In 1977, 22 year-old Tōru Iwatani started his career with a computer software company called Namco. He had an idea about creating a video game based on the concept of eating. Over the course of 1979 Iwatani and a nine-man team would work on “Pakkuman.” The original Japanese title was inspired by the Japanese onomatopoeic slang phrase “paku-paku taberu” where paku-paku describes the sound of the mouth movement when widely opened and then closed in succession.
Among his team was programmer Shigeo Funaki, a hardware engineer and Toshio Kai who worked on the sound and music. With this game, Iwatani wanted to appeal to a wider audience beyond the typical demographics, primarily women who weren’t often seen in arcades at the time.
At the same time of development, Namco was creating “Rally X,” both “Rally X” and “Pakkuman” were demonstrated at a Tokyo game show. People were head-over-heels for “Rally X,” and many people didn’t have high hopes for this bizarre game about eating dots. Namco launched the game in Japan in 1980, where it received a lukewarm response. “Space Invaders” was the most popular game at the time, and “Pakkuman” wasn’t changing that anytime soon.
Namco found an American distributor in Bally division Midway and they would bring the game to North America. The American titled was going to be “Puck Man,” but it was changed to “Pac-Man” in an effort to avoid juvenile vandalism. The cabinet artwort, pace, and level of difficulty were all increased to appeal to western audiences.
“Pac-Man’s” success in North America took competitors and distributors by surprise, it quickly became more popular than anything seen in the gaming industry up to that point. “Pac-Man” would surpass “Asteroids” as the best-selling arcade game in North America grossing over 1 billion dollars in quarters within a decade, even surpassing the revenues grossed by the highest-grossing film at the time, “Star Wars.”
Meanwhile, at the General Computer Corporation (GCC), programmers were creating an enhancement kit for “Pac-Man” called “Crazy Otto.” GCC was recovering from a lawsuit with Atari over their “Missile Command” conversion kit “Super Missle Attack,” and part of their settlement terms said that GCC couldn’t sell any more conversion kits without the consent of the original game manufacturer.
Programmers decided to show Midway, who had become impatient waiting for Namco’s sequel to “Pac-Man” – “Super Pac-Man.” They bought the rights to “Crazy Otto,” changed the sprites to fit the “Pac-Man” universe, and renamed the game “Ms. Pac-Man.” Stan Jarocki of Midway stated that “Ms. Pac-Man” was conceived in response to the original “Pac-Man” being “the first commercial video game to involve large numbers of women as players” and it is “our way of thanking all those lady arcaders who have played and enjoyed “Pac-Man.””
Once “Ms. Pac-Man” gained popularity, Midway and GCC would undertake a brief legal battle of royalties. The “Killer List of Videogames” noted that the game was accomplished without Namco’s consent, causing both companies to eventually turn over rights to Namco. “Ms. Pac-Man” was reportedly the first in a series of unauthorized sequels that eventually led to the termination of the licensing agreement between Namco and Midway. GCC co-founder Doug Macrae has disputed these stories, however, stating that then-Namco president Masaya Nakamura had even provided feedback over character artwork during the game’s development.
Upon release “Pac-Man” made a lot of money. Toward the end of the 20th century, Twin Galaxies estimated that “Pac-Man” had made more than 10 billion quarters ($2.5 billion), making it the highest-grossing video game of all time.
Now the game is regarded as one of the most influential video games of all time. The simple character was the first original gaming mascot, the game established the maze chase genre, it demonstrated the potential of characters in video games, it opened gaming to female audiences, and it was gaming’s first licensing success. It is also credited as the first game to feature power-ups and cut scenes.
It is said to have inspired the stealth genre, including “Metal Gear” and its franchise. Also influencing the sandbox franchise “Grand Theft Auto,” where players are chased by police in a similar manner.
The game has been remade for nearly every gaming platform. Various sequels, spin-offs, have also been made. Guinness World Records has awarded the “Pac-Man” series eight records. Including “First Perfect Pac-Man Game” for Billy Mitchell’s 1999 record and in 2010 Toru Iwatani received a certificate for “Pac-Man” having had the most “coin-operated arcade machines installed worldwide: 293,822.”
“Ms. Pac-Man” was said to be even better than the original. In 2009 Game Informer placed “Ms. Pac-Man” as number 10 on their list of “Top 200 Games of All Time,” saying that it “trumped the original “Pac-Man” in every way.” The game makes the cut on many ranked lists.
Tōru Iwatani would create a few other video games, including “Libble Rabble,” but never coming close to matching the success of “Pac-Man.” Namco promoted him, eventually he was responsible for overseeing the administration of the company. In a VH1 “Game Break” interview, Iwatani said he did not personally profit from the creation of “Pac-Man.” “The truth of the matter is, there were no rewards per se for the success of “Pac-Man.” I was just an employee. There was no change in my salary, no bonus, no official citation of any kind.”
Iwatani would occasionally teach the subject of Character Design Studies at Osaka University of Arts as a visiting professor. He would leave Namco in March 2007 to become a full-time lecturer at Tokyo Polytechnic University.
It’s hard to imagine the kind of fate video games would’ve had without “Pac-Man.” It wasn’t like the rest of the games being created at the time, it was different. The differences put off many people, but in the end, the game thrived beyond anyone’s imagination and has changed and shaped an entire medium.