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Pac-Man: Video Game Icon

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Pac-Man: Video Game Icon

What makes Pac-Man such an unforgettable character?

Arjan Terpstra

24 Nov 2020 ⋅ 7 min read

Few video game characters are as popular as Pac-Man. Recognised and loved around the world, the yellow muncher is one of the first true icons of video games.

But how did the yellow muncher achieve such immense success? To understand this, we have to go back to its place of birth, Tokyo, to a company called Namco, and a young designer named Toru Iwatani.

This company had recently launched its first arcade video game, Gee Bee, and was looking for a more successful title for the amusement centres of that day. Places that at the time were dominated by space shooter games like Space Invaders, drawing in a clientele of - mostly - boys and men.

A new game

To be successful in this market, Iwatani thought, the new game needed to have a different appeal, and started work on one of the most successful game designs of all time: Pac-Man.

Below we explore what exactly makes Pac-Man such an incredibly appealing video game, and Pac-Man himself such an inspiring character. Design-wise, Iwatani and his team did a lot of things right, so let's have a look at the design principles that launched Pac-Man to international stardom.
Pac-Man
© Bandai Namco Entertainment
1. Start from the inside out

Pac-Man, Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Mega Man or the aliens from Space Invaders: they all belong to the honorary list of video game icons. They're all from the same era too, the golden age of arcade video games, roughly the period 1978-1982.

Also, they're all from Japan, and this isn't a coincidence: the Japanese were used to seeing mascots promote products or services. Often these mascots were drawn in a 'cute' manga style, with large eyes and childlike bodies.

Iwatani, looking for a way to appeal to different player groups, decided the theme for his new game was to be 'eating'. Next, he went looking for a mascot that would communicate 'eating' in a pleasant way.
Pac-Man
© Bandai Namco Entertainment

Pac-Man with slit-eyes - or 'two little Pac-Men'?

After some time he arrived at the character we know so well: a simple yellow sphere with a wedge missing, representing a mouth. This makes for an incredibly strong image: it's super simple and has symbolic meaning, making Pac-Man a powerful image people will easily remember.

Later, this simple design was enhanced in the cabinet and promotional art, where Pac-Man (called Puck-man in Japan!) was drawn as a fully rounded cartoon character with pie-eyes and large nose, arms and legs.

In other words: a mascot like every other Japanese mascot. Only this time it was the first time ever a cartoon character was used to promote a video game - an idea eagerly copied by Nintendo after Pac-Man saw the light of day, when they launched Donkey Kong and Super Mario.

2. Appeal to the player in any way you can

Iwatani's theme of eating had everything to do with what he saw as his target audience: women and girls. After establishing the eating character he thought of other ways to appeal to them.

To create some tension in a game where you steer an eating character through a maze, he knew he needed some type of enemy hindering the player.

At this point, he could have easily introduced aliens or armed guards - the type of enemy featured widely in the space shooter games of the day.

As these would surely alienate his perceived player audience, Iwatani thought about the cartoons he used to watch as a kid, and remembered Little Ghost Q-Taro.

This friendly and comically clumsy spirit character inspired the four ghosts in Pac-Man: ghosts that are not particularly aggressive, but simply don't like you taking their food.

To further the idea of 'non-aggressive ghosts', Iwatani picked four colors he thought would look friendly to women: red, pink, light blue and orange.

Eventually, this built a color palette for the game that was lively and appealing to everyone - and strikingly different from the games geared towards young male players. The equally appealing game audio - 'waka waka!' - did the rest.
Pac-Man ghosts
© Bandai Namco Entertainment

Pixel versions of the four ghosts in Pac-Man. Note the lively color scheme.

3. Find inspiration anywhere

Little Ghost Q-Taro was one influence, but in a Pac-Man game there's much more than meets the eye. Both the Pac-Man character and the ghosts are inspired by 'kawaii' or 'cute' style manga and anime.

In this highly popular Japanese cartoon style figures are drawn with wide eyes and round, childlike body shapes, making them 'cute'. Doraemon and Hello Kitty are prime examples, but the rounded shapes and large eyes of the Pac-Man ghosts share the same aesthetic.

From American comics Pac-Man's makers borrowed the 'pie-eyes', black dots with tiny slits in them, made popular by cartoons like Betty Boop and an early version of Mickey Mouse (in The Jazz Fool, 1929).
Puckman advertisement
© Bandai Namco Entertainment

Advertisement for the Japanese version of Pac-Man: Puckman. Note the comic qualities in the Japanese character designs.

Also influential was Popeye the Sailor Man. Not because of how he looked, but because of his use of spinach. In the cartoons, Popeye is overpowered by his enemy Bluto, but spinach gives him super strength.

This would inform the 'power pellets' in the Pac-Man games. Eat those and you turn the tables on the ghosts.

4. Build a 'fair' game

The space war games popular before Pac-Man were difficult to play for non-gamers, 'relentless' even in that they punished you for mistakes. Together with programmer Shigeo Funaki, Toru Iwatani from the start looked for a more forgiving and 'fairer' design.

And so a lot of things happen that a player may not notice at first sight. Start a new game, and the ghosts will leave the 'ghost pen' in the middle of the playfield.

But instead of directly hunting down Pac-Man, they first move away from the player, and only start their chase after the player has eaten a dozen pellets (called 'esa' or 'foods' in Japanese).

Why? This gives novice players the opportunity to get used to the shape of the maze, his task of clearing the field of pellets, and get used to the joystick controls.

Later, the ghosts will of course try to grab you, but not all the time. Their programming gives them three sets of 'behaviour', called 'chase mode', 'scatter mode' and 'frightened mode'.

Chase mode happens when the ghosts are in pursuit. After a while though, they seem to tire and retreat to their designated corners - they 'scatter'. And when Pac-Man eats a power pellet, the ghosts turn blue and scramble, obviously frightened of Pac-Man's sudden strength.

In combination, the three modes do two things. They give the players some respite every once in a while, some time to recuperate and not feel stressed every playing second. A feature that favors inexperienced players - like the girls and women players Iwatani hoped would play the game.

Also, importantly, the game feels inherently fair. A game where the enemies turn around often and let you eat pellets doesn't feel like it wants to punish you for your mistakes or rip quarters out of your pockets.

This makes Pac-Man a more 'friendly' game than many others, and a more 'casual' or leisurely experience than Defenders, Asteroids or Space Invaders had to offer. In short: more fun for more people!

Want to learn more about Pac-Man? PAC-MAN: Birth of an Icon is the first-ever book on our yellow friend. Find your copy by clicking the link! clicking the link!