Originally published May 2015.
I've always found it fitting that the first-ever true icon of video games was inspired by a pizza. Much as the Dorito's marketing team would like to insinuate their snack as the quintessential food of video game fanatics, we all know pizza is the true gamer staple — and the negative-space wedge of a pepperoni pie with a few slices missing, legend has it, helped inspired the design of Pac-Man.
Equally fitting, too, was the fact that back in the character's heyday, you were most likely to encounter him in a pizza joint. Sure, back in the early '80s, arcades spilled across the country with the proliferation of modern-day Starbucks, and standalone arcade cabinets were popular enough to show up in far more unlikely locations, too. An Ikari Warriors, its spinner control busted by overenthusiastic teens, sitting disused in the corner of a convenience store. Mad Planets blaring angrily, yet still ignored, in a drugstore's entry vestibule. A Galaxian upright, its RGB guns drifting out of alignment, at the front of a Chinese restaurant.
But if you wanted the good stuff — hot titles, maintained well — in a convenient space where you could justify bringing your parents to sit and chat while you pumped quarter after quarter into a respectable selection of arcade cabs, you went for pizza. It didn't even have to be a video game destination pizza joint like Showbiz; any pizza shop worth its salty pepperoni sported at least half a dozen games, which was the best of both worlds for kids and their parents. Kids got to shove coins into games, while parents could enjoy tolerable (maybe even good!) pizza rather than that grim cardboard Chuckie Cheese served.
In those places, Pac-Man reigned as king for years. Eventually he'd be replaced by upstarts — first Dragon's Lair, then Gauntlet, then Double Dragon, then finally Street Fighter II — but in the beginning, not even the mighty Donkey Kong or Dig Dug could depose him.
That state of affairs seems almost a universe away from Pac-Man's current existence. He's not forgotten, exactly, but he's hardly the superstar he once was. If kids know him today, it's from the Ghostly Adventures cartoon rather than from a genuine Pac-Man game. Or else it's from Smash Bros., where he appears in vintage style with a sort of wistful melancholy reminiscent of a washed-up star athlete coaching little league — proud to see those who have followed in his footsteps, but a bit verklempt to have been invited to take part in a game that actually matters in this day and age. While he does get to take part in new creations that actually build on his classic arcade adventures every now and then — 2007's brilliant Pac-Man Championship Edition, or the fascinatingly metatextual Pac-Man 256 due soon for mobile — those seem directed toward core gamers, who relish a challenge or appreciate the high-concept notion of Pac-Man being chased by a relentless buffer overrun glitch.
That sets them apart from the Pac-Man of old, whose popularity rested on the fact that his game appealed to everyone. With vivid colors that popped against a rich black background and easily grasped mechanics (the arcade game controlled entirely with a single joystick and no buttons), Pac-Man brought personality to the medium that previously had been absent. Video games throughout the '70s tended to rely on abstract vehicles or simple geometric shapes for their player avatars; when "characters" appeared, they did so as rude stick figures. Pac-Man may have been a simple circle with a mouth, but that ravenous orifice was enough to ignite the brain's love for anthropomorphism. We humans are vain and self-centered creatures, seeing ourselves in even the most abstract objects, and Pac-Man is perhaps the classic example of the same tendency that gave us the OM NOM NOM NOM meme. We didn't even need an eye to see Pac-Man as a face, just a hungry piehole... and a helpful nudge from the cabinet marquee art.
The simplicity of Pac-Man made it accessible, but its challenge made it addictive. It was a perfect arcade game: Appealing visuals drew players in; clear and obvious game goals and rules got them playing; relentless (but never unfair!) difficulty kept them dropping quarters. And it hooked everyone: Men, women, children. When Midway created an unauthorized sequel starring Pac-Man's female counterpart, Ms. Pac-Man, no one threw a feminists are ruining my FIFA tantrum. Men, women, and children happily played Ms. Pac-Man, too, because it looked nicer and played better than the original.
Namco and Midway both realized, almost immediately, the appeal of their game. Pac-Man broke boundaries by expanding beyond the limited confines of the arcade, and of video games. There was no such thing as Pong merchandise or a Galaxian cartoon, but Pac-Man became a television star. He inspired a novelty pop rock hit. And his face — helpfully given full anthropomorphic form by an army of commercial illustrators — grinned out at us from no end of merchandise.
For someone like me — just barely reaching elementary school by the time the Pac-Man fever epidemic reached maximum virulence — Pac-Man is one of those games/characters/properties that occupies a sort of permanent and unspeakably vast plot of real estate in my brain. Like Star Wars or the "Thriller" video, Pac-Man loomed so large for the Kindergarten version of me, it's hard to imagine a world without it. I fixated on Pac-Man the way kids do, so enamored of the concept that I even made myself like the Atari 2600 port (despite the fact that, even at that young age, I could tell it was a piece of junk).
My bedroom was littered with Pac-Man merchandise. I'm being literal about that: My parents bought me the Pac-Man board game in lieu of the real thing (one of those Coleco VFD mini-arcade games was out of our price range at the time, let alone an Atari 2600). It consisted of plastic Pac-Men that moved around the board "eating" marble dots, which had a habit of escaping during the cleanup process and laying in the thick-pile carpet just waiting to be stepped on. Being marbles, they were much less painful to walk over than LEGO bricks, but still unpleasant.
The arrival of Hanna-Barbera's Pac-Man cartoon late in 1982 brought with it a new wave of merchandise, and even an arcade game — though I never actually saw Pac-Land until years later, Namco fascinatingly based its style and environments on the American cartoon adaptation of the franchise. I did, however, own storybooks and coloring books based on the TV series, which did their best to sell me on the notion that some guy named Mezmaraon was behind all of Pac-Man's woes.
I wasn't convinced, though. What limited stories the arcade games presented had a sweetness to them that came off as far more authentic than the cartoon's bumbling nonsense. Ms. Pac-Man was a love story. Its sequel Pac-Man Jr. seemed to be about breaking down the boundaries between Pac and Ghost, a message of détente that would soon be echoed in global politics. And New Exciting Pac-Man Plus was... about Pac-Man's enthusiasm for Coke, I guess. But that made sense, too. Coke had incredible cultural clout back then. The "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" ad still aired as an actual advertisement rather than as the punchline to a premium cable drama.
I even played Professor Pac-Man, once. I had no idea it was one of the rarest arcade games ever and that I was experience an obscure corner of history. I just knew that it was boring and not much fun.
Like Pac-Man games, all the little Pac-Man goodies I owned as a kid slowly vanished over time. I outgrew the coloring books, lost too many marbles to make the board game playable, and even the needlepoint Pac-Man pencil case I made for myself in second grade disappeared. (Too bad; it would have been a hit on Etsy.) The only Pac-Man memento that's managed to survive through the years is a single juice glass silkscreened with a rendition of what was probably the most common and popular promo image for the game at the time — a very on-model version of Pac-Man cheerfully scooping ghosts into his mouth like some sort of ambulatory pizza-pelican hybrid. It's been retired from active duty as a drinking glass and now gets to hold miscellaneous junk like loose batteries and rubber bands. Not the most glorious retirement, I suppose, but I like to imagine it views the other video game merch that makes its way into my home with the same sort of patriarchal pride as the Pac-Man we see in Smash Bros.
New media character fixations come along every few years, and kids a little younger than me had Mario to stand in the place Pac-Man occupied in my own childhood. Five years later, there was Sonic. Then Pokémon. And today's kids have Minecraft, which honestly is probably better for them than all those older properties combined — it encourages creativity, planning, cooperation, and long-term thinking, not mere twitch reflexes or pattern-memorization.
I admit, I find it hard to imagine that there's an entire generation that knows of Pac-Man strictly as that weird yellow guy in Smash Bros., but then again I'm sure people of my parents' generation find it bizarre that I couldn't care less about Davey Crockett. Pac-Man is a minor figure in today's video games, despite his historical importance. But that's OK. The reality is, Pac-Man works as a game and as a character, but never really together at the same time. Bizarre experiments aside, the games have always come together best when Pac-Man is simply a minimalist avatar for pure arcade action. Bandai Namco seems to have a pretty solid fix on what they want Pac-Man to be about these days, and I don't think they have any illusions that the series will ever achieve world-class status again. As long as they continue to come up with fresh takes on that venerable maze-chase design, 35 years old this week, video games will continue to have a living testament to this essential corner of its own history. For a medium that usually seems desperate to burn its past, that stands out as a tremendous victory.