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The Pac-Man Dossier

February 23, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 10 Next

Chapter 1: Welcome to the Machine

"I don't have any particular interest in [computers]. I'm interested in creating images that communicate with people. A computer is not the only medium that uses images; I could use the movies or television or any other visual medium. It just so happens I use the computer."-Toru Iwatani

It was 1977 when a self-taught, capable young man named Toru Iwatani came to work for Namco Limited, a Tokyo-based amusement manufacturer whose main product lines at the time were projection-based amusement rides and light gun shooting galleries.

He was just 22 years old with no formal training in computers, visual arts, or graphic design, but his creativity and aptitude for game design were obvious to the Namco executives that met with Iwatani. They offered to hire him-with assurances they would find a place for him in the company-and he accepted.

Iwatani eventually found his place designing titles for Namco's new video games division. His limited computer skills necessitated his being paired with a programmer who would write the actual code while Iwatani took on the role of game designer for the project.

This was a new job for the game industry in 1977 when most games were designed by the programmers who coded them. In addition to a programmer, Iwatani's team would usually include a hardware engineer to develop the various devices and components, a graphic artist to realize his visual ideas, and a music composer for any music and sound effects needed in the game.

Iwatani had initially wanted to work on pinball machines, but Namco had no interest in the pinball business. Perhaps as a concession, his first game design, called Gee Bee, was a paddle game similar to Atari's Breakout but with a decidedly pinball-inspired slant to the gameplay.

Released in 1978, it was Namco's first original video game-they had only ported existing Atari games to the Japanese market up to this point-and it enjoyed moderate success in the arcades.

But the paddle games were losing ground fast to a new genre. The unprecedented success of Taito's Space Invaders in 1978 caused an industry-wide shift toward space-themed, shoot-'em-up games (as well as a national coin shortage in Japan).

Game manufacturers scrambled to match Taito's success with space shooters of their own. Namco was quick to follow suit, assigning a team to start work on a Space Invaders clone at once. It was around this time that Toru Iwatani began thinking about designing a different kind of game. He felt the shoot-'em-up craze was destined to fade away like the paddle games before them.

Rather than make another space shooter, Toru wanted to take his game design in a completely new direction that did not focus on violence or conflict, and would appeal to both male and female audiences.

He took inspiration from a children's story about a creature that protected children from monsters by eating them. One of Iwatani's design methods included taking key words associated with a story to aid in developing his ideas. The kanji word taberu ("to eat"), became the premise for the game.

The word kuchi ("mouth") has a square shape for its kanji symbol and provided the inspiration for the game's main character-the better-known legend of Iwatani receiving his inspiration from a pizza pie with a slice missing was, by his own admission, not entirely correct:

"Well, it's half true. 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 Puck-Man came from that word."

-Toru Iwatani

The monsters from the children's story were included as four ghosts that chase the player through the maze, providing an element of tension. Attacks on the player were designed to come in waves (similar to Space Invaders) as opposed to an endless assault, and each ghost was given an unique personality and character.

The children's story also included the concept of kokoro ("spirit") or a life force used by the creature that allowed him to eat the monsters. Toru incorporated this aspect of the story as four edible power pellets in the maze that turn the tables on the ghosts, making them vulnerable to being eaten by the player.

With a name and a basic design in place, Iwatani was ready to begin work. The team Namco assigned Iwatani to bring Puck-Man to life included a programmer (Shigeo Funaki), a hardware engineer, a cabinet designer, and a music composer (Toshio Kai).

Development got underway in early 1979. In the course of that year, two new pinball-themed designs from Iwatani-Bomb Bee and Cutie Q-were both released during Puck-Man's development cycle. Both games were similar to Gee Bee but with stronger gameplay and improved visuals.

The Namco team working on the Space Invaders clone for the past several months had just achieved a technological coup for Namco: the first game to use a true, multi-colored, RGB display instead of the monochrome monitors with colored cellophane tape so prevalent at the time.

Thanks to the breakthrough of the other team, Iwatani now had the new promise of color to enhance his design. Mindful that he wanted the game to appeal to women, he immediately decided to use it on the ghosts, choosing pastel shades for the bodies and adding expressive, blue eyes. Dark blue was used for the maze itself, while Puck-Man was drenched in a brilliant yellow.

The look and feel of Puck-Man continued to evolve for over a year. A large amount of time and effort was put into developing the ghosts unique movement patterns through the maze and tweaking the game difficulty variables as boards were cleared.

Bonus symbols (including the Galaxian flagship) were added into the mix at some point, and the ghosts were finally given names: Akabei, Pinky, Aosuke, and Guzuta. Sound effects and music were some of the final touches added as development neared an end along with constant tweaking of the ghosts' behavior.

Puck-Man's creation was a year and five months in the making-the longest ever for a video game to that point. Finally, on May 22nd, 1980, it was released to arcades in Japan. Initially, the game did moderately well, but was no overnight sensation.

In fact, Namco's multi-colored Space Invaders clone, called Galaxian, was much more popular with the gaming public-the predominately male, game-playing audience in Japan was unsure what to make of Puck-Man with its cartoon-like characters, maze, and pastel colors, whereas Galaxian was more immediately familiar to them with its shoot-'em-up space theme.

Midway was a distributor of coin-operated video games in the U.S. that was always looking for the next big hit from Japan to license and bring to America. They opted for both Puck-Man and Galaxian, modifying the cabinets and artwork to make them easier to manufacture as well as providing a more American look and feel.

Puck-Man went through the majority of the changes: the cabinet was modified slightly, changing the color from white to a bright yellow to make it stand out in the arcade. The detailed, multi-colored cabinet artwork was replaced with cheaper-to-produce, three-color artwork illustrating an iconic representation of Puck-Man (now drawn with eyes and feet) and one blue ghost.

English names were given to the ghosts (Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde), and the Namco title was changed to Midway. The most significant change to Puck-Man was the name. Midway feared it would be too easy for nasty-minded vandals to change the P in Puck-Man to an F, creating an unsavory epithet.

Not wanting their product associated with this word, Midway renamed the game Pac-Man before releasing it to American arcades in October 1980.

But the situation in America was reversed from Japan for these two titles. Galaxian got lost in the shuffle of the shoot-'em-up craze that blanketed America's arcades and, by the fall of 1980, it was already competing with more advanced video games like Defender.

In the end, Galaxian enjoyed moderate success in America and in Japan, but was never the smash hit the original Space Invaders was. Pac-Man was another story. There were no games to compare it to-it was in a genre all by itself. The bright yellow cabinet, visuals, and sounds drew a great deal of attention. No one had seen a game quite like this before.

The addictive gameplay and challenge of increasing levels of difficulty kept the die-hard gamers more than happy, while the simplicity of the game appealed to younger children. The lack of war-like motifs and violence did as Iwatani had hoped and attracted a sizable female audience-a first for a video game. Even the parents wary of the violence-themed arcade games had no problem with their kids playing as cute and innocuous a game as Pac-Man.

Pac-Man went on to capture the world's imagination like nothing before or since. It was a genuine phenomenon on a global scale, selling over 100,000 machines in its first year alone. Easy to learn but notoriously difficult to master, everyone from school children to Wall Street executives dropped quarter after quarter into an ever-increasing number of waiting Pac-Man machines.

By 1982, Pac-Man merchandise was literally everywhere: t-shirts, hats, keychains, wrist bands, bedsheets, air fresheners, wall clocks, drinking glasses, trading cards, stickers, cereal boxes, comic books-even a Saturday morning cartoon.

A novelty song called "Pac-Man Fever" received significant radio play, reaching number nine on the U.S. Billboard charts. Many books were written offering tips and tricks used by the best players to achieve high scores-the first-ever strategy guides published for a video game.

Fast-forward to nearly thirty years later: Pac-Man remains the best-selling coin-operated video game in history. Still considered the most widely-recognized video game character in the U.S., his likeness has been licensed to over 250 companies for over 400 products.

His namesake has been adopted by the business world to describe a way to defend against a hostile takeover (the defending company swallows up the larger company instead in a move known as the "Pac-Man defense"). There is even an upright Pac-Man machine on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Unlike the majority of his early-80s contemporaries, new Pac-Man games are still in development today. Most recently, Pac-Man Championship Edition was released in 2007 for the X-Box 360 console with the aid of Namco game designer Toru Iwatani.

Interest in the original coin-op title has never completely faded, thankfully. Thanks to Namco's re-release of Pac-Man and other arcade classics for modern home consoles, new generations of Pac-addicts have worn their hands out playing a game often older than themselves.

Many classic titles are also kept alive thanks to the advent of high-quality arcade emulators available for the home computer (like MAME) that use a software copy of the arcade ROM chips to recreate the game with 100% accuracy. Several web pages with information about the original Pac-Man arcade game can be found online including Wikipedia and the Killer List Of Video Games.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 10 Next

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