Happy birthday, Mr Pac-Man

Pac-Man by Namco, Japan – 1980

It was inspired by pizza and spawned an industry that generates $30 billion a year — but 25 years on, the world’s most recognisable computer icon has not made its creator a rich man

WE ARE in a cheerless office-block on the edge of a bleak, rain-swept industrial estate in the greyest corner of Yokohama, waiting to speak to a visionary whose lurid colours changed the world. We are expecting someone extraordinary to break through the dreariness. With a single stroke of genius, our man created the most recognisable icon of the computer age, shifted the global landscape of entertainment, and spawned an industry that is now worth more than $30 billion (£17 billion) a year.

We wander down a smelly, nondescript corridor, and almost miss a slightly overweight middle-aged man wearing cheap sandals and a faint grin. “Hi, pleased to meet you,” he says, darting out from behind a coffee machine and extending a hand, “I’m Iwatani. I invented Pac-Man.”

He ushers us into the sort of decrepit meeting room

that even a small, failing business would be ashamed of, and points to a tacky, stuffed-toy version of the notorious yellow glutton. This is the hero of the world’s most successful video game, and his father. “Happy 25th birthday, Mr Pac-Man!” says Iwatani. Toru Iwatani, now 50, is the stuff of video game legend. An internet search on his name unlocks thousands of retro-obsessed sites venerating Pac-Man and debating its significance — all oozing that brand of know-it-all nostalgia that vintage technology provokes. When the 1980 Pac-Man craze was at its most intense, with machines lurking in every nook from Hong Kong noodle shops to P&O cross-Channel ferries, Iwatani’s name conjured a sense of global mystery and intrigue. Who on earth was this inventive Japanese devil, and how had he got us all hooked on these twittering, beeping machines?

Iwatani sits down and tells the whole story, starting exactly 26½ years ago when a 24-year-old Namco programmer strolled into a now demolished restaurant in central Tokyo, called Shakeys. It was here that he ordered the marguerita pizza that, with one slice removed, provided the visual inspiration for Pac-Man’s famous profile. In fact, Iwatani acknowledges that, while a eureka moment for the annals, that event represents the official birth of Pac-Man:

“The whole thing actually started with me walking around games arcades watching how many boys were playing and the fact that all the machines were about killing aliens, tanks or people. Girls were simply not interested, and I suddenly had a motivation for my work: I wanted game centres to shed this rather dark, sinister image, and it seemed to me that the way to raise the atmosphere of a place is to entice girls to come in.”

“The whole purpose of Pac-Man was to target women and couples, and get a different type of player involved.”

Iwatani and his team of six developers were given a remarkably free rein in coming up with Namco’s greatest hit. He puts this down to the fact that the industry was then in a primitive state, and that his bosses, who were generally ignorant of the market, had little choice but to trust the instincts of a 24-year old geek.

“So there I was, wondering what sort of things women would look for in a video game. I sat in cafés and listened to what they were talking about: mostly it was fashion and boyfriends. Neither of those was really the stuff of a good video game. Then they started talking about food — about cakes and sweets and fruit — and it hit me: that food and eating would be the thing to concentrate on to get the girls interested.”

Over the next 18 months, Iwatani and his team set about creating the game that would change the games world. After many experiments, he came up with Pac-Man chomping his way through food placed around a maze, and being chased by ghosts. The four ghosts — Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, as they were known outside Japan — were based on Obake no Q-Taro, a famous cartoon ghost, which Iwatani sketches for us on a scrap of paper.

On the technical front, what Iwatani did was revolutionary. The ghosts did not move at random, but in four distinct behavioural patterns. The “power-pills”, which gave Pac-Man the ability to eat the ghosts, provided an instant switch in the nature of the action and therefore the tone of the game. But the genius of Pac-Man — and the reason that in the 25 years since its release it has been played more than ten billion times — was its sense of life. Before it, video games were exciting but essentially mechanical. You controlled a space ship, car or tank and the enemy did the same. Pac-Man’s munching action and the ghosts’ goggle eyes gave the world of video games colour, humour and, above all, character. It may have been aimed at girls, but boys converted to it immediately: Pac-Man’s most interesting revelation was gamers’ affinity to living things. And that spark of inspiration has taken the industry from a 2-D yellow disc through Mario, and on to a 3-D Lara Croft.

“From very early childhood I have always loved practical jokes and playing tricks on people,” says Iwatani. “I love doing things that provoke a reaction. It gave me so much joy to know that over the entire world, people were affected by my game. Even if it was only one page of their lives.”

Iwatani describes his worries on the evening before Pac-Man hit the streets. “There were some really big hits out there — Defender, Centipede, Asteroids. We sent the Pac-Man machines out to the games arcades in secret. There was no fanfare, no advertising, we just wanted to see how the public would react.

“I was really nervous, because I was not at all sure that the game would be accepted . But it was startling how quickly it became popular — all the more so because men were suddenly interested in a game with no violence.”

Everyone from teenagers to heart surgeons joined in “Pac-Mania”. Iwatani leafs through a history of Pac-Man goods — lunchboxes, car bumper stickers and other trinkets. “I think that the moment I knew things had got out of hand was when the Hanna-Barbera cartoon of Pac-Man got a 56 per cent share in primetime US TV. Artists and writers change lives. I just made a video game.”

Strangely, that is exactly how Namco saw his achievement: as just a game. Pac-Man, quite apart from the lucrative sequels Ms Pac-Man and Pac-Land, made the company more than $100 million. Iwatani was merely promoted to supervisor level, and still lives in a house too small to accommodate a Pac-Man arcade cabinet.

“You work for a company all your life in Japan,” he says, “I received no particular bonus. People think I made a fortune and that I’m a rich man. I’m not.”

There is something rather distressing about Iwatani’s workaday scene. It is tempting to imagine what he would be like now if he had worked for an American company.

Iwatani’s answer is to point to a career spent doing exactly what he wanted. After Pac-Man, he went on to become Namco’s foremost producer of arcade games — classics such as Ridge Racer, Time Crisis and Point Blank.

And yet, Iwatani is in some ways a video game Luddite. He has become a great believer in a golden age of video games, when the ideas were instantly accessible, the controls easy to grasp, and the gameplay simple and charming. “The development of the hardware, and the greater ability to express every idea that flies into a programmer’s head, mean that game creators have made the new games congested with every technique in their power. The basic games behind all this are so blurred that people can’t catch up. We should go back to basics — like Pac-Man — and play in an easier, more relaxed way.”

Mike Matei

Hey there, I'm Mike Matei, the brains behind pacmanmuseum.com, a blog entirely dedicated to the iconic Pac-Man game. As a lifelong fan and geek of classic arcade gaming, I've poured my passion into creating a virtual museum celebrating everything Pac-Man. E-mail / Linkedin