-Man again once he’s more than eight spaces away. Learning these behaviors is necessary to master the game. Or, you can just mess around for fun. However you want to spend your quarter is all right by us!
In the original Japanese version the ghosts were given nicknames that told the player their behavior. The red one was called “chaser,” the pink one “ambusher,” the blue one “capricious,” and the orange one “stupid.” But when the game was translated into English they were given irrelevant nicknames (shadow, speedy, bashful, and pokey). At first American players assumed that the ghosts moved randomly, but eventually the highly-skilled players figured it out and the information was disseminated.
When Pac-Man eats a power pellet, the ghosts temporarily become edible, and the hunter becomes the hunted. Furthermore, every once in a while the programming tells the ghosts to stop chasing Pac-Man and scatter to the corners, allowing the player to catch their breath. Iwatani also added cutscenes between some levels to let the player have a “coffee break” and enjoy the little animation. Another merciful decision was to allow Pac-Man to round corners even if he were a few pixels too late. But the game isn’t too easy. My goodness, no. The red ghost increases speed the more pellets you eat, and when there are 20 or fewer remaining, it will no longer scatter. Also, the ghosts recede during scatter mode for seven seconds at first, then five, and eventually not at all. When a power pellet is eaten, the ghosts are vulnerable for a shorter amount of time as the game progresses. They also leave the holding area in the middle of the board sooner each round, and Pac-Man moves more quickly each level, making him more difficult to control.
There were 256 levels and I only managed to reach level 4 in the gameplay video below. While I am not a very good player, my point stands. It is difficult. Only a select few could honestly say that they’ve reached the last level. Of course, the game can’t be completed because of an overflow error on the last level that only allows half of it to be played. In December 1982, a boy named Jeffrey R. Yee supposedly received a letter from President Reagan congratulating him on a perfect score, which would have required him to pass the last level, an impossible feat. If the 256th level (referred to as a “kill screen” or, in this game, the “split screen,” Pac-Man can only eat half of the dots. An additional nine pellets are hidden on the right side of the screen, but there are never enough to advance. Pac-Man ends with our hero being trapped in an impossible jumble labyrinth, trying in vain to escape while being eaten by ghosts again and again, utterly alone and defenseless. How fun!
The iconic sounds and music were composed by Kai Toshio. Now you know who to thank.
Pac-Man‘s influence on gaming is immeasurable and is taken for granted because it is so widespread. Many features common to games were pioneered here. An example is gaming’s inaugural cutscene, seen in the gameplay video above. The cutscene is just a silly vignette but was groundbreaking nonetheless. Iwatani’s coworkers were against the inclusion of cutscenes, calling them a waste of time and money. They must have felt silly afterward…. If you play the game for long enough, you’ll start to see Pac-Man everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. Google commemorated Pac-Man‘s 30th anniversary with a game on their home page, which was so popular it resulted in an estimated $120 Million loss of productivity that day. We’ll talk about other Pac-Man games later, starting with Ms. Pac-Man in 1982. Until then, stay hydrated.
A PC port of Pac-Man with extras included can be purchased here. If you own a Pac-Man arcade cabinet then a rom backup can be downloaded here and run with MAME. For legal reasons I must insist that you don’t pirate the game, especially since a mere $4.00 can get you a legitimate copy.