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Pac-Man Turns 35 This Month

The now-iconic game was originally released by Namco in 1980

The original Pac-Man was kind of a feminist. (Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
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The iconic video game Pac-Man turns 35 this month, prompting a flood of nostalgia and reflection about the impetus behind the game's enduring success.

Released on May 22, 1980, by the Japanese company Namco, Pac-Man was totally different from the top arcade games of the time, writes Chris Kohler for Wired. While Space Invaders, Galaxian and Asteroids focused on shooting things to win, Pac-Man (and later Ms. Pac-Man) went for a different premise: eating. In fact, the game's name derives from a Japanese slang word, 'paku-paku', which means to chomp.

The game's designer, Toro Iwatani, who had little video game training when he joined Namco in 1977. When asked about his inspiration, Iwatani said this to Matt Peckham from Time

While thinking about the word ‘eat’ when taking a piece of pizza, I saw that the rest of pizza looked like a character, and that’s how Pac-Man’s iconic shape was created. I realized that although keywords such as ‘fashion’ and ‘love’ would appeal more to women, my opinion is that the word ‘eat’ is universally appealing and would attract their attention as well. That’s why I went with this idea.

Namco didn't initially expect the game to be a hit, but the company sold 350,000 Pac-Man machines within the first 18 months of retail in the United States alone. Iwatani has long attributed this success to the game's wider appeal across genders and generations.

That's also perhaps why Pac-Man became more than a popular game. "Pac-Man was gaming’s first true franchise, in a way that most successful games today spawn spin-offs and sequels," writes Kohler for Wired. Pac-Man’s ubiquity was our first indication that games were about to become the dominant entertainment medium of the information age." 

With its ghostly villains and hungry heroes, Pac-Man appeared on lunch boxes, spawned quirky TV commercials, inspired 80s pop music and ate then-Tonight Show host Johnny Carson on live television. This paved the way for prolific Nintendo games like Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong.

Today, the company, now Namco Bandai, continues to release Pac-Man games for tablets and smartphones. Even glitches in the game have inspired new games in themselves. For the game's 30th anniversary, Google even made a doodle in its honor. And, for better or worse, later this summer, Pac-Man will become a star of the silver screen, taking on the role of a villain in the Adam Sandler movie, Pixels. However the movie might fare, it's clear that Pac-Man remains a cultural icon for all to enjoy.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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