Pac Man Fever: The Franchise That Spawned an Industry

Masaya Nakamura, the founder of the Japanese video game company Namco, has died age 91. He was widely known as the “Father of Pac-Man”, and his role in bringing the iconic arcade posterboy – created by designer Toru Iwatani in 1980 – to Japan and to the US. The videogame industry has since skyrocketed and grown in every direction, From Role Playing games, First Person Shooters, to Narrative-Focussed storytelling games and indie roguelikes.

We’ve come so far from the humble beginnings of Pong, where two white rectangles slide up and down a black screen and a white square bounces between them, as well as the iconic Tetris, originally exported from the USSR, which also caused people to see the colourful tetrominoes in their dreams (due to hours of exposure to the game, known as the Tetris Effect). Games have obviously got much more complicated, nuanced, and better-looking. So why do we still come back to old time classics?

One reason may be that these games are so simple and easy to get the hang of, it makes sense that it’s even easier to get into them. These games didn’t have manuals, or almost any explanation at all – just mack that start button with a satisfying click, and go. The games weren’t large either, so you didn’t feel like you were missing out on more of the game if you failed, besides from the more intense levels.

These games put you in the extremely satisfying state of Flow, also colloquially referred to as “The Zone”. That moment, that state of mind where nothing else exists, no casual rumination on your failure as a human being, or that piece of work you have to finish otherwise your life’s over, nothing but the complete absorption of the task at hand. Old arcade games gave us this feeling because they were usually time-constrained, meaning that you had to be accurate and fast to do well. Additionally, the consequences of the games meant that once you were out of lives, 8-bit text would signify GAME OVER, and all your progress was whipped back to the start – all that hard work was for nought. But that in itself is a quietly motivating experience, you have to start the climb again.

Pac Man taught you how to play the game as you played: you run away from the things coming towards you. Eat a ‘Power Pellet’, and they run away. Clear the level of ‘Pac Dots’ and you’re done. There’s a little more to it than that, but it wasn’t necessary to know. Firstly, all the enemies (referred to as ghosts due to technical limitations in the Atari 2600 caused them to flicker, and as such, seem ghostlike) have personalities. Direct translations from Japanese refer to the four as Chaser, Ambusher, Fickle, and Feigned Ignorance. The English counterparts lack as much comedic value.

And then there were the high scores. Competition gave videogames immense replay value, to prove your skill with a nickname three letters long. Turning a single person experience into a sprawling connection with a much wider collection of avid competitors. If you can hit even in the top 500 in the world on a leaderboard, you know there is some accolade in that. Old arcade games had this at a lower level, based on friendship groups and the arcade itself, but the intensity was just as high.

It can also be a rose tinted-screen. Looking through into these old, deep set televisions in arcade machines is like going back in time. We’re looking not only at video game history, but also to our youth. I wasn’t around when Pong or Pac Man were made, but I still played the hell out of them. SI even bought a Nintendo DS remake of space invaders, but it had that original charm missing.

The aesthetic itself has imprinted itself on video games even now, games like Evoland, which is a travel through gaming history itself, as a self-aware game. The games of the golden arcade era even created a whole music genre of chiptunes, created from a simple programmable sound generator (PSG) that is a standalone success in its own right.

All these things have slowly cemented the role of old arcade games into our modern culture: these games aren’t contentious or confusing, they give a sense of gaming for the mere enjoyment of gaming. No narrative is needed; just you, a joystick, and two buttons.

[Evan Osborne]

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