Pac-Man, The Japanese Game That Took Over The World, Turns 40

May 22, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of a moment that shook the video game industry and profoundly changed the way we play: the debut of Pac-Man, which first hit arcades in Japan on May 22, 1980.

Pac-Man is a maze game in which the eponymous hero munches dots while dodging multicoloured ghosts, racing for “power pellets” that let Pac-Man turn the tables and eat the enemies chasing him. It sounds deceptively simple, but its charming design and exquisitely tuned gameplay earned it legions of fans and inspired digital creators.

Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri called it “the textbook for game designers”—high praise that has even more impact when you realise what we call “ghosts” in English are called monsutaa (“monsters”) in Japanese. 40 years on, Pac-Man might seem like ancient history. But gaming would not be where it is today without it—and neither would Japan, most likely.

Pac-Man was more than a well-designed arcade game, more even than a big hit. It was a global social phenomenon that transformed the way the world looked at the medium of video gaming. Today we take it for granted that games can even be called a “medium”—that they contain memorable characters, that they punctuate the action with dramatic cutscenes, that they can rival the mindshare of television or movies, that they can weave themselves into the fabric of daily life.

It all seems so obvious now. But before Pac-Man, we didn’t know any of these things; after it, we did. It’s that pivotal. That little yellow circle is the Pac-Man who sold the world on the potential of video games.

The first thing Toru Iwatani noticed were the screams.

He had just finished Pac-Man for his employer, Namco, and he had chosen the site for its first test-run, an arcade in the Shibuya neighbourhood of Tokyo. Normally, these spaces were the bailiwick of young men—dimly lit, redolent of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. But, as he related in his 2005 memoir Pac-Man’s Method, over the digital cacophony of laser-blasts and explosions rose a new sound: shrieks of excitement from young women, clustered in groups around his creation, fully immersed in munching dots and swerving around ghosts.

At first it was only a modest success, failing to draw in as many 100-yen coins as Galaxian, the outer space shooting game that was then Namco’s top earner. But Pac-Man was on slow burn. Its success didn’t register at first, because it was tapping in to a totally new audience for video games: women and children.

Within several months, Namco would ship 15,000 Pac-Man units to Japanese arcades, a very respectable success for a domestic game. But things played out differently abroad. There it was an instant hit. Within a year of its American debut, importer Bally-Midway had sold 100,000 Pac-Man cabinets, and it was estimated that US gamers had dropped the equivalent of a billion dollars in quarters into their collective coin slots. Its success took everyone by surprise—even its creator.

“The game didn’t really have anything in there that would leave a strong impression,” Iwatani told Kotaku via email this week, in advance of the anniversary. “I didn’t think players overseas, who sought thrills and excitement from games, would like it. Which is why I was honestly surprised when I saw how well it did in the United States and Europe.”

Iwatani originally named his creation “Puck-Man,” based on the Japanese word paku, or “chomping,” the concept around which the entire game is based. The trademark sonic backdrop, generated by Pac-Man as he eats his way through the maze, is usually interpreted by Western ears as “wakka-wakka-wakka.” But it’s actually “paku-paku-paku.”

The first machines distributed in Japan bore the Puck-Man name, and you can still find vintage Puck-Man merchandise there if you hunt for it, such as an LCD portable game released by Tomy. The change came when the U.S. game publisher Bally-Midway licensed it for release in the States in 1980. They sagely advised Namco that young Americans would inevitably vandalise the “P” of Puck-Man into an “F.” Pac-Man was born.

Pac-Man fever swept the globe in a way no other video-game ever had. He was the industry’s first breakout star. In fact, he was the first pop-culture character to emerge from any video game. And speaking as someone who was there, an 80s kid who caught the fever in real-time: Pac-Man was literally everywhere in the early 80s. Arcades, of course, but so too home consoles and cartoon shows and talk shows and toy stores and top 40 radio. Even our digestive systems, in the form of Pac-Man cereal pitched by a prepubescent Christian Bale. (From Pac-Man to Batman.)

But where did this phenomenon come from? To Americans of the era, Pac-Man seemed to come out of left field, another wacky gadget from that country making stuff with silly names like “Hello Kitty” and “Walkman.” But there’s a longer and much more interesting story, one that intertwines cultural threads stretching across the Pacific for decades before the game’s actual creation.

Born in 1955, Toru Iwatani came of age during a period of turbulent change for Japan and the rest of the world. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics had finally put Japan back on the world map for something other than war and mayhem. Skyscrapers and superhighways and bullet-train lines were constructed at a breakneck pace as the economy grew by leaps and bounds, fuelling the rise of a new middle class hungry for entertainment and escape.

Yet so too did society churn with dissatisfaction, as unpopular political decisions and labour policies infuriated growing numbers of citizens. By Iwatani’s high-school years in the late sixties, a nationwide student protest movement had sucked in virtually every young person into mass anti-war demonstrations, Iwatani included.

This was the era when Tokyo first took shape as the modern city we know today. It’s also the moment when the young people of Japan first emerged as powerful consumers and coolfinders of new trends: imported rock and roll rebellion, coffeehouses, avant-garde films, cutting-edge manga—and video games.

Iwatani reveled in it all. He wrote in his memoir of going to protest rallies downtown, blasting Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and watching Andy Warhol art flicks. But his real love was the pinball machine. If you squint just right, you can see the silver ball ricocheting through Pac-Man’s conceptual DNA: a sphere shooting through alleys and around corners, background obstacles and hazards changing colour as random bonuses tantalize the player.

“I actually joined Namco because I loved pinball,” Iwatani said. The decision made sense. In 1977, when Iwatani came on board, Namco was Japan’s top manufacturer of electromechanical games of skill. The only problem, as Iwatani learned after joining the company, was that Namco’s president Masaya Nakamura wasn’t interested in making these analogue amusements anymore. Nakamura knew where the future lay: a new form of amusement from America called the “television game.”

In 1977, there was no such thing as an “arcade.” Or a “gamer,” for that matter. In Japan, people played in coffee shops and other shared spaces. Most of the available games consisted of riffs on, or outright ripoffs of, two games developed by Atari. One was Pong, the groundbreaking 1972 tennis simulation that pioneered head-to-head video game combat. The other was 1976’s Breakout, essentially Pong for one, re-coded by a pair of hippie-nerds by the names of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Namco made a deal with Atari to produce an official Japanese version of Breakout, and profited handsomely from it. But it was Iwatani who designed the company’s first original arcade game. Iwatani did get his chance to make a pinball game, in a certain sense, but it would be constructed out of silicon and transistors and television tubes rather than glass and rubber and springs. He envisioned Gee Bee, released in 1978 as a hybrid of Breakout and video pinball. Two sequels, called Bomb Bee and Cutie-Q, followed in 1979. The latter’s name was inspired by one of Iwatani’s favourite songs, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Suzie Q. 

His games were colourful and quirky and performed modestly well, but Iwatani dreamed of something more—something big that could really break through.

A rival company had already turned up the pressure. In 1978, Taito released a game that totally upended the concept of what a video game could be. It was kind of like Breakout, but instead of a paddle the player controlled a little cannon; instead of bricks, the player fired shots at descending waves of alien creatures from which the game took its name: Space Invaders.

Simple and addictive, it was a masterpiece of engineering and design. The Americans were edging towards abstraction, with games constructed out of ever-more elaborate arrangements of dots and lines. But the blocky, charming aliens represented something new: recognisable characters, directly inspired by Japanese manga style. Thanks in part to this pioneering personification of pixel art, Space Invaders developed such a huge following that entire establishments devoted exclusively to the game began proliferating through Japanese cities: “Invader Rooms.”

Rivals leapt into the booming video game market with thinly-disguised clones and copycats. One of them was the playing-card company Nintendo, which released numerous derivative block-breaking and alien-shooting games before eventually finding an original hit with Donkey Kong in 1981.

In a 1979 interview on the television station NHK, Nintendo’s then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi staunchly defended the copying of other firms’ games. “There’s no such thing as patenting a way of playing,” he said. “Look, if someone has the inclination and the time, they can copy anything. There’s no way around that. So we should abandon that way of thinking, and everyone should release their software openly, for the growth of the amusement industry as a whole. That way, even if, say, Space Invaders declines in popularity, then computer games will continue to flourish. We need to abandon this idea of secrecy, and consider pooling all of our resources in order to grow the industry. That’s the ideal.” I’m not sure how Nintendo’s current legal team would feel about that sentiment, but the Wild West mentality of the seventies Japanese game industry did provide an almost Darwinian environment for refining and evolving game concepts.

Amid this vibrant chaos manifested unexpected social problems: noise complaints, school truancy, kids stealing money or jimmying machines to steal free plays, insinuations of yakuza influence, nationwide shortages of 100-yen coins. In some localities, school PTA groups began patrolling outside Invader Rooms so as to intercept kids before they made it inside.

Iwatani watched all this and pondered. “Back in the late 70s, most arcades were filled with games themed around violence, such as killing aliens, which isolated arcades mostly to the male audience,” he said. “I wanted to make arcades a bit livelier where girls and dating couples could gather, so I decided to make a game targeting the female audience.”

It would take some twists and turns to get there. Iwatani had a fundamental concept: “chomping.” And the hit of Space Invaders gave him another hint, about the power of a cute character as a hook. In this, Japanese designers were uniquely prepared to blaze a new trail.

Unlike America, which had all but shut down the storytelling ambitions of its comic-book creators with the draconian Comics Code Authority, Japanese artists had honed manga and anime into cutting-edge artforms. As a kid, Iwatani said he “watched a lot of anime on TV, such as Obake No Q-Taro and 8 Man.” To these, you can add other popular imported classics such as Casper the Friendly Ghost and Popeye. A stew of domestic and foreign pop-cultural influences bubbled deep within Iwatani’s subconscious. Still, 1980’s game technology wasn’t quite up to the task of rendering characters as complex as those from cartoons. How could he square that circle?

Inspiration struck, as it often does, in an unexpected place. “Japan had a franchise pizza chain called Shakey’s Pizza,” said Iwatani. Founded in 1954 in Sacramento, California, Shakey’s aggressively expanded into Japan in the 1970s. It wasn’t the first place to serve pizza there, but it was one of the first places in the nation to serve pizza to the masses, as a casual neighbourhood parlor rather than a fine Italian dining establishment.

“That’s where I got the pizza leading to the inspiration for Pac-Man,” Iwatani said. Remove a single slice of pizza from the pie, and what you have left is one of the world’s most recognisable game characters.

Returning to the office, Iwatani excitedly began relaying the specs of his concept to his head programmer, Shigeo Funaki. For the characters, he eschewed traditional video-gaming machismo for kawaii, or Japan-style cute. This was the same manic energy that fuelled so many of the nation’s hit characters, from Astro Boy to Doraemon to Hello Kitty. The rounded, whimsical ghosts, with their big eyes and colourful appearances, were many Americans’ first exposure to kawaii style, even if they didn’t realise it at the time.

And then there was the gameplay. “We incorporated many features into the design to ensure that the game was fun,” he said. “For example, if a player lost a life, the game would restart on a slightly easier level. We also designed the ghosts so that they chase and encircle Pac-Man, while making them move in unexpected ways, such as seeing them suddenly turn around or move to the corners, all in the name of balancing the tension within the game.”

Another key insight emerged from Popeye, which was widely broadcast in Japan in the late fifties and early sixties. The sailorman’s signature move—supercharging by eating a can of spinach—gave Iwatani the idea for Pac-Man’s power pellets, so key to gameplay by letting players turn the tables on their ghostly pursuers.

He focused as much effort on the audio design as the play and visuals. “The sound effect of Pac-Man eating is very important,” he said. “For the ‘gulping’ sound effect, when Pac-Man eats the fruits, I relayed what I wanted by actually making a gulping sound myself when working with the sound creator.”

At one point, a team member accused him of acting like a movie director. It was meant as a joke, but it was also a testament to the vision Iwatani brought to the project. He saw Pac-Man less as a game than a total experience.

Time and time again, Iwatani refers to the balancing act he and his team played with the shape of the field, the speeds of the player-character and ghosts, and even the colours. Namco’s president Nakamura initially demanded the ghosts all be red, only backing down after Iwatani hurriedly conducted a survey inside the company and found overwhelming support for the four distinct colours. This was game-as-digital haiku, stripped of everything inessential, every part working in unison towards the singular goal of sucking new players in.

Pac-Man, along with Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, formed a triumvirate of killer content that swept foreign arcades and transformed the image of Japan from a maker of cheap trinkets into a new digital tastemaker. This was about more than just a battle for customers’ quarters (though quarters they certainly spent; by one estimate, the machines have earned a cumulative total of more than seven and a half billion dollars today). These made-in-Japan fantasies, with their colourful characters and perky soundscapes, fundamentally challenged the macho American notion of what a game should be.

“Their games don’t cut it here,” said Tim Skelly, the creator of American games like Armour Attack and Star Castle, to a journalist in 1982. “I foresee them losing a lot of business in the States.”

A year later, the American game industry would experience a spectacular crash; by 1985 its total revenues would decline by nearly 97 per cent. As far as America was concerned, games were over, a fad whose bubble had inevitably popped like so many before. Yet Japanese creators would challenge American expectations once again. The arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the summer of that year would cement Japan’s hold on the global imagination for the next decade and a half—but that’s another story.

Iwatani and his half-eaten pizza turned digital superstar fundamentally transformed the idea of games—and the image of Japan. For Americans raised on Pac-Man and even bigger franchises to come, Japan was never the enemy or rival it had been to their grandparents and parents. It was a fantasyland of dream-smiths who taught us an entirely new vocabulary for play. As our tastes were re-shaped by Japanese sensibilities, shared affinities drew our nations closer together. That’s a historically unprecedented flipping of the script for a country that was the West’s sworn enemy just two generations earlier.

“The design [of Pac-Man] was made with players in mind; exactly what you would expect from Japanese games,” said Iwatani. “So in that sense you could say it is a facet of ‘Cool Japan.’”

Pac-Man is still going strong forty years later – an impressive run for any character, let alone one dreamed up in a pizza parlor. But perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise. Like the pizza that inspired him, an American interpretation of an Italian dish served in a Japanese parlor, he’s a cross-cultural fusion, synthesized from a lifetime of cartoons and influences by a master of the craft, gobbled up by people all over the globe. And once they’d tasted this strangely alluring new form of digital nourishment, there would be no going back.

Matt Alt (@Matt_Alt) is a Tokyo-based writer, translator, and game localizer. He is the author of Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World, coming 2020 from Crown Publishing.

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