Pac-Man Video Game History and Background

Actress Eva Longoria playing Pac-Man at the afterparty.
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The classic and enormously popular Pac-Man video game came out in Japan on May 21, 1980, 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 hunting ghosts, quickly became an icon of the 1980s. To this day, Pac-Man remains one of the most popular video games in history, and its innovative design has been the focus of numerous books and academic articles.

The game was created by Namco in Japan, and released in the U.S. by Midway. By 1981, approximately 250 million games of Pac-Man were being played in the U.S. each week on 100,000 Pac-Man machines. Since then, Pac-Man has been released on nearly every video game platform, and on May 21, 2010, the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man's release, the Google Doodle even featured a playable version.

Inventing Pac-Man

According to Japanese game designer Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man was conceived as an antidote to the overwhelming number of games with violent themes, such as Asteroids, Space Invaders, Tail Gunner, and Galaxian. Pac-Man's innovative break away from the shoot-em-up style of arcade game would crack open the video game universe.

Instead of a warrior fighting off attackers by firing ammunition at them, the Pac-Man character chews its way to victory. The game contains several references to food: Pac-Man chomps away at pills in his path, and consumes bonus items in the shape of fruits and power pellets (originally) in the shape of cookies. The inspiration for the design of the shape of the yellow Pac-Man character has been reported as a pizza with a slice out of it, and/or a simplified version of the kanji character for mouth, ​kuchi. 

In Japanese, "puck-puck" (sometimes said "paku-paku") is an onomatopoeia for munching, and the original Japanese name was Puck-Man, an easily-vandalized name that had to be changed for American arcades.

Playing Pac-Man

Game play begins with the player manipulating Pac-Man using either keyboard arrows or a joystick. The goal is to move Pac-Man around the maze-like screen to consume lines of 240 dots and avoiding or attacking one of four hunting ghosts (sometimes called monsters).

The four ghosts come in different colors: Blinky (red), Inky (light blue), Pinky (pink), and Clyde (orange). Each ghost has a different attack strategy: for example, Blinky is sometimes called Shadow because it moves the fastest. As the game progresses, the ghosts leave the "ghost cage" in the center of the maze and roam around the board. If Pac-Man collides with a ghost, he loses a life and the game restarts.

Four power pellets are available in the corners of each level, and if Pac-Man can gobble one of those, the ghosts all turn dark blue and can be eaten by Pac-Man. Once a ghost is gobbled up, it disappears and its eyes run back to the ghost cage and reform to fight again. Bonus objects in the form of fruit and other objects may be gobbled up to earn additional points, with different fruits bringing different values. The game ends when Pac-Man has lost all (usually three) of his lives.

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., and it 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.

Pop Culture Merchandising

The Pac-Man character is simply a yellow hockey-puck-shaped chewing machine, and its shape and sound has become a recognizable icon to people around the world—players and non-players alike. In 2008, the Davie Brown Celebrity Index found that 94% of American consumers recognized Pac-Man, more often than they recognized most human celebrities.

At one point, fans 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, and bumper stickers.

Pac-Man mania resulted in the creation of a 30-minute Pac-Man cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera which ran between 1982 and 1984; and a 1982 novelty song by Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia called "Pac-Man Fever," which reached No. 9 on Billboard's Top 100 chart.

The Search for a Fast Perfect Game

David Race from Dayton, Ohio, holds the record for the fastest perfect game of Pac-Man, played January 4, 2012 and scoring 3,333,360 points on the 255 levels in three hours, 33 minutes and 1.4 seconds. In 1999, a claim by a 33-year-old man named Billy Mitchell was disqualified when it was discovered he had used emulation software, rather than an arcade machine, a violation of the rules. 

Additional Sources

  • "30th Anniversary of PAC-MAN." Google Doodle, 21 May 2010.
  • Gallagher, Marcus, and Amanda Ryan. "Learning to Play Pac-Man: An Evolutionary, Rule-Based Approach." The 2003 Congress on Evolutionary Computation, 2003. CEC '03. 2003.
  • Lucas, Simon. "Evolving a Neural Network Location Evaluation to Play Ms. Pac-Man." IEE 2005 Symposium on Computational Intelligence and Games, edited by Graham Kendall and Simon Lucas, Essex University, 2005.
  • Moore, Mike. "Videogames: Sons of Pong." Film Comment 19.1 (1983): 34–37.
  • Thompson, T. et al. "An Evaluation of the Benefits of Look-Ahead in Pac-Man." 2008 IEEE Symposium On Computational Intelligence and Games, 15-18 Dec. 2008, pp. 310–315. doi:10.1109/CIG.2008.5035655.
  • Yannakakis, Georgios N. and John Hallam. "A Generic Approach for Generating Interesting Interactive Pac-Man." IEE 2005 Symposium on Computational Intelligence and Games, edited by Graham Kendall and Simon Lucas, Essex University, 2005, pp. 94–102.
View Article Sources
  1. Newman, James. "Mazes, Monsters and Multicursality. Mastering Pac-Man 1980–2016." Cogent Arts & Humanities, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, p. 1190439, doi:10.1080/23311983.2016.1190439

  2. Burnham, Van and Ralph H. Baer. "Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971–1984." MIT Press, 2001.

  3. Goroff, David B. "The First Amendment Side Effects of Curing Pac-Man Fever." Columbia Law Review, vol. 84, no. 3, 1984, pp. 744-774, doi:10.2307/1122504.

  4. "Matt Damon Who? Pac-Man, Mario are the Heroes: Survey." Reuters, 16 May 2008. 

  5. Good, Owen. "Gary Garcia, Wrote and Performed 80s Pop Hit 'Pac-Man Fever,' Dies at 63." Kotaku 18 November 2011. 

  6. Crecente, Brian. "'King of Kong' Star Stripped of High Scores, Banned from Competition." Variety 12 April 2018.

  7. Rife, Katie. "King of Kong's Billy Mitchell Has Been Stripped of All His High Scores, Banned From Competitive Gaming." AV News 12 April 2018.