Pac-Man turns 35: Looking back on three-plus decades of video games, pop culture, and cereal
Thirty-five years ago today, Namco’s Puck Man burst into Japanese arcades… and didn’t make much of an impact. In October 1980, the game was quietly released in America with a slight name change, for fear that the word “puck” could easily be altered into, well, you know. Pac-Man was born, and unexpectedly, Pac-Mania soon swept the nation, forever altering video games, pop culture, and breakfast cereal as we knew them.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why anything resonates in pop culture, but Pac-Man’s success owes a great deal to its simplicity: eat all the pellets while avoiding the ghosts, until you eat a power pellet and then eat all the ghosts. That’s pretty much it. With just a joystick to control the character and no buttons necessary, anyone can pick it up and play. And everyone did. Pac-Man quickly chomped his way through the competition to become the best-selling arcade game in North America and one of the highest-grossing video games of all time.
Within a few years, Pac-Man spawned an animated series, a General Mills cereal (mmm, ghost marshmallows), a top 10 Billboard song (“Pac-Man Fever“) and a Weird Al parody, a children’s chewable multivitamin (perhaps to combat Pac-Man Fever) as well as heaps of licensed (and unlicensed) merchandise. Basically anything that could have Pac-Man stamped on it did have Pac-Man stamped on it, and you bought it.
Pac-Man’s prominence continues to this day, in video games as well as TV and movies. A new animated series, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, airs on Disney XD, and Pac-Man had a cameo in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph and has an even bigger role in the forthcoming Adam Sandler comedy Pixels. Last year, Pac-Man joined Mario and company for an adorable beatdown in Super Smash Bros., and Namco recently released an updated version of Pac-Man for iOS that introduced new mazes and challenges and a multiplayer mode.
Namco is celebrating the anniversary today with a party at Level 257, its Pac-Man themed restaurant in Schaumburg, Ill., with free bowling and arcade games and the chance to meet the game’s lead designer Toru Iwatani and battle world record holder Billy Mitchell, as well as a live performance of “Pac-Man Fever” by Jerry Buckner of Buckner & Garcia.
The game is fun and instantly addictive, but so were a lot of its arcade competitors. So why did Pac-Man become such a colossal cultural phenomenon and ‘80s icon? Maybe because it was the first mascot game. Instead of controlling a spaceship or a vehicle, you were a character that actually had personality. It was also the first game to have cutscenes, where in between levels you would see short interludes of Pac-Man being chased by or chasing the charismatic ghost enemies.
Or perhaps because it was the first game to feature power-ups, as eating a power pellet let you turn the tables for a limited time, empowering the player by letting them eat the pesky ghosts. Or maybe it was the game’s catchy soundtrack and sound effects, which quickly became stuck in your head…
Or, you know what? Maybe it’s just a really great pucking game.