It will come as no surprise that Pac-Man originated in Japan, where a Japanese computer firm called Namco Limited, modelled the game after a classic Japanese tale about a creature that protected children from scary monsters by eating them.
The game was originally titled Puck-Man, until it was imported into the USA where Bally/Midway executives realised that American kids could easily alter the machines lettering to read . . . well, something else.
The video game was simple – Pac-Man had to eat all the power pellets, dots of energy that lined the corridors of a bright blue maze.
Four pastel-coloured ghosts chased our hero through the maze trying to kill him, stopping his feeding frenzy with a single touch.
But with one chomp of an energizer pellet (found in each corner of the screen), the hunter became the hunted as the ghosts turned temporarily blue and fled for their lives – Pac-Man could now eat the ghosts!
To regain strength and gain bonus points. Pac-Man had to eat tasty fruits – cherries, strawberries, oranges, apples and more – which popped up near the centre of the screen.
The gobbling yellow hero could also escape the ghosts by slipping through a tunnel at the side of the screen. Once a maze was cleared, the dots reappeared for another try, this time with faster ghosts.
Pac-Man’s American conquest was instant and total. This was a game everyone could understand and appreciate, and kids of all ages quickly turned Pac-Man into the biggest hit in arcade history.
The arcade craze swept the nation, and Pac-Man’s colourful, playful look inspired hundreds of imitators and pretenders to the throne.
Arcade games now had a face, and that face had yellow skin and a gigantic mouth.
Pac-Man eventually moved out of arcades and into homes courtesy of Atari, and within a few years, Pac-mania had spread beyond the arcade into every aspect of American life. Pac-Man merchandise ran the gamut from stickers, backpacks and bedspreads to toys, pasta and breakfast cereal.
Hanna-Barbera produced a successful Pac-Man cartoon series and Buckner & Garcia scored a #9 pop hit with Pac-Man Fever.
The first sequel arrived in 1981. Realising that Pac-Man was attracting as many female players as it was male players (the arcade had been pretty much an all-boys’ club to that time), Bally/Midway gave the game a feminine twist.
Ms Pac-Man added a few new mazes, smarter ghosts, bouncing fruit, and new between-level scenes showing the courtship of Pac and Ms.
The new game was another instant classic, considered by many to be the best in the series.
The following year, Pac-Man Plus arrived, throwing in a few curves for players who had already mastered the original. Power pellets now produced random effects – turning the maze temporarily invisible, making the ghosts themselves invisible or turning only three out of four ghosts blue – and the new bonus items created the same effects.
Super Pac-Man, also released in 1982, added even more new features. Fruits and other foodstuffs now took the place of power pellets, and Pac-Man had to eat keys to unlock certain doors to the maze. Regular energizers still played a part, but the maze also included a pair of “super energizers” which would make Pac-Man twice his original size and impervious to the ghosts’ attacks.
Still, in 1982 (a busy year for Pac and company), Pac and Ms. welcomed a new addition to the family. Baby Pac-Man was a pinball-video game hybrid, mixing the traditional maze action with fast-flipping pinball skills.
The little-seen Pac and Pal came on the scene in 1983. This time, Pac-Man had to chew on a handful of special items, which were stuck behind locked doors. By flipping over playing cards scattered around the screen, Pac unlocked the doors, gaining access to the coveted objects.
Once Pac grabbed the items, players could press a button to fire off special attacks at the ghosts. The “Pal” in the title was a small green ghost who wandered around the maze and grabbed items for his yellow buddy.
If Pac & Pal was a departure from the original game, Professor Pac-Man was a quantum leap. No mazes, no pellets, no ghosts – just Pac-Man in a cap and gown, asking multiple choice trivia questions.
Pac-fans showed little interest and Professor Pac-Man swiftly disappeared.
The series went back to its roots for Jr. Pac-Man, another 1983 instalment. Propeller-capped Junior chomped through mazes that were twice the width of the screen. As an added challenge, the bouncing bonus items turned any pellets they touched into larger dots, which slowed Junior down when he ate them.
1984 brought Pac-Land, which took a more cartoon-like Pac-Man on a side-scrolling adventure to rescue the denizens of Fairyland.
Pac-Land started a trend in platform games that eventually led to the extraordinarily successful Super Mario Bros, but Pac himself was unable to reap the benefits of his innovation.
1984 was also the year the video game market crashed, and not even the powerful Pac-Man franchise was immune.
After a few years of market rebuilding, Pac-Man attempted a comeback with Pac-Mania, which rotated the mazes into a mock-3-D isometric view. Gameplay returned to basic Pac-Man mode, with the addition of a special jumping ability for Pac and the ghosts.
The comeback was short-lived, however, and Pac retired from the arcade business.
In the ensuing years, the Pac-Man series lived on in home video game conversions, appearing on every system of the day. Another arcade edition, Pac-Man VR, was introduced in 1995, but the costly virtual reality equipment restricted the game’s reach to a few select locations.