Happy Birthday Pac-Man! The grandad of videogame mascots is 36 years old today, and doesn’t look a day over 35. It was on this day in 1980 that Namco released the first arcade units to Japanese arcades, and since that day the character has become such an icon he is known almost as well by non-gamers as gamers themselves. But beyond the pill munching habit, how much do we actually know about him?
Read on, to find out more.
Ghost in the Machine
In 2011, three decades after Pac-Man first took the world by storm the game’s creator, Tori Iwatani revealed a surprising secret about the game: That the ghosts have different personalities.
Yep - Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde were not just different colours, but were coded to behave differently. Blinky, the red ghost is programmed to chase Pac-Man around the maze, Pinky and Inky are programmed to attempt to position themselves in front of the Pac-Man, and Clyde… well, he’s just told to move randomly around the maze. Historically there has been some confusion over the naming, as in some games, such as 1996’s Pac-Man Arrangement named the orange ghost Blinky, and the red ghost Clyde.
Other later iterations of Pac-Man also introduced new ghosts, such as one named Kinky (...yeah) in the aforementioned Arrangement, which would charge around like a bull - or combine with the other ghosts to unlock new types of movement, such as the ability to warp around the map.
A Game Without End
The original Pac-Man, and its sequel Ms Pac-Man don’t actually have an ending. Each time you completed a level the ghosts would get faster and the fruit would change - but it was all done by algorithm, with the game adding +1 to speed each time, and so on.
This mean that even if you were that good, it was impossible to get higher than level 255 - because that number is the maximum number it is possible to encode in one Bit of memory (in binary, 255 is 11111111). Since emulation and taking apart the code has revealed that if you could get that far into the game what would happen is the level would be massively corrupted. This is known as a “kill screen”, and such a situation was fairly common to games of the era.
So there was never a credits sequence where Pac-Man sails off into the sunset.
Though the story doesn’t end there. This year a game called Pac-Man 256 has been released for mobile devices which makes light of the glitch. In the game you have to play in the classic Pac-Man style (albeit with an endless maze), but also avoid a glitch character who will chase you around too.
Counting the Games
It’s actually rather tricky to count the exact number of Pac-Man games made over the years, because so many have been constantly re-released on different formats, or re-released with only minor changes. But there have been some significant titles.
Ms Pac-Man was the game’s first sequel - and curiously was developed not by Namco in Japan but by Midway in America. Midway had been the distributor for the first game in North America and in 1982 was desperate for a sequel, so decided to slap on a bow on the main character and make it themselves. The game featured new maps and a handful of other features to make it easier to understand. And it was a smash hit, selling over 115,000 arcade cabinets.
After taking the world by storm, Pac-Man was an icon so unsurprisingly he ended up crossing genres and fronting an entire swathe of different games. In 1983, he became a quiz-master in Professor Pac-Man:
In 1984, proto-platformer Pac-Land saw the eponymous hero having to jump over and avoid enemies in this side-scroller.
In 1987 Pac-Mania became the first 16-bit installment of the series, and took an isometric, pseudo-3D view of the maze. It also introduced a jump button, so Pac-Man could now literally leap over pursuing ghosts.
Curiously since the 90s, it appears that Pac-Man hasn’t really had much of an identity of his own - instead, games bearing his name have instead essentially been reflections of whatever the popular genre of the moment was. For example, in the early 90s, following the explosive popularity of the Game Boy title, Pac-Attack thought it wise to combine Tetris with Pac-Man…
And then a game bravely titled Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures positioned itself as a direct sequel to the original. But rather than stick with fast-paced, arcade action it instead decided to - presumably inspired by the likes of Monkey Island - turn into a point and click RPG instead. Seriously.
When the Gamecube arrived, Pac-Man Fever was a Mario Party-style mini-game compilation. Then Pac-Man Party did the same thing on the Wii.
The Pac-Man World series tried to turn Pac-Man into a 3D Mario clone...
...and Pac-Man Rally became a poor man’s Mario Kart.
A Hit Single
It’s hard to underestimate just how big Pac-Man was when it was first released in 1981. It even spawned a song - called Pac-Man Fever. Performed by Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia, the song incorporated sound effects from the game into a tune that sounds almost exactly like you’d expect something from the 1980s to sound.
Amazingly, it sold 1.2m copies by 1982, and 2.5m more as of 2008, and got as high as number 9 in the US Billboard chart. The song was most recently re-recorded - complete with glitzy CGI-video - to coincide with last year’s Adam Sandler disaster Pixels, which also featured the character consuming his creator.
Two TV Shows
You’d be forgiven for thinking that there surely can’t be more lore when it comes to a yellow circle and some crude pixels shaped vaguely like ghosts. But Pac-Man also had two animated series made. In 1982, Hanna-Barbera made 44 episodes of the show, which featured Pac-Man, Ms PacMan and Baby Pac-Man, and the regular sadistic killings of ghosts by the show’s hero.
In 2013, another series, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures was made to tie in with the game of the same name. Unlike the previous cell animation, this time it is an all-CGI affair.
Pac-Man hasn’t just appeared in his own games - he has also appeared as a playable character in other games too.
In a nice nod to his arcade heritage, in 2005 Pac-Man was a playable character in Mario Kart Arcade GP which was only available in arcades (home users had to make do with Double Dash, which lacked Pac’). When Mario Kart 8 on the WiiU arrived though Pac-Man himself didn’t feature it is possible using the Pac-Man Amiibo figure to unlock a Pac-Man costume for your Mii.
Pac-Man does however get a full home console appearance in a Nintendo game thanks to Smash Bros on the WiiU and 3DS. So finally you can answer the oldest question in gaming: Who’d win in a fight between Pac-Man and the Wii Fit fitness trainer avatar?
He also appears in a handful of other titles - including Everybody’s Golf 6 and (most weirdly in our view), Street Fighter X Tekken, in which Pac-Man pilots of a sort-of wooden humanoid robot capable of fighting. Seriously.
Perhaps our favourite Pac-Cameo though comes courtesy of Matt Groening’s Futurama. In a non-canonical Anthology of Interest episode, Fry asks the “What If?” machine what would happen if videogames reveal, and the story features Pac-Man as a general who gets killed while fighting off an invasion by the space invader aliens.
Happy Birthday, Pac-Man!