The Legend of the Man of Pac

Pac-Man was first released in the United States in October 1980, by Midway Games. The game has been incredibly popular since its debut, and considered a video game classic. If you don’t know Pac-Man, or have never played the game…how is that even possible? Google “play Pac-Man”, play a few rounds, and thank me later. We’ll be here when you’re done.

Birth of the Pac

At the time of Pac-Man’s release, the most popular arcade games were so-called “space shooters” such as Asteroids and Space Invaders. Pac-Man was then unique, and created an entirely new genre (the “maze chase game”), as well as spawning one of the most successful franchises in the video game history.

Pac-Man was developed almost entirely by Toru Iwatani, a young employee of Namco, the game’s original Japanese publisher. Based on the concept of eating, the game’s Japanese title is Pakkuman, meant to mimic the sound of ferocious masticating. (“Paku-paku” is the Japanese equivalent of “nom nom nom”.) According to Iwatani, the idea of power pellets that allow Pac-Man to eat and defeat his enemies was inspired by Popeye’s spinach-powered muscles.

The simple design of the Pac-Man character—essentially a circle with a small, triangular wedge missing—was based on a simplified, stylized version of the Japanese character for mouth, kuchi (口). In the early days of the game’s success, Iwatani said the shape was inspired by a pizza missing a slice, likely in an effort to appeal to the literal appetites of the world’s hip, pizza-partying youth.

Iwatani intentionally designed elements of Pac-Man to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. The main demographic for arcade video games at the time was young boys and teenagers, so Iwatani added the game’s now-familiar and much-imitated maze structure and cutesy ghost “enemies” to appeal to female players.

A Japanese "Puckman" arcade cabinet.

A Japanese “Puckman” arcade cabinet.

Four months after its release in Japan, Pakkuman was picked up by Bally through their Midway Games division. In reference to the character’s hockey puck-like shape, and as a nod to the game’s original moniker, Iwatani suggested calling the game Puck Man. Midway changed it to Pac-Man to eliminate the rather obvious vandalism opportunity of changing the “P” to an “F”. Additionally, the cabinet artwork was changed, and the speed and difficulty of the game were increased.

Legacy of the Pac

Pakkuman was not initially a major success in Japan, as those pesky space shooters remained immensely popular. Upon its arrival in North America as Pac-Man, however, the game was massively successful, to the surprise of most in the industry. The game became far more popular than any other arcade game in history, and grossed over $1 billion—literally in quarters—by the end of the decade.

Pac-Man had sold more than 400,000 arcade cabinets worldwide by 1982, and an estimated 30+ million individual players had played the game. That same year, revenues from Pac-Man licensed products—both official and unofficial—totaled over $1 billion dollars, not adjusted for inflation. Today, Pac-Man is far and away the highest-grossing video game of all time, with a total gross (again, in quarters) in excess of $2.5 billion dollars.

It is considered one of the most influential video games of all time, in any genre and any era. Pac-Man himself became one of the first, and remains one of the most recognizable, video game mascots; Pac-Man singlehandedly established the maze chase genre. The game opened up gaming to a female audience. It was the first video game to feature power-ups (the aforementioned power pellets). Pac-Man is included in both the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, New York.

Photo credit: kazamatsuri / Foter / CC BY-ND