Weird History
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12 Facts About 'Pac-Man,' The Most Successful Arcade Game Of All Time

February 22, 2021 452 votes 74 voters 2.7k views12 items

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If one mascot represents the golden age of arcade games, it must be Pac-Man. The round, yellow, dot-eating hero has captivated pop culture since first appearing in arcades over 40 years ago. And although Pac-Man remains tied to the past, signifying a simpler age of video games in a way that rival mascot Mario does not, Pac-Man has never really gone away. You can play the game, its sequels, and its reboots in numerous incarnations on numerous devices - even on a Google Doodle. And the gameplay is so simple, exemplifying the design virtues of "easy to learn, hard to master," that there's never a barrier to entering the blue maze one more time.

Here are some of the most interesting facts about Pac-Man, its origins, its cultural impact, and its ongoing afterlife.

  • It Can Never Be Beaten Because The Final Screen Is A Garbled Mess
    Photo: Pac-Man / Bandai Namco

    It Can Never Be Beaten Because The Final Screen Is A Garbled Mess

    Pac-Man is not designed to be winnable; the game repeats the same maze layout again and again, with certain incremental changes. The amount of time you can eat the ghosts after consuming a power pill decreases (until it is zero), and the value of the bonus prizes in the center of the screen increases, capping out at the "key" prize, which is worth 5,000 points.

    A vanishingly small percentage of Pac-Man players have been good enough to reach the final Pac-Man screen, Level 256. Only the first 255 levels of the game can be displayed normally; this is related to the fact that the highest number that can be rendered in 8 bits is 255, but the details are, to say the least, arcane.

    When the player reaches Level 255, the game logic - for obscure reasons - attempts to draw 256 fruits on the screen. The result instead is a garbled jumble of characters and graphical fragments on the right side of the screen, while the left side displays as normal. In this state, the game can still be played, but the level can't be completed, because not all the dots are there to be eaten. It is possible to guide the ghosts such that they will become "trapped" in a vertical path on the right side of the screen. At that point, Pac-Man can live indefinitely, or at least until someone shuts the machine off. This is the closest Pac-Man ever comes to a "win" state.

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  • 2

    It Was Originally Called ‘Puck Man’ But Renamed In The US For Fear Of Profanity

    Pac-Man was originally released in Japan as Puck-Man, a name derived from the Japanese slang word "paku paku," which evokes the sound of a mouth opening and closing as it eats.

    When the game was exported to the US market, the American arcade-game distributor Midway advised making some changes. The cabinet art was altered slightly, and the name was altered to Pac-Man. Why? Because it was feared some wiseacres would scratch out part of the "P" on the arcade cabinets, turning it into an "F."

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  • It Was (Partly) Inspired By A Pizza With A Slice Cut Out
    Photo: Joy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    It Was (Partly) Inspired By A Pizza With A Slice Cut Out

    Early video game character designs were constrained by low-resolution graphics with a limited color palette. In some cases this was probably a blessing in disguise, because it forced developers to come up with very simple, graphically strong - and hence memorable - designs.

    Pac-Man designer Toru Iwatani has said that the distinctive "yellow chomping circle" shape of his most famous creation was inspired by looking at a pizza:

    I was eating a whole pizza while I was thinking about making a game themed after “eating.” It was then that I came up with Pac-Man’s game design after looking at the pie with a slice taken from it.

    However, in another interview, Iwatani gave a slightly different story. Calling the pizza story "half true," he claimed the design was partially inspired by the Japanese character for "mouth":

    In Japanese the character for mouth (kuchi) is a square shape. It's not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out. There was the temptation to make the Pac-Man shape less simple. While I was designing this game, someone suggested we add eyes. But we eventually discarded that idea because once we added eyes, we would want to add glasses and maybe a moustache. There would just be no end to it. 

    From the very beginning, it's evident that Iwatani wanted to make a game about eating.

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  • 4

    Its Designer Had No Computer Programming Training

    Toru Iwatani was just 22 years old when he came to work for Namco in 1977. He had no training in computer programming or graphic design, but Namco executives were sure they could find a good use for the bright young kid - and they were soon proven right.

    In the early days of video game development, programmers and designers were often one and the same person. But Namco was willing to support a division of labor early on. By the time of Pac-Man's creation, Iwatani was a designer on a team that also included a programmer, a hardware engineer, a graphic designer, and a composer to do music and sound effects.

    This large (for its time), specialized team may account for the unusual polish that is evident in Pac-Man's presentation even all these years later.

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