This post originally featured on KQ Magazine, which I co-ran. I have edited my original post for clarity.
Pac-Man, one of the highest grossing video games in history as well as one of the most famous, turns 35 today (edit: May 21)! Here I pay tribute to the rise, fall and resurrection of video games.
Compared to our highly intelligent and graphically beautiful games of today, Pac-Man might seem elementary but it is more complex than you might initially think, for example, the characters all had names and personalities. We have affection for games like Pac-Man because they have become a nostalgic part of gaming history. To appreciate historical games, you have to step back from the sophistication of the present and recognise the amazingness of what earlier games achieved because they, of course, paved the way for what we gamers enjoy today.
So, let’s go right back for a bit.
In 1972, games company Atari was founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Atari was the first company to bring video games to the general public, it became a household name and secured itself as one the pioneers of the video gaming industry. However, if we’re delving back we must also honour one of the earliest video games. Made on a PDP-1 system, the first ever screen display computer, Spacewar! was created by a gent called Steve Russell. Russell is considered the ultimate creator of the video game industry.
Atari brought gaming to the masses, creating the very first Arcade games such as Pong and Space Invaders. Five years later, in 1977, the first home games console was born — The Atari 2600. This was the symbolic ‘big bang’ in the evolution of home consoles. Just three years later, on 22nd May 1980 in Japan, our birthday fella Pac-Man was released — originally named ‘Pakkuman’.
‘Pakku’ was taken from the Japanese phrase “paku-paku”, which translated into English is the equivalent of our onomatopoeic ‘nom nom’. Later that year, it was due to be released in the states as ‘Puck Man’. I’m sure you can guess why, at the last moment, they took the decision to re-name it ‘Pac-Man’ — it was to avoid any vandalism of the name.
It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t mention the great Atari crash. Which leads me to…
Millions of unsold copies of the E.T. game were buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Ok, so this is not entirely true. The success of the first video games console on which we played Pac-Man was massive. So massive, that Atari and its game developers became overly confident and believed they were unstoppable. The quality of Atari’s games deteriorated, and foolishly but not unpredictably, the company focused on the quantity and marketing over development. Little did they know they were heading for a huge crash.
In the Winter of 1982; Atari decided to make a video game based on Steven Spielberg’s smash hit film, E.T. With a deadline of just five short weeks, game developer Howard Warshaw was left with no choice but to create a sub-par product, and despite its poor quality (and a thumbs up from Mr Spielberg himself) it was released in time for Christmas sales. With an already over-saturated video game market, the public were furious and lost faith in the industry. As a result, Atari sales took a serious nose dive. What marketing promised (the front cover) compared to actual gameplay differed hugely.
So what about these buried games? Well, a recent documentary (currently on Netflix), Atari: Game Over, showed the excavation of the suspected burial site in April 2014. The ‘legend’ was partly confirmed when they unearthed several copies of the game, however, it is thought that it was a general warehouse clear out rather than an attempt to shamefully hide the E.T. cartridges. Co-Chief Operating Officer Manny Gerard who worked for Atari during its collapse regarded the burial of the games as marking the death of the company, or ‘Atari’s funeral’.
Along came Nintendo! Pac-Man boasts an impressive 17 standalone games available on Nintendo consoles.
A couple of years after the demise of Atari, the public began to dismiss video games as a passing trend or fad, until the Japanese toy company Nintendo came to the rescue. Nintendo was and is huge — it is a gaming company close to my nerd heart, being part of the Nintendo generation. In 1985, one of the most famous video game characters in all of gaming history was created — Super Mario (Mario Kart also became an Arcade game featuring Pac-Man in 2005). He lived up to his name by resurrecting the faith and confidence in video gamers all over the world, with games on the NES and SNES consoles.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the gaming industry surged again and became more popular than ever before. Nintendo not only ensured the resurrection and future of the gaming industry, gave us all the gift of Mario but also gave life back to Pac Man, one of our most beloved and iconic characters with 17 standalone games.
Long live video games.