By Dom Cioffi
Toru Iwatani loved arcade games, especially pinball machines. In fact, he loved them so much that he spent all of his time studying their construction and design. He became so accomplished that at 22 years old he was hired by Namco, a Japanese arcade game maker.
Iwatani was initially upset when he was denied work on the pinball machines he so dearly loved and was instead relegated to the the new “video game” department, which he viewed as strange and clinical.
Nevertheless, he got to work analyzing the marketplace and coming up with designs he thought might prove popular.
At the time, very few video games existed, but most of the ones that did were “shooter” games like Asteroids and Space Invaders in which the player tried to destroy things. The only other subset in the industry were simplistic sports games like Pong.
Iwatani wanted to move in a different direction and to create a new genre of game.
His reasoning for this was the widely held belief that arcades were sinister places inhabited mostly by boys. Iwatani felt he could help the industry if he devised a game that would lighten this atmosphere and be attractive to girls and couples.
Oddly, hunger would play a major role in Iwatani’s revolutionary idea.
As Iwatani tells it, one day he was famished at work and decided to order a pizza. When it arrived, he extracted a slice and began to eat. After a minute or two, he looked down upon the remaining pizza and had his eureka moment.
His desire for a lighthearted and comical game was born in that instant. He later filled his sketchbook with designs, deciding that this new character would avoid shooting things and would instead eat.
Iwatani grabbed four other Namco employees (a programmer, a hardware engineer, a cabinet designer, and a musician) to help with his idea. Eighteen months later, on May 22, 1980, Puck Man was released into the Japanese marketplace.
While it was not an instant hit, back in the United States, arcade game maker Midway took notice and quickly purchased the North American rights. Just prior to release, however, they made the dramatic decision to change the name from Puck Man to Pac-Man, fearing that teenage boys would vandalize the cabinets by changing the “P” to and “F.”
Almost overnight Pac-Man became a major hit.
Pac-Man went on to become the highest grossing video game in history with over $2.5 billion worth of quarters inserted into its machines. It is also estimated to have generated another $1 billion through product licensing, e.g. games, t-shirts, pop songs, posters, etc. And on countless surveys and polls, Pac-Man is almost unanimously voted the greatest video game in history.
Aficionados will often point out that Pac-Man is also one of the most influential games ever created, having been responsible for creating the “maze chase” genre of gaming, establishing the first gaming mascot, and creating the “power-up” feature now widely used in many games.
I’ll admit that I was not a fan of Pac-Mac – not because I didn’t find the game intriguing, but because I was too enthralled with another segment of the gaming market.
I preferred the old school approach of pinball where a gentle nudge of the cabinet could have a subtle effect on the actual game. While my friends all began to gravitate toward the shiny video games, I held back, feeling an allegiance to my cherished silver ball and flippers.
Deep down, however, I could see the writing on the wall.
Sure enough, while pinball machines still maintained a tiny segment of the arcade market, their analog approach simply could not compete with the glitz and glamour of digital play.
Instead of fully jumping on the bandwagon, I simply withdrew altogether. And for the last 25 years I have rarely engaged in any type of digital gaming entertainment – until I purchased an iPad and had someone introduce me to the pinball apps that are currently available.
Like I was jettisoned into yesteryear, these apps eerily replicate the subtle nuances of playing a pinball machine from the past. I started with one game and before I knew it, I had purchased five more.
I’m not saying I’m hooked, but I’m sure glad its not costing me a quarter every time I play.
This week’s film, “Pixels,” happens to feature that revolutionary character of Pac-Man along with a slew of other classic video game stars who have been commandeered by alien forces in an attempt to destroy the Earth.
Adam Sandler is back and no matter how may pop culture figures he can lasso into his films, they still manage to disappoint. “Pixels” is the kind of movie only young children will find entertaining. After adults get over the initial curiosity and visual intrigue of video game characters come to life, they will quickly fall into the “When is this over?” mode.
Save your theater dollars for another picture or prepare yourself for a tremendous digital let-down.
A low scoring “D+” for “Pixels.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]