Why Does Pac-Man Still Endure After Three Decades?

Everyone’s favorite pizza-shaped yellow hero still captivates after more than 30 years.

Recently, some colleagues of mine rediscovered the simple joy of playing Pac-Man through a quirk in my employer’s Web filtering. Back in 2010, Google’s home page was adorned with a 30th anniversary tribute to the game in the form of a playable version with a redesigned maze based on Google’s logo. It turns out that we are able to access this on our computers at work; in fact, just searching for the phrase “play pacman” on Google will bring it up at the very top of the search results.

We’ve sort of had an unofficial tournament running based on this version of the game. So far, I am on top with a score of 224,350; my next highest competitor is still a good 60,000–70,000 points behind, so I should be safe for a little while. But beyond any competition, it’s just been a lot of fun watching my coworkers play it and listening to their outbursts when they lose a life or something crazy happens. My closest work friend was playing it one day when the center was almost completely silent, and she suddenly just bursts out with, “FUCK!!” That is still one of my funniest memories of her, LOL.

The 35th Anniversary Pac-Man plug-and-play game, loaded with 12 Namco classics, including several variations of Pac-Man. But why not Ms. Pac-Man??

I bought this at Wal-Mart earlier this evening. I always thought that the whole TV games idea was a sound one; you plug a small joystick into your TVs audio and video inputs, and you get a series of arcade games on your screen for not too much money. It was hard for me to pass up this piece of nostalgia, especially since I like some of the other games included, such as Super Pac-Man and Galaga. My only complaint is that it does not include Ms Pac-Man.

But why does Pac-Man still have a hold on the hearts of gamers so many years past its heyday? I can think of a few different reasons. The gameplay is quite simple; move your man around a maze populated with four colorful ghosts, trying to eat all of the “Pac Dots” in the maze while not being eaten by the ghosts. Your goal is simply to attain the highest score you possibly can. You can also eat items which occasionally spawn under the ghosts’ hideout for bonus points, from 100 to 5000 points.

That the gameplay is simple invites newcomers to the game, and to video games in general. However, what keeps the game interesting is the fact that the rules change throughout the game. As it progresses, the ghosts begin coming after Pac-Man earlier and earlier, until in later levels, they start after you almost immediately. Additionally, while eating a Power Pellet gives you a chance to retaliate against the ghosts, the length of time that they last gets shorter and shorter until, at around Stage 13, the ghosts no longer change color at all! That’s right; later in the game, the ghosts stop becoming vulnerable to Power Pellets and now simply change their patterns upon their consumption. This completely changes the game’s dynamics until you finally lose your final life.

What’s more, the characters are cute, and the four ghosts even have their own personalities. Blinky, the red one (code name: Shadow) basically mimics your movements and comes right after you. Inky (blue; code name: Bashful) may chase you but is more likely to try to cut off your path around barriers and corners. Pinky (pink; code name: Speedy) is somewhat similar to Blinky but also loves to try to cut you off. And Clyde (orange; code name: Pokey) will often divert away from you unless you are just directly in his path. Their distinct personalities are reflected in how they navigate the maze to come after you and force you to manage several variables at once in determining how best to attack the maze.

The game’s sequels are a bit more hit and miss. Ms. Pac-Man, my personal favorite, was very well received and was an incredibly smart update to the original: Introducing a new, female lead, showing how she and Pac-Man met and started their family, and offering players four different maze layouts to challenge players. The bouncing fruit mechanic also made it more feasible to grab fruits in the heat of dot-munching while making it more challenging in some respects. For me, this is the best game in the series. I also loved Super Pac-Man, though admittedly, the sound design is my favorite overall aspect of this sequel. There’s also the recent Pac-Man 256, an endless runner type of game which incorporates many of the same overall mechanics and combines them with a power-up system that gives you more ways than ever to get rid of any pesky ghosts in your path. To me, this is a very smart, modern update of the game and a lot of fun to get into.

My only complaint about the collection I just purchased is that there is no Ms. Pac-Man at all. This seems very strange, but it does keep with a pattern at Namco-Bandai whereby they are quite stingy with this rendition. For example, when Pac-Man Museum was released, Ms. Pac-Man was released as a separate DLC that had to be purchased. Even in an old Pac-Man-only TV games bundle from several years ago, Ms. Pac-Man was not included (I am, however, lucky enough to own the TV games pack which does include the game). It seems very odd that the other most iconic game in the Pac-Man series is still withheld from current compilations by the game’s current copyright holders, and I feel that it is a disservice to those who love the franchise to this day.

Despite this, I believe there is still a lot to love about the Pac-Man franchise. Are some of the games more obscure and less polished than others? Of course, but what series doesn’t suffer from this at some point in its lifetime? Pac-Man will always hold a special place in my gaming heart, just as I know it will for many others. Recently, the gaming community unfortunately lost the founder of Namco, Masaya Nakamura, and that itself has given me reason to become more nostalgic of what was the first video game I ever played when I was two years old. Nakamura is hailed as the “Father of Pac-Man” for his role in helping to popularize the game and bring it to international fame. I was honestly saddened when I first learned of his death and am thankful for all of the ghost-chomping memories he helped bring to my life as the game will always be with me until the day I die. To anyone reading this who hasn’t had a chance to really get into the game, I highly recommend that you at least try it. The game may be super simple by today’s standards, but sometimes, that’s just what the doctor ordered when it comes to having some fun in your life.

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