In another of his occasional guest features for Arcade Heroes, entertainment industry specialist Kevin Williams, turns his gaze, after Mario, to the other leading video amusement gaming character: the iconic legend that is PAC-MAN. Kevin takes a look at his birth, ascendance, and continued popularity as a classic character and icon of the Video game landscape. You can also read the history written up about the series in arcades that was published for Pac-Man’s 40th Anniversary, here.
– Making History
To understand how PAC-MAN came into existence, and we must look back at the birth of the Japanese video amusement scene, the new homegrown developers were still finding their feet. It had only been a matter of years since NAMCO had migrated from creating rooftop fairground rides to embracing the video games business, as a Japanese distributor of ATARI products in 1973. But by 1979, and the success with ‘Galaxian’, NAMCO was cutting its own furrow. And during 1980, NAMCO’s eighth video amusement title would strike gold.
Launched as ‘PUCK-MAN’, the history of the inspiration of the maze game, the limitations of the graphics technology of the time, and a pizza with a slice missing, would all find their way into the narrative of how the game was influenced. Whatever the reasoning behind its conception, the game would be released on both upright and cocktail cabinet configurations, going on to become a major hit with rolling popularity, and appeal that took all by surprise. With some conjecture suggesting that the games name was allegedly chosen due to its approximation to the Japanese term “Eat-Man” (イートマン) or the audible sound representation of paku.
The game would eventually fall under the gaze of the US amusement distribution scene, and Bally-Midway and ATARI would go to war to battle for the rights to distribute the title. Internally the boss of Bally-Midway was more interested in another title (in a deal with TAITO that would eventually fall through). But saner voices would prevail and building on their previous success representing ‘Galaxian’, the company won the arcade license for ‘PUCK-MAN,’ while ATARI would secure the rights to the home version for their Atari consoles and computers. With the latter company being a powerhouse in marketing at the time, many people still associate PAC-MAN as an ATARI game, as opposed to the rightful creators at Namco.
But even before agreeing to the Western license, Japanese executives were speculating the dangers of the name they had chosen falling foul of graffiti artists, and so decided on a name change. This was an effort led by the shrewd helmsmanship from NAMCO founder, Masaya Nakamur. This direction and drive to steer the brand would see Nakamur-san seen by many as true father of ‘PAC-MAN,’ despite the game being coded by Toru Iwatani. The game would be launched into a stratospheric trajectory now with Western representation, and more importantly, the game offered a unique appeal for both male and female players
Source: BANDAI NAMCO
In America, Bally-Midway would ride the PAC-MAN wave hard, and even commission their own unofficial sequels to keep feeding off the popularity. After some friction with NAMCO, both would eventually work out a better licensing position, including the signing of an agreement with ABC Television for Hanna-Barbera Productions, to create a Saturday morning cartoon series based on the character. This appearance would cement PAC-MAN’s status as an icon with a generation of young viewers. Creating an empire that would go on to see countless different amusement outings for the IP, as well as console, mobile and online iterations.
PAC-MAN would become the mascot of NAMCO, side-lining Gee Bee, and would see the iconic stature of the character greatly protected. For many years, the company would pretend that the original ‘Puck-Man’ name had ever existed. While at the same time, the various interpretations that Bally-Midway had created were originally spurned, only for in later years to be rehabilitated back into the family once again, alongside a new wife and children.
Source: Hanna-Barbera Productions
– Making an Empire
The deployment of PAC-MAN in collaborative content is a factor of the blending of IP seen in the consumer game arena. But long before that was an element of the consumer game scene, PAC-MAN was making guest appearances in amusement properties. Such as a cameo in ‘Alpine Racer’ (1995), but more recently the Puck has been seen in amusement titles such as ‘Mario Kart Arcade GP’ (2005) and countless other appearances. The character being launched with his own line of prize and redemption machines, such as the recently launched ‘PAC-MAN PANIC’ (2019).
In 2014, PAC-MAN, and his creator had a starring role in the science fiction action comedy ‘PIXELS’, which saw numerous classic arcade characters given the big-screen CGI treatment. The film was inspired by a 2010 short film created by an aspiring art student, placing pixel game characters in a big city environment. In the motion picture adaptation, a bizarre story led by Adam Sandler even saw PAC-MAN creator, Toru Iwatani play a cameo(well, an actor portrayal of the real Toru). While this adaptation received less than stellar reviews, it still managed to gross some $244m. This continued to cement the image of PAC-MAN into the social consciousness.
Source: Sony Pictures
Away from the more unusual appearances as a corporate mascot, PAC-MAN has been used in several innovative ways. PAC-MAN would be one of the first classic video game characters to venture into virtual reality. In 1996, the UK VR amusement developers, Virtuality, would work with NAMCO on PAC-MAN VR. The innovative game would be developed for a full amusement release under a special agreement with the Japanese corporation, but the UK company would suffer considerable financial difficulties and the game was abandoned soon after its limited release.
More recently PAC-MAN was given an even more unique virtual interpretation. Developed by BANDAI NAMCO, two VR experiences would be created to experiment with the medium and try and find a suitable attractive package for their VR aspirations. The first at the MAZARIA entertainment facility in Tokyo was called PAC-MAN: Challenge (2019) – players using Oculus Quest headsets in groups of two, navigating around a virtual maze collecting pellets and power pills while avoiding virtual ghosts. After this was launched, a second VR outing for the mascot was tested with the VR experience PAC-MAN Racer. Electronic karts replaced human power to navigate the maze, wearing VR headsets; but this concept would never see adoption.
Source: BANDAI NAMCO
– Defining a Brand
The MAZARIA venue, as with many BANDAI NAMCO entertainment sites has built heavily on the iconography of the PAC-MAN brand. The Tokyo facility including a PAC-MAN: Go Round, a themed merry-go-round, appropriately decorated. The use of the IP has been seen to be used as a crutch for poor decisions to be wrapped in. Hoping that the popularity and respect of the character will rub off on less than stellar applications.
This was best seen with PAC-MAN Entertainment – BANDAI NAMCO deciding in 2018 to rebrand their NAMCO USA arcade facility business. This included the rebranding of the controversial Level 257 flagship location in Chicago. The 41,000-square-foot facility had been themed to be “a level above the famous PAC-MAN kill screen”. A concept that fell flat with poor execution and questionable business decisions. BANDAI NAMCO hoped that the rebranding and renaming of the venue to PAC-MAN Entertainment would save their investment. But a culmination of issues has seen the whole operation sold-off piecemeal, the Chicago flagship sold and rebranded to ENTERRIUM, by new owners GENDA/Kiddleton.
More recently the PAC-MAN brand has been deployed in the gaming and casino space with a licensing agreement with UK gaming manufacturer Bulldog Games, creating a coin-pusher design based around the traditional character representation called PAC-MAN Pusher. This also saw Ainsworth Game Technology release PAC-MAN Link, a slot machine platform that linked four reel-systems in homage to the game’s ghosts. There has even been a detour for the brand into Skill-Gaming, with the BANDAI NAMCO partnership with Gamblit Gaming that saw the creation of PAC-MAN Battle Casino. This and other slots, Pachinko and pinball interpretations, down the years.
Source: Ainsworth Games Source: Bulldog Games
This just the tip of an iceberg of a hoard of merchandising, toy licenses, boardgames, appearances in consumer mobile and console games, (even a version on a search engine), and much much more – along with the re-creations of the original arcade cabinets on sale (as covered in our report on the explosion in retro gaming).
– Moving Forward
The celebrations of PAC-MAN’s fortieth were muted by the Global Pandemic in 2020, but BANDAI NAMCO looks to push the boat out and celebrate the Forty-first. Recently announced, BANDAI NAMCO has partnered with the National Basketball Association (NBA) to create a brand new level for the mobile version of the game. Linked to the IP, the NBA-themed maze level for the PAC-MAN classic game, able to be downloaded from the NBA webpage, this promotion is supported with themed merchandising.
And with this we see PAC-MAN enter a new phase of popularity, and licensing.
As we reported previously regarding the re-birth of Mario, PAC-MAN’s image is also about to undergo a major facelift. Revealed in May, BANDAI NAMCO launched an initiative that used the character to promote active living, under the title ‘PAC-TIVE’. The company promoting a healthier mind and body through exercise and better community activities. This initiative supported by an extensive branding campaign featuring the icon. All this supported by a music video, and both the partnership with Giants Enterprises and the NBA.
As with our retrospective of Mario, it is obvious to see that PAC-MAN and his associated brand is still going strong and is proving a powerful commodity – the poster boy for the Retro-Arcade scene. While a theme park based on the yellow pill muncher is not currently on the cards, it is expected that his influence will continue to be felt in the amusement facility business. Though the reality is that his licensing in the merchandising scene, continues to ensure a long (and profitable) legacy. As BANDAI NAMCO follows SEGA in the reactivation of their legacy IP, expect to see more of the character in the coming years.
About the Author – Kevin Williams is a widely-respected expert on entertainment and technology. A regular presenter at international conferences, Kevin is also a regular speaker at the Foundation Entertainment University (FEU), a boot camp for FEC investors. He also holds the role as one of the senior judges of the VR Awards.
Kevin’s consultancy KWP Ltd specialises in helping international clients develop immersive and interactive entertainment. Kevin has recently become Co-Founder and Technology Director for Spider Entertainment, a Global leader in Out of Home Entertainment for retail destinations. While also holding advisory positions with several new entrants into the market.
Kevin is editor of the Stinger Report, a-must-read for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions, and entertainment industry. Along with this, he is also a prolific writer with regular columns for the main trade publications in this market, along with presenting numerous conference sessions on the sector and its global impact. He is also the co-author of the only book on this aspect of the market – currently working on the next edition, scheduled for publication soon. Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.