What began as one man’s dream after seeing a pizza with a slice missing out of it grew into nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. On This Week in Tech History, Abbey and Grey talk about Pac-Man’s introduction to the world, their favorite arcade games, and how Pac-Man changed the landscape of video games for all eternity.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS AND FADES OUT)
I ordered a couch on Amazon, and it has been out for delivery the last three days.
I feel like that means that there’s like a 90% chance it’ll show up while we’re recording.
That’d be cool. We’ll have like, an unboxing episode.
<Laugh>. An unboxing of my cheap patio couch. (Grey: <Laugh>.) Well, the dogs will alert. (Grey: <Laugh>.) I’m trying to decide, also, if it’s like, better to keep them inside or let them run outside. (Grey: Yeah.) On top of all this, they’ve just started construction on two new houses across the street. (Grey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) What I was hoping for for my summer.
<Laugh>. Yeah, right. (Abbey: Yeah.) Yeah. They’ve been building some flavor of house around in some direction of me for like, years, and so it’s almost like we’re just used to the sound, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) We don’t even hear it any…
In the beginning of the pandemic, they were building a house up behind us, so like, I couldn’t even, it was like, oh, I get to work from home all the time? I can sit on the porch.
Well, thank you for joining me for, this is my first…not my first time hosting, but I’ll be doing all of the “This Week in Tech History” episodes this season, and I’m like, I’m pretty stoked about it. I love doing research. Like, my dream job would be to write research papers, which is…it’s not much of a market for it. There’s probably a gray market, black market for it, but I don’t think there’s much of an ethical market for it.
<Laugh>. Yeah, and it’s a cool premise too, like just saying like, what happened this week, basically, whenever, you know, and ‘cause there’s always, there’s always something cool that happened. You know?
And I feel like this season, there’s been like, I don’t know if it’s maybe just like, the summer, more fun things happened, but I’ve found some really cool things. (Grey: Nice.) First, the first rocket to launch (PHONE CHIME) that (PHONE CHIME) landed at the International Space Station.
Sweet. That’s really cool.
I gotta turn my phone down. I never have it up. I don’t know why it was. Probably watching a TikTok or something.
<Laugh>. Yeah, right. Exactly. Yeah, that’s pretty sweet. So the first manned launch to dock on the Space Station. (Abbey: Yeah.) What a trip that is, like, that we can (Abbey: Yeah.) do that <laugh>.
And it wasn’t that long ago. Like, I think that that’s the thing that trips me up is like, when you’re talking about tech history, it’s not, we’re not going back that far. (Grey: No, no.) Like, the majority of these things are happening in the last like, 50 to 60 years.
The whole Moores Law thing, like, you know, we’re gonna be talking a year from now about like, how the world completely changed with ChatGPT and like, and it’s gonna seem like forever, but it’s like, last year <laugh>.
Yeah. Yeah. I think one of the things I was reading the other day was like, how long it took x number of users to adapt to certain products, and with ChatGPT, it was just like, in the millions within weeks.
Years from now, we’ll be talking about Chat GPT releasing in history <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Yeah, exactly. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) Perfect segue to Pac-Man.
I know. I’m honestly very excited about this one. I’m a huge Ms. Pac-Man fan.
Voice actor as Pac-Man, via 1982 Pac-Man commercial (03:32):
(PAC-MAN THEME AND VIDEO GAME SOUND EFFECTS FADES IN) Help!
Voice actor as various ghosts, via 1982 Pac-Man commercial (03:33):
(GHOST VOCALIZATIONS) I’m gonna get you!
Voice actor as Pac-Man (03:34):
Soon as I eat that power block, you guys are finished! (COMMERCIAL AUDIO ENDS)
Video game consumer from 1982 CBS report (03:37):
I like the little man. He’s little, and he eats up all the other things, you know?
Reporter from 1982 CBS report (03:42):
How ‘bout that Pac-Man song that I hear around here all the time?
Video game consumer from 1982 CBS report (03:45):
Yeah, you sing it a lot. You hum it <laugh>.
Voice narrator from 1982 CBS report (03:49):
Indeed, and play it on the jukebox at full volume. (“PAC-MAN FEVER” BY BUCKNER & GARCIA PLAYS) (REPORT AUDIO FADES OUT)
(TWITH THEME PLAYS) Pac-Man, obviously, one of the most iconic, archaic games of all time. It was released in Japan on May 22nd, 1980. It was created by Toru Iwatani, who was a game designer at Namco. He was inspired by a, after seeing a pizza with a slice missing out of it and wanted to create a game that was eating something. So he originally named it Puck-Man. They did decide to change that before international release to avoid vandalization of the word puck. Smart. (Grey: Yeah, smart move.) Especially…yeah. You’re marketing to wayward teens, man. You gotta <laugh> nip it in the bud. The game’s design was meant to appeal to a wider audience, specifically women and couples, and is credited with bringing more women into the arcade, which helped set the stage for video games to become more mainstream. Pac-Man also established the possibility of product licensing and merchandising for video games.
Voice actor as Pac-Man, via 1983 Pac-Man cereal commercial (04:52):
(UPBEAT, HAPPY SONG PLAYS) ‘Morning, kids! It’s a Pac-Man day! With my crispy corn cereal, coming your way!
Voice actors as various ghosts, in unison (04:58):
<Singing> it’s Pac-Man <singing>!
Voice actor, as Clyde (04:59):
Voice actor as child (05:01):
Voice actor as Inky (05:02):
Voice actor as Blinky (05:03):
Voice actor as Pinky (05:04):
Voice actor as Clyde (05:05):
Voice actors as various ghosts, in unison (05:06):
We’re the marshmallows you’ll find inside of <singing> Pac-Man <singing>! (COMMERCIAL AUDIO FADES OUT)
And it even spawned a Top 10 hit. Bill, please tell me you can find the Pac-Man theme, Top 10 hit. (CLIP OF “PAC-MAN FEVER” BY BUCKNER & GARCIA PLAYS AND FADES OUT)
To this day, it’s considered one of the highest grossing video games of all time, having generated over two and a half billion dollars just in quarters by the 1990s, Ms. Pac-Man, my personal preference, started out as a modification for the game, (TWITH THEME FADES IN AND RESUMES) wound up getting its own spinoff, which, obviously, went on to huge success. A perfect score in Pac-Man: 3,333,360. I feel like that’s a missed opportunity to not just make it all threes, but whatever. (Grey: <Laugh>.) Each of the four ghosts were given personalities, which I never really realized. Blinky is the one made to chase her, Pinky and Inky, which are the pink and blue ones, were programmed to ambush Pac-Man, and Clyde, the orange one, just goes full random at all times. I’ve always wanted a Ms. Pac-Man machine. We’ll see. We had a really cool space for it in our last house and didn’t buy one.
Would you get one of the like, head-to-head table versions? Have you ever seen one of those?
Those always trip me out, because it means somebody has to be playing upside down the whole time.
<Laugh>. That’s true.
That’s true. I mean, you talked about Ms. Pac-Man, which was the bigger game. (Abbey: Yeah.) I mean, Pac-Man, you don’t have Ms. Pac-Man without the OG, but (Abbey: Right.) like, I think that can’t get lost in the stories. The sequel, you know, and then the improvement. It wasn’t just like, you know, Pac-Man 2, it was like Ms. Pac-Man and brought a whole, you know, leaned in even more and like, the next iteration (Abbey: Yeah.) was, you know, so now they have, you know, two discreet games, you know, so like, from more business revenue opportunity, like preference, like, you know, all of a sudden, they doubled their coverage there. I think that was a really interesting innovation in itself, you know?
Especially if one of the things they were originally trying to do was to appeal to more women. How smart to make a woman character, because at that point, there weren’t really like, character-driven, character-based games.
Might have been meant to be an add-on, but I think like, the marketing that they were able to do with it and turn it into like, something even bigger than the original was pretty cool.
I mean, you make a great point about the character. You know, like, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, I think those were like the seed of different sort of genres of games, even, you know, moving forward with that. Like, before, you know, it was almost like, you know, everything was some kind of like, space shooting thing, <laugh> where it was, you know, Asteroids, or it was, you know, Defender, or Galaga, or Missile Command, or like, name a game, you know, before Pac-Man, and it was like this, it was a rocket ship that shot other rocket ships or you know, boulders or whatever. And so like, not only was like, the gameplay fundamentally different, but you introduced a character that was just like, this lovable, cute thing. (Abbey: Yeah.) You know, that was like rocket fuel for marketing <laugh>, you know?
I mean, it was one of the first games that like, you know, that things were licensed based off of the game, and look at what that has done for game marketing in general. Like, now you have, you can find a Minecraft t-shirt like anywhere in the world. Everyone knows about the Fortnite dances, you know, like those kinds of things. It’s crazy that this like, I don’t wanna call it simple, but like, an early eight bit maze game was like the basis for the kind of marketing that’s driven an industry that’s like beyond what, you know, I don’t think when they built Pac-Man, they ever thought that professional gaming would be an industry and look at it now.
No, I think that’s exactly right, and I also don’t think it’s a stretch to consider Pac-man, specifically, a launching pad for, you know, even things like Super Mario Brothers, like, because it became character-based. It was maze-based versus, you know, shooter. It was, you know, it became a franchise. You had different variations. Like you can see the progression, you know, if you look at this as sort of the beginning, as the seed of a lot of things that, you know, that came after that. (Abbey: Yeah.) It kinda branched in a couple different directions, but like, it really was the beginning of, I think, what we think of games today, gaming today.
And you know, like back to that, you know, the idea that they wanted to market to women and couples is like, what a huge staple arcades were, following that up. You know, like, going to the arcade at the mall with your friends while your parents shopped or whatever. It just became like, the catalyst for, I don’t know if it was like, getting women and young girls interested in something that was more like, STEM related, if that was even, you know, what they were trying to do, but it’s a company, I’m sure all they were really trying to do was make more money off of a previously underserved community of individuals, but it spawned a whole thing. It spawned arcade interest.
I think it’s really interesting, ‘cause it was risky, but it was a huge opportunity. You know, when you think of like, the addressable market, right <laugh>, just to put it in sort of modern terms. Like, there was half of the addressable market that wasn’t being served at all. So it was like, hugely opportunistic, but it was also risky, you know, to do something so different, (Abbey: Yeah.) and to try and say, “Hey, there’s no evidence that, you know, whatever, women and couples are interested in video games, but there are a lot of them. So can we do something there?” You know, it’s like, (Abbey: Yeah.) It’s really interesting innovation when you think about, now historically, that’s the game we’re talking about, and we’re not talking about games that were immensely popular at the time. You know, those things are sort of retro cool, but they’re not, you know, game changing. You know, pardon the pun.
<Laugh>. That was a good one. (Grey: <Laugh>.) And like, how often do you still go to places, and they have Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, you know? You will still find those at random bars or, you know, like, the resurgence of, I guess barcades.
Catering to all the people who played those games as kids, and now we’re like, “Oh, well, I can go drink and play games?” Like, what more could your inner child want?
But those are the kinds of games that are like, still popular.
If you went into like, an arcade bar, arcade thing today, if you walked into one, what’s the first game that you go to?
It is? You go straight to Ms. Pac-Man? (Abbey: Yeah.) Nice.
I mean, like, I, at one point, I have contemplated getting like, a Pac-Man tattoo. (Grey: <Laugh>.) There’s still space. It’s either that or it’s a, I do really like pinball.
Yeah, and that’s kind of a whole other side of it.
Yeah. So the place where I went to, where I went through my bootcamp, downstairs from it was a barcade. So we would go down there, and they had a lot of retro games. I really liked, I think it was called Beer Man? (Grey: Beer Man.) You’re basically serving a beer, you’re bartending, and you have to like, (Grey: Yeah.) slide beers down the table, and you get progressively more bar tops, and they’re kind of like, situated all over.
Yeah. (Abbey: Yeah.) That’s fun. I think I was always sort of drawn to those like, massive like, car like, Grand Prix type of things (Abbey: Oh yeah.) where you sit in, and you, you know, and ‘cause, you know, I wanted to drive, and it was like you had gas pedals and, you know, and the whole thing. So like, but they were like, a dollar, you know? <Laugh>. (Abbey: <Laugh>. The high-money games.) Like, it wasn’t like 25 cents. You had to like, save up. I was always drawn to that. So I would like, that probably, if I had to do it again, that might be my go-to first, but then I would hit the classics, you know. Like, I would take a spin on Ms. Pac-Man and probably hit Galaga, either first or second.
We have one of those, the Nintendo like, the mini ones that they came out with that are preloaded with a bunch of games, and Galaga is on there. I play that quite a bit.
Yeah. I was talking to one of our coworkers, Victoria, and she laid some pretty big claims about her skill on Galaga. So you may wanna (Abbey: Okay.) see what’s up with that.
Okay, be like, “Hey, what’s your top score?” <Laugh>.
We’ll start a Galaga channel. (Grey: <Laugh>.) <Unintelligible>. It’ll take place of the Wordle channel on Slack.
Oh yeah. R.I.P. So is it a hot take to think that RPG games don’t exist without Pac-Man?
I mean, I think that they probably would’ve still existed, but what would’ve been the catalyst for it? You know, there would’ve had to be somebody else who took a risk and how much longer would it have taken? I don’t think it’s a hot take. Somebody had to be the first, and it just happened to be a pizza, a Puck-Man.
I wonder <laugh>, right, exactly. I just, I wonder if you can draw a straight line to it, or if it was more sort of like, heavily influenced by, but not a direct line. Like, you know.
I mean, especially given how advanced games are now, it definitely set the stage for more character-driven games to be developed.
Yeah. I mean, even before, I don’t really remember, because it was a long, long, long time ago, but like, what the home console timeline was relative to like, arcade console things, you know? So like, the Atari, Nintendo progression, you know, into like, PlayStations and that sort of thing. Like, because the home bit was like, as important of a catalyst in the actual pure arcade game thing, you know? So…(Abbey: Yeah.) And the reason I’m asking that is because like, there were, kinda going back to the original question, like a game like Pitfall, where it was just like, literally like, the dude who would like, jump over like, (Abbey: Yep.) quick sand and stuff, you know, (Abbey: Yeah.) was, maybe you could make the case that was like, you know, prehistoric Legend of Zelda or something. And so like, there was a different through line RPG. I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m going down this rabbit hole, but like…
Well, I mean, you go from like, Pitfall to like, Castlevania, to like, Mortal Kombat. It’s like, every step that it’s going, the characters are more developed, the storyline’s more developed, and I think that this is also, like, Pac-Man was one of the first games to have a storyline (Grey: Yeah.) kinda built into it with those, like, the interstitials that have the, like, “Act One”, “Act Two” in Ms. Pac-Man and stuff like that. I guess as the gameplay improves, the characters improve, the storyline improves. I don’t think that any of that would’ve happened without Pac-Man. But it is crazy to see kind of like, where the big jumps happen.
Yeah. That is interesting to go back and like, and I think that’s spot on. I think the, I had forgotten about the sort of storyline narrative through the games. I think that’s a really, that’s something that definitely carried forward for sure (Abbey: Yeah.) and only expanded.
And kept people more like, invested and interested in what the game is. You know, <tongue click> that’s excellent brand marketing <laugh>.
Yeah, it is. (Abbey: Yeah.) You know what it reminds me of, Pac-Man reminds me of, is the band KISS. You know what I mean? Because like, you have this like, genre of music, and it’s like, glam rock or whatever, and there’s glam rock, and it’s happening, and then KISS comes along, and it’s like, “Oh, you haven’t seen glam rock.” Like…
They’re like, “We’re gonna glam rock harder than any other glam rock ever glam rocked.”
Right. And we’re like, you know, makeup and like, kind of more or less pop songs, but like, the whole presentation was like, this, you know, serious, you know, thing, (Abbey: Yeah.) and then became a franchise, and then the marketing and all that. Like, Pac-Man is the KISS of video games.
Yeah! Still around, still like, appreciated for their art, for what they brought to the genre. That’s a good comparison. I like that <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Maybe it’s like, could you like, fuse it together and have like, Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man, like have, you know, like, Paul Stanley kind of vibes going on? Or like, you could, you know, like, put giant like, spiked boots on (Abbey: Oooo.) Pac-Man somehow, like have a KISS edition and just do a total mashup?
I wonder how quickly I could get that done with (Grey: <Laugh>.) GPT-4.
<Laugh> Like, the journey or, right, or <laugh> <unintelligible> right.
Yeah. We did have, in my bootcamp, there was a guy who made a Pac-Man with like, pure HTML and CSS.
That’s sweet. (Abbey: Which was pretty cool.) That’s pretty cool.
We’ve kind of poked around a bunch of other things on it. Is there a clean bow we can put on this Pac-Man innovation legend?
Pac-Man is an innovation legend, (Grey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and I feel like that’s a fitting note to like, kick off this season with. Sometimes it’s not the craziest or boldest idea that has staying power.
Yeah, and this, right, the simplicity of it, you know, the, you know, innovation. I think really good innovation always comes across as simple, you know, and this like, that’s a perfect example of it. Pac-Man’s legit.
Yeah. Pac-Man is legit. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) Look at it. Can you imagine? I can’t imagine like, being able to produce something like that was so, pun intended again, game changing (Grey: Yeah.) this late into like, the technological evolution.
All right, I’m gonna go buy a Pac-Man t-shirt now.
Thanks for joining me. If anybody out there is listening and wants to send me a stand-up Pac-Man machine, I will put it in the bar in the barn, start my own barcade. Yeah.
Yeah. And have a fancy new sofa to play it on.
Thanks for listening to The Frontier Podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week. (THE FRONTIER THEME ENDS)