In 1977, Toru Iwatani joins Namco, initially intending to make pinball games for the company. Caught in the transition to videogames, Iwatani bridges the gap by creating 3 interesting video pinball games: Gee Bee (1978), Bomb Bee (1979) and Cutie Q (1979). By 1980, he is tired of the glut of videogame shoot-em-ups littering the arcades, even those by his own company such as Galaxian. He wants to create an arcade game that looks more like a cartoon than a video game, and appeals to women as well as men. Inspired by the sight of a pizza with a slice taken, his original design calls for an animated pizza with a missing wedge for a mouth running around a maze eating everything in sight. Technological restraints at the time, however, require the programming team, led by Hideyuki Mokajima, to do a graphics scale-back to a simple, solid yellow circle. The large wedge of a mouth does remain, though, and the character and game is christened Puckman, deriving from the Japanese term “puck”, translating to “munch” in English. Puckman is really Munch-Man in Japanese.
After the game’s distinctive theme music plays, players find themselves guiding Puckman around a single maze eating dots, while avoiding the four ghosts Akabei, Pinky, Aosuke, and Guzuta (each with varying levels of hunting skills), who escape from a cage in the middle of the screen and will end our little yellow friend’s life if they touch him. In each corner of the square playfield is a large dot that when eaten will turn the ghosts blue for a brief period, during which time the tables turn and Puck can eat the ghosts, leaving only the apparently indigestible eyes which make their way back to the cage for reincarnation into another ghost. During every screen a treat appears for the player under the ghost-cage, in the form of fruit or a bell or some other symbol waiting to be devoured. Considering the graphic design of the game, one wonders if perhaps Iwatani and Mokajima have played the 1975 German board game Blockade, the cover art of which bears a striking resemblance to their game.
The arcade game is deceptively simple, with only a four-position joystick needed to guide the character around the maze, but with each successive screen the ghosts get faster and their time of blue-invulnerability less. Tension is added with a steady whining sound effect that increases in pitch as the game is played. The game is an absolute smash in Japan, following Space Invader’s lead in causing another Yen shortage nationwide as tens of thousands of Puckman machines start gobbling them up. With its distribution deal with Namco via Galaxian, Bally/Midway has the first option to license the game for the US, but freshly appointed Bally Manufacturing president Robert E. Mullane amazingly declines the offer, calling the game “silly”. Previous games dealing with a maze playfield, such as Atari’s Gotcha (1973) and Sega’s Head-On (1979), have failed to cement the maze-game as a solid avenue for arcade success. Even Midway themselves had tried their hand with the genre in 1976 with The Amazing Maze Game. Why confine players to a small box filled with walls, when the rest of the games in the arcade are putting them into the cockpits of space-faring battle ships? All of this might factor into Mullane’s question at the time, “Who plays maze games anymore?”. His decision to pass on Puckman is overruled by fellow executives, including boosters like Midway Marketing VP Stanley Jarocki, who immediately sees the novelty of the game’s premise after a viewing in Namco’s development labs in Japan. Midway ultimately signs the deal for the North American Puckman license.
In the translation to North America, the names of the ghosts are westernized to Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. The name of the game and its main character is changed as well, to Pac-Man, in order to discourage vandals from replacing the P in Puckman with an F. Bally/Midway releases the game in North America in October of 1980. In the face of Mullane’s indifference, the game goes on to become one of the most popular arcade game of all time, selling 100,000 units in America alone (along with countless unauthorized clones), breaking the previous 70,000 sales record set by Atari’s Asteroids. In the rest of the world there’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300,000 units sold. About a billion dollars a year lands in Pac-Man coin-boxes, one quarter at a time. It’s also the first video game to spawn a massive merchandising bonanza, starting with T-shirts and then rapidly expanding to over 50 manufacturers making over 200 different items: jackets, sweaters, coffee cups, stuffed dolls, bed sheets, cereal, board-games, underwear, towels…you name it, it has Pac-Man’s yellow mug and logo on it. All this bric a pac equals between 8 – 10 million dollars in gross profits in merchandising alone for Midway. By late 1982, there are over 600 licensed products.
Pac-Man is also the first video game to become so totally ingrained in popular culture, going so far as to appear on both the cover of Time and Mad magazine. Speaking of literature, a library of books are released meant to help players parse the movement patterns of the ghosts in the game, allowing them to play longer. Some, including Mastering Pac-Man by professional Blackjack player Ken Uston, even land on the best-seller list, as well as landing some legal animosity from Midway who see the tips eating into their coin-drop on the game. All this pacmania culminates in National Pac-Man Day, named April 3, 1982.
Buckner & Garcia is an obscure singer-songwriter duo from Dayton, Ohio, comprised of keyboardist Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia on guitar. Their previous claim to fame is having produced an extended version of Theme for WKRP/Cincinnati for BGO Music out of Atlanta. When Arnie Gellar, the “G” in BGO, gives them a call about making a record about the video game craze, they jump at the chance. Their record album Pac-Man Fever is released in 1982, and the title single goes gold, making it all the way to #9, with the album ranking #46 for the year. Not bad for a song that takes Buckner two hours to write, after pouring quarters down Pac-Man’s ravenous maw at a local video arcade. In fact, the entire album only takes three weeks to write and produce. Concerned entirely about video games, other songs on the album include Do the Donkey Kong and Frogger’s Lament. Also helpfully provided inside the LP album package is a sheet containing patterns that can used to win at the game. On the TV front, in 1982 a half-hour Hanna-Barbera (creators of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, etc.) Saturday morning cartoon show airs at 9am on ABC, called The Pac-Man Show. Gobbling up the television ratings with a whopping 42 rating share upon its premiere, the show turns the characters in its competing cartoon program over at NBC, The Smurfs, blue with envy. It runs for one year, with actor/comedian Marty Ingels voicing Pac, now thoroughly domesticated with wife, kid, and family pets. He goes up against standard cartoon villain Mezmaron, eternally on the hunt for Pac-Land’s sacred Power Pellet forest. In 1983, a new series called The Pac-Man/Rubik, the Amazing Cube Hour is broadcast featuring new Pac-Man episodes, but our yellow star must now share the hour-long show with a walking, talking Rubik’s Cube, another early 80′s fad sensation. The Rubik segments are produced by Ruby-Spears.
Ten arcade sequels follow the original game, first of which is Ms. Pac-man, released in early 1982. Its development starts in June of 1981 as an unauthorized “mod” or modification of the original game, by a company founded by MIT students Kevin Curran and Doug Macrae called General Computer Corp. (GCC). Titled Crazy Otto, the game enhancement features a version of Pac-Man with legs being chased by monsters with feet, fruit prizes that move around the maze and a cartoon interlude where Otto and a female equivalent have a baby delivered by a stork. Having been burned previously by Atari over a modified version of their Missile Command, GCC presents their version of Pac-Man to Midway, who are growing impatient waiting for Namco to produce a sequel themselves. Midway enters into an agreement with GCC on Oct. 29, 1981 to buy the game. It is further developed by GCC into an even more obvious attempt to lure women into the arcade than the original. Instead of one maze, Ms. Pac-Man (a version of the original character wearing a red bow, lipstick and a beauty mark) has four different ones, with the special treats roaming around instead of staying motionless under the monster cage. It sells 115,000 units, becoming the biggest American-made arcade hit yet. Since the game is not authorized by Namco it helps sour their relationship with Midway, which is further strained by more unauthorized sequels from Midway such as Super Pac-Man and the GCC developed Jr. Pac-Man. GCC would bury the hatchet with Atari and later design many games for the company, as well as the 7800 ProSystem game console.
The other Pac-Man sequels are Pac-Man Plus (1982), Super Pac-Man (1982), Baby Pac-Man (1982), Jr. Pac-Man (1983), Professor Pac-Man (1983), Pac & Pal (1983), Pac-Land, based heavily on the cartoon series (1984), Pac-Mania (1986), Pac-Attack (1993), and the brief Pac-Man VR in 1996, a virtual reality 3-D Pac-man game produced by Virtuality Ltd. and released to a few major entertainment centres. The number of console, computer and hand-held translations are too numerous to count. Probably the biggest is Atari’s license of the game for their flagging 2600 game console in 1982. An obvious rush-job to make the deadline for Christmas that year, the translation breaks sales records but is deemed a creative disaster by critics.
It’s pretty tough to cover all the bases when it comes to the myriad of subsequent games based on the Pac-Man IP, but here are some highlights. Thanks to resurgent interest in classic arcade games through the besieged emulation scene, The Yellow One gets the obligatory 3D makeover in Namco’s celebration of 20 years of Pac-mania, with Pac-Man World – 20th Anniversary. The three-dimensional adventure game, complete with a 3D rendering of the original’s maze, is released for the Sony Playstation in October 1999. This is followed by two sequels, Pac-Man World 2 in 2002 for the popular consoles of the day, and Pac-Man World 3 in 2005. The formula also gains a multiplayer aspect in 2003, with the release of Pac-Man vs. for Nintendo’s Gamecube. The game requires Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance handheld in order to play. It also requires real-life friends, as vs. is multiplayer only. The player using the GBA attached to the Gamecube has a view of the entire maze, while at least one player on the Gamecube controls a ghost, with a limited view of the maze immediately around him. If he is able to catch Pac, the pursuer becomes the persuade as the GBA is handed over to the new Pac. The game is designed by Mario and Link creator Shigeru Miyamoto, and it isn’t much of a stretch to see the whole Pac-Man vs. set-up as a trial-run for Nintendo’s Wii U console, released in 2012, complete with a large screen embedded right in the controller. In the same vein comes Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, released by Bandai Namco in October of 2013. Available for the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U and the PC via Steam, the game is based on the animated series premiering on the Disney XD cable channel the same year. This 3D platformer also features a 4-player split-screen multi-player mode where players take the role of the ghosts from the original game, all on the hunt for Pac. Multi-player also comes to Pac-Man on the arcade front with Pac-Man Battle Royale, put out by Bandai Namco in 2011 in two flavours: one a cocktail-type set up with four joysticks placed around the table, and an imposing deluxe version featuring four individual control podiums for players to stand at. Both allow gamers to duke it out in the maze Pac-Head to Pac-Head, where when one gobbles a power-pellet they can consume both the enemy ghosts and their fellow Pac-People.
As for the creator of all this yellow mania, Toru Iwatani announces his retirement from Namco and the video game industry in 2007 at the age of 52, in order to devote his full energies to teaching at the Tokyo Polytechnic Institute. His swan song before leaving the company is Pac-Man Championship Edition, a fresh and highly-energetic take on the Pac-Man formula, first for the Xbox 360 gaming console in 2007, and later released for mobile platforms and the Playstation 3. Namco follows-up Iwatani’s final effort with Pac-Man Championship DX, with some extra tweaks, for the same game platforms in 2010. They both are fitting ends to the career of the designer of one of the greatest video games of all time.
Sources (inert links kept for historical purposes)
Image of Crazy Otto and other associated images and information from Steve Golson’s lecture for MIT Labs, part of the “Push Button: Examining the Culture, Platforms, and Design of the Arcade” lecture series, Jan 8 2014
Image of Marty Ingels with Pac-Man, as well as other information, from Video Games, “Blips – Life in the Fast Maze with Marty Ingels”, by Sue Adamo, pgs. 10, 12, Vol. 1 Num. 5, Feb 1983
Sly | Image | BoardGameGeek – boardgamegeek.com/image/832103/sly Reading Eagle (UPI), “Pac-Man Maker Forced To Fight Imitators”, pg. 74, Mar. 14 1982
Title screen for The Pac-Man Rubik the Amazing Cube Hour from Toonarific
Still of Rubik, the Amazing Cube from X-Entertainment
The Arcade Flyer Archive – flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=home
Neato Coolville: I’LL ALWAYS HAVE PAC-MAN FEVER – neatocoolville.blogspot.ca/2011/11/ill-always-have-pac-man-fever.html
Stanley Jarocki interview, raw footage for “Wired In”, a 1982 uncompleted technology news show, archived at Media Burn Archive - mediaburn.org/video/wired-in-raw-29/
The Pac-Man Dossier, by Jamey Pittman, 2011 – home.comcast.net/~jpittman2/pacman/pacmandossier.html
amazon.ca, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, PS3 – www.amazon.ca/dp/B00CSLIYTI
Images of Iwatani and his original design drawings from Control Magazine, “Prof. Toru Iwatani: ‘This is how I made Pac-Man!’”, by Matthijs Dierckx, June 22 2010 – www.controlmagazine.net/2010/06/22/prof-toru-iwatani-this-is-how-i-made-pac-man/
Video Games, “The Absolutely, Positively Last Word on Pac-Man”, an excerpt from “Video Invaders”, a book by Steve Bloom, pgs. 23 – 26, 78, Vol. 1 Num. 1, Aug 1982
Pac-Man Fever – Buckner & Garcia : AllMusic – www.allmusic.com/album/pac-man-fever-mw0000222904
Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, official Bandai Namco site – www.pacisback.com/en/index.html
Video Games, “The House That Pac Built”, by Andrea Stone, pgs. 53 – 55, 72, Vol. 1 Num. 3, Dec 1982
ArtInBase – Buckner and Garcia – www.artinbase.info/artist/4733/Buckner_&_Garcia/
Schenecty Gazette (AP), “Smile! Pac-Man Moving Into Millions of Homes”, pg. 30, Mar. 17, 1982
Image of Pac-Man board game courtesy of A Board Game A Day: Pac-Man – aboardgameaday.blogspot.ca/2011/09/day-eleven-pac-man.html
Video Games, “Briefs – The Fight for Ms. Pac-Man”, by Steve Bloom, pg. 98, Vol. 1 Num. 5, Feb 1983
Starlog, “Toys and Games for ’82″, by Susan Adamo and Bob Greenberger, pg. 31, Jul 1982