Pac-Man

A Short History of the Pac-Man Video Game

Actress Eva Longoria playing Pac-Man at the afterparty.
Actress Eva Longoria playing Pac-Man at the afterparty on February 7, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

On May 22, 1980, the Pac-Man video game was released in Japan and by October of the same year, it was released in the United States. The yellow, pie-shaped Pac-Man character, who travels around a maze trying to eat dots and avoid four mean ghosts, quickly became an icon of the 1980s. To this day, Pac-Man remains one of the most popular video games in history.

Inventing Pac-Man

If you ever thought that the Pac-Man character looked like some kind of food, then you and Japanese game designer Toru Iwatani think alike. Iwatani was eating pizza when he came up with the idea for the Pac-Man character. Iwatani has more recently said that the Pac-Man character is also a simplification of the Kanji character for mouth, ​kuchi. 

While a pizza with a slice out of it turned into the main character of Pac-Man, cookies became the power pellets. In the Japanese version, the pellets look like cookies, but they lost their cookie look when the game came to the U.S.

Apparently, Namco, the company that made Pac-Man, was hoping to create a video game that would entice girls to play as well as boys. And everyone knows that girls like food, right? Hmmm. Anyway, a relatively nonviolent, food-based video game with cute little ghosts and a bit of humor did appeal to both genders, which quickly made Pac-Man an unquestionable success.

How He Got His Name

The name "Pac-Man" continues the eating theme of the game. In Japanese, "puck-puck" (sometimes said "paku-paku") is a word used for munching. So, in Japan, Namco named the video game Puck-Man. After all, it was a video game about a pizza eating super-powered cookies.

However, when it was time for the video game to be sold in the U.S., many were worried about the name "Puck-Man," mostly because the name sounded a bit too similar to a particular four-letter word in English. Thus, Puck-Man underwent a name change and became Pac-Man when the game came to the States.

How Do You Play Pac-Man?

It's probably a very rare person who has never played Pac-Man. Even for those who may have missed it in the 1980s, Pac-Man has been remade on nearly every video game platform since then. Pac-Man even appeared on the front page of Google (as a playable game) on Pac-Man's 30th anniversary.

However, for those few who are unfamiliar with the game, here are the basics. You, the player, control the yellow, circular Pac-Man using either keyboard arrows or a joystick. The goal is to move Pac-Man around the maze-like screen gobbling up all 240 dots before the four ghosts (sometimes called monsters) get you.

The four ghosts are all different colors: Blinky (red), Inky (light blue), Pinky (pink), and Clyde (orange). Blinky was also known as Shadow because he's the fastest. The ghosts begin the game in the "ghost cage" in the center of the maze and roam around the board as the game progresses. If Pac-Man collides with a ghost, he loses a life, and the game restarts. If Pac-Man eats one of the four power pellets available on each level; the ghosts all turn dark blue and Pac-Man is able to eat the ghosts. Once a ghost is gobbled up, it disappears—except for its eyes, which run back to the ghost cage.

Occasionally, fruit and other objects appear on the screen. If Pac-Man gobbles those up then he earns a point bonus, with different fruit worth different values.

While all this is happening, Pac-Man makes a wocka-wocka sound that is nearly as memorable as the yellow character itself. The game ends when Pac-Man has lost all (usually three) of his lives.

What Happens When You Win?

Many people are impressed with themselves if they get to level five or six on Pac-Man. However, there are always those die-hards out there who are determined to finish the game.

Despite how popular Pac-Man was in the 1980s, it actually took 19 years for the first person to ever finish Pac-Man. That amazing feat was reported to be accomplished by 33-year-old Billy Mitchell, who finished Pac-Man with a perfect game on July 3, 1999. 

A Scandal in Gaming

Mitchell completed all 255 levels of Pac-Man. When he reached level 256, half the screen became jumbled. This is an impossible level to complete and thus the end of the game. It took Mitchell about six hours to win the game and he did so with the highest possible score—3,333,360 points. Mitchell went on to record record-breaking runs in Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Centipede, and became a mini-celebrity, named as "Gamer of the Century," featured in Life magazine in 1982 and in the 2007 movie "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters."

In 2018, however, Twin Galaxies, the American organization that tracks video game records, announced their discovery that some of Mitchell's record-breaking runs were not achieved on an arcade machine, but rather using emulation software, a violation of the rules. All of Mitchell's titles, including his Guinness World Records, have since been stripped.

Pac-Man Fever

In the early 1980s, the nonviolent and goofy nature of Pac-Man made it a phenomenal attraction. In 1982 an estimated 30 million Americans spent $8 million a week playing Pac-Man, feeding quarters into machines located in arcades or bars. Its popularity among teenagers made it threatening to their parents: Pac-Man was loud and stunningly popular, and the arcades where the machines were located were noisy, congested places. Many towns in the United States passed statutes to regulate or restrict the games, just as they were allowed to regulate pinball machines and pool tables to combat gambling and other "immoral" behaviors. Des Plaines, Illinois, banned people under 21 from playing video games unless they were accompanied by their parents. Marshfield, Massachusetts, banned video games outright.

Other cities used licensing or zoning to limit video game playing. A license to run an arcade could stipulate that it had to be at least a certain distance from a school, or it could not sell food or alcohol.

Ms. Pac-Man and More

The Pac-Man video game was so immensely popular that within a year there were spin-offs being created and released, some of them unauthorized. The most popular of these was Ms. Pac-Man, which first appeared in 1981 as an unauthorized version of the game.

Ms. Pac-Man was created by Midway, the same company authorized to sell the original Pac-Man in the U.S. Ms. Pac-Man became so popular that Namco eventually made it an official game. Ms. Pac-Man has four different mazes with varying numbers of dots, compared to Pac-Man's only one with 240 dots; Ms. Pac-Man's maze walls, dots, and pellets come in a variety of colors; and the orange ghost is named "Sue," not "Clyde."

A few of the other notable spin-offs were Pac-Man Plus, Professor Pac-Man, Junior Pac-Man, Pac-Land, Pac-Man World, and Pac-Pix. By the mid-1990s, Pac-Man was available on home computers, game consoles, and hand-held devices.

Lunch Boxes and Other Collectibles

As with anything super popular, merchandising went wild with the Pac-Man image. You could purchase Pac-Man T-shirts, mugs, stickers, a board game, plush dolls, belt buckles, puzzles, a card game, wind-up toys, wrapping paper, pajamas, lunch boxes, sheets, bumper stickers, plus so much more.

In addition to buying Pac-Man merchandise, kids could satisfy their Pac-Man cravings by watching a 30-minute Pac-Man cartoon that started airing in 1982. Produced by Hanna-Barbera, the cartoon lasted for two seasons.

In case you really wanted that wocka-wocka sound to stay in your head, listen again to the 1982 song by Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia called "Pac-Man Fever," which made it all the way up to No. 9 on Billboard's Top 100 chart. (You can now listen to "Pac-Man Fever" on YouTube.)

Although the decade of "Pac-Man Fever" might be over, Pac-Man continues to be loved and played year after year.

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