Pac-Man’s 39th birthday was yesterday, so I wanted to get some words out there about the enduring yellow legend.
The cultural impact of Pac-Man can’t be overstated. Here was a video game which had a recognisable protagonist, as well as antagonists that were full of character. It was unusual for the time; games usually put you in control of a vehicle – a car, tank or spacecraft – or a blank stick figure at best. It might be a stretch to say that Pac-Man himself was relatable, given that he was – initially at least – just an animated yellow circle, but the fact that his personality and character was less obvious than those of the ghosts worked in the game’s favour, I think. It worked in the same way that Master Chief’s anonymity or Link’s silence allows the player to more easily project their own characteristics onto their in-game avatars.
It was a game that was full of character by the standards of the time, with simple to play, hard to master gameplay that was – and remains – extremely addictive. It was a sensation back in 1980 – as you may expect. At close to 40 years old, Pac-Man’s countless, ever expanding roster of sequels and spin-offs, along with his presence on all kinds of merchandise, shows no sign of slowing down.
I first encountered Pac-Man at Butlins in Clacton-on-Sea; the Butlins holiday camp is no longer there, sadly, having closed down decades ago. I was immediately attracted to the bright yellow cabinet and the – in hindsight – somewhat bizarre illustrations of the characters on the side (Pac-Man especially is subject to a very odd rendering in the initial game’s art). Even the game’s logo mesmerised me.
I can’t have played the game more than a few times back then, but it was enough for me to become obsessed, as I do quite often get with many things in my life (movies, books and comics, for example – as well as games). For Christmas 1982, I asked for – and received – a bright yellow plastic Pac-Man watch that dispensed Smarties. Good times!
Pac-Man was a straightforward and unique game, at least upon release (countless clones and sequels followed, of course). Cast adrift in a dangerous maze full of dots and power pellets, the aim is for Pac-Man to clear the maze of all dots while avoiding the four coloured ghosts that emerge, one at a time, from a holding pen in the middle of the screen. The power pellets don’t need to be eaten in order to clear the maze, but eating one of these allows Pac-Man to turn the table on his pursuers. Ghosts turn blue, signifying their vulnerability and they cease chasing Pac-Man until they flash and turn back to their usual colours. If Pac-Man eats one of them while they’re vulnerable, their body is consumed and their eyes make a hasty retreat back to the maze, where they’re rejuvenated into their usual ghost form. Occasionally, a piece of fruit or other object (a key or a bell, for example) appears in a path just underneath the ghost’s pen – and can be collected for a nice bonus.
After every few levels, there’s a comedic cut scene which shows events such as Pac-Man being chased by a Ghost, only for the Ghost to get snagged on a pointy piece of scenery and ‘rip’.
I always go back to Pac-Man; it’s one of those games that is just fun to pick up and play. My reflexes, however, are not what they once were – and I find that I’m really not good at it at all, any more. I recall that, as far back as the summer of 2007, I discovered a friend had Pac-Man on the Xbox 360’s Xbox Live Arcade – and when I found out his high score was quite a bit higher than my recorded best, I set about trying to beat him. It took me a long time to best his high score, but I did eventually get there.
The XBLA version’s achievements were conquered too; all but one, at least – despite many, many attempts, I was never able to get the ‘Eat all four ghosts on all four power pellets’ achievement, even on the very first level.
Though I’m not a good Pac-Man player, it doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of the game. The level layout never changes – instead, the rise in difficulty is achieved with ever faster-moving ghosts and a reduction in the amount of time that power pellets are effective for. Due to this, I never feel like I’m missing out; the only time that anything changes in the maze layout is when you hit level 256, at which point the game glitches and half of the maze becomes an indecipherable, pretty-much unplayable mess of glitchy code and graphics. It’s safe to say that I’ve never got anywhere close to this level personally.
As I was only four when I first played Pac-Man, the plucky little yellow hero has pretty much been a constant presence in my life. Even when there weren’t new games being released or I didn’t have access to the video games at home, I found other ways to fill the yellow void – I was often found glued to the Pac-Man cartoon in the early 80s and owned the Pac-Man board game a few years later (which, with it’s teeth-baring Pac-Man pieces in various colours, was a bizarre representation of the game). I’ve always been a sucker for Pac-Man merchandise, even as an adult.
In recent years we’ve seen the little yellow guy go back to his roots somewhat – following years of platform and kart racing games, as well as a few awkward mini-game compilations on Nintendo’s Wii – with the absolutely sublime Pac-Man Championship Edition games. We’ve not seen any further remasters or reimaginings for a number of years at this point, however – but hopefully Bandai Namco have something up their sleeves for the game’s 40th Anniversary which is, somewhat terrifyingly, only a year away. Happy Birthday, Pac-Man – here’s to the next 40 years!
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