1980: The Big Pac-Attack
All this week, EGMNOW.com takes a look at our picks for the five most influential Japanese videogames ever released. These titles not only shaped us as players—and had dramatic, long-lasting impacts on the entire industry—but also transcended videogaming to become cultural icons.
The Game: Namco game designer Toru Iwatani had a mission: He wanted to make the atmosphere of arcades friendlier to a wider audience—especially women. His idea for a project that would avoid the focus on conflict that so many other arcade game centered around led him to the idea of eating. He created a strange, yellow circle with a mouth—a protagonist whose origins shift between pizza with a slice missing and a play on the Japanese character for “mouth,” depending on which way Iwatani’s telling the story—and set him free in a world where his goal was to eat all the food around him. When Iwatani realized that his new character might need to be given a clearer goal for the benefit of players, he placed the mouth in a maze along with a foursome of ghosts, each of which had their own distinct personalities. And thus, Puckman was born—that is, until the American division of Namco feared young punks might deface machines in an obvious way and changed the game (and its main character) to Pac-Man.
The Effect It Had: Near the end of May 1980, the first hands-on public test for Pac-Man came at a now-demolished movie theater in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Iwatani noticed that when couples came out to take a break after having seen a movie, women were drawn to Pac-Man, wanting to give it a try. Iwatani’s goal of getting customers of all types interested in videogames was working—but neither he nor Namco could have any idea of how successful they’d end up. (In one interview with Namco founder Masaya Nakamura, the company head said that in baseball terminology, he initially thought the game might be a double—but certainly not a home run.)
When Pac-Man reached its full worldwide launch in late 1980, it didn’t just become a hit game—it became a cultural phenomenon. Though its home country of Japan initially liked—but didn’t quite love—the game, Pac-Man’s American debut was where “Pac-Man fever” began to spread at an amazing rate. (Even in the literal sense, when Buckner & Garcia released their videogame-themed concept album, Pac-Man Fever, in 1982.) Pac-Man quickly beat out Asteroids as the reigning champ of North American arcades, and over time, it went on to reach an achievement that it still holds to this day—the highest-grossing videogame (arcade or otherwise) of all time.
Its Lasting Influence: Pac-Man hit at a time when arcades overflowed with space shooters that mostly appealed to a male audience. Even before other games would come along that opened up videogaming to a wider, more diverse selection of players, Pac-Man was truly groundbreaking. The game showed the world that people of any age, gender, race, or social background could fall in love with videogames if presented options that they could relate to. These days, that idea might be common sense; in 1980, it was an immensely valuable lesson that Iwatani’s cute yellow creation had to teach the industry.
It wasn’t long before clones of every shape and size came along to try to profit from Pac-Man’s success. If a particular piece of hardware didn’t have an official version of Pac-Man on it, it certainly had a knockoff or two. Far beyond those clones, though, Pac-Man had far-reaching and lasting influences in other ways. It was the first videogame to feature power-ups—an idea that’s been a staple of gaming for so long, one can’t imagine an industry without them. In terms of design, Pac-Man wasn’t just a huge source of inspiration in obvious ways—the popularization of worlds designed to be mazes—but also in more subtle aspects. The next time you’re playing Uncharted or Metal Gear Solid and face a challenge to sneak your way through a particularly hairy situation without being detected, think of Pac-Man and its early concepts of stealth-based gameplay.
And, of course, there’s the character of Pac-Man himself. He was the first true icon of videogaming, becoming a character loved and recognized even by people who’d never touched a joystick before in their lives. Kids rose from beds covered in Pac-Man bedsheets, ran from their bedrooms dressed in Pac-Man pajamas, filled bowls with Pac-Man cereal, and sat down in front of the TV to watch Pac-Man’s Saturday-morning cartoon adventures. Before Nintendo’s turtle-stomping plumber came along and showed just how powerful and recognizable a videogame character could be as a mascot, Pac-Man was there first, paving the way for all who would come after him.
What do you think of Pac-Man being one of our top choices? How do you feel it’s influenced the world of videogames—and do you have any special memories or experiences with the game? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
EGMNOW’s Five Most Influential Japanese Games
Day 1: Space Invaders
Day 2: Pac-Man
Day 3: Game #3 (Coming Wednesday)
Day 4: Game #4 (Coming Thursday)
Day 5: Game #5 (Coming Friday)