The Full History of Pac-Man, The World's Most Amazing Arcade Game

Pac-Man, perhaps the most recognized video game in America and the best-selling coin-operated video game in history, has a modest, even mundane, origin. It all started with a slice of pizza, or, rather, a pizza with one slice missing.

One evening in the late 1970s a young Japanese game designer named Tohru Iwatani, working for a then-obscure company called Namco, went out for dinner. As he lifted a slice of pizza to his lips, he was struck by the image of the almost-head-like, circular pie shape, its missing piece seeming to indicate a mouth. A video game icon was born.

At least, that's part of the story. A more well-rounded account, so to speak, must also include Iwatani's later admission that some of the inspiration for Pac-Man's eventual shape came out of his attempts to simplify the Japanese character for "mouth" into a character design.

Whatever the chicken-and-egg aspects of Pac-Man's origin story, it's clear that Iwatani knew he had hit on something that could broaden the appeal of video games everywhere and went about developing the now-legendary game. In addition to Iwatani himself, four software and four hardware programmers toiled for a little over a year before they unleashed the fruit of their labors on May 22, 1980. A maze-based arcade game with the titular character eating dots and power pellets while fleeing big-eyed cartoon ghosts, the game was technically and thematically far-removed from the "Pong"-based sports titles and space battle games like "Space Invaders" and "Asteroids" that dominated the market at the time. It was called "Puck Man."

It took a name-change and access to the North American market, courtesy of U.S. distributor Midway, to bring Pac-Man its full recognition. Near the end of 1980, Pac-Man had already begun to explode in popularity. By the end of its first year on the market, over 100,000 Pac-Man arcade units had already been manufactured and sold worldwide, and the game had generated revenue in excess of one billion dollars - in quarters. The phenomenon caught most game distributors, marketing executives, and gaming industry insiders completely off guard, but for the rest of the world - American children and teenagers in particular - it was just Pac-Man Fever.


In 1981 the popularity of Pac-Man neared its apex. Chef Boyardee's Pac-Man Pasta and General Mills' Pac-Man Cereal flew off the shelves. In addition, a re-write of Ted Nugent's song "Cat Scratch Fever," titled, appropriately enough, "Pac-Man Fever," rose to number nine on the U.S. pop charts, while "Weird Al" Yancovic released a parody of the Beatles' "Taxman" named after the popular character. That year, Atari introduced their version of Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 home gaming console. This version was poorly received, largely due to its vastly inferior graphics and repetitive gameplay, but it was far from the last variation on the theme.

1982 saw the release of no less than three new Pac-Man arcade titles, two more Atari console versions, and even two Pac-Man pinball games, including the ingenious video/pinball hybrid Baby Pac-Man Pinball. Hanna-Barbera even came up with a fairly successful Saturday-morning cartoon, entitled "The Pac-Man Show." The first arcade variation, Pac-Man Plus, introduced a random element to increase the difficulty of gameplay. Power pellets and fruit no longer carried their previous guaranteed effects; gamers had to stay on their toes. Super Pac-Man, released late in the year, gave players a host of further innovations, like the replacement of dots with food such as apples or donuts, and the inclusion of new elements like Super Power Pellets that rendered Pac-Man gigantic as well as invulnerable and doors that were unlocked by the ingestion of certain keys.

Also introduced to arcades in 1982 was Ms. Pac-Man, which signaled perhaps more than any other title the sea-change in gaming that Pac-Man had brought about. Even in its inception stages, Pac-Man had always been conceived as an attempt to expand the appeal of video games beyond the narrow, though lucrative, market of teenage males. Ms. Pac-Man, with its more humanized main character donning both lipstick and a bow, brought female fans to the arcades in record numbers. The gameplay was more similar to the original than the other two Pac-Man arcade titles of that year, but its impact was undoubtedly wider. To this day, arguments rage over whether the original Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man offers the superior gaming experience.

In 1983, the first cracks began to appear in the Pac-Man facade. Inferior titles, like the "friendly ghost" concept game Pac and Pal and the quiz game Professor Pac, removed players from the original experience enough that a backlash began to develop. Compounded with the gaming console crash happening around the same time and the subsequent rise of a third generation of arcade games like Super Mario Bros., it took many years for the golden gaming icon to regain some of its former luster.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, many new titles bore the Pac-Man name, but none measured up to the original in sales or, with a few exceptions, overall quality. As time wore on, however, the original game found new popularity as part of a wave of nostalgia for classic video games on hand-held consoles and personal computers.

As testimony to the enduring global appeal of Pac-Man, consider this anecdote. In May 2010, Google marked the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man by changing its logo to a playable version of both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. Almost uniformly, companies around the world reported a slight dip in productivity as a result.