Still gobbling up adulation: Pac-Man turns 40

A Pac-Man cocktail table from the 1980s on display at the Computer Games Museum in Berlin, Germany, this week. The 8-bit gaming system turned 40 yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A Pac-Man cocktail table from the 1980s on display at the Computer Games Museum in Berlin, Germany, this week. The 8-bit gaming system turned 40 yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO • Forty years ago, a new video game featuring a bright yellow, dot-chomping, ghost-dodging character called Pac-Man appeared in Tokyo. It would become the most successful arcade game of all time.

The hero - shaped like a mouth opening and closing - races around a maze noisily gobbling dots and occasionally fruit, for extra points, all the while avoiding four cunning ghosts named Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.

As every Pac-Man player knows, the greatest joy comes from turning the tables by munching a power pellet, sending the ghosts fleeing in all directions as they suddenly become edible themselves.

The game was originally called Puck-Man (an onomatopoeic play on the Japanese word "paku", meaning to gobble) but it was changed when it was launched in the United States for fear gamers would inevitably change the "P" to an "F".

Game designer Toru Iwatani came up with the shape for the adorable hero when he took a small slice from a pizza and realised the rest looked like a wide-open mouth.

Pac-Man was aimed at women and couples - a different audience to the violent alien shoot-em-ups popular in Japanese arcades then, Mr Iwatani explained in a 2010 interview with Wired magazine.

The first edition was placed in a cinema in the trendy Tokyo district of Shibuya rather than a male-dominated arcade to test the target audience, he said. "The women and couples were very happy... very excited. They came up to it and put their hands on it, so we thought that our target concept had been very much in sync and correct," he said.

Hard-core gamers turned up their noses but "it was for people who didn't play games on a daily basis - women, children, the elderly".

The idea of Pac-Man turning the tables on his spooky tormentors came from the cartoon Popeye, where the nautical hero is able to take on his nemesis Bluto only after a healthy dose of spinach.

From these humble beginnings, Pac-Man would go on to be recognised by Guinness World Records as the most successful coin-operated arcade game of all time.

It has spawned several spin-offs, including Pac 'n Roll, Ms Pac-Man, Pac-in-Time and Pac Panic - a massive money spinner for creators Bandai Namco.

The "perfect score" is 3,333,360 points - possible only by getting to the final level 256 without losing a life and eating every dot, fruit and ghost possible, according to Wired. The first record-holder was a Billy Mitchell, who said it was "tremendously monotonous".

Pac-Man's 40th was celebrated with a special Twitter hashtag in Japan, with fans all over the country wishing their hero a happy birthday.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2020, with the headline 'Still gobbling up adulation: Pac-Man turns 40'. Print Edition | Subscribe