On 22 May 2016, Pac-Man the classic videogame, turned 36. It might seem pretty irrelevant news, given how much the video games industry has changed since that legendary yellow ghost-eating ball first appeared in the video arcades and on ancient consoles all over the world, but it's not the case. Pac-Man is part of video game history - not just of those with 8-bit graphics - and is seen by many experts as the archetypal video game, along with a few rivals, a true symbol of the eighties and one of the most entertaining games ever made.
As is often the case, simplicity was the key to the worldwide success of Pac-Man, now available on PCs (also playable via your browser), consoles and mobile platforms of all kinds, with dedicated apps on Android, iOS and Windows Phone, as well as on TV. An enormous number of titles and variations, as well as copies, have been released in the last 36 years, but only the original game can truly touch the hearts of gamers, above all those approaching their forties or older, whose youth and adolescence was enriched by never-ending gaming sessions with friends in front of their computer screen or television. Memories of a past which has little to do with the present day, when everything was surprisingly unaffected and every new experience was lived through in real time, in reality and not through a social network or a video on YouTube.
Returning to the arcade game made up of pellets, alien ghosts, pieces of fruit and maze-like layouts, it's worth hearing its story right from the beginning. Its inventor, a Japanese designer called Tohru Iwatani, arrived in 1977 at Namco, a major producer of pinball machines and video games. His first wish was to exploit existing technology in the industry to its full potential with an idea that was both creative and simple at the same time, something which should be used by everybody and with no instructions necessary, both natural and intuitive.
After a lot of thought and experimentation, Iwatani got his ingenious and decisive inspiration while eating pizza. Yes, you got it, one of the most successful games in the world ever came from the vision of a pizza, or more precisely a pizza which had already had one slice removed to be eaten. Have you got it now? Be honest, if you take a good look at Pac-Man, in 2D in one of his classic images, doesn't he remind you of a (yellow) pizza missing a slice? Of course. And the whole game, now that we're on the subject of eating, was dreamt up as a continual "munch munch" in the mind of Iwatani.
After inventing the main character, Iwatani then got to work on enhancing his game. His Pac-Man had to eat something, but what? Coloured dots, perfect in their roundness, just like Pac-Man, and stationed in levels which varied each time to time but were all set in a maze structure. The player was therefore forced to interact with the scene before them, trying to wolf down as much as possible. But eating coloured dots in a maze by itself would have been too easy, and without any kind of hardship people would have given up on the game much too quickly.
So, together with a team of programmers and engineers who dedicated themselves to the new game, Iwatani decided to introduce four coloured ghosts as "enemies" of Pac-Man: Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde, all with their own colour: red, blue, yellow and pink. The final element added to the game and which would always be a feature of Pac-Man is the power pellets; larger dots which enable the rotund protagonist to eat up the ghosts, relegating them to a special enclosure.
During the game, everything that Pac-Man eats allows him to gain points. By reaching 10,000 points (according to the given configuration) you get an extra life, essential for taking on levels much harder than the first ones. The dots spread across the maze, or room, each have a standard value of ten points (in total the maze contains 240, so 2,400 points) while the four power pellets are each worth 40 points (for a total of 200 points).
Eating the ghosts (once they've been made vulnerable by one of the power pellets) earns you extra points: 200, 400, 800 and 1,600 points (for a total of 3,000 points) by munching up the ghosts in order, otherwise it's 200 for each. One final chance for increasing your points total is given by the appearance, in each level, of an icon, in most cases a piece of fruit. If the player is skillful enough to catch it before it disappears, they can increase their points tally even more. We're talking about very special objects here, which show up at the very most twice on each level. Their points vary according to the level itself: Cherry (100 points), Strawberry (300), Orange (500), Apple (700), Grape (1,000), the Galaxian Flagship (2,000) and Key (5,000).
So that's that. After a year and a half of work, Namco, thanks to Iwatani and his team, were ready to launch a new, unforgettable video game.
Pac-Man came out in Japan in 1980 with the name Pakkuman (paku paku in Japanese means the movement of opening and closing your mouth when you're eating). Yet at that time another video game reigned supreme, one which was also deserving of a place among the best video games of all time: Space Invaders, meaning that our very own Pakkuman was overlooked. Iwatani refused to accept to defeat and decided to export his creation, by now a part of his life, to the United States of America (distributed and licensed by Midway Games), and gave it its current name: Pac-Man. In the West, this arcade game, with entertaining and colourful characters and simple but super fun gameplay immediately won over a large slice of the population, kick-starting a success that has practically never stopped, leading Pac-Man to, among other things, make the Guinness Book of Records in 2005 as the most successful commercial video game in history, and in 2010 as the most installed arcade game of all time.
Top 20 oddities about Pac-Man
Now we know almost everything, broadly-speaking at least, about the history of Pac-Man and what happened in the years of its creation and development. But there are also a few rather curious facts about the first 36 years of the game that are worth sharing.
• Who doesn't remember (those of us aged 25-30 and above!) those arcade games which ran on tokens? Well, Pac-Man is the biggest selling token game in history. Space Invader, Tetris, Street Fighter, Double Dragon, all of them surpassed by the most famous pizza-shaped character in the history of the world.
• It's no surprise for a game given the sought-after title from the Guinness Book of Records as the "highest selling arcade game in history": Namco estimates to have made at least $100 million from Pac-Man.
• Pac-Man is more than just a video game. In 1982 the cartoon "The Pac-Man Show" made its television debut, where Pac-Man attempted to save his friends and their "world", Pac-Land, from the evil Mezmaron.
• Wherever in the world you may go, Pac-Man nicknames you will find. In Brazil the Japanese arcade game became known as "Come-Come", in Italy they used the nonsensical "Gabo-Gabo", while in Spain they had the superior "Comecocos" (coconut eater).
• Pac-Man has also influenced the music world. Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia, an American duo, obtained great success with their album Pac-Man Fever, featuring songs about various video games of the time. The title track on the album became a huge hit, thanks to the samples of audio effects from the game inserted into the song, proof that Pac-Man in 1982, the year of the song's release, had found its way into the hearts of the masses.
• The world of hackers and people who enjoy messing around with commercial video games never sleeps, and Pac-Man too has had the "honour" of seeing hacked versions of the game emerge. For instance, in some of the games it's possible to get various kinds of bonuses (speed or power) just by pressing a key, or with certain special strategies you could take on more complex levels made from bizarre sketches.
• As well as its creator, Iwatani, the first version of Pac-Man was made by a team of seven people, three of which worked on the software and four on the hardware. They are also responsible for the tremendous success of Pac-Man. The developers actually created an algorithm which progressively increased the aggressiveness of the ghosts, making the game ever more difficult as you passed through the levels in relation to the abilities acquired by the players.
• Pac-Man (and his relatives in later versions) ran 20% faster in the spaces with no dots compared to where they had still not been eaten up. Have you ever noticed that?
• There are more than 400 Pac-Man products, including deodorant, cereal boxes, telephones, costumes, record books, and even a car. Over the years Namco has given the Pac-Man licence to more than 250 companies, including some from the world of cinema and advertising.
• Even in the world of business and corporate economics Pac-Man has eked out a role. If a company defending from a hostile takeover manages to buy the hostile company, in industry jargon the action is known as a "Pac-Man Defence".
• Among the millions of players who have enjoyed Pac-Man over the years, there is one who deserves a special mention: Billy Mitchell, an American living in Florida who, in 1999, having played for six hours in a row, finished what was basically the perfect game. He made his way through every one of the 255 levels, ate up every single dot, piece of fruit and ghost (each time every ghost was eaten with a single power pellet) and did it all using only one Pac-Man life! Simply extraordinary.
• Before deciding to place power pellets in the four corners of the Pac-Man levels so players could slow down the ghosts' attack, Iwatani had considered using big biscuits instead.
• The names of the ghosts, as we said in the first part of the article, are Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde. Though in hacked versions or those launched in other countries, the names of the coloured ghosts were often changed.
• Pac-Man has 256 levels. But the last level is almost unplayable because of a bug in the software which causes the labyrinth-style layout to "go crazy" and become mostly invisible. Obviously there are a few people who have managed it anyway and completed the level.
• The ghosts we have talked so much about were originally, at least in the first stage of development, different to how we see them today. Iwatani had in fact thought about having monsters instead, before later changing his mind. And even when he decided on the ghosts, they were all meant to be the same colour. Red, to be precise. Their behaviour within the different levels was also meant to be uniform, but after an internal meeting with the directors of Namco it was decided that they should develop a special algorithm to modify their behaviour as the player progresses through the game.
• How big is the original Pac-Man in terms of the memory of a PC or games console? Just 24 kilobytes, almost nothing if you think about the size of an Mp3 song (four megabytes), a classic one-minute video on YouTube (two megabytes) or a modern Playstation 4 game (usually more than ten gigabytes!).
• When Pac-Man is touched by a ghost he dies, and dissolves. What inspired the development team to have him die in this way? Very simply, the explosion of fireworks.
• In 2010 Pac-Man was nominated as "The most easily-recognised video game character, known by 94% of Americans)". There are no limits to its success!
• To do well in a Pac-Man game and get through as many levels as possible, as well as skill, craft and a good dose of luck, perhaps it would also be useful to know how the enemies behave. So here you go: the red ghost always chases you down using the shortest route available, the pink ghost tends to take you by surprise, the blue ghost has casual and unpredictable movements, while the orange ghost is the only one to have a fixed strategy, making him the most dangerous of all. While you dedicate yourselves to playing "paku-paku" with 240 dots and four power pellets, keep this information in mind.
• Of the many free versions of Pac-Man available online, there is one where you can play in the biggest labyrinth known as the biggest in the world. All you have to do is follow this link. Have fun!