How Programmers Create Video Game Icons: The Story of Pac-Man

By Vince Matthews

It’s possibly the most iconic video game of all time. It’s been featured on lunch boxes, in movies and even had a popular 80s Saturday morning cartoon that ran for two seasons.

Pac-Man-History
According to the USgamer site, when adjusted for inflation, the Pac-Man arcade game has earned $7.6 billion. (Image: Namco)

Pac-Man was the poster child for video games several years before Mario came along. The original Pac-Man game still holds the record for the biggest-grossing arcade game of all time. Adjusted for inflation, the game has earned more than 7 billion dollars.

Video Gaming’s First Mascot
The Pac-Man character was gaming’s first mascot. Released in 1980, the game debuted during a time when space-themed shooters dominated arcades.

The maze-and-chase mechanic was new (and quickly copied) and it also did something other video games of the time didn’t: It appealed to females.

This almost universal attraction helped Pac-Man become a merchandising bonanza, leading to the first video game character to be massively licensed for t-shirts, drink glasses, a Top 40 radio hit, and, of course, Saturday morning cartoons. In the early 80s, everybody caught “Pac-Man Fever” (which was the title of the hit song).

Pixels-Iwatani-Meets-Pac-Man
In the movie Pixels, classic video game characters are brought to life. A scene in the film has Pac-Man meeting his creator, Tori Iwatani, played by Denis Akiyama. (© 2015 Sony Pictures)

The Origin of Pac-Man
At the heart of the merchandising engine that was/is Pac-Man is a solid game. With a quick glance, players instantly understand the game mechanic: eat dots and avoid ghosts.

But even a game as simple as Pac-Man takes lots of planning and development. In 1977, when he was just 22, Tori Iwatani joined Namco. He wanted to make video games as a game designer and worked on Pac-Man for a year and half, taking the game from concept to finished product.

The idea for Pac-Man started with the kanji word “taberu,” meaning “to eat.” Then one day while at lunch, Iwatani ordered a whole pizza, removed a slice and as Iwatani put it, “What was left was the idea for the Pac-Man shape.”

Iwatani-Pac-Man-Sketch-book
Iwatani shows off his original designs for the Pac-Man game for the first time in public.

Pac-Man-design-sketches
Animations were drawn on graph paper, so programmers could easily turn the boxes into pixels.

In Iwatani’s initial game design, players gobbled up food that was scattered around the screen. A maze was then added to give the game field structure.

Creating an Icon
In Japanese, there’s a slang expression that describes the opening and closing of one’s mouth (“paku paku”) that was the inspiration for Pac-Man’s name.

Iwatani then decided that the player should fight enemies for the food. These enemies became ghost-shaped monsters, each a different color. He did this “mostly to please woman…I thought they would like the pretty colors,” Iwatani said in an interview.

To add tension and give the gamer a break from the constant chase of ghosts, Iwatani had the monsters attack in waves.

Programming the ghosts actually was the most difficult part of the game. “I wanted each ghost enemy to have a specific character and its own movements, so they just weren’t chasing Pac-Man in single file.” So Iwatani worked with programmers to give each ghost a unique personality. For example, Red (also called “Blinky”) chases Pac-Man head-on, while another ghost may turn and run from Pac-Man if he challenges them.

Pac-Man-creator-sketch-book
The ghosts and all stages of their animations were plotted out before development started, as well as Pac-Man’s death animation.

Iwatani and his team tested the game as they went along – a process pivotal to the success of a good game – which helped them find out what was working and what should be scrapped. “If it wasn’t fun or didn’t add anything to the game,” Iwatani states, “We dropped it.”

The final results were the addictive dot-gobbling classic we all know today.

Pac-Man spawned several arcade sequels, including Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Jr. and Super Pac-Man – and Pac-Man games are still being made but now for home consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox.

Game-Design Superstars
Toru Iwatani was a game designer. He did not know how to program video games. Instead, he focused his efforts on creating the concept and look of the game. Now retired, Iwatani is currently a lecturer at Tokyo Polytechnic University, passing on his creative experience to a new generation of digital media creators.