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Pac Man turns 25
A pizza dinner yields a cultural phenomenon - and millions of dollars in quarters.
May 10, 2005: 5:37 PM EDT
Game Over is a weekly column by Chris Morris
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It's easy to see "Halo 2" fans lined up for several blocks in the hours before the game is released and think the industry has never been hotter; but if you want to see what a true phenomenon looks like, jump into your wayback machine and head to 1980.

Once you arrive, slip on your "Members Only" jacket and head into any pizza parlor. See that big crowd of people clustered in the back? Odds are they're watching someone play Pac Man.

Arguably the most influential game in the industry's history (with Pong the only other real contender), Pac Man has made more than $100 million dollars one quarter at a time. He's spawned his own line of trading cards, lunch boxes, board games, breakfast cereals and been the inspiration for a Top 40 hit (Buckner & Garcia's "Pac Man Fever" hit number 9 on Billboard's charts in 1982).

This year, Pac Man turns 25 -- but age isn't slowing the little guy down. 1999's "Pac Man World" and 2002's "Pac Man World 2" both sold over a million copies. And Namco has already announced four Pac Man themed games this year - and versions for Sony's PSP will be announced in the near future. TV Plug & Play game collections featuring Pac Man remain hot sellers. And the rise in cell phone gaming has opened up another opportunity for the original arcade game.

"I think there's a high nostalgia value with Pac Man -- a lot more so than many classic characters," said Sean Mylett, senior marketing manager for Namco. "I think Pac Man is a game where people really remember being younger and pumping quarters and quarters into machines. ... Then there's another level with the 'Pac Man World 3' character. He's an E-rated character. He's very colorful, very safe. It's definitely different than the trends going on in games. He just has an appeal."

And he's not going away.

"As the next generation systems hit," said Mylett, "I can guarantee that Pac Man will be there."

Things have certainly come a long way from the day Toru Iwatani came up with the idea for Pac Man at dinner.

Iwatani, who was also responsible for the arcade classic Galaxian, was trying to come up with a game that looked like a cartoon. At a pizza parlor, he paused after taking his first slice and thought the remainder of the pie looked like a head with its mouth open. He imagined it racing through a maze, eating things -- and the phenomenon was born.

In fact, legend has it Iwatani actually wanted Pac Man to be a pizza, but technological limitations at the time made it impossible.

The game also underwent a name change. Pac Man's original name was Puck Man -- but a savvy executive at Bally/Midway, which distributed the game in the United States, had it changed on all machines, fearing what game room vandals would do with the original moniker.

The name change didn't have anything to do with the game's success, of course. The easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master gameplay earns the credit for that. Personalization didn't hurt, either. While we take knowing the name of today's heroes and villains for granted, Pac Man was the first video game to name its characters (the ghosts, to jog your memory, were Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde) and the first game to offer interludes as rewards for advancing.

In the late 1990s, Twin Galaxies, which tracks video game world record scores, visited used game auctions and counted how many times the average Pac Man machine had been played. Based on those findings and the total number of machines that were manufactured, the organization said it believed the game had been played more than 10 billion times in the 20th century.

"Pac Man changed the psychological profile of the average person," explains Twin Galaxies' Walter Day. "Suddenly old and young, male and female, doctors, dentists, lawyers and housewives found it acceptable to be playing a video game. And Pac Man opened that door for them. Despite the fact that it was technologically advanced, it was as simple as playing a card game for them."

So go ahead and be impressed as you hear about sales numbers for the next "Grand Theft Auto" or see anxious gamers camping overnight to be the first to get their hands on next generation consoles. But weigh that frenzy to the one Pac Man sparked when it was originally released in Japan. The game proved so popular that it incited a shortage of yen coins in the country.

Let's see today's titles manage something like that.

See a gallery of Pac Man games and merchandise through the years! Click here

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Are classic games making a comeback? Read Return of the Quarter Gobblers.

Morris, a child of the 80s arcades, is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.  Top of page

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