Why We Love Pac-Man

Pac-Man turns 30 today, and while his glory days are far behind him, he still keeps busy by appearing in mobile games and serving as NAMCO BANDAI GAMES’ official mascot.  To this day, it would be hard to find an arcade without the presence of at least one member of the Pac-family.

What is it about the game of Pac-Man that has kept him around for so long?  While it is simple (and true) to say that it is because Pac-Man is fun to play, I believe that is just the start of why he and his game are so fondly remembered by many:

To begin with, Pac-Man is a very simple game to play and understand.  The only button to push is the one to start the game.  You move Pac-Man with a joystick, and he only goes up, down, left, and right within a maze that never changes.  Indeed, the only ‘advanced’ concepts to learn are the power pills and the tunnel that transports Pac-Man from one side of the maze to the other.  The ghosts (or at least their eyes) always return to their box in the middle of the screen after they’ve been eaten.  You only get one extra Pac-Man at 10,000 points.  The characters are also simple; the titular Pac-Man is a circle with a mouth that constantly opens and closes, and ghosts are eyeballs covered with, well…something.

As a game, Pac-Man is fun, but it is also challenging in a way that is a little bit different from other games.  Oftentimes in classic games, players are swarmed with enemies and bullets until they are destroyed, so defeat is usually accepted by the player as having been inevitable.  In Pac-Man, there are always just the four ghosts to contend with.  Thus, upon being eaten, a player is more likely to blame themselves instead of the game, thinking: “if I had only gone this way instead of that way, I wouldn’t have died!”  This helps give Pac-Man that “just one more game” quality that keeps players coming back for more.  Also, unlike many other arcade games, there is only one high score!

Next, Pac-Man is undeniably cute, especially when compared to the hordes of menacing aliens usually found in other classic games.  It is hard not to smile as the ghosts’ eyes dart back and forth in search of their prey, or feel sad for Pac-Man when he gets eaten, as he shrivels away and disappears with a blink.  The sound effects and music are unbearably cute and unique: the cheery opening theme, the wakka-wakka sound Pac-Man makes as he chomps, the constant little police siren (that speeds up as you clear the maze) and even the sad little “boink-boink” which means its Game Over.  The odd montage of electric noises that come after eating a power pill are easily some of the strangest sounds in all of videogaming.  Finally, the little “breaktime” scenes provide an early example of in-game comedy.

Unlike most games, Pac-Man has personality.  While Pac-Man himself is a yellow Everyman with no redeeming quality besides his insatiable appetite, his adversaries have names and distinct behaviors.  Easily the most hated of the quartet; Blinky, the red ghost, relentlessly pursues Pac-Man with dogged determination.  Pinky, the pink ghost, causes no end of aggravation as he cuts off Pac-Man’s escape.  Clyde, the orange one, is a fraidy cat that will dash away if Pac-Man gets too close to a power pill.  Finally, there is Inky, the blue ghost, who wanders the maze seemingly with no rhyme or reason.

There is also something primal about Pac-Man.  In its most basic terms, Pac-Man as a concept can be described in one sentence: “Eat or be eaten.”  Indeed, the entire game revolves around eating: you eat dots to get points and advance, you eat fruit to get more points, you eat power pills which allow you eat your enemies, and you lose the game by being eaten.

Pac-Man is also about exacting revenge.  Eating a power pill briefly turns Pac-Man into the hunter instead of the hunted, and in addtion to the points, the smug satisfaction of watching the ghosts scatter back to their ‘base’ in the center of the screen after being chomped is a reward in its own right.  Sadly, victory is only temporary: literally within seconds, Pac-Man resumes his initial role as the prey.

Like nearly all arcade games, Pac-Man is about survival.  For better or for worse, Pac-Man and his adversaries and trapped in a maze with no escape, destined to perform their drama for as long as the player can keep Pac-Man alive.  It could be said that Pac-Man is an exercise in existentialism or consumerism, but that is more analysis than this author wishes to pursue.

In addition to being a fun game, we love Pac-Man because it is simple, challenging, and cute, yet it also appeals to some of our base instincts.  With a personality all its own, Pac-Man will remain a part of our culture for years to come.  Happy 30th, Pac-Man!