Everyone knows who Pac Man is (if you don’t, where have you been for the last 35 years?!) One of the most recognisable video game characters of all time, the Pac Man video game has inspired numerous sequels and remakes, clones, a Google doodle, mobile versions for iOS and Android, a philanthropic version that helps fight hunger, not to mention a TV series, an appearance in the 2015 movie Pixels and in the teaser for the 2020 Summer Olympics, and even in a bizarre attack on Hilary Clinton by Donald Trump over Clinton’s email scandal. All this for a character apparently inspired by pizza.
“The story I like to tell about the origin of Pac Man is that one lunch time I was quite hungry and I ordered a whole pizza. I helped myself to a wedge and what was left was the idea for the Pac Man shape,” explained Toru Iwatani, the Japanese designer who came up with the idea for Pac Man, in an interview in 1986 (the full interview is well worth a read). Iwatani was quick in the interview to establish that he isn’t a programmer – “I developed the specs and designed the features, but other people who worked with me wrote the program”. He described the initial thinking behind the idea for Pac Man:
In Japanese the character for mouth (kuchi) is a square shape. It’s not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out. There was the temptation to make the Pac Man shape less simple. While I was designing this game, someone suggested we add eyes. But we eventually discarded that idea because once we added eyes, we would want to add glasses and maybe a moustache. There would just be no end to it.
Food is the other part of the basic concept. In my initial design I had put the player in the midst of food all over the screen. As I thought about it, I realized the player wouldn’t know exactly what to do; the purpose of the game would be obscure. So I created a maze and put the food in it. Then whoever played the game would have some structure by moving through the maze.
The Japanese have a slang word–paku paku–they use to describe the motion of the mouth opening and closing while one eats. The name Pac Man came from that word.
At the time that Iwatani was having his pizza inspiration, the most popular arcade games were war games and shooters (think Asteroids and Space Invaders), and primarily targeted towards young boys and teenagers. Iwatani wanted to “come up with a comical game women could enjoy”, which is why the ghosts (named Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde in case you didn’t know) were different colours - blue, yellow, pink, and red. “I used four different colours mostly to please the women who play–I thought they would like the pretty colours.”
Pac Man was originally released by Namco in Japan in May 1980. Five months later, and with a number of changes, the game was released in the US in October 1980 by Midway. The US version of Pac Man had increased difficulty (this was expected to appeal more to a Western audience), as well as increased pace and different artwork on the cabinet. The name was also changed – it was originally ‘Puck Man’ and there were fears that vandals would change the first letter…
Despite investors not being too impressed by Pac Man at trade shows, "Pac Man Fever" hit the US, and the game was an overnight success, making over a billion dollars in quarters within its first year. By the 1990s, the arcade game had generated about two and a half billion dollars. Pac Man is the best-selling arcade game, having sold 400,000 hardware units, the second-highest by gross revenue ($7.18 billion by 2015), and one of the longest running video game franchises. It is also part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and New York's Museum of Modern Art.
For a full run-through of all the (many) iterations of Pac Man, you can watch a video here. And if all this talk of Pac Man has got your fingers itching to chase ghosts, you can play the original arcade version, in your browser, for free, here, or, (hopefully) play the Google doodle version below.