How Pac-Man So Completely Seized the Imagination 37 Years Ago and Never Really Let Go

Though not the first maze challenge, it's still going after nearly four decades.

The original Pac-Man arcade units are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian.

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand had more than its share of cheesy guests over the years—bands that lip-synced their tunes in front of a TV audience under orders to cheer. But few acts quite equaled Buckner & Garcia, two friends who’d met at Perkins High School in Akron, Ohio, and managed to write a song that, by March 1982, skyrocketed them to fame. Their efforts would land them a gold record, a No. 9 slot on the Billboard charts and, of course, a spot on Dick Clark.

The song? “Pac-Man Fever.”

With home video game systems in their infancy in 1980, Pac-Man made its initial splash in the arcades, with Midway eventually selling 400,000 machines (1) with the help of advertising (2). Nobody was more surprised by Pac-Man’s popularity than its inventor, Toru Iwatani (inset), who confessed that he “never thought it would be this big.”
1: Getty Images, 2. 3: Courtesy of PacMan

Americans initially caught the Pac-Man fever two years prior in October 1980, when a little-known Japanese gaming company called Namco licensed its latest game, Puck Man, to Midway for stateside distribution. “Pac” is short for “pakku,” the Japanese word for munch—so knowing very well what American mall rats would do with a name like Puck Man, Midway wisely changed it to Pac-Man.

While Star Wars did it first in 1977, Pac-Man was a close second in demonstrating the fortunes to be made through licensing and merchandising, flooding the market with everything from apps to stuffed toys to lunch boxes.

A deceptively simple game that requires the player to help the title character gobble his way through a maze, Pac-Man was cute, family-friendly and surprisingly challenging. By year-end 1980, Namco had sold 100,000 units; 15 months in, $1 billion worth of quarters had disappeared into the arcade slots. America was never the same—and isn’t today.

Almost four decades after its stateside debut, Pac-Man is still being played, albeit on considerably different platforms, from smartphones to revamped consoles. When Google rolled out a playable Pac-Man doodle in 2010, so many flocked to it that the global economy lost 4 million productivity hours in a single day. In 2017, “Weird Al” Yankovic finally released his parody “Pac-Man” (set to the melody of the Beatles’ “Tax Man”) 36 years after he wrote it. The original Pac-Man arcade units (in all, there were 400,000) are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian. To date, according to best estimates, some form of Pac-Man has been played over 10 billion times.

The labyrinth: Pac-Man wasn’t the first maze game (Atari had Gotcha), but the Pac-Dots gave it an added challenge. The ghosts: Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde weren’t just the pursuers and the pursued—they were an early example of how AI could add realism to a game. The man: Pac-Man’s name is based on the Japanese word “pakku” (to munch or chew), while the shape was inspired by a pizza with a slice removed.

The question is: Why? What is it about the game that seized the imagination 37 years ago—and continues to hold it? According to Jeremy Saucier, assistant vp for electronic games at the National Museum of Play, Pac-Man not only introduced the first character-based story into a realm otherwise dominated by games based on tennis (Pong) and shooting (Space Invaders), but it also tapped into a collective childhood experience. “Pac-Man combined the sheer delight of playing chase and playing tag with this very hip, cool video game personality,” he said.

After taking over the mall arcade, Pac-Man ate up the home-console market with versions for the Atari 2600 (3) and other systems. By January 1982, Ms. Pac-Man made her debut, followed by the novelty hit “Pac-Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia (4). The fever was still burning 28 years later, when Google released a playable doodle (5), which distracted so many office workers that it cost the economy $120 million in lost productivity.

Dustin Hansen, game designer and author of the definitive video game history book, Game On!, adds that part of Pac-Man’s appeal was its early incorporation of artificial intelligence (yes, in 1980), which governed how the ghosts behaved.

“Blinky always chases you around corners, and Clyde is random,” he said. “They have their ultimate directive to find the player, but they respond to what you do.” Which, of course, freaked people out—and kept those quarters coming.

Though the shopping-mall arcades are long gone, joystick jockeys have kept a place in their hearts for Pac-Man, which also lives on in a mountain range of licensed merchandise. Indeed, the only thing greater than Pac-Man’s insatiable appetite is our own appetite for it. “It’s the living icon of video games,” Hansen said. “ … [And] it’s still absolutely viable.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 8, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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