Regular visitors to TheXboxHub will have seen the series of articles that we have published, looking back 5, 10, 15 and 20 years to the most influential of games; those that had an impact on the gaming world. This article is going to be a little different, as instead of looking back to a particular game, we are going to be looking way, way back to the birth of a gaming mascot. Yes, it’s PAC-MAN’s 40th birthday, and to celebrate, here’s a retrospective of where he came from, and where he has ended up. And maybe, just maybe, a peep at where he may go in the future? So come with me and let’s celebrate this milestone birthday!
In 1980, I was a mere eight years old, and pretty much bang in the target demographic for the appearance of a new gaming hero. I needed one too, having grown up playing Pong on my Grandstand console (and other games, like Squash, all of which involved a bat one either side of the screen and a square ball), and when I was really lucky, playing Space Invaders on the Atari VCS (later called the 2600) that my dad had bought at vast expense.
By the way, just to tie this fact back into the point of the article, did you know that PAC-MAN was the best selling game on the Atari 2600, with more than 7 million units sold. Compare that to the fact that there were “only” 30 million Atari consoles sold, so you can see that nearly a quarter of all Atari consoles in the wild had PAC-MAN.
So, let’s look back to his birth, shall we? The seeds were planted in 1976, when Namco bought the struggling Japanese division of Atari, and started to make their own games in-house, instead of licensing and distributing them in the Japanese market. Development of his first game began way back in 1979, and the brief was to design a game that would appeal to all gamers, not just men. You see, the majority of the games released so far had been based around themes of war or sports, and this was a deliberate rejection of those themes in favour of something with universal appeal. And seriously, who doesn’t love running around in a maze, popping pills and chasing/being chased by ghosts?
The actual character of PAC-MAN though has two possible origins: one story says that his shape was based on a pizza, with one slice removed, while the creator of PAC-MAN, Toru Iwatani, was reported as saying that he merely rounded out the Japanese symbol “Kuchi”, which means mouth. As far as my opinion is worth anything, I would always tend to side with the guy who made the character. Interestingly, the original name of the character was “Puckman”, due to his resemblance to a hockey puck. However, in a remarkably prescient move, for the international release of the game the name changed, as they were scared that the name would be defaced on the arcade machines to include a naughty word…
The original PAC-MAN pretty much took over the world. Every arcade had a machine, with over 350,000 cabinets sold. Just think about that for a minute, in an era when a home console was $200 (adjusted price would be around $800 in today’s money), can you imagine how much an arcade machine would cost? I can still remember when I was a boy, going to watch my parents play squash, and as a treat being given a few 10p’s to let me play the table top version of PAC-MAN that was in the viewing area. I got to be quite good – at least my 10 year old self thought I was pretty good, and that’s the same thing, right?
Well, from there, the inevitable rise of PAC-MAN began, and this star was certainly on the rise. It was ported to the Atari VCS, as mentioned earlier, but this didn’t go as well as expected. The Atari version of the game was widely criticised for some strange design choices, making the ghosts flicker instead of being solid, for instance. The poor quality and reception of the game (although seven million were sold, Atari had actually made 12 million cartridges, leaving nearly half of them unsold) is widely blamed for the demise of Atari, despite them also releasing versions for the Intellivision, Vic-20, Commodore 62, Apple II, IBM PC, Texas Instruments computers and the Atari family of computers. See what I mean about taking over the world?
But obviously, PAC-MAN is so much more than that first game, game changing as it was. He has starred in no less than about a million games – according to Wikipedia at least! This takes into account the likes of Ms. Pacman, the platform-based games like Pac-Land, and the remixes of the original game, such as the brilliant PAC-MAN 256 and many more. There have been many different arcade games, there have been LCD handheld games, it has been ported to every console, up to and including the Xbox One X, and along the way PAC-MAN has entered into the world in a way that not many other gaming characters have.
He is almost universally recognised, I should imagine, has become the mascot and flagship icon of Bandai Namco, and has the highest brand awareness of any video game character in North America. He has starred in two different TV series, films, and music (one of my favourite Bloodhound Gang songs features not only the arcade music, but the voice of PAC-MAN suggesting doing, well, un-PAC-MAN like things!). Hell, PAC-MAN is even a playable character in the latest Super Smash Bros. game, Ultimate, and while my son says he’s rubbish in that game, he’s still there, in a new game, 40 years after his creation. I can’t honestly think of any character today that would have the same kind of longevity, not even Lara Croft.
Purely in terms of revenue earned, PAC-MAN is the fifth most lucrative video game franchise ever, beaten only by Mario, Pokemon and Call of Duty in gaming terms, and by Nintendo’s Wii console in terms of hardware. It just goes to show that a good idea has legs, and can be relied upon to make money for its creator. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, PAC-MAN has grossed an estimated $14 billion from merchandise and all revenue streams. That’s not a bad amount of money, eh? Of course, Mario, who’s a year younger, has grossed over $32 billion, but we’ll gloss over that. We aren’t here to big up that plumber today.
PAC-MAN’s adventures haven’t always been successful, however – not even his star power could save Pixels, a 2015 film starring Adam Sandler. The sequence when the “heroes” of the film were found driving Minis coloured to be the Ghosts from the original game, while PAC-MAN chased them through the streets, was about the best bit of the film. I put “heroes” in quotes as I really wanted the video game characters to win.
He has also appeared in animated kid’s TV series, bringing in other members of his family, Ms Pac-Man (also called Pepper Pac-Man), Pac-Baby, a dog called Chomp-Chomp and a cat called Sour Puss. Yep, sounds awesome! Luckily I don’t remember watching any of these episodes so I kinda feel, having watched some on YouTube, that I had a lucky escape. The look of the cartoon does however feed back to Namco, who’s Pac-Land games were supposedly influenced by the cartoon.
So, we’re here in 2020 and for the last 40 years PAC-MAN has been a companion through my gaming life. I started playing in the arcade, when games cost 10p (you really have to be super old to remember those days), and he’s stayed with me through my early days in the console market, moving from Atari VCS to Game Boy to the most up to date consoles. Indeed, as I write this, Bandai Namco have recently made one of PAC-MAN’s games, the snappily named PAC-MAN Championship Edition 2, completely free to download on Xbox One via the Xbox Store, I assume in celebration of his reaching of such a massive milestone.
And who knows, he may make another 40 years yet. I’m afraid that my crystal ball is a little foggy as regards to what PAC-MAN may do in the future, but one thing is for sure, he doesn’t look like he’s ready to retire just yet.
So what are your memories of PAC-MAN? Do you remember the old days, when he was a ray of light in an otherwise very similar sea of arcade games? Did you come across him later in his life? Are you wondering who the hell this PAC-MAN dude is? Let us know in the comments.