by Ryan Lambie
When Pac-Man emerged in the early 1980s, nothing else looked or sounded quite like it. Whereas most arcade games of the era involved shooting marauding aliens, Pac-Man looked like a miniature, interactive cartoon: a comical tug-of-war between a round, yellow character with an addiction to munching tiny white dots and a quartet of roaming ghosts with big, anxious eyes.
As we now know, Pac-Man was a massive hit, and its grip on pop culture is still strong today. But Pac-Man's success was far from certain; its designer initially had no interest in games, and the public reaction to it was initially mixed. Here's a brief look at some of the fascinating facts behind Pac-Man's making, its impact, and its legacy.
1. PAC-MAN DESIGNER TORU IWATANI HAD NO TRAINING AS A DESIGNER OR PROGRAMMER.
When then 22-year-old Toru Iwatani started work at Namco in 1977, he had no particular interest in designing video games. In fact, Iwatani initially expected that he'd work on pinball machines, but instead ended up designing the Breakout-inspired paddle games Gee Bee (1978), Bomb Bee and Cutie Q (1979). Two years after Pac-Man's release in 1980, he designed Pole Position.
2. PAC-MAN WAS DESIGNED AS A RESPONSE TO SHOOTING GAMES LIKE SPACE INVADERS.
Japanese arcades of the late 1970s and early 1980s were dark, masculine places full of space shooting games inspired by the success of Space Invaders—including Namco's own enormously successful Galaxian. In response, Iwatani began thinking about a concept which ran counter to those games.
"All the computer games available at the time were of the violent type—war games and Space Invader types," Iwatani said in 1986. "There were no games that everyone could enjoy, and especially none for women. I wanted to come up with a 'comical' game women could enjoy."
Iwatani began thinking about ideas based around the word taberu, meaning "to eat." And gradually, the concept of a game called Pakku-Man (derived from paku paku, a Japanese slang word akin to chomp) began to form.
3. PAC-MAN'S PIZZA INSPIRATION IS ONLY HALF TRUE.
One of the great creation legends of game design is that Iwatani, while eating a pizza, looked down at the pie with a missing slice and used the outline as inspiration for Pac-Man's distinctive shape. The story was furthered by Iwatani himself; when Pac-Man fever was at its height, he even posed with a half-eaten pizza for a publicity photograph. But in a 1986 interview, Iwatani admitted that the legend was only "half true."
"In Japanese, the character for mouth [kuchi] is a square shape," Iwatani explained. "It's not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out." And thus, Pac-Man was born.
4. PAC-MAN'S GAMEPLAY AND GHOSTS WERE INSPIRED BY COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS.
As Iwatani continued to develop the idea of a game which involved eating, he added the concept of a maze, and then came the power pellet (or power cookie), a special item that allowed Pac-Man to eat his enemies. Iwatani later revealed that the power-up idea was inspired by Popeye, who often defeated his arch rival Bluto by eating spinach.
Pac-Man's ghosts were also inspired by comic book characters. "Pac-Man is inspired by all the manga and animation that I’d watch as a kid," Iwatani told WIRED in 2010. "The ghosts were inspired by Casper, or Obake no Q-Taro."
5. IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST GAMES TO INTRODUCE CUT-SCENES.
Pac-Man's action is occasionally interspersed with simple cartoonlike interludes, where an enormous Pac-Man chases a terrified ghost across the screen. Iwatani dubbed these "coffee breaks" and imagined them as a means of enticing players to chomp their way to the next scene. Iwatani's programmers initially resisted the idea, arguing that the interludes added little to the game, but Iwatani ultimately won the battle.
6. THE GAME WOULD BE NOTHING WITHOUT ITS ENEMY AI.
Although Iwatani was the creative force behind Pac-Man, bringing the game to life fell to a team of four staff, including programmer Shigeo Funaki and sound designer Toshio Kai. Development of the game took around 18 months—an unusually lengthy production for the era—with the ghosts' behavior posing the greatest challenge.
As Iwatani himself admitted, "There's not much entertainment in a game of eating, so we decided to create enemies to inject a little excitement and tension."
One of the most ingenious aspects of Pac-Man is that each ghost behaves differently—one simply chases the player, two try to attack Pac-Man from the front, while the fourth will chase and then abruptly change course.
"It was tricky because the monster movements are quite complex," Iwatani said. "This is the heart of the game ... The AI in this game impresses me to this day!"
7. THE GAME WASN'T EXPECTED TO BE A HIT.
The first ever Pac-Man machine—then called Puck-Man—was installed in a Tokyo movie theater on May 22, 1980. As Iwatani and his team had hoped, the game was popular with women and the very young, but seasoned gamers—who were more used to the intensity of shooting games—were initially nonplussed.
The uncertainty continued when Pac-Man was shown off at a coin-op trade show later that year. Many of the American arcade operators in attendance thought that another Namco game at the show—a driving game called Rally X—would be the more popular of the two due to its faster pace. Ultimately, Pac-Man was picked up for American distribution by Bally/Midway. Its name was changed from Puck-Man to Pac-Man, and the game's journey to global popularity began.
8. IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL ARCADE GAMES OF ALL TIME, YET ITS CREATOR DIDN'T GET RICH FROM IT.
Selling 350,000 arcade machines within 18 months, generating millions in profits and yet more revenue from merchandising, Pac-Man was an international phenomenon. But Iwatani, like many designers and programmers working in Japan at the time—including Space Invaders' creator Tomohiro Nishikado—didn't directly profit from all that success.
"The truth of the matter is, there were no rewards per se for the success of Pac-Man," Nishikado said in 1987. "I was just an employee. There was no change in my salary, no bonus, no official citation of any kind."
9. THE HIGHEST SCORE POSSIBLE IS 3,333,360 POINTS.
Although Pac-Man doesn't have an ending as such, an integer overflow makes the 256th level impossible to clear. This means that if every dot, power pellet, fruit, and enemy is consumed on each of the 255 levels, the maximum possible score is 3,333,360 points. The legendarily dextrous videogame champion Billy Mitchell was the first player to achieve a perfect Pac-Man score.
10. IT'S STILL INSIDIOUSLY ADDICTIVE.
To celebrate Pac-Man's 30th birthday back in 2010, Google placed a playable version of the game on its homepage. According to a report issued by a time management company, the game's brief appearance managed to rob the world of around 4.8 million working hours. Google's first ever playable doodle, the search engine's anniversary version of Pac-Man can still be played today.