Years from now, when the ice-caps have melted, somebody has found a word to rhyme with ‘orange’, and Larry King has finally retired, we’ll have a better understanding of the cultural impact of video games and the impression that they’ve had on all of our wasted lives. In the annals of video game history, you’ll have your classics and you’ll have your trash. What are our masterpieces? Of course, people will shout “GTA!” and” Final Fantasy!” and other games of recent memory. But what about our ancient video game history? I’m talking pre-SNES. What were the real fire-starters? Which of those franchises have real staying power and could still blister your thumbs today? A game that I USED to think was brilliant? Kangaroo–partially because I like kangaroos. A game that I KNOW is brilliant as it has lasted the test of time?
Pac-Man’s gumballish visage STILL adorns hoodies and wristbands in the window display at HotTopic. I’d argue that these are even worn without irony unlike most 80’s throwbacks. A Pac-Man hoodie is worn with reverence. Respect the Pac. (Or his big yellow face will eat your ass).
A little history here, in 1980, into a sea of ‘space-shooters’ (like Space Invaders and Galaga), was Pac-Man born. He was programmed into life by Namco designer Toru Iwatani
Why a game about a binging yellow face who is under the constant threat of the paranormal? I suppose people were tired of blasting meteors and needed a new format. So, why not? Plus, Japanese designers are nuts. I mean, look at Donkey Kong .
What is a Pac anyway? Well, it comes down to a translation issue. What we know as Pac-Man is known as Puck-Man or ‘pakku man’ in Japan (paku-paku is an onomatopoeic phrase for the noise of a rapidly opening and closing maw). Pac-Man is the animated embodiment of a big hungry face. He’s a lover, a fighter, and an eater.
The maze construct of the game was developed as a way to broaden the appeal of video games beyond the typical connoisseur (teenage boys). It worked. They pulled even more players in when they pulled a rib out of Pac-Man to create his female bow-brandishing counterpart, Ms. Pac-Man.
Ms. Pac-Man has always reminded me a bit of the sexy anthropomorphized green M & M.
Anyway, since the introduction of Pac-Man the arcade game, there have been over 30 branded spin-offs like Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Baby, and Pac & Pal. Interestingly, for the Ms. Pac-Man version, new mazes were introduced , more intermission scenes were created, and the movement of the ghosts was randomized. Improvements! Ms. Pac-Man was originally an unauthorized spin-off but as it was viewed by many to be the best in the franchise, a deal was struck to legitimize the product–pleasing nerds everywhere.
Incidentally, the cartoon that aired following the global Pac-Pandamonium revealed Ms. Man’s first name to be ‘Pepper’.
Pac-Man, even today, has the highest ratio of recognition of any video game mascots–higher than Mario and Luigi if you can believe it. And The Mario Brothers had a movie starring Bob Hoskins. Bob Hoskins! How does Pac-Man do it? How does he beat that Hoskins factor? It could just be attributed to the fact that good old Pac has been around a bit longer. But I think it goes beyond that. Pac-Man is available on almost every gaming platform (much like Tetris). Grandma’s can play it on their cell-phones for crying out loud (if they’re the type of active hep-cat granny that HAS a cell-phone). You can’t beat that kind of repeat exposure and the loyalty of the blue-haired set. The game is simple, cheap, and available. Plus it teaches you about the benefits of eating fruit and pretzels.
Almost as instantly recognizable as that big egg yolk are his villains, the ghosts. Their names are Blinkey, Pinkey, Inkey, and Clyde (though in the Ms. version Clyde is named Sue). Their character traits (yes if you look closely enough they do have them) are Shadow, Speedy, Bashful and Pokey. The cartoonish poltergeist are a perfect marriage of silly and freaky–like Flavor Flav.
Other ways that Pac-Man has managed to stay relevant include the novelty of ‘Pacmanhattan’. Developed by NYU students (I couldn’t be prouder), Pacmanhattan is a large scale city-game that treats the Washington Square area as the board and asks its players to make aggressive and defensive movements based on communications from cell-phones. You can read more about it and watch some clips here:
And look here, Madrid recently erected this Pac-Christmas tree. Neat!
Perhaps one of the coolest homages though, is this video for The Go! Team’s song “Junior Kickstart”.
I’ve never rooted for Ms. Pac-Man more than when watching this video nor been more devastated when she’s ultimately cornered.
I only wish I had another quarter to revive her.
Still, that wicked video is only bested by this super-awesome replica of a Pac-skull designed by Le Gentil Garcon and Fransois Escuilia.
I want one.
Now, before you get too anxious about all this talk and no play, here’s a link so that you can join in the fun. Pac-Man Games On-line The game, if you’re any good at it, might seem like it’s endless, but once you get to board 256, the programming gets messed up and the board gets all garbled…making it impossible to continue. So, that’s when the party’s over. The first person to make it that far, and with a perfect score, was true American hero, Billy Mitchell. To do this, he played continuously for six hours. Billy also makes his own brand of hot-sauce. So, as far as I know, he’s awesome in every way. I salute you Billy.
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