Pac-Man fetes 30-year milestone

by Kazuaki Nagata

Toru Iwatani never thought his video game character modeled after a pizza with a missing slice would spread worldwide and still be so loved after three decades.

But it did, as demonstrated by an exhibition celebrating the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man at 3331 Arts Chiyoda in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. Featuring the original game and all the spinoffs, as well as related goods and live events, the celebration kicked off Saturday and continues until next Monday.

“When I walked into the exhibition and saw the variety of game machines, I thought a miracle had happened,” Iwatani said during a preopening event Friday. Indeed, the displays filling the venue are quite imposing.

On show are the whole range of “Pac-Man” titles from the 1980s to 2010, including the very first arcade version, titles for the classic Atari 2600 — a home video game console that debuted in the U.S. in the late 1970s — the venerable Family Computer, or Famicom, in Japan all the way to Microsoft’s latest high-end Xbox 360. Visitors can play the original “Pac-Man” on some of the machines. The concept was simple: Users guide the yellow, round-shaped Pac-Man character to eat all of the “cookies” filling a maze while trying to avoid four ghosts.

“Pac-Man” was launched in May 1980 by then Namco Ltd. as an arcade machine, selling about 15,000 units in Japan.

That same year it crossed the Pacific Ocean to the U.S., where its popularity soared. More than 300,000 units of the arcade version were sold, while more than 5 million of the software cartridges for the Atari 2600 flew off store shelves.

While game players are now used to superb graphics and elaborate plots, “Pac-Man” was innovative back in 1980 in terms of emphasizing character design. It was even turned into a TV cartoon in the U.S. that became a big hit.

” ‘Pac-Man’ was created with the concept of becoming a game that women could enjoy playing, so the rules were kept simple and the characters are cute, and I think those contributed to it being a hit,” Iwatani said.

Because he wanted girls and women to enjoy the game, he had no plans to create a typical violent “shoot ‘em up” and decided “eating” would be the key word.

While that word was in his head, he was eating pizza one day.

“When I took a piece of it, (the pizza) became a Pac-Man shape. I thought this is it,” he recalled.

Iwatani said the game’s other elements, including the maze, which is made of “neon pipes” instead of simple inanimate lines, as well as the ghosts, were designed after a great deal of careful consideration.

The exhibition also displays Pac-Man-related items, including T-shirts and toys, and talk show events are planned.

People can also play “Pac-Man” in unusual ways, including on a tiny screen through a microscope.

According to Namco Bandai Holdings Inc., this is the first anniversary exhibition for Pac-Man, as 30 years marks a major milestone.

Iwatani said he never thought Pac-Man would be loved this much 30 years after he created it.

“I greatly appreciate that ideas from a lot of people have led to so many Pac-Man-related works,” Iwatani said.