He's made billions off slot-fed quarters, starred in 15 mobile games since 2008, featured in that goofy Bud Light commercial at this year's Super Bowl, and even appeared his own Google Doodle. Who would've thought 35 years on that we'd still be raving about a banana-colored, dot-noshing disc with a love/hate ghost fixation and a more-than-mild fruit fetish?
Today marks the 35th anniversary of Pac-Man's arrival in Japan on May 22, 1980, an arcade game whose eponymous character remains the most recognizable in the annals of gaming. We caught up with Pac-Man's Japanese creator, Toru Iwatani, who reminded us of what inspired the character, then told us how he feels about the game today.
Iwatani first saw Pac-Man in a pizza
It's a long-told tale, but in case you haven't heard it, Iwatani says his inspiration for the Pac-Man character came from one of the most popular dishes in the world.
"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," says Iwatani. "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."
At the time, arcades were basically boys clubs
"In the late 1970s, there were a lot of games in arcades which featured killing aliens or other enemies that mostly appealed to boys to play," explains Iwatani. "The image of arcades was that they were darkly lit and their restrooms were dirty."
Iwatani wanted to make arcades into date hangouts
"This perception [of arcades as dude hangouts] was similar in Japan," says Iwatani. "I wanted to change that by introducing game machines in which cute characters appeared with simpler controls that would not be intimidating to female customers and couples to try out ... and couples visiting arcades would increase."
35 years later, Iwatani sees the game as plausibly feminist
"My opinion is that Pac-Man became popular with everyone, from youngsters to elders to men and women because of our original idea to make a game that spoke to both female customers and couples," he says. "Empowering Pac-Man to chase the ghosts gives players a refreshed perspective on the game's core gameplay, and I think this idea also appeals to a new generation of female players who have grown up empowered and want to be the pursuer rather than being the pursued."
He "modeled" the sound effect Pac-Man makes when swallowing to sound designer Toshio Kai himself
"I asked for a game version of the typical Japanese mimetic words 'Paku Paku' that’s commonly used to describe people eating food," explains Iwatani. "I described the 'swallow' sound effect that I wanted to Kai-san by eating fruit, and by making actual gurgling sounds."
He sees Pac-Man as one of the medium's exemplars
"It might be a bit of a stretch to use a Beatles comparison, but if the song “Yesterday” is looked at as THE standard musical number for music, then I think Pac-Man is THE standard for games. Thus, Pac-Man will be loved forever, and I’m proud of that."
And there's still more he'd like to do with the character
"Outside of the original Pac-Man within the maze-game concept, there was the Pac-Land arcade game in which Pac-Man appeared as more of a full character with hands and feet giving him more abilities (the game also took him out of the maze)," says Iwatani, reflecting on some of Pac-Man's later appearances. "And there’s Pac-Man World, when Pac-Man entered a 3D world."
"I’ll keep working on ideas for Pac-Man," he says, then slyly adds "Perhaps there’s room for a singing Pac-Man in the future."