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.
Gaming history is heralded by the distinctive theme music that plays at the beginning of a new maze in Puckman, composed by Toshio Kai. Kai is credited with only one other game as composer: Namco’s other maze game for 1980, Rally-X. After the jaunty Puckman tune, 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, Iwatani’s nod to newcomers to the arcade and women who might not be familiar with video games. However, 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 Amazing Maze. 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 games 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, pasta, 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 Pac mania culminates in National Pac-Man Day, named April 3, 1982 as part of the promotion for the much-anticipated (and later much maligned; See below) Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man.
I Got A Fever!
Buckner & Garcia is an obscure singer-songwriter duo from Akron, Ohio, comprised of keyboardist Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia on guitar. Friends since 7th grade, they pay their dues creating commercial jingles for radio and TV. Their biggest previous claim to fame is having produced an extended version of Theme for WKRP/Cincinnati for BGO Music out of Atlanta. After hearing his seven-year old daughter raving on and on about Pac-Man, Arnie Gellar, the “G” in BGO, gives the musical duo a call about making a record about the video game craze, and they jump at the chance. Their single Pac-Man Fever is released in the later part of 1981 on the BGO Records label, selling 12,000 copies in the Atlanta area. Gellar then cuts a deal with Columbia to release the record nationwide. By January of 1982 radio stations are picking up the song, and Pac-Man Fever passes 1.5 million copies in early 1982, making it all the way to #9 on the Billboard charts. Not bad for a song that the duo had written in about two hours back in October of 1981, with the two previously having caught the fever at a local Atlanta bar that summer, pouring quarters into Pac-Man‘s ravenous maw there. The next step is to create an entire LP around the theme, naturally titled Pac-Man Fever, which only takes three weeks to write and produce. The most complicated part is obtaining 30 separate contracts from various video game makers for the inclusion of their games, for which each gets a cut of the proceeds. Featuring sound effects from the 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 be used to win at Midway’s game. The Pac-Man Fever album eventually peaks at #46 on the charts.
The TV Maze
In 1981 ABC is looking to tap into current trends with a Saturday morning cartoon show based on a video game character. Since Pac-Man is the biggest thing in arcades at the time, network execs bring in famed animation house Hanna-Barbera (creators of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, etc.) to develop a vehicle for the vaunted Dot Eater. H-B then enters protracted negotiations with Bally/Midway for the rights, finding themselves in a fight for them against budget animation house Filmation Associates, run by Lou Scheimer, Hal Sutherland and Norm Prescott. Filmation is the producer of such classic Saturday morning TV fare as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. It is H-B who eventually gobble up the rights for the Pac-Man TV show.
The arcade game manufacturer insists that the characters strictly hew to the artwork displayed on game cabinets, but H-B finds the graphics too limiting; they need to develop a look that will lend itself to a continuing series, and that will please everyone involved. The next step has H-B running through the maze of FCC regulations, which stipulate that a show based on current merchandise cannot slavishly duplicate the source material, else be designated advertising. Thus must the producers of the Pac-Man TV show strive to not do a TV show based on Pac-Man. They must also appease ABC censors by not having characters shown actually being eaten. Writers for the series blow out the video game concept, with Pac now thoroughly domesticated with wife, kid, and Pac pets, living in a round Pac-metropolis. Gravelly-voiced actor/comedian Marty Ingels, best known for his role as Arch Fenster in the 1962 sit-com I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, provides the speech for the Great Yellow One. He goes up against Mezmaron, cut from typical Saturday morning villain material, eternally on the hunt for Pac-Land’s sacred Power Pellet forest with his five ghost monster stooges. Debuting September 25, 1982, at 9 am on ABC’s Saturday morning lineup, the program is creatively titled Pac-Man. 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 – Pac-Man topples the blue mushroom-dwelling creatures from their perch as the #1 rated Saturday-morning cartoon show. After a successful first year, the producers tinker with the formula, adding in the wacky Super Pac character, as well as the obligatory wise-cracking nephew. 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 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.