What Pac-Man means at 30

It's hard to believe, but the iconic game will have its 30th anniversary Saturday. Many in the games industry say its influence is as strong as ever.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

It's probably impossible to count the times someone has written that video games are a business as big as or bigger than Hollywood.

But long before the Halos and the Sims and the Call of Dutys and the Maddens began bringing in billions of dollars, the world was dominated by a simple yellow character munching his way through a maze of dots, trying to avoid getting eaten by ghosts.

On May 22, 1980, a Japanese company called Namco Bandai released a game in Japan called Puck-Man. The title was rejected in the United States because some worried that the "P" would chip off the cabinet and look like an "F."

Regardless, a global phenomenon was born that day. And on Saturday, Pac-Man celebrates its 30th anniversary. And unlike so many of the hit games that have come and gone since then, the little yellow disc with the missing pie-slice for a mouth has become a legend in the video games industry, as well as an inspiration for many of the best-known designers in the field.

"I think there's no question that Pac-Man was sort of a watershed event in the popularity and possibilities of video games," said Richard Garriott, a veteran designer known for his pioneering work on Ultima and Ultima Online, as well as his leading roles on Lineage, City of Heroes, and Tabula Rasa. "It was by no means the first [hit game], but earlier offerings [like Asteroids and Pong], no matter how compelling [they were] to nerds like me...Pac-Man was really the first [that reached] what I would call the broad cross-section of society, men and women. It was really the first time, where people looked at video games not merely as this odd thing that teenage boys would [pump] their quarters into, but which had much broader social significance."

Pac-Man at 30 (images)

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That may seem like a bold statement, but there is evidence to back the idea that Pac-Man may be the most influential video game of all time. For instance, the Guinness Book of World Records named Pac-Man as the best-known video game character on Earth, beating out stalwarts like the Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog. Guinness also lists Pac-Man as the most successful coin-operated game ever.

And while it may not have the attention of the typical male teen gamer, Pac-Man certainly still has a place in society today. There are popular iPhone and iPad versions of the game, many bars still feature the arcade machines. And on Friday, Google is breaking new ground by unveiling its first-ever interactive and playable home page logo, a full-featured, 255-level version of Pac-Man (see video below), built from the ground up but maintaining an almost perfect look and feel of the original.

"We are very excited about the Google [logo] project," Namco CEO Kenji Hisatsune told CNET by e-mail. "This being the first time Google has ever included sound or made a [logo] playable demonstrates just how big of an impact Pac-Man has made."

Watch this: Google's Pac-Man doodle

Marcin Wichary, the Google senior user-experience designer who led the Pac-Man logo project, agreed that the game has made a huge difference in many people's lives, including his.

Pac-Man was released when "there were a lot of space shooters," said Wichary. "It was the first game that tried to approach it a little bit differently. It tries to tell a story and it's not a violent game. It's very friendly, with colorful characters and music. I think that was important...It's just so amazing that Pac-Man's so timeless. Even 30 years later, it's actually [still] such a blast to play it."

One of the biggest reasons that Pac-Man, and its many sequels, especially 1981's Ms. Pac-Man, were hits, is because they were very simple. Pick up one of today's more complicated $60 Xbox 360 titles and if you're not a hard-core gamer, you can easily get so confused and intimidated that you quickly give up. But Pac-Man wasn't like that.

"Pretty much anyone could watch someone playing it for 10 seconds and understand everything about it," said Steve Meretzky, a veteran game designer who created famous Infocom titles like Leather Goddesses of Phobos and the game version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "It was a game everyone felt comfortable playing, even in the setting of an arcade, and that's why it became so universally popular."

In addition, Meretzky said, Pac-Man had something for everyone, be it a first-timer or someone who had spent countless dollars in quarters on it. "It's just incredibly well-crafted," he said. "It balances pretty well. Even if you are a super expert and you're playing it for the zillionth time, level one isn't boring. It still feels fun to play. And vice-versa. Even if you're a rank newbie, level one doesn't feel like a horrible crushing experience. It's still fun to play."

Simple rules
Anyone who has played Pac-Man can probably sum up the rules in a few seconds, as Meretzky suggested. But it's interesting to look on Namco's official Pac-Man site and look at a description of the rules and the game play:

The player controls Pac-Man while attempting to eat all the dots in the maze and avoid getting caught by the ghosts through an extremely simple user interface consisting only of a single joystick.

There are four ghosts who chase Pac-Man, each with different names and personalities, such as the chaser and the ambusher. The ghosts work together to try to corner and catch Pac-Man. As for Pac-Man, he can power up by eating one of four blinking power pellets located in the corners of the maze. The power pellet will provide Pac-Man with the ability to eat ghosts for a limited amount of time. When a ghost is eaten, its eyes will return to the ghost home in the center of the maze, where it regenerates after a certain amount of time. Moreover, there are two warp tunnels on either side of the maze, which will slow down the ghosts while Pac-Man escapes to the other side of the screen.

In each level, bonus items appear after a certain number of dots are eaten. There are a variety of bonus items, including fruits like cherries and strawberries, the "Galaxian" boss flagship, and a key. In order to get a really high score, these items should not be missed.

Pac-Man starts the game with three lives, and loses a life each time a ghost touches Pac-Man. Obtaining more than 5,000 points earns the player an extra life.

Ultimately, it is Pac-Man's simplicity that brought it such a huge audience. Yet to designers like Meretzky, trying to replicate that was no easy task. Meretzky recalled designing a title called Hodj 'n Podj, which featured several reworked classic games, including a remake of Pac-Man. "It made me much more appreciative of the game," he said. "It was really, really hard to get the game balance right, and get the [artificial intelligence] of the ghosts right. You look at Pac-Man and you think it's such a simple game and an easy game to clone. But it's hard to get the balance right."

To Garriott, who in addition to being a famous game designer is also known for his recent trip to the International Space Station, one main reason that Pac-Man has held up so well over time is that the game's designer, Toru Iwatani, nailed what Garriott calls the "fundamentals of game play."

He said that classic games like chess, checkers, and Go are all conceptually easy to understand, but take a lifetime to master. "I think Pac-Man does very well on that metric," Garriott said. "It's easy to understand and sit down and try to play. But then [you see its] wide variety of foundational strategies that unfold only after you have played many, many times."

Partially-eaten pizza
According to Namco's Hisatsune, Pac-Man--or, more properly, Puck-Man--was inspired by a partially eaten pizza of Iwatani's. It's hard to say exactly how the designer made the connection between the unfinished pie and the hit game, but Hisatsune, Iwatani presciently saw something that would inspire a gaming empire.

The original version of Pac-Man was first called Puck-Man.

"During the early stages of the arcade industry," Hisatsune said, "most games were skewed toward a male audience. Iwatani-san knew there would be no future in arcade games unless the games being produced were also tailored to women and couples. This is when Pac-Man was born."

Now, on the eve of the game's 30th anniversary, Namco is far from letting go of its gold mine. It is still working on new versions, new characters, and new platforms.

"We would like to keep planning how Pac-Man will evolve and what he will be like when he reaches his 50th anniversary," Hisatsune said. "The fact that Pac-Man is as popular now as he was 30 years ago makes me believe that [the game] will be relevant in the future."

Of course, there are those who find it hard to imagine that so many years have gone by since that auspicious day, May 22, 1980.

"It can't really be 30 years," Meretzky said. "It has to be 10. Right?"