It’s a yellow circle with a wedge missing that goes around a maze eating dots and dodging ghosts. That, in a nutshell, is the most iconic, legendary video game ever to hit the arcade. Ask anyone with access to electricity to identify Pac-Man and they’ll get it right 99.999% of the time. Created by Toru Iwatani of Namco in 1980, the game had an inauspicious release in Japan but enjoyed a far better welcome in the United States (where it was distributed by Midway). Overtaking the popular Space Invaders, Pac-Man became a staple of arcades across the country and spawned a veritable media empire that is still thriving today.
The game was simple and straightforward: the little yellow blob had to navigate a maze strewn with dots (that had to be eaten), fruit (that had to be eaten) and ghosts (that had to be avoided or eaten). By chomping down on ‘energizer pellets,’ Pac-Man could go after the deadly ghosts which turned blue and temporarily vulnerable. Eating his nemeses awarded Pac-Man bonus points, as did eating other objects that appeared randomly during gameplay, mostly varieties of fruit.
The energizer or power pellets could be found at each of the four corners of the screen and Pac-Man had to get to them, eat them and then go after the ghosts while they were helpless. A defeated ghost turned into a pair of disembodied eyes that returned to the center of the maze, the ghost home, to regenerate into their deadlier versions.
Clearing one level of dots, fruit and ghosts led to the next, harder level. The ghosts were faster, the time window to eat them grew smaller and Pac-Man had to seriously step up his game. There were many levels but though the game was designed to progress indefinitely, a glitch in the code rendered the 256th screen into gibberish that could not be surpassed. Few lucky gamers ever made it far enough into the game to encounter the notorious “kill screen.”
Pac-Man was a phenomenon, plain and simple, one that continues to resonate to this day. There were many imitators and rip-offs and several official follow-up games like Ms. Pac-Man that raked in coins all over the world, but none that ever captured the attention of the original, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2010.
If you went through quarters by the bucket-load, trying to master the intricacies of Pac-man, or even if you were just a normal, less-rabid fan, we welcome your memories in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this iconic arcade game.