America’s love affair with a man named Pac
Okay, this was meant to be the article I posted after my July 3rd opus on the Perfect Pac-Man game. However, circumstances being what they are (me = ADD) other things grabbed my attention and I’m just now getting around to posting this followup. In the last article I discussed a little bit of Pac-Man’s history and also covered Billy Mitchell’s achievement in 1999 obtaining the first perfect game of Pac-Man. There’s a lot of pop culture crap that happened between Pac-Man debuting in 1980 and Billy Mitchell cementing his status as “king of the nerds” in 1999. And this is the stuff I love to cover; pop culture crap.
In the ’80s, Pac-Man was HUGE. He was everywhere. The Pac-Man logo and video game character were licensed on hundreds of products to capitalize on what would become the most famous video game of all time. We’ll take a look at some of these products, but first, let’s look at the video game’s lineage.
I’m sure you know a few of them, but I doubt you knew there were about thirteen of them, many being exclusive releases on home video consoles. Let’s take a look at some of the more notable sequels in the pantheon of Pac-Man gaming.
After realizing they had a hit on their hands, Bally-Midway decided to sell the video game rights to Atari to develop a port of the game on the extremely popular VCS 2600 in 1981. The media blitz surrounding the impending release was monumental to say the least. Ironic, because next to ET the Extra Terrestrial, this was the worst game ever created for the Atari 2600. And yes, I owned it. The music was awful, the graphics were terrible, the ghosts were dumb and the fruit you normally eat in the middle changed to a “vitamin pill”. Awful. Needless to say, this game was one of the three reasons, in my opinion, that Atari went bankrupt. The other two? The games ET the Extraterrestrial and Donkey Kong. No company could recover from that Trinity of Unholy Suck-i-ness.
Due to the popularity of Pac-Man everyone had a system for beating mazes. To combat this, Bally-Midway released the first sequel, Pac-Man Plus. It had improved graphics and more fruit bonuses, but it also had a “random” feature. This “random” feature turned the once ally power pellets into a crap shoot. Maybe all the ghosts turn blue when you eat a power pellet, maybe not. Maybe only some of the ghosts turn blue, or they all turn invisible. Same thing with the bonus fruit. You never knew what the hell was going to happen. Needless to say, this upped the difficulty many times over and as a consequence, the game never caught on. Later that year, however, Ms. Pac-Man was released to much fanfare. Originally released to lure women into playing video games, the increased “humanness” in appearance of Ms Pac-Man (with hair bow and lipstick) also drew many male arcade veterans. To this day, you see Ms Pac-Man in a video arcade more often than you do Mr Pac-Man.
Another sequel, Super Pac-Man was released in 1982. This was one of my favorites. The mazes were harder, and Super Pellets caused Pac-Man to increase in size to garganuan proportions. The difficulty was harder than regular Pac-Man, but not as hard as Pac-Man Plus. It became a good hit for Bally, which prompted even more Pac-Man sequels.
Pac-Man then moved into pinball territory with Mr & Mrs Pac-Man which takes place after the two Pacs wedding. Then the next appropriate sequel was the pinball/video game hybrid Baby Pac-Man. Baby Pac-Man was interesting because it played like a pinball machine, but at certain points your ball would go into video game mode and you’d start playing a miniature game of Pac-Man on an upper screen. After these mostly standard sequels, there are a few decidedly odd entries.
Professor Pac-Man was released around 1983. It wasn’t your traditional Pac-Man game, it was a bar trivia game. Yes, the only connection to the titular yellow character was his occasional appearance on the screen in a square graduation cap (which begs the question, shouldn’t the game have been called Graduate Pac-Man?). This game was ahead of its time, though, as games just like this are extremely popular in sports bars right now. Right after the good Professor here, Bally-Midway released Pac-Land. This was another non-maze Pac-Man game. It was more of a side-scrolling mission based game like Legend of Zelda. Although not officially tied to it, Pac-Land’s graphics and music suggest that it was based on the Saturday Morning cartoon series.
After this, sequels were pretty much a variation on a theme. Jr Pac-Man, Pac-Mania and Pac-Man VR all deal with different variations of Pac-Man running the maze. Also, by the ’90s, most sequels in the Pac-Universe were released exclusively on home arcade systems. The most notable being Pac-Man Championship Edition, released for X-Box Live Arcade in 2007. This game features High Def graphics and sound, larger mazes and time clocks that speed up the longer you stay alive. This particular edition of Pac-Man was developed by original Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani right before he retired.
The Pac-Man cartoon series aired on ABC in 1982-1983. It starred Pac-Man and his wife, Mrs. Pepper Pac-Man, their kid, Pac-Baby and their pets, Chomp-Chomp and Sour Puss. Pac-Man is constantly fighting the Ghost Monsters (Blinky, Inky, Pinky, Clyde and Sue) and their leader, Mezmeron who is after the Power Pellets which give food and energy to the citizens of Pac-Land. A character named Super Pac even showed up in several episodes as a bumbling self-involved super hero. It was a fairly popular cartoon that would go into syndication for years on the USA Cartoon Express. As mentioned earlier, this cartoon inspired the video game Pac-Land as well as Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures on the Nintendo Entertainment System. You can see the intro here.
Pac-Man had his face slapped on many different products. Some of the most popular:
Pac-Man cereal – A chomping good part of your nutritious breakfast.
Pac Pasta – Great idea for a meal. Eat meatballs like they are power pellets then try to munch on your sister like a ghost.
Nelsonic Pac-Man watch – The geek badge. A step above the calculator watch. In 6th grade, wearing this little electronic gadget made you a god amongst men.
Pac-Man 2 handheld – I actually had this. It was pretty cool. 2 player mode allowed one player to be the ghost and one player to be Pac-Man.
Pac-Man Hot Rod – I don’t know if this was actually in production or just a sweepstakes or raffle give-away. Maybe it was only promotional, all I know is that it’s f’n AWESOME.
and last but not least
Pac-Man Fever: The Album – You knew of the catchy song (I still love it) but did you know there was an entire album of video game songs? I got this lovely tape around ’82-’83. There were a few other pretty good songs on it. Do the Donkey Kong and The Defender were a couple of my other favorites. Nothing says, “I’m not getting any female attention tonight” like listening to an album full of songs based on video games.
So that’s just a fraction of the merchandise that was released with Pac’s yellow-ish visage on it. There were also t-shirts, dishware, towels, furniture, hats, anything and everything they could place an image on had Pac-Man on it. Stuff like this is commonplace now, but back then, only the elite got this treatment.
Oh well, I’m off to visit family in Ohio tomorrow. Hope everyone has a great weekend.