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Pac-Man hits 30 without losing its way

By Harold Goldberg
Sunday, May 23, 2010; G05

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.

In March 2007, Iwatani retired from Namco to become a full-time professor heading up the Games Creation Department at Tokyo Polytechnic University. There, he focuses on social gaming and on serious games that help in rehabilitation. But his magnum opus will endure in its various incarnations. Pac-Man Battle Royale, the newest version, will be unveiled at a celebrity-studded event at Club Nokia in Los Angeles in mid-June during the E3 video game convention.

Then there are the movie deals. Crystal Sky Pictures, in association with Grovesnor Park, the financiers behind "The Hurt Locker," is supposed to be developing five video game adaptations, including a live-action movie version of Pac-Man. More promising will be an Adam Sandler-produced feature length version of "Pixels", the brilliant French short that features Pac-Man chomping through the New York City subway system.

For an industry in which hard-core games cost millions and often fade within three weeks of release, it's comforting to know that Pac-Man is evergreen, fondly remembered and still played after three decades of joystick nostalgia.

-- The Big Money

Harold Goldberg is writing "All Your Base Are Belong To Us," a narrative history of video games.

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