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 would fondle 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 realized that an enterprising youth would scratch away part of the “P” in “Puck-Man,” 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. For a frame of reference, all Atari games, including Adventure, had a development cycle of 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. 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. 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!
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. The first person to successfully reach the highest possible score was Billy Mitchell, Twin Galaxies judge and Geico caveman. 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. 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.