Quick! Who is this?
No? How about now?
If you recognize this as a video game icon and live in North America, you are part of the 94% of the population who does. At least, according to a survey conducted in 2009 that named Pac-Man the most recognizable character in video games. (Yes, even more than Mario, though it was only by a single percentage point.)
But have you ever considered why? Why does removing a single slice of circle make it so instantly familiar to you? You don’t see cheese. (Well, maybe in France and Wisconsin, you do.)
You don’t see pie. You don’t see the geometry lesson from freshman year of high school you still have nightmares about. You see Pac-Man. Pac-Man, a character so much a part of our collective cultural consciousness that we can recognize him by his shape alone.
And, likewise, his wife.
While it’s impossible to say what made Pac-Man such a phenomenon upon the original arcade game’s release in North America in 1980 – why people liked the game THAT much – it is possible to follow the trajectory of the game’s (and character’s) success, and put together a picture of how video games’ first major mascot became so deeply-embedded in our culture.
Pac-Man Welcomed Women to the Arcade
In the late 1970s, video games were played by boys and young men. At least, that was how it looked if you visited an arcade during the period. Dudes played Asteroids, dudes played Centipede, and dudes played Space Invaders, the smashest smash success arcade game as of yet to be released in North America.
What if, though, just what if, women’s lack of interest in arcades wasn’t due to the idea of playing video games itself, but the actual games? What if the games that filled those social spaces just didn’t appeal to them?
Those were the questions game developer Toru Iwatani (and his team) wanted to explore with their first game for Namco, a Japanese company that had plenty of experience in coin-operated amusement design before video games were even a thing as the producers of kiddie rides for department stores.
At a time when nearly all arcade games were some form of shoot ‘em up, Iwatani and his team set out to design a video game with wider market appeal, something that would tempt players beyond the typical video game audience. Less shooting and destruction, more chasing and quick-thinking.
The maze of pellets and ghost enemies Iwatani came up with was simplistic in its design, though it did make use of the video screen more fully than other games of its time, and it didn’t make much of a splash when it made its debut in Japan in 1980.
When it crossed the sea later that same year to North America, though, Pac-Man proved a juggernaut, outselling and out-grossing every other arcade game, including Space Invaders, a sales record it holds to this day.
Pac-Man didn’t just appeal to women, it seemed; the gobbling and chasing theme appealed to everyone, regular gamers and newcomers alike. But Iwatani and his team were also right, with spotters estimating that 60% of Pac-Man’s players were girls and women.
Pac-Man Gobbled Up the North America Market
How great was the appeal of Pac-Man to North American consumers? 400,000 arcade cabinets sold in the first two years of its release great. A gross of more than $7 billion dollars in quarters during that same period great. A major role in the spread of arcades across the continent great.
One could argue, when Pac-Man hit the North American marketplace, arcade games were both in their infancy and in their prime. While arcade video games had been around since the early 1970s to some degree of success, the late 70s saw major strides forward in game technology and popularity.
Pac-Man’s release came within a decade of the very first arcade video game, Computer Space, and within two years of the first smash hit video arcade game, Space Invaders.
Video games and arcades were on the upswing. While it’s impossible to calculate the role that Pac-Man played in the spread of video gaming across the U.S., the fact that the bulk of Pac-Man’s sales and the more than doubling of video arcades across North America occurred concurrently – between 1980 and 1982 – leads to a fairly solid line of reason that Pac-Man did have an impact.
At any rate, it essentially guaranteed that Pac-Man was in every arcade in the country – arcade owners would have been remiss to leave it out – so it became nearly impossible for the general public to avoid him.
Pac-Man Found Life Outside of Arcades
Those three years, between 1980 and 1982, were the heyday of video arcades, with arcades tripling their profits in 1980, almost doubling them in 1981, and nearly doubling again in 1982. That year, video games, led by arcade grosses, would make more money than popular movies and music combined.
At home, video games were also hitting their mainstream stride, following the release of the Atari 2600 in 1977, the first hugely successful home video game system that would go on to sell 30 million units.
Though it wasn’t immediately apparent, the meteoric rise of the video game industry – both in arcades and at home with the Atari 2600 – was an unsustainable enterprise.
Popularity meant demand, and demand meant shortcuts and shabby products. Before the video game crash of 1983 sent the market and players reeling, however, Pac-Man made it to the home video game market, with the release of the 2600’s Pac-Man port.
Highly anticipated, Atari’s version of Pac-Man was painfully-received by the public, along with many other new releases for the Atari 2600, due, in large part, to a slew of third-party titles that had flooded the game market.
An awful home version of such a beloved game could easily have relegated Pac-Man to the domain of arcades, where the quality of the game could be trusted. Luckily, for Pac-Man and publisher Namco, the much-maligned Atari game wasn’t Pac-Man’s only inroad into American homes.
In its first two years, the game had made such a cultural impact that Pac-Man was already the star of a Saturday morning cartoon, the first cartoon ever based on a video game, and the subject of one of the biggest songs of 1982 – Pac-Man Fever.
General Mills made a Pac-Man cereal, and sports card manufacturer, Fleer, made Pac-Man game card and sticker sets. So, along with a few other beloved games of the early 80s, Pac-Man may very well have survived the implosion of the video game industry on the affection of the public alone.
Pac-Man is Still Fun to Play
Real talk. It doesn’t matter how many records a video game holds – though, Pac-Man holds quite a few – or whether a game brought women to the fold or spawned its own cartoon. When it comes down to it, the test of time for any video game is Does it hold up? Is it still fun to play?
You don’t become one of the longest running franchises in video games by being a snore.
While technology has dramatically improved in the roughly forty years since Pac-Man was released, and games have become progressively more impressive, Pac-Man is still a fun game to play. And that’s not just this player’s opinion.
Pac-Man, or more specifically Ms. Pac-Man, with its additional boards and improved gameplay, appears on just about every top video game list you can find. And that’s why it has continued to be published for every major console, as well as in a number of stand-alone plug-and-play systems, for four decades, and Pac-Man remains an icon of video games in the 21st Century.