Scrolling Pixels: Pac-Man’s relevance is out of control

6 Apr 2015

Scrolling Pixels: Pac-Man's relevance is out of control

Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s monthly column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.

Adam Sandler enthusiasts last month enjoyed their first glimpse of the actor’s latest vehicle, Pixels, a comedy that sees aliens attack Earth’s cities by sending characters from our very own retro gaming classics to wreak total destruction. But while the Happy Gilmore veteran is in the movie, he’s not the star. Nor is Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Brian Cox, Sean ‘Lord of Acting’ Bean, Ashley Benson or Kevin James, who plays the US President (the US President!).

The face of the film is Pac-Man, that pill-chompin’, ghost-ridin’, maze-negotiatin’ yellow dot that exploded into the public’s consciousness in 1980, giving us our first true gaming icon. And our lasting love affair with the character doesn’t end there. A Super Bowl 2015 ad for Bud Lite saw the company build a giant real-life Pac-Man board, while Google recently released a fun feature on Google Maps that turns any city’s streets into a version of the game, and it’s just as playable as that first edition released all those years ago, which squeezed coin after coin out of teenagers the world over. Somehow, here we are in 2015, and Pac-Man’s relevance is as large as the little guy’s appetite.

Pixels will probably be awful (this is the creative team that brought us Jack and Jill), but the trailer does illustrate something that has always made me smile about Pac-Man’s success. With little more than a few blinking dots under your control, the earliest games required a lot of imagination from players, but when picking up the joystick for a go of Space Invaders or Asteroids you could picture yourself at the controls of a real spacecraft; with Pong, you could kind of pretend you were playing table tennis. But when it came to Pac-Man there was no touching point with reality. What the hell was he? Where the hell was he? Why were ghosts attacking him constantly?

So while old school characters like Donkey Kong (also featured in Pixels), Mario and Link from The Legend of Zelda have evolved into a more fleshed-out form to match the demands of their bigger, broader games, Pac-Man, the original gaming mascot, has never really changed. In the movie he’s still the same yellow ball with that constantly chomping mouth – he has nowhere to progress to. But despite his basic form, Pac-Man is a cultural icon. He’s had his own Saturday morning cartoon show, a pop single, numerous follow-up video games, and a countless amount of merchandise. And what makes him such a bankable product is that first 1980 arcade game, which was so much fun to play it became hardwired into every person who slotted a coin into the giant arcade cabinet, heard those few musical beeps and blips, and chased down every single dot in sight.

In the beginning

Pixels gives a nice nod to Pac-Man‘s creator Toru Iwatani, who shows up as a character in the movie (portrayed by actor Denis Akiyama) to try to reason with his brainchild, only for his arm to be bitten without remorse. Iwatani, alongside programmers Shigeo Funaki and Toshio Kai, developed the game for Japanese software publisher Namco in 1980. There’s an urban legend that the Tokyo native found inspiration in a restaurant when he looked down at his table and gazed upon the pizza he and his team had ordered, which had one slice missing.

Iwatani has given mixed messages over the years as to whether that story is true or not but, at the height of Pakkuman’s success (the title comes from the Japanese phrase ‘pakupaku’, which describes the sound of a mouth opening and closing), the Japanese government had to produce more 100 yen coins to cope with demand from players.

The game soon made its way to the US, where it was slated to be released by distributor Midway as Puck Man (since the character looks a little like a hockey puck), but Iwatani was worried at the potential for vandals to change the ‘P’ to an ‘F’, so the game was renamed Pac-Man, and it became an instant smash hit. Gamers couldn’t get enough of the little chomper, as they spent hours on end and quarter-after-quarter pursuing every on-screen dot while chasing the four temporarily transparent ghosts (they actually had names too: Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde). Videogame cabinets began cropping up in every type of store imaginable. The arcade business was booming, and Pac-Man was its front-and-centre machine.

Highs and lows

Ms Pac-Man followed in 1982 with a new female protagonist developed to take advantage of Pac-Man‘s popularity amongst women. There’s actually a lot of bonkers stories surrounding the development of Ms Pac-Man – like Midway’s decision to change the name from Miss Pac-Man because of the presence of a baby in a cut scene that would have meant the Pac-couple were doing the nasty out of wedlock – but the game was great. Building on the original’s engine, it added a number of enhancements, including the introduction of random movements in the ghosts’ behavioural patterns, meaning you couldn’t rely on memorising their movements to clear each stage.

But the early ’80s was a turbulent time for gaming in America as companies tried to both harness its exploding popularity and predict its direction. Pac-Man actually also holds the dubious distinction of being not just one the greatest games of all time, but one of the worst. In 1982, a version was released for home console the Atari 2600, and so confident was Atari that the port would be a hit they ordered a greater number of cartridges be produced than the number of consoles on the market.

Due to the rushed development and limitation in the tech, the final product was truly horrid. Only one ghost could be seen on screen at any one time, meaning they all took turns at being visable, which created a flickering effect. And the beautiful ‘waka waka’ sound effects of the arcade version were replaced with horrible thud-like sounds that pinged around your brain as you played. The investment Atari made in the home version of Pac-Man, as well as the notorious E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial game you’ve probably heard terrible things about, were big factors in the US video game crash of 1983, which almost buried the industry forever.

A lasting influence

Despite the low points, Pac-Man‘s continued influence is undeniable. It probably brought more people into gaming than any product before or since. Its establishment of the first-ever gaming mascot demonstrated the potential popularity of characters in videogames, which was mined pretty quickly with the development of Mario, Sonic etc… And as pointed out by GamesRadar, it was actually the first video game to have cut scenes, which may or not be a good thing depending on whether you find the more recent Metal Gear Solid games lush and enchanting, or indulgent and bloated.

Speaking of Metal Gear Solid, its creator, Hideo Kojima, has spoken of Pac-Man’s influence on the early games in the series, where Solid Snake would attempt to negotiate levels without bumping into guards. Famed designer John Romero has also cited it as a key influence behind Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, which themselves basically spawned the entire first-person shooter genre. Take all of the above as a starting point, and you can very easily make a case that Pac-Man has a handprint on every single game you’ve played in the last 30 years.

So why is Pac-Man the chosen one? For me it combines two key tenets of the earliest games. Firstly, a very human impulse to clear the screen without leaving a single blemish, as was the case with Space Invaders, but unlike Space Invaders, Pac-Man also requires you to outwit an enemy. There were often times during the game when stopping dead still and waiting for the ghosts to make their movements was the best way of avoiding them. Choosing when to chomp on your power-up pill was important tactically. This was a game you could never play mindlessly.

But above all, Pac-Man is just a great time. It’s still so smooth to play; so satisfying to complete. The perilous feeling of finding yourself sandwiched between two ghost with no means of escape hasn’t dimmed in 35 years and the drive to post a better score than ever before is hard to shake.

Gaming has such a short history that we’re still kind of figuring out how the passage of time is going to affect how the medium is viewed. But while movies from 1915 are rarely watched for purely entertainment purposes, and recordings from a century ago aren’t fit for the radio, Pac-Man will still have appeal to kids in 2115. The whole thing is just a timeless experience.



Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic