Ms. Pac-Man was first released in arcades on the 13th of January 1982 – and remains one of the finest arcade games of all time (don’t just take my word for it – Ms. Pac Man features highly on Retro Dodo’s Best Arcade Games list!). As Ms. Pac-Man celebrates her 40th birthday, let’s look at what led to the creation of the classic, iconic character!

The Original Pac-Man (1980)

When Namco’s Pac-Man was released in 1980, it became a genuine pop culture phenomenon – and was one of the first games to truly give not just its protagonist tons of character, but the enemies too. The four ghosts were individuals with names – Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde – and different personalities that governed how they chased the hungry, yellow player character around the maze.

Designer Toru Iwatani wanted to bring a less masculine, less violence focused video game to arcades in order to attract a female audience and widen the appeal of video games; this approach worked wonders, with the game becoming the highest grossing arcade game of 1980 and even the fourth highest grossing game the following year, despite plenty of other titles that were released – many of which utilised the more cartoony and light-hearted style of game that Pac-Man had popularised, to varying levels of success.

Oddly, for a game that was designed to be appealing to women as well as men, the lead character and most of the antagonists (Pinky aside) were male.

Crazy Otto
A screenshot of Crazy Otto from Time Magazine, erroneously labelled as Pac-Man (Image credit: Pacific Arcades)

General Computer Corporation and Crazy Otto

Strangely, Namco weren’t responsible for the creation of Ms. Pac-Man. American company General Computer Corporation had produced a mod kit which ‘enhanced’ Atari’s Missile Command, upgrading it to ‘Super Missile Attack’. When they got into legal trouble with Atari – the conversion kit wasn’t officially sanctioned by the then-giant video game company – the future of the Pac-Man mod kit they were working on, Crazy Otto, was uncertain. In a smart move, they decided to deal directly with Midway – who licensed Namco’s arcade titles for North American distribution. Being keen to capitalise on the success seen by Pac-Man, Midway bought the rights to Crazy Otto. The characters and other elements of the game were then changed to bring it back in keeping with the look and feel of Pac-Man.

Enter Ms. Pac-Man

At first, the game was more of a straight sequel to Pac-Man; the working title was Super Pac-Man. However, inspiration was taken from an unusual source – Crazy Otto’s interstitial animated scenes, which featured Otto and a female character – and the game was soon changed to feature a female protagonist. Several quick name changes to the game followed, with the developers soon settling on Ms. Pac-Man. Namco did have input on the game, though what form this took – or how much influence they had – isn’t entirely certain beyond Namco’s then-President advising GCC to make some changes to the character’s design; specifically, her hair.

What was different in Ms. Pac-Man?

Screenshot of the XBox Live Arcade port of Ms. Pac-Man

The main character had several visual features to differentiate her from her male counterpart. A bow, a different eye shape – perhaps being long eyelashes – red, feminine lips and even a beauty spot. The ghosts remained the same from a visual point of view, though Clyde was pushed out and replaced with the visually identical orange ghost, Sue. More subtle changes that many players might not notice with regards to the ghosts is that their movement patterns are changed from the original game.

The maze stages are varied in layout, in contrast to the iconic, fixed maze design seen in Pac-Man. Walls are blocks of solid colour, giving the game an immediately more colourful look than its predecessor. Bonus fruit moves around the maze, rather than being fixed in place.

The cutscenes feature both Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man himself, showing – across three different scenes – their relationship blossoming.

Ms. Pac-Man’s Legacy

As the first female playable character in a video game, Ms. Pac-Man occupies an incredibly important position in video game history. Due to her distinguishing features, she is arguably a more distinctive character than the original Pac-Man, whose look took a while to be truly settled on.

Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness Screenshot
Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness, PS1

The Ms. Pac-Man arcade game was ported to a huge number of different systems throughout the 80s and 90s – and she’s made numerous guest appearances in other games, including Pac-Land. She was prominently featured in the short-lived 1982 Pac-Man animated series (and even got a first name: Pepper!), voiced by Barbara Minkus.

Many years later, Ms. Pac-Man even got her own game, with Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness releasing in the year 2000 on PS1, N64 and Dreamcast. A Game Boy Advance version belatedly appeared in 2004. There’s also the more obscure PC-only title, Ms. Pac-Man: Quest for the Golden Maze, which released in 2001.

Though her appearances beyond the initial Ms. Pac-Man game have meant that she’s always remained on the radar, it’s that first sequel to the original Pac-Man, which remains iconic and well-loved to this day, that truly keeps her in the hearts and minds of gamers the world over.

Happy Birthday Ms. Pac-Man. Here’s to the next 40 years!

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