Pac-Man hits 30 without losing its way

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man, allowed visitors to play the classic video game in the shape of the Google logo.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man, allowed visitors to play the classic video game in the shape of the Google logo. (
By Harold Goldberg
Sunday, May 23, 2010

The fact that Namco's Pac-Man has been around for 30 years can make you feel ancient.

Pac-Man is one of the few early games to have survived the novelty of the arcade era. The addictive video offering with that minimalist chomping circle has been tweaked and remade repeatedly; there have been more than 50 versions of the landmark maze game. More than 10 billion games of Pac-Man have been played worldwide. Back in the day, Namco licensed nearly 294,000 arcade editions of the original, and its success spawned numerous ancillary cottage industries. The awful, funky rock of a song called "Pac-Man Fever," for instance, didn't stop the song from climbing quickly to No. 9 on the Billboard charts. It went gold in March 1982 and eventually sold 2.5 million copies.

How exactly did Pac-Man mania happen here and throughout the world? When Pac-Man was introduced, there still weren't that many arcade games from which to choose. After the success of Pong and Space Invaders, there was a constant, frantic search for the hot new game. But the demand for something new and creative outpaced the supply of what was new and creative.

Then came Namco. Before it made games, Namco was a small Tokyo company, founded in 1955 and offering electronic rocking-horse kiddie rides at department stores. When arcade games hit the back rooms of bars in the '70s, Namco successfully riffed on the Space Invaders theme with Galaxian, which featured dive-bombing alien ships instead of the marching, menacing, slowly descending aliens of Space Invaders.

But in 1979, young Namco designer Toru Iwatani was given the green light to make a different kind of game, one that used pastel colors and would appeal first to females. Iwatani was fresh out of school, and although he didn't have the chops of Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, he and the creator of Mario shared a common goal. They worked hard to impress their bosses to climb the corporate ladder and become company men. Iwatani called his team's creation Puckman. The name was changed to Pac-Man when marketers realized that American teens would probably replace the P in Puckman with an F.

In 1980, Namco released eight arcade inventions. Strangely, the company didn't initially think Pac-Man was going to be the standout. At conventions where Namco's games were previewed, men raved about a racing game called Rally-X. Iwatani's game, with its sweetness and more subtle colors, took time to win people over.

But when Pac-Man became a worldwide phenomenon, Iwatani missed out on royalties. (Today, top game designers can command 10 percent or more in royalties.) Iwatani, however, generally was satisfied to be a company man and was promoted to head of game R&D at Namco.

And Pac-Man's success continued. Atari, which acquired the licenses to Namco games in 1978, decided to move on its Pac-Man license in late 1981. Even though the Atari version had problems that included an annoying onscreen flicker, the game sold 7 million copies. Yet it was considered unsuccessful because Atari, in one of many fits of hubris that would culminate in its eventual downfall, made 12 million game cartridges.

Even today, Pac-Man remains the most recognizable video game character in the United States. It's still Namco's biggest hit. According to the Guinness World Records 2010 Gamer's Edition, 94 percent of Americans can identify the hungry yellow sphere, edging Nintendo's ubiquitous Mario the Plumber by 1 percent.

Why does the fast-paced little bugger still thrive for Xbox Live Arcade, the iPhone and the iPad? It's the simplicity. Games were stripped down to their essence in the golden age of the arcade -- but they were intentionally difficult to win. The reason was completely monetary. You didn't need a manual to figure out Pac-Man, like you do with shooters such as Halo 3 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

You were required to follow three simple rules: Navigate the maze. Eat dots. Avoid ghosts. You needed quick reflexes and a fear/hatred of those ghosts to succeed. It's the same today for the iPad and Xbox Live Arcade.

Even more than Pong, Pac-Man attracted the elusive female gamer in the early days of the arcade. While the Entertainment Software Association says that today 43 percent of online gamers are women who play casual games, in the 1980s, girls and women didn't care much about most games, presumably because the games involved shooting. Canyon Bomber, Death Race and Galaxian involved shooting something. Pac-Man wasn't about guns.

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