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Ms. Pac-Man: love letter to the lady arcaders

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Ms. Pac-Man: love letter to the lady arcaders

The first lady of video games turns 40.

Arjan Terpstra

24 Nov 2021 ⋅ 5 min read

Want to learn more about Ms. Pac-Man's origins? The book PAC-MAN: Birth of an Icon has a strong section on her genesis and success. The book is available through this link !

'Here she is.' Cash Box Magazine, in 1982 one of the leading media for the booming 'coin-operated' industry, was very enthusiastic when it first talked about Ms. Pac-Man. It was 'the exciting follow-up to the worlds' most popular video game,' and so warranted attention from the industry at large. 'New mazes and numerous special features compliment this model,' it wrote. 'Ladies like it, too,' it added.

Here she was, indeed. Midway Manufacturing Company filed the copyrights for Ms. Pac-Man with the United States Copyright Office January 13th, 1982. On March 6th of that year, Stan Jarocki, Midway's marketing manager, declared the game 'already sold like the original,' meaning, of course, Pac-Man. Eventually, Ms. Pac-Man would eclipse Pac-Man in sales: a whopping 116,000 Ms. Pac-Man cabinets left Midway's manufacturing plant in Franklin Park, Il, against Pac-Man's original 96,000 run.
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© Cash Box magazine

Cover picture of Cash Box magazine, May 22, 1982. The editorial ran like this: "Stanley Jarocki (right), vice president of marketing for Bally Midway, and Charles Farmer, president of Bally Pinball Division, are shown with the latest "Pac-Man" video and pinball games. Since its introduction at the 1980 AMOA convention in Chicago, Pac-Man has become the world's most popular video game and the subject of over 200 merchandising items."

Barriers

Breaking manufacturing records was one thing: Ms. Pac-Man also broke cultural barriers. Together with Pac-Man, the game smashed preconceived industry notions about the kind of people who would be interested in games and gaming, and the type of video games people wanted to play. Ms. Pac-Man proved that female gamers existed, and that businesses would be wise to gear their new wares towards this demographic. Because, yes, the ladies liked video games, too, and they liked it in numbers.
MrMsPacManbackglass

Backglass for Bally's Mr. & Ms. Pac-Man pinball. Uniquely, the image is signed by Bally/Midway artists Margaret Hudson and Pat McMahon. Note how both characters evolved over time, losing the iconic black pie-eyes but gaining facial features like eyebrows, cheeks, and-in Ms. Pac-Man's case-lashes and lipstick. Extensive covering of the artists' roles can be found in the book PAC-MAN: Birth of an Icon. Collection Tim Lapetino.

This is not to say Ms. Pac-Man was 'a game for women,' specifically. Nor was it specifically a game for men, nor for children or any other demographic. Like Pac-Man before, the appeal of Ms. Pac-Man was universal, an open invitation to everyone to walk into an arcade and enjoy themselves, independent of age, gender, or race. If Ms. Pac-Man 'was' anything, back in 1982, it was a great catalyst for the acceptance of gaming itself.

Design

To understand how Ms. Pac-Man came to be this beacon of universality in games, we have to look at its design history. Technically, Ms. Pac-Man is a riff on Pac-Man, one rooted in the efforts of Boston company GCC to develop 'enhancement kits' for popular arcades. As detailed in the PAC-MAN: Birth of an Icon book, GCC added a 'daughter board' that plugged into the interior of a Pac-Man cabinet, enhancing the game by adding new mazes, new 'interludes' (short animations introducing Ms. Pac-Man's love for Pac-Man, resulting in a Pac-Baby in act three) moving bonus fruits, and different (less predictable) ghost patterns.
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Bally/Midway promotional photo, ca. 1983. Both the Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man arcade cabinets were made at Midway Manufacturing, in Franklin Park, Il.

GCC took the enhancement kit to Midway, who licensed Pac-Man for North-American markets from Japanese company Namco. Midway agreed to publish the kit, but opted to incorporate the add-on in a new game, and not sell it separately.

Importantly, the new game played to the strengths of the original Pac-Man game. Its Japanese designer Toru Iwatani wanted to create an accessible game by choosing an universally appealing theme (eating), lively colors and upbeat in-game music, in order to have a game "that would not be intimidating to female customers and couples to try out."

The cute game

These design ideas were further enhanced by the artists responsible for the (Japanese) cabinet art: lead character and logo artist Tadashi Yamashita took care to develop a relatable character, adding features like large pie-shaped eyes, arms (with mittens) and legs (with shoes). This relatability and general 'cuteness' of the Pac-Man game and character helped establish its massive success in the US and beyond, doing for Midway exactly what Iwatani envisioned: pull in players from all walks of life.
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© Tim Lapetino

Collectible Ms. Pac-Man figurines, by Coleco. The launch of Ms. Pac-Man in 1982 re-ignited the marketing bonanza Pac-Man had started two years earlier. Collection Tim Lapetino.

Ms. Pac-Man followed through on this. It stayed close to the original gameplay and atmosphere, dressing the upright arcade in hues of bright blue, pink, and yellow. But it also did something new: while Midway could have simply made a Pac-Man II (one of the working titles was 'Super Pac-Man,' a moniker that would later be used for another arcade), it chose to have female lead character—a true first for video games—and chose so deliberately. Stan Jarocki, in one of the first interviews on Midway's new machine (Cash Box, February 20th, 1982), said "While Ms. Pac-Man is sure to be a big favorite of all players, it is Midway's tribute to the growing segment of the market, namely the ladies, who became ardent players of video games with the original Pac-Man."

Target audience

The sentiment was echoed around the games industry, at that time dominated by white and middle-aged men in double breasted suits, who had learned the trade selling pinballs and cigarette dispensers to bars and arcades, and who knew their audience was men and boys. Before Pac-Man, the coin-op hivemind was focussed on entertainments for this audience, but the yellow muncher and its success with 'the ladies,' as industry men constantly called women, radically changed their outlook. "There's no question that games like Pac-Man and the cute or comical character games have brought the novice player around," Frank Ballouz, Marketing VP of Atari said in an interview. "Right now, we're concentrating a great deal of our effort into the ladies as they really seem to be a viable audience."

Ms. Pac-Man thus could be interpreted as a tip to the hat to 'lady arcaders.' A large blue-pink-yellow love letter to a newfound audience, one that propelled the arcade game industry to new and greater heights. Here she was, Ms. Pac-Man, a timeless game with universal appeal, and she was here to stay. And with her a female demographic that would henceforth be a huge part of the player demographic.
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Ms. Pac-Man arcade marquee. Photo courtesy Tim Lapetino.

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