The Ryan Lambie Column: Happy birthday, Pac-Man

Ryan salutes the birthday of a game that very nearly slipped under the radar. Join him in raising a glass to Pac-Man...

Pac-Man

The older you get, the more strange birthdays become. What was once a day that called for ice cream, lemonade and at least a dozen pints of Stella gradually fades into a time of quiet introspection. Too old for a bouncy castle in the garden, you end up spending the day doing odd things like buying a water filter for your pond, or taking an old bath down to the recycling centre. Or at least, that’s what happens in my experience.

It came as a particular surprise this week when Google reminded me that I’m even older than Pac-Man. May 22 marked the yellow dot eater’s 30th birthday, and his first appearance in Japanese arcades. Anyone who visited the search engine last Friday will know that a playable version of Pac-Man briefly appeared on their home page, a delightful diversion that succeeded, according to one report by a time management software company, in robbing the world’s businesses of around 4.8 million man hours.

That a game as ancient as Pac-Man can still provide a few moments’ entertainment, even thirty years on, is a testament to the simple brilliance of its design.

When Namco released Pac-Man in 1980, gaming was still in its infancy, and arcades were in thrall to a legion of variations on a Space Invaders theme. What the scene was crying out for was a game that didn’t simply involve shooting things.

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Incredibly, Pac-Man almost slipped under the radar. Hunting around trade shows for the next big thing, US distributors initially assumed that Namco’s other new machine, a largely forgotten proto-driving simulator called Rally-X, would provide the biggest hit.

Ultimately, it was Pac-Man, snapped up for the American market by Bally Midway and renamed, for obvious reasons, from its original title Puck Man, that captured the collective imagination. Ostensibly a simple maze game, Pac-Man‘s hugely innovative gameplay shouldn’t be underestimated. Its rules could be simply understood even in the most noisy arcade, and its gently humorous, cartoon-like graphics made it accessible to an audience that failed to warm to the dozens of dour space-based shooters that cluttered up the early-80s market.

The real genius of Pac-Man only became apparent after a few lives had been lost. While the central goal was obvious – eat all the pills – the individual behaviours of Pac-Man‘s ghosts lent the game a strategic depth missing in so many shooting titles.

Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde had their own quirks and unique behaviours, cleverly programmed in by designer Tōru Iwatani. Blinky would constantly chase the player, always taking the shortest route possible; Pinky would take a longer route, and attempt to box the player in by attacking from an opposing direction; Inky was more reticent, only giving chase if the player got too close; Clyde, meanwhile, was something of a wild card, displaying random, apparently cowardly movements.

Aside from giving an otherwise anonymous collection of sprites a modicum of personality, these behaviours were key to Pac-Man‘s compulsive appeal, and more skilful players could not only anticipate the ghosts’ movements, but also exploit weaknesses in the AI to complete each maze without coming close to losing a life.

These techniques eluded me, however, since I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the controls on an arcade cabinet when Pac-Man was at the height of its popularity. I couldn’t play the game, but its influence was everywhere. My friends and I traded Pac-Man bubblegum cards (which came with a nifty little scratch card game, about as close as I got to the real thing in the early 80s) and there was a Pac-Man board game, an appalling cartoon show and a hit novelty record.

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So, while Pac-Man may be nearly as old as I am, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to truly appreciate just how important it was. One of the first videogames with an almost universal appeal, Pac-Man shook up an entire industry bogged down in Pong and Space Invaders clones.

While the rest of us get older, slower and spend our birthdays wandering around garden centres or quietly drinking cups of tea, Pac-Man remains as diverting and charming as ever. He may be over thirty now, but Pac-Man has never lost his sprightly appeal.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.