Still Love At First Bite

Playing Pac-Man
Brandon McAuliffe, manager of the Wonderland Bar and Grill in Columbia Heights, feeds his addiction to Pac-Man. (Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Oh, the absolute thrill of being 25! The dots before you, waiting to be connected. Or gobbled.

Oh, to be Pac-Man!

This month, the bright yellow bloke -- forever wary of ghosts Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde, forever stuck in that maze -- is a quarter-century old. No, the P-Man is not going through a quarter-life crisis, thank you very much; in fact, he's enjoying a rebirth as one of your favorite cell-phone games. Sometime this year, he'll be included in Guinness World Records as the No. 1 arcade game of all time; he's featured in a traveling exhibit called "Game On," at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago until September. Later this summer, Namco, which originally brought us Pac-Man, will release Pac-Mania, the 3-D sequel.

"The thing about Pac-Man is he's everywhere, although you don't realize he's everywhere," brags Scott Rubin, general manager of Namco America. Indeed, whether at Dave & Busters inside White Flint Mall in North Bethesda, or at the Lazy Sundae ice cream shop in Clarendon, or at the Wonderland Bar and Grill in Columbia Heights, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are bona-fide draws. They appeal not to any narrow demographic niche. This is everyone's game -- boys and girls, men and women, ages 5 to 95.

Here's the condensed story on the P-Man: He was born in June 1980 in Japan, then introduced to the United States. Toru Iwatani, creator of the classic arcade game Galaxian, thought of it while staring at a pizza with one missing slice. Puck Man, derived from the Japanese phrase "paku-paku," (meaning to open and close one's mouth), was the game's original title, but, of course, "Puck" was changed to "Pac" to avoid unfortunate alterations. He became an instant hit, bigger than Space Invaders, bigger than Asteroids, bigger than Galaga. He spawned Ms. Pac-Man, among others, and Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are still married, at least as far as we know. (Contrary to rumors, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man aren't one and the same. There was no sex change.)

There's no shame here, so fess up:

How many quarters, in all these years, have you spent playing Pac-Man? Did you own a Pac-Man lunchbox? Play with Pac-Man trading cards? Eat Pac-Man breakfast cereals? Did you sing along to Buckner & Garcia's "Pac-Man Fever" -- "I've got Pac-Man Fever, Pac-Man Fever / I'm going out of my mind, going out of my mind" -- as you flipped through the best-selling books "Mastering Pac-Man" and "How to Win at Pac-Man" with the wocka-wocka-wocka sound of the P-Man drumming in your head?

Brandon McAuliffe, it's safe to say, is a Pac-Man addict. He'd go straight to a pizza parlor on Eglin Parkway, in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to play Pac-Man after school, and now, as the manager of Wonderland, he spends quite a bit of time, and quite a few quarters, sitting on a stool playing Ms. Pac-Man.

"I brought a date here once and we played a game" the 29-year-old says, taking a sip of Red Bull. "Of course I let her win."

This game is all about waiting, waiting, waiting -- you eat the dots as fast as you can, McAuliffe instructs, but you look out for the ghosts and wait until they go in another direction. Along the way, McAuliffe says, you try to eat the bonus fruits: "100 points for the cherry, 200 points for the strawberry, 500 points for the orange," and so on. You start, you eat, you sit, you wait. Then again. You start, you eat, you sit, you wait. Such is life. By the end of Level 1, he has scored 14,600 points, "the maximum points you can get in that level," McAuliffe says, quickly adding that 252,000 -- not a bad score by any means, but it's nowhere near the record -- is his best score ever. He looks a little embarrassed, his face reddening. "What can I tell you? I'm in my late twenties, I have a degree in philosophy and I know too much about Pac-Man." He takes another sip of Red Bull and starts Level 2.

For nearly 25 years, Walter Day, editor of the 984-page tome "Twin Galaxies' Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records," has been the chief scorekeeper of the video-game industry -- most of all the record-setting scores on Pac-Man. The only person in the world who is known to have played a perfect game of Pac-Man (or, at least, the only person in the world who has publicized that he played a perfect game of Pac-Man) is one Billy Mitchell, a 39-year-old hot sauce manufacturer from Hollywood, Fla. In July 1999, playing for more than six hours at the Funspot Family Fun Center in Weirs Beach, N.H., Mitchell cleared all 256 levels, eating every single bonus prize and every possible ghost, and racked up 3,333,360 points. "Not an easy feat," says Day, who is in Washington poring over papers at the Library of Congress, finishing up his research on the second installment -- a 1,500-page, two-volume set -- of his world records due out later this year.

When Day says, "I personally view Pac-Man as the Abraham Lincoln of the video-game age," he doesn't mean it lightly.

"Lincoln is the ultimate model of an individual lifting himself up from the most modest of beginnings to the highest level of success," Day, 56, explains. "Pac-Man was expected to be just another video game, you see, but surely he's not just another game."

To turn 25 in the real world of 401(k)s and student loans and internships is, in the eyes of many, to still be a kid.

To turn 25 in the virtual world of what's hot, what's new, what's next -- well, that's another story.

The P-Man is the patriarch, the king of archetypes, the godfather -- at the tender age of 25.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company