“If Pac-man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.” So goes UK comedian Marcus Brigstocke’s most famous joke. But while the craze had kind of faded by the end of the 1990s, Pac-man lives on. In fact, on Saturday the seminal 1980s arcade game reached the ripe old age of 30.
Google brought this auspicious occasion to global attention on Friday by releasing its first ever interactive Google Doodle – a fully playable version of Pac-man, with a specially designed maze. This led to some companies temporarily blocking the Google website in an attempt to keep their employees focused on work, rather than reliving their childhood arcade days. But, if you missed your opportunity to play the game from the Google home page, you can still access it here.
Pac-man was first released in Japan on 22 May 1980. Well, actually that’s not strictly correct – Pac-man was released in the US later that year: The Japanese original was called Puck-man, and the name was modified for an American audience to defuse obvious vandalism potential.
The game was created by Japanese video game developer, Namco, driven largely by a young employee called T?ru Iwatani. His aim was to create a game that reached a broader audience (that is, beyond teenage boys). After a slow start to sales, his vision was realised once the game was released in the US, with Pac-man becoming the best-selling arcade game of all time. Part of the reason Pac-man took off was its differentiation from anything else in the arcade game market at the time, which largely consisted of shooting games, such as Asteroids and Space Invaders.
In case you’ve been cryogenically frozen since 1980, and never actually played Pac-man, play basically consists of racing around a maze and gobbling up dots, while avoiding the ghost monsters Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. Theoretically, the game should be able to be played indefinitely, although a bug means one can only attain level 255, as level 256 is scrambled. While this may not bother your average player, there are several obsessive gamers who’ve reached this far. Billy Mitchell from Florida was the first person to achieve a perfect score (that is, no lives lost, and maximum potential points) on 3 July 1999.
Pac-man has gone on to be released across several platforms (you can even buy a version for your iPhone), not to mention the numerous illegal versions populating the Web. In the 1980s, Pac-man merchandise was ubiquitous with the Pac-man icon adorning everything from lunchboxes to T-shirts. The game even spawned a Top 10 hit, the truly execrable “Pac-man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia, as well as a fairly insipid animated series.
But the latest incarnation of Pac-man in popular culture is a whole lot more sophisticated. In April, French filmmaker Patrick Jean released a short film called “Pixels”. The film features retro video game characters, released from their screen prisons and running rampage in Manhattan. Space invaders descend from the sky, Pac-man gobbles up subway stops, and Tetris blocks demolish buildings. Adam Sandler has reportedly bought the rights to make a full-length feature. We’re not sure how kindly New Yorkers will take to images of Manhattan being blown up, but Pac-man surely deserves a shot at big screen glory.
By Theresa Mallinson