Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Childhood Memories: Pac-Man

In honor of his recent 34th birthday, I thought it was about time to give a little attention to a certain yellow dude from my past. The earliest games I remember in my life, at around age 3 or so, were Namco's Pac-Man and Dig Dug. Pac-Man was huge in the early to mid-80s, and years before Mario Mania swept the nation in the late 80s, Pac-Man Fever was a mass epidemic of epic proportions. So much so that he even had his own top ten hit single (of the same name). He had a cartoon, he had toys, he was on t-shirts and pajamas and lunch boxes, he had his own cereal and Spagettios knock off, you name it. In short, he was the very first true video game icon: a game character that was widely recognized and attained popularity that reached above and beyond the game that spawned him. Pac-Man was released in October of 1980 in the US, earlier that year in May back in Japan, and he quickly caught fire worldwide, as his game was arguably the first (besides perhaps Pong) that reached a mass audience, and appealed to men and women, children and adults alike.

Simple, elegant, addictive, classic.

I'm not sure where I first saw Pac-Man, but my earliest memory of it, is sitting at one of the table-top arcade cabinet models, at a local Roundtable Pizza when I was about 3 or 4. I didn't actually "play" the game at first, as my grandmother didn't often hand out quarters for me to "waste" (her words), at that age especially. So in those days, I would just sit down and see the "demo mode" playing, and at that age, I really couldn't tell whether I was controlling the game or not, and regardless, I just had fun pretending I was and watching the game anyway. The first time I ever did actually get a quarter to play it, I'm sure that I more than likely sucked complete ass at it, on account of, you know, being a toddler. But I still had a burning desire to play it, and it always fascinated me, what with it's foreboding mazes, scary (but fashionably colorful) ghosts, and Pac-Man's insatiable appetite for "Power Pellets".

They really don't make 'em like this anymore.

In the picture above you can see the style of arcade machine I mean. It was literally a table, that you could safely rest things like sodas and pizza on top of, to gleefully stuff your face while you blew quarter after quarter trying to master the mazes of Pac-Man. As you can also see above, Pac-Man received a (at the time unofficial) sequel of sorts in the form of "Ms. Pac-Man", a game which features slightly faster gameplay, and new mazes, as well as the astonishing graphical differences of "Ms." featuring lipstick and a bow on her head, to prove she was female. Whereas the four ghosts in the original game were called Inky (Blue), Blinky (Red), Pinky (Pink), and Clyde (Orange), in Ms. Pac-Man, the orange ghost was changed to "Sue", so that Ms. Pac-Man would have a female enemy. In the later game, Pac-Land (as well as in the Pac-Man cartoon), Sue's color is changed to purple, and she is made her own entity. As a kid,  I liked Pac-Man better, simply because "he was a boy", but I really enjoyed both games just as much.

A fun blast from the past.

As a fun bit of trivia for ya, gaming lore has it that the inspiration for Pac-Man originally came to character/game creator Toru Iwatani, while eating a pizza, and seeing that circular shape with a slice missing gave him the idea for the character of a giant mouth that ate things. The name "Pac-Man" also came from the the Japanese sound for eating, "paku-paku". Alternatively, the game upon release was originally called "Puck-Man" in some versions, because it's said the character also had a "hockey puck-like shape". Once the game was brought to America, most versions by then were officially called "Pac-Man", however. It's even been said that the American arcade publisher of the game, Bally/Midway, chose to change the name because they didn't want smart-ass kids covering the "P" in "Puck-Man" with an "F", thus making it......well, you get the gist.

A huge part of my early childhood.

What really cemented Pac-Man in my memory though, beyond just seeing/playing the game itself, was the 1982 Pac-Man cartoon. Produced by Hanna-Barbara, and featuring the voice of classic television actor Marty Ingels as Pac-Man himself, it was a cheesy but fun little show that presented the "Pac-Family" (Mr. Pac, Mrs. Pac, and Pac Jr., along with a Pac-dog and cat) as living in a "normal", Flintstones type world, where everyone were Pac-Man type persons. Except, of course, for the evil (see: mischievous) ghosts, who did the bidding of the mysterious Darth Vader look-alike, Mezmaron (a character invented just for the show, to have an arch-villain). The show featured other characters, such as Pac's nephew P.J., and later "Super-Pac", the Superman equivalent of Pac-Land (also based off of his own game, "Super Pac-Man").

Darth Sillious

During those very early years of my life, the Pac-Man cartoon was as big a deal to me, as Sesame Street, or Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, or He-Man, or Scooby-Doo, or the Smurfs, or the Care Bears, etc. In fact, I must've seen it in re-runs, because I would've only been one or two years old at the time of it's original airing, so it obviously lasted on TV in syndication for awhile. The show was, of course, like most 80s cartoons, fairly silly in tone, but it was memorable to me, and I remember actually thinking that red-robed clown up there was actually pretty scary-looking to my 3 or 4 year old self. Each episode would more or less play out the same, Mezmaron would come up with some evil scheme to get those Power Pellets away from Pac-Man, and then somehow his ghost minions would find a way to bungle it up, Pac-Man would chomp 'em, and they'd go running back to Mezmaron's castle, just cartoony eyes, just like in the game. Naturally, I always found that absolutely hilarious.

This kooky NES cover was inspired by the look of the cartoon show.

As did the rest of the gaming world, when in the latter half of the 80s, Super Mario took over with a vengeance, I too kind of forgot about poor ol' Pac-Man a bit, and got wrapped up in the game that made me go from being just fascinated with games (Pac-Man), to the one that made me fall madly in love with them (Super Mario Bros.). But I never fully forgot about ol' Pac, and neither did the world. He got various new games, one of which I was particularly fond of, Pac-Mania, a slightly different take where Pac-Man could jump over ghosts in the maze, that I used to play on a friend's PC when I would visit. In the 90s he tried his hand at side-scroller platforming, and Tetris-style puzzling. And by the time the 3D gaming era had hit, Pac-Man was still there with us, in a bright shiny new 3D game of his own (the heavily Super Mario 64 inspired) Pac-Man World.

But through all his newer incarnations, the charm, fun, and addictively simple gameplay of that original 1980 gem, has never really been surpassed. As I bring this article to a close, it bears mentioning that right shortly after his 34th birthday passed in late May, Pac-Man was once again part of some significant gaming history, as he was officially unveiled as a new fighter in the newest entry of the popular Nintendo franchise, Super Smash Bros. It's significant, because for the first time in gaming history, we have what are basically the three single biggest gaming mascot/icons of all time, all together in one game, in the forms of Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Pac-Man. And as an added bonus, while not quite on the superstar icon level as those three, classic gaming icon Mega Man has also been added to the mix, so it's a veritable "Who's Who" (almost) of classic video gaming superstars. Just a neat little testament to the enduring popularity of all of them, but especially the first true gaming "character", good ol' Pac-Man.

Just cool to see, honestly. :-)