The Weird History of Pac-Man: 30 Years of Wakka
When we think of gaming's biggest icons, a few names come to mind. Mario. Lara Croft. Sonic. Pac-Man. These characters have withstood the test of time because they're always evolving, adapting, changing to fit whatever the zeitgeist of gaming is at the time while still keep the core essence of what makes them so appealing. Mario might play tennis or race karts, but you can always count on him to keep a bright, shiny attitude and jump on some fools. Sonic may turn smooch human girls or turn into a werehog (shudder), but at the end of the day he's still gotta go fast. Pac-Man? We've seen a lot of iterations of the yellow puck over the years, some good, some bad, and some weird, but we can usually count on him to do what he does best: gobble dots, battle ghosts, and make that wakka wakka sound.
With the release of Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 DX, Pac-Man's in his dot-gobbling, ghost-battling prime, so it seems appropriate to take a minute to check out the most notable moments in the history of this historic icon.
The Creation of Pac-Man: Pizza and Vandalism
Pac-Man's creator, Toru Iwatani, stated that the idea for the character struck him as he was eating pizza, saying he saw a vision of "an animated pizza, racing through a maze and eating things with its absent-slice mouth." The character's name is a play on the Japanese term paku paku, to gobble something up. When planning an international release for the first Pac-Man game, Iwatani originally wanted to name him "Puck Man" for English-speaking regions, but quickly changed his mind once he found out how easily the word "puck" could be vandalized.
Pac-Man & Ms. Pac-Man: A Couple Who Wakkas Together, Stays Together
The original Pac-Man arcade game was an unprecedented success; the fast gameplay, colorful characters, and skillful sound design granted an ease of play and allure few games had at the time. Hundreds of thousands of machines around the world lead to billions of dollars in revenue for happy arcade owners and even happier Pac-Man developers over at Namco. Namco and its American partner, Midway, quickly worked on porting Pac-Man to home consoles (many of which fell prey to sloppy, rushed programming and the fact that home consoles weren’t relatively powerful until the mid-’80s) along with a sequel, Ms. Pac-Man. Ms. Pac-Man kept the basic formula the same, just adding a few new maps and, oddly, the occasional cutscene showing the love story between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man (maiden name unknown).
With the success of Ms. Pac-Man, there soon came Super Pac-Man, which radically altered the Pac-Man gameplay and had players navigating a maze for keys to unlock doors, along with Baby Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man, both ostensibly starring the child of the Pac-Couple, and Pac & Pal, which paired Pac-Man with a ghostly buddy, Miru, who helped him gobble pellets and nab that high score. Oddly, many of these games were made by Midway without Namco's permission. Game development was kind of a Wild West back then, so these games still managed to hit the arcades and the shelves in spite of their spurious legality. After Midway pushed its luck far enough, though, Namco severed its partnership with the company and reclaimed the puck man for themselves.
A Pac-Land Far, Far Away
In a radical departure for the series thus far, Pac-Land was a side-scrolling platformer. Pac-Man, armed with a stylish red hat, traveled the lands in search of fairies in need of rescue. There were still ghosts (although this time some of them flew planes which dropped bombs that were also ghosts, which, let's be honest, is pretty weird), and power pellets which let Pac-Man gobble his incorporeal nemeses, along with bonus fruits and the hunt for the ever-elusive high score. Even if the core game was different, the iconography was the same. Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures took things even further; this point-and-click adventure had you in indirect control of Pac-Man as he completes a laundry list of chores for his family while ghosts try to take ecto-dumps on his day. Reception was... lukewarm, at best.
Pac-in-Time sent the Yellow Gobbler to 1975, five years before the release of Pac-Man. Like Marty McFly, Pac-Man had to fight his way back to the future to keep his timeline in shape, although unlike Marty, Pac-Man had to obtain a bunch of new abilities and fight a buttload of bats. While it was a drastic departure from traditional Pac-gameplay, it was a smart move for the time. The early to mid-’90s were chock full of platformers, and if Pac-Man wanted to survive, he needed to do something more than send players scurrying towards high scores. Pac-in-Time wasn't the best platformer of the era, but it was solid enough to keep Pac-Man alive. A few years later, Namco would evolve Pac-Man again with the 3D platformer Pac-Man World, which drew inspiration from the 3D platformers of the time like Super Mario 64 or Bubsy 3D (okay, probably not Bubsy 3D). Again, despite the drastic departure in gameplay, most of Pac-Man's most iconic elements were still here— his family, the ghosts, power pellets, etc. While many game developers were struggling to adapt to the shifting zeitgeist of gaming, Namco knew to keep moving or risk stagnation.
Pac-Man the Champion
Over the next decade Pac-Man continued to evolve. Sometimes he'd star in a kid-friendly platformer both toyetic and ripe for Saturday morning cartoons, like Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures. Other times he'd return to his roots with a twist, like the high-scoring, combo-crazy, this-is-amazing-but-I-have-to-stop-because-it's-three-in-the-morning-okay-just-one-more-round Pac-Man Championship Edition DX. He's starred in numerous cartoons like Hanna-Barbera’s Pac-Man and Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, created a disco sensation with the hit single “Pac-Man Fever”, and even made appearances in films like Wreck-It Ralph and the widely-despised Adam Sandler flick Pixels.
Pac-Man's bright colors and happy-go-lucky attitude have given him a timeless appeal; as long as the ever-shifting development teams behind Pac-Man don't lose sight of what makes him him, we can probably expect to see many more appearances of that yellow hockey puck in the years to come.