If Space Invaders turning 40 two years ago didn’t make you feel old, how about today? It’s Pac-Man’s 40th birthday!
Widely regarded as the game that brought all ages and genders to the video arcade (heretofore primarily a testosterone-laden domain of teenage delinquents), Pac-Man of course launched Pac-Man Fever (a much more welcome pandemic than our current situation), and spearheaded the whole early ’80s video game craze.
As young as I was, I vividly remember the first time I saw Pac-Man. It was at Mike’s Town & Country grocery store in Appleton, Wisconsin, and I was 6 years old. This particular supermarket always had a couple of arcade machines in the front entryway, and swapped them out for different games fairly frequently. But one day, there was this game with a blue maze, a yellow chomping mouth, and some kooky-lookin’ ghosts running around.
So my mom gave me a quarter and I gave it a shot. Not understanding how the game worked, I assumed I was just supposed to cruise around the maze and catch the ghosts — but every time I hit a ghost, it killed me. WTF?
It wasn’t until Game Over that we actually read the instructions and realized that I had to eat one of the big dots to make the ghosts turn blue, THEN I could eat them. So I tried again, and did an absolutely terrible job, but that was enough. I was hooked. Obsessed.
Although Pac-Man was not my very first video game, and I was already super interested in them, it was even more engaging than any other game I had tried yet. I remember the first time I actually cleared the first screen, in the game room at Shakey’s restaurant during a pizza party for our soccer team (I was worse at soccer than I was at Pac-Man, and soon thereafter gave it up in preference for video entertainment).
Not long after its introduction came the onslaught of Pac-Man merchandise, further driving the mania into the skulls of vidiots everywhere, myself included. I had Pac-Man t-shirts, Pac-Man pajamas, Pac-Man pillowcases, Pac-Man stickers and trading cards, a Pac-Man bulletin board, Pac-Man storage tins, Pac-Man drinking glasses, a Pac-Man TV tray, Pac-Man windup toys, and Pac-Man books (How to Win at Pac-Man and Pac-Mania, specifically).
I watched the Pac-Man Saturday morning cartoon while eating Pac-Man cereal. I memorized how to draw the maze, the side art of the arcade machine, and the Pac-Man logo. Pac-Man Fever was the very first album I chose for myself.
Needless to say, I was all-in. I had a terminal case of Pac-Man Fever.
Of course, I was one of the millions who got Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 and was initially somewhat disappointed by its inaccuracy, but because I was a kid and it was a video game, I grew to love it anyway.
Over the years, as a lifelong video game nerd and collector, of course I obtained and played many versions of the game. Every version was different, some bad, some acceptable, some great, but they all had various twists that made them interesting.
Other Pac-merchandise found its way into my archives as well. I’ve always had a few Pac-Man t-shirts in my drawer, and I re-acquired some of the things I had when I was a kid that had been lost or destroyed over time. I eventually found the original Pac-Man board game, which I didn’t have as a kid but, as coveted as it was, actually didn’t really work all that well.
I even got a Pac-Man tattoo.
One piece that always eluded me, like Clyde when Pac-Man gets too close, was the Coleco tabletop version of the game (actually, I never got any of those cool little mini-arcade games).
Nowadays, we have mini Pacs ranging from the Tiny Arcade series to the Quarter Arcade replicas, which blow the old VFD-based games out of the water in terms of gameplay, but will never carry the same nostalgia as the Coleco classic.
Eventually, I did get the ultimate prize: my very own Pac-Man arcade machine. Actually, it’s a Ms. Pac-Man, but it’s in an original Pac-Man cabinet, and I could deconvert it back to a regular Pac if I want. Which I do.
Years ago, one of the most fascinating things I’d ever found was Jamey Pittman’s Pac-Man Dossier, blowing wide open the complete breakdown of Pac-Man’s programming and the ghosts’ behavior. It’s a fascinating read; and if you can master it, you can master the game. Billy Mitchell knows this well; I personally have yet to get the hang of it.
Now, 40 years later, while Pac-Man fever’s curve has flattened (to put it into current terms), it’s still highly contagious. Recent examples of the disease’s continued infectiousness include Namco’s concept arcade/restuarant complex Level 257 (now known as Pac-Man Entertainment), the major motion picture Pixels, and 2018’s Red Bull cross-promotion.
Who would have thought, way back in the entryway to Mike’s Town & Country grocery store, that I would still be talking about Pac-Man in 2020? Well, we all are. Toru Iwatani’s creation is still an icon, and the world is better for it.