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Gobbling up ghosts: Pac-Man reaches 40

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An employee at the Museum of Modern Art in New York plays Pac-Man, the most successful arcade game of all time. AFP

Gobbling up ghosts: Pac-Man reaches 40

Forty years ago, a new video game featuring a bright yellow, dot-chomping, ghost-dodging character called Pac-Man appeared in Tokyo. It would become the most successful arcade game of all time.

The hero – shaped like a mouth opening and closing – races around a maze noisily gobbling dots and occasionally fruit for extra points, all the while avoiding four cunning ghosts named Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.

As every Pac-Man player knows, the greatest joy comes from turning the tables by munching a power pellet, sending the ghosts fleeing in all directions as they suddenly become edible themselves.

The game was originally called Puck-Man (an onomatopoeic play on the Japanese word ‘paku’, meaning to gobble) but it was changed when it launched in the United States for fear gamers would inevitably change the ‘P’ to an ‘F’.

Game designer Toru Iwatani came up with the shape for the adorable hero when he took a small slice from a pizza and realised the remainder looked like a wide-open mouth.

Pac-Man was aimed at women and couples – a different audience to the violent alien shoot-em-ups popular in Japanese arcades at the time, Iwatani explained in a 2010 interview with Wired magazine.

The first edition was placed in a cinema in the trendy Tokyo district of Shibuya rather than a male-dominated arcade to test the target audience, he said.

“The women and couples were very happy about the machine, very excited. They came up to it and put their hands on it, so we thought that our target concept had been very much in sync and correct,” said Iwatani.

Hard-core gamers turned up their noses but “it was for people who didn’t play games on a daily basis – women, children, the elderly”.

The idea of Pac-Man turning the tables on his spooky tormentors came from the cartoon series Popeye, where the nautical hero is only able to take on his nemesis Bluto after a healthy dose of spinach, Iwatani explained.

‘Colourful and cute’

From these humble beginnings, Pac-Man would go on to be recognised by Guinness World Records as the most successful coin-operated arcade game of all time.

It has spawned several spin-offs, including Pac ‘n Roll, Ms Pac-Man, Pac-in-Time and Pac Panic – a massive money spinner for creators Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc.

The firm claims the loveable character has a brand recognition of 90 per cent around the world – “one of the most recognised on the planet”.

To celebrate the game’s 30th birthday, Google unveiled its first-ever playable “Doodle” and the internet giant also rolled out a version of the game for its Maps service – turning the real streets of a city into a labyrinth to gobble up pellets and ghosts.

Wired reported that the “perfect score” is 3,333,360 points – possible only by getting to the “kill screen” level 256 – at which a glitch prevents the game from progressing any further –without losing a life and eating every dot, fruit and ghost possible.

Pac-Man’s 40th was celebrated with a special Twitter hashtag in Japan, with fans all over the country wishing their hero a happy birthday.

“The characters are colourful and cute. It was so fun. I remember I played a lot at my relative’s house. Happy birthday Pac-Man!” said one.

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