Back during the “Console Wars” of the ’80s & ’90s, big game consoles were known for their “mascots,” a game with a protagonist that served as the face of a particular console and brand. Two companies in particular created mascots that are still popular today – Mario for Nintendo, Sonic The Hedgehog for Sega. Granted, both of those characters appeared in arcades before they did on their respective consoles, which takes us to the next point – Who would serve as a “mascot” for arcades?
That question is a little harder to answer because arcades just don’t work like consoles do – every dedicated game release is like a new console launch. That said, a variety of brands have created mascot style characters through the arcade medium over the years, and if I were to throw the question out there of “which character best represents arcades as a mascot?,” I’m sure a majority of respondents would answer: Pac-Man.
Sure, Pac-Man wasn’t the first character representation ever made in the biz, but it could be argued that part of the phenomenon comes from the “personality” found in the game thanks not just to the gameplay, but also to the cutscenes that tell short, amusing stories from the Pac-Man world without having to say a word.
With May 22nd being the official launch day for Pac-Man, it’s time to celebrate 40 years of the lovable yellow dot eater – a day that should be celebrated with as much pop culture musings as Star Wars is on May 4th. Much of this post will be recreating the 35th anniversary celebration post, with a few tweaks here and there.
One thing to post here at the top is here shortly from when I’m writing this, Jerry Buckner, of Buckner & Garcia, is hosting a livestream this morning (9AM PST / 12PM EST) to perform Pac-Man Fever. This was the hit song that the duo produced in the wake of said fever that swept society back in the early ’80s, so tune-in!
Unfortunately there is no new Pac-Man arcade release out right now from Bandai Namco, although the pandemic could be to blame for that. That said, they did do this music video:
There have been other remixes too that get into the Pac-Beat, so plenty of audio goodness to enjoy from the franchise.
Otherwise, let’s take a trip down memory lane with all of the official arcade releases that the character has had over the years:
Pac-Man (1980) – Almost started as Puck Man, operators didn’t initially believe or understand the impact that this game would have, which would drive players crazier than Space Invaders had just a short time before. This launched a slew of clones and copycats seeking to bank on the fame of a player navigating a labyrinth eating/colelcting something while being chased by monsters. Where Namco was the company to create the title, Midway was the company that it was licensed to in the US to handle arcade manufacturing, distribution and marketing. In those days, games would often be licensed out to two companies – one for arcades and one for home. In Pac-Man’s case, home licensing fell to Atari. Thanks to their massive efforts to promote the game for their 2600 and 5200 game consoles, it meant that many people still erroneously associate the character with that company (although if you really dig into the history, Namco got into the business as Atari Japan, which quickly turned into its own thing. Funny how those connections work).
Want to dive into more detail about how the original game came together? Check out “The Development of Pac-Man” over at Arcade Blogger.
To the point of how much Atari marketed the game, here’s a commercial from back-in-the-day. The end with “Atari Pac-Man” helped drive the incorrect notion home that it was Atari’s creation, not Namco’s:
The fever included breakfast cereals, of course:
Ms. Pac-Man (1981) – What started as a hack to the Pac-Man code would turn into its own phenomenon at the peak of the Golden Age of video games. The hackers gave this extra mazes to explore and more randomized ghosts, building upon the world lore, and solidifying the concept in pop culture. When they (GCC) took their hack to Midway, both Namco & Midway would add their touches to complete it, thus turning into a new phenomenon to accompany the original. As one note of trivia, the artist responsible for giving Ms. Pac-Man her bow starred in The Spectre Files: Deathstalker as the first vampire girl you encounter. While I have been operating an arcade, I’ve had many more requests for Ms. Pac-Man than any other classic game and it is often the best earning classic among titles from the ’80s. Also from what I have found, most players prefer Ms. Pac-Man Turbo, which lets her zip around the maze with a little more ease.
Here’s another commercial from Atari to promote Ms. Pac-Man
It should be noted that both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are the most popular arcade games ever manufactured, having reached production of over 100,000 units each. Many arcade titles are lucky to hit over 1000; back in ’82 releases hitting between 20,000-40,000 would be common but far and away, the pair of original Pac-Man titles are the least rare one can find from the ’80s. Keep that in mind if you are ever shopping to put a cabinet into your home
The legal status of Ms. Pac-Man is currently up-in-the-air through some weird happenings, but I’m sure it’ll be sorted soon.
Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man Pinball (1982) – 1982 marked a very busy year for the Pac-Man franchise, where the fever got a little too crazy, saturating the market with several titles. Saturation was a bigger problem than E.T. on the Atari 2600, since the market was flooded with bad titles. Nevertheless, while Pac-Man is remembered primarily as a video game, it did land in the pinball space more than once, starting with Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man Pinball. While this doesn’t have ramps and playfield toys, it has a cool layout.
Super Pac-Man (1982) – Also in ’82 came another sorta-sequel, but it was far less popular than Ms. Pac-Man. Apparently taking into consideration criticism over Pac-Man’s eating habits, this had you eating mostly healthy snacks along with keys to open doors. When Pac-Man was powered up, he also grew in size. The graphics did get a slight improvement here, but that wasn’t enough to lead to success.
Pac-Man Plus (1982) – As a part of 1982’s Pac-Man Fever came this unauthorized upgrade which added a few tweaks to the basic game. Funny how they billed this as the only official and authorized version when in fact they had not officially grabbed Namco’s blessing to create it.
Baby Pac-Man (1982) – Yet again in ’82, Bally decided to try out something innovative, blending two popular forms of out-of-home entertainment into one package. Thus we received this Video Game/Pinball hybrid. The video portion of the game was much more difficult than the other versions of Pac-Man since it was designed by pinball guys. Ghosts were much more relentless in chasing the player so clearing a single maze proves to be a difficult task. The game was also notorious for experiencing technical issues. If a component would fail on the pinball table portion, the video game would not work. When it did work though, it was a unique experience both among Pac-Man games and arcade games in general.
Jr. Pac-Man (1983) – After Baby Pac-Man had grown a little, along came Jr. Pac-Man. This took a technical step forward by offering a scrolling maze. With much larger mazes and the prizes creating large dots that slowed the player down, this one was a bit more challenging and not terribly popular so it was found more in kit form than dedicated.
Pac & Pal (1983) – This odd entry combined elements of Super Pac-Man, Rally X and even Galaga into one title that would skip a release in the United States. The Super Pac-man element changed the keys into cards, which are essential for progressing through the mazes; Pac-Man would use the Galaga tractor-beam to fire at his enemies. The combination did not prove to be terribly popular with players, who were already experiencing Pac-fatigue.
Professor Pac-Man (1983) – Showing that the Pac-Fever had broke, this was a low production entry where Midway had hoped to capitalize on Pac-Man’s popularity by combining it with a trivia game that would have been constantly updated to keep it fresh. While a clever idea on paper, the game flopped and the constant update idea was scrapped along with it.
Pac-Land (1984) – Shooting off on a tangent into run’n jump platforming territory, Pac-Land injected running and jumping along a scrolling level with a ton of ‘cute’. Gone were the familiar mazes that players were tired of and this launched into a genre that would really catch on fire in the US the following year when Super Mario Bros. came along. Many platformers would focus on you traveling in one direction but Pac Land would have levels allowing you to travel in either one.
PacMania (1987) – Unfortunately for Midway, their slew of unauthorized Pac-Man releases led to the revocation of the Pac-Man licenses and for a short time, the character was given a rest at the arcade. Then in 1987, Namco created Pacmania, which was licensed for manufacture in the US by Atari Games. The game presented a nice leap in the concept which took advantage of newer technology to go in an enhanced direction. The graphics had an isometric look with large and varied mazes. Pac-Man also had the ability to jump. Those features aside, the principle complaint about this game was that you cannot see the entire playfield, as the game camera scrolls with your position. I imagine that something like an overlay radar might have helped, but who knows.
Hyper Pac-Man (1994) – After Pac-Mania, Namco would really give the series a rest among coin-op circles but in 1994/95, a company called Semicom gave it a “Hyper” spin. This kept the jump feature of from Pac-mania, but returned to the single screen nature of the game. Maze designs were a bit different and the game also offered co-op play and power-ups to spice things up.
Namco Classic Collection Vol. 2 (1996) – In the mid ’90s, Namco felt it was time to revisit their own classics with the Namco Classic Collection series. These would feature 3 Namco arcade titles in their original and new “arrangement” forms. For Volume 2, the game would star Dig Dug, Rally X and Pac-Man. While there is nothing special about the original titles, the Arrangement modes were very interesting. In Pac-Man’s case, it took a page from Hyper Pac-Man in the style of graphics and some ideas such as co-op, power-ups and another return of the jump feature. It would also add new types of ghosts, animated pellets and very colorful labyrinths that varied in style and featured multiple heights. It really is a fun game if you ever come across it.
Pac-Man VR (1996) – Back when VR was trying to make it big (the first time), Pac-Man was given the first-person treatment. Finding one of these is a tall order however since it was limited to the Virtuality VR pods (which at the time sold for somewhere around $50-$60k). Unfortunately, the hardware wasn’t up to providing 60FPS action…the jerky motion made anyone prone to vertigo with a VR headset experience that much faster. That said, if you ever wanted to experience Pac-Man from the first person view, this was the game to do so. Unfortunately, all of the captured footage of this one is a blurry mess:
Mario Kart Arcade GP (2005 with releases up to today) – The character took an even longer break after Pac-Man VR, as players craved more complex experiences from single-screen games. When Mario Kart blazed into arcades in 2005, the release was handled by Namco. With them being involved, they happily added some of their own characters that users could race as, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man included. He is also found in the latest release, Mario Kart Arcade GP DX.
Pac Man’s Arcade Party . Through the 2000s, Namco found a way to keep Pac-Man in arcades via retro re-releases. Bundling the likes of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga together proved a success, as this allowed many people to grab the game for home; Arcades could get a coin-op version so that they had something a little newer than aging hardware to rely on. In 2010, Bandai Namco took a bigger step in the multi-game compilation series with Pac-Man’s Arcade Party. This was like the 20th and 25th Anniversary re-releases of the game, but this one featured 13 classic Namco games (12 for the coin-op edition; there are some legal issues with Ms. Pac-Man showing up for commercial use). Later on, Namco would update the idea with Pac-Man’s Pixel Bash (see below).
Pac-Man Battle Royale (2011) – While re-releases are fine for what they are, those of us in the biz crave something more unique at times. In celebrating 30 years, Bandai Namco took a big step in the franchise by properly returning it to arcades with Pac-Man Battle Royale. This was a variation of Pac-Man Championship Edition that had been released to home consoles a few years prior. This new idea pitted 2-4 players against each other, the main point of the game focusing on eating the other players and finding themselves as the last Pac standing. This was released in a table and deluxe upright form, and it has been a popular game for bar/arcades to add to their game floors. It’s too bad we haven’t received a sequel of it, but who knows if such a thing might be in the cards for the near future.
Here is my look at a never released prototype version of the game. While it didn’t feature a TON of changes (mainly just in the AI and endgame scoring), it’s the version that should have been released:
Pac-Man Smash (2013) – This was a surprise release a couple of years ago, when Bandai Namco originally unveiled a unique air hockey concept in Japan they called Big Bang Smash. When brought over to the US, it now featured Pac-Man as the focus. This added some crazy pills tot he air hockey concept, featuring a mini multi-puck release which would spill out a dozen or so pucks onto the playfield at once. This defines chaotic air hockey.
Bandai Namco has since discontinued this table, replacing it with the slightly smaller (and slightly more affordable) Pac-Man Smash Slimline.
Pac-Man Chomp Mania (2013) – This is another recent entry, getting Pac-Man into the wonderfully shallow world of videmption. It only features one of the original maps, which if completed gives the player a chance to win the ticket jackpot. The animated marquee really stands out on this one, which from what I was told, “took a few hours to code.”
World’s Largest Pac-Man (2016)
Released the year after this original post was written, Bandai Namco and Raw Thrills continued to expand on their relationship that had been forged with Pac-Man Chomp Mania to create the World’s Largest Pac-Man. This game features a massive 8′ screen made entirely out of RGB LED’s, making it more of a billboard than a typical display. Operators can even feature up to three ads in the attract mode, promoting their location, specials, parties, etc.
This originally shipped with an adjusted version of the original Pac-Man that allowed for 2 player co-op and also featured a high score entry after you would complete the first maze; later on they added Galaga to the mix.
Pac-Man’s Pixel Bash (2018)
Much like Pac-Man’s Arcade Party mentioned above, Pixel Bash was another multi-game compilation, but it finally took the idea a step further by including more than the paltry sum of a dozen games. Featuring either 31 or 32 Namco arcade classics, this was made to please fans who wanted a little more bang for their buck when it comes to multi-game compilations. This is the only “official” way to get your hands on Pac-Man from Namco’s amusement arm; anything on eBay or Craigslist claiming to have 1000’s of games plus the likes of Pac & Ms. Pac-Man don’t cut it.
Bandai Namco has also created a “Chill” model of Pixel Bash, that instead of a coin door features a refrigerator and bottle openers on the front of the control panel. They were specifically aiming at the mancave market with that one.
Pac In Town (2018)
While Bandai Namco Amusements has been heavily invested into VR as of late, they’ve also given VR’s cousin, AR some love too. That’s what we saw with this Japan-only release of Pac In Town, something that I am surprised has not come over to the States in any form via Namco’s VR Zone or We Play VR arena.
— DigitalOutOfHomeEnt (@DNA_Conference) January 4, 2018
What is the Future of Pac-Man?
Pac-Man has also starred in re-skins of basketball, skeeball, it being an easy thing for Bandai Namco to reskin certain game types with. I’m sure that they will have another video game in Pac-Man’s future, but I can only guess as to what it is. It is too bad that there wasn’t something new in this regard for the 40th, but that doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying one of these listed games, as so many of these titles are timeless, being fun to play no matter how many times you’ve already given it a spin.
What is your favorite Pac-Man arcade game? Comment below!
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