Over 40 years ago, the arrival of the video game Pac-Man in arcades and recreation areas was a watershed moment in both video game history and pop culture. Easily surpassing the ubiquity and profitability of Pong, the previously most popular video game on the market, Pac-Man has grossed well over $15 billion over the past four decades, with multiple iterations, home versions and multimedia tie-in projects. Here, you will learn about the history of Pac-Man as well as the overarching social and cultural norms of the time that led to its creation.
The video game world before Pac-Man: the 1970s
Video games became a new and exciting entertainment venture for the general public in the early-to-mid ’70s. While games technically started as programs for post-World War II vacuum tube-powered machines, initially for training purposes. As time went on, interactive games were developed, from early “tic-tac-toe” variations and early maze games, the machines and the programming became more powerful and complex, while machines also began to take up much less space. After a few prototypes and initial game offerings to the public, Nolan Bushnell’s company Atari released the first commercially successful video game, Pong, in 1972. A rudimentary game based on a game included on the first commercially sold video game home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, Pong grew in popularity as well as the Odyssey console, and many copycat companies followed suit, making similar games. More games followed in the next few years from various companies, such as Space Invaders, Asteroids and Breakout. Both arcade-based and home-based games tended to follow a particular path, however; most games were geared towards boys, whether intentional or not, due to the overwhelmingly popular titles being based on battle or sports.
Pac-Man to the rescue
In 1979, a young game designer by the name of Toru Iwatani began development of a new type of puzzle game for the Japanese game company Namco alongside a small team of collaborators. Their primary goal was to create a game that would appeal to both boys and girls as well as couples. He created a puzzle game that was deliberately bright and colorful as well as purposefully non-violent, making the game’s villains, the ghosts, deliberately cute and in bright pastel shades of color. The team also designed the game’s puzzles to move at a faster pace as various levels are completed, and deliberately programmed each ghost to behave differently on the puzzle maze, adding a both a competitive angle and a more enjoyable journey in gameplay than most other games on the market. Additionally, it was the first video game to feature a “power up” for the main character, in the form of the magic pellet. Overall, the game took over a year to develop and launch, and was initially released in Japan as Puck-Man.
The game was a success in its native Japan, and Midway Games secured the rights to manufacture and ship out arcade consoles in the United States. In order to keep mischievous youth from defacing the arcade cabinets (especially in such a way to read as an obscenity), the game’s name was changed from Puck-Man to Pac-Man in the United States. The game was released in the United States at the end of the year in 1980, catching on like wildfire well within a year. By 1982, a popular (if somewhat awkward) home video console port of the game was widely released by Atari for their 2600 console, and within another five years, everything from children’s clothing, breakfast cereal, canned foods and Saturday morning cartoon were made with the bright yellow face of Pac-Man happily smiling back at the consumer. Within two years of the game’s debut, two sequel games were released in the United States, Ms. Pac-Man and Super Pac-Man.
The United States’ video game market owes a large part of its existence to Pac-Man. It drove both arcade growth and home console growth, which in turn drove up the competition to create faster, smaller machines with more power and graphics. Over 40 years, a version of Pac-Man or a Pac-Man-derivative game has been available on most of the popular platforms of video games, including gaming PC, throughout that timespan. It remains one of the few games that be played both on an original arcade console and on any handheld smartphone.