Sure, Pac-Man, which turns 33 on May 22, looks awfully basic when you compare it to, say, Call of Duty: Ghosts.
But the arcade game created by Japanese designer Toru Iwatani was something to see when it was released back in 1980, especially when compared to black-and-white predecessors like Pong and Asteroids.
“I was 12 years old when I first saw Pac-Man,” recalls technologist and gaming expert Chris Melissinos, formerly chief evangelist and chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems. “I grew up in Flushing, New York, and I remember being next to a stationery store that was on my paper route and seeing it for the first time and thinking, ‘Oh, my god. What is this thing?’ It was unlike anything we’d seen before. It was very brightly colored. It was very fast. It was abstract. It was certainly more sophisticated than what we were playing at home.”
More than three decades later Pac-Man would become a key part of The Art of Video Games. Curated by Melissinos, the exhibit exploring the artistic evolution of video games is now touring museums around the country.
Here, Melissinos talks to Co.Create about how Pac-Man shook up gaming back in the day and why it is relevant even now.
Most games were about annihilation [at the time Pac-Man was released]. Most games were World War-themed or aggressive games. Here was a game that was none of those things. There was no weapon to fire. It was: Outrun your pursuers until you are of sufficient strength that you can then chase them. And what it really wound up doing was it changed the social dialogue around arcades. Now, for the first time, you had women in arcades, and you had kids—both boys and girls—in these arcades that were typically full of older teens and adult males. It fundamentally changed the dialogue and the social contract that arcades had made. It made it more permissible for everyone to be included in arcade culture.
It was one of those games, and there are games in each generation that kind of do the same thing, but it was one of the very first that changed the way, in a very broad sense, that both society and game designers thought about video games. It was so different. Here was this abstract, candy-colored game that spoke to both men and women equally, and it influenced games that came out after, like Pengo, a game about a cute little penguin that ran around and pushed its enemies away with blocks. You see it changed how developers thought about games. It was an incredible force in the maturing of the video game industry.
Pac-Man prompted designers to experiment with a broader range of characters, environments, and stories in their games. I mentioned Pengo from Sega as another game released during the same era. While not directly cribbing Pac-Man’s game play, the design aesthetic always resonated with me as being from the same camp. A cartoon penguin, amorphous blobs as enemies, simple interstitial animations between levels, wicked game play mechanics, all of these things were borne out of the design influence that Pac-Man had on the industry. And look at what followed: Mr. Do, Dig-Dug, Ms. Pac-Man, Tutankham, etc. All games that came after Pac-Man that had an iconic mascot that was central to the game. But Pac-Man was the first.
The influence that Pac-Man had on game design can still be felt to this day. Not in just the many remakes of the original game over the years, but by games that appropriate the core mechanics of Pac-Man in new ways. From games that trade in stealth mechanics, avoiding pursuers in achieving their goals, to games that have a linear collection mechanic, the echo of Pac-Man, or "ghosts" of Pac-Man, if you will, can be observed in games today.
Think about what Pac-Man meant at the time it was introduced. Suddenly, you had a top 40 song, “Pac-Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia. You had board games by Milton Bradley, cartoons, cereal, clothing. You had all of these things that Pac-Man was attached to, and what you were really observing at the time was society trying to figure out: What does this mean in popular culture? We’d never had a game that absolutely ensnared the masses of society like Pac-Man did.
Pac-Man is so iconic in American culture that it transcends generations with ease. I was a chaperone for my daughter’s fifth-grade class field trip to an aquarium and was wearing a Pac-Man T-shirt. The kids saw it, and there was no explanation required for that iconic yellow circle. The kids dubbed our group "Team Pac-Man," once again demonstrating how identifiable Pac-Man is within popular culture.
Pac-Man and the characters in the game are so identifiable that we chose the red ghost monster "Blinky" to adorn the front cover of my book, The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. When you see the cover, and the one eye of Blinky staring back at you from a blanket of red, there is no explanation necessary. You understand what this book is about.
Pac-Man is timeless. Its character design and the mechanics of it are so simple. It’s basically the cardinal movements on a compass, right? North, south, east, west, that’s it. So it’s incredibly approachable, incredibly accessible, and it’s a game that doesn’t have to rely on technology to prove its point. It relies on the mechanics and the art style, not necessarily technology.
And Pac-Man today is the same as it was, even Pac-Man CE, the championship edition that came out on the Xbox 360. Great game. It’s a new riff on Pac-Man, but guess what? The mechanics have not changed a bit. They’ve added new features to it, but at the end of the day, it comes back to up and down, left and right.
There aren’t very many games that are re-playable from generation to generation that still hold the same level of difficulty or complexity or challenge, but Pac-Man is one of them.
It is an enduring game. I think 20 or 30 years from now people will be able to recognize Pac-Man and still go back and play it.