40 Years Later, The Original ‘Pac-Man’ Is Still Arcade Gaming Gold
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Featured Image Credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc
I'm as old as Pac-Man. The first Pac-Man arcade cabinets (albeit then called Puck-Man) were introduced by Namco in Shibuya, Tokyo on May 22nd, 1980 - I was just over a month old - before a country-wide rollout across Japan followed in July of the same year. North America received its first taste of Pac-Man in December 1980, thanks to Midway (who changed the name, can't think why*) - and from there, the legless, yellow, dots-munching machine swiftly took the world's gaming dens and home systems alike by storm.
I'm as old as Pac-Man - and I've been playing games with Pac-Man in them, pretty much since I was able to. Pac-Man wasn't the first game I can remember playing (that was Hopper, a Frogger clone on the Spectrum), but I had a standalone electronic LED game called Puck-Monster - a Pac-Man clone, produced in 1982 - which I adored and would happily spend hours with, cross-legged on my childhood bedroom floor. It wasn't great, but it was mine. And when you're a kid, that's enough.
Not every game to star Pac-Man since his introduction 40 years ago has been worthy of praise, at the time or in retrospective assessments. I've played my share of both (what I thought to be) excellent games in his series, and others (that I know to be) of hopelessly wretched quality.
The isometric maze release Pac-Mania was rarely too far from the Amiga in the early days of our family owning Commodore's hit home computer, and with good reason - it was an update on the original's formula that actually worked. The mini-game, party-style Pac-Man Fever, on the other hand, not so much. Whatever your age, if you play video games, there's a good chance you've played one starring Pac-Man.
I've gone back to Pac-Man in just the last few weeks, thanks to it (or rather its 1984 NES port) being included on the Evercade's Namco Museum Collection 1 launch cartridge. (What's the Evercade? Have a read of our review of the new handheld console.) And I can honestly say that 1980's Pac-Man remains absolute arcade-gaming gold. Sincerely, hand-on-heart, yes. Not a doubt in my mind.
It's so, so easy to get sucked in by archaic acclaim and popular precedent, by legacies laid down in gaming eras gone by, and just roll with the accolades. I'm guilty of it myself, sometimes: that game from back when, that got all the love in Mean Machines, CVG or Crash? Yeah, still good, still great - when, inevitably, it's not in comparison to what gaming has become today.
Which is to say: right now is gaming's most golden of eras. Games have never been better than they are in 2020, and I'm sure we'll see things with the next generation of consoles that pushes the medium even further. That's not me saying that games are better because of how they look and sound, because the surface-layer stuff doesn't massively interest me. It's more that games can really be anything, today. That's how it feels, at least. I can switch from the FMV mystery of Telling Lies to the brain-twisting puzzles of Baba is You via the open-world beauty of Breath of the Wild or The Witcher 3 and the exacting platforming of Celeste, all on the same, single console. That, to me, is a wonderful thing.
And what else is wonderful, now and then and forever more, is instant-click arcade gameplay. Pick-up-and-play, instantaneous accessibility. Which is a quality the original Pac-Man has in abundance. I am a sucker, and always will be, for games that you just get, straight away. You're not four or five hours deep and still receiving tutorials. You're not several weeks into your game and there are limited-time events popping off in your notifications. You're not months into a free-to-play title that you get together with your pals on, and then they go and switch the meta in such a way that it totally throws you out of your comfort zone. It's more: here's the game, how you play it and how you win is obvious within seconds, so have fun.
The little fanfare plays: doo doo doo do do doo, doo doo doo do do doo, doo-doo-doo-doodly do (you get the idea). And Pac-Man goes for it, dashing to the left or to the right, chomping away at those dots, and then out come the ghosts - Blinky, Inky, Pinky and, um, Clyde. Eat up some fruit if you want, and be sure to swallow down the Power Pellets. (Not the Power-Pills - that's Aphex Twin.) No other buttons to press, no special moves to remember. Left and right, up and down. That's it.
Pac-Man could be played in 1980 with a pint in your hand, and it still can be today - albeit, less easily on a handheld device with a d-pad (but you can bet I'm willing to try). It can be played by someone who's gamed for 40 years, 40 minutes, or 40 seconds. Experience simply isn't a factor for enjoying Pac-Man. It'll help you get further into the game, maybe, but for understanding it, and what makes it fun? Nah.
Pac-Man is the most brilliant breed of Video Gaming 101: effortlessly simple, and sublimely moreish. More so than Mario, than Sonic, than Lara or anyone else. Pac-Man might not be as beloved as those icons, but his debut game sure does hold up better.
I'm as old as Pac-Man. We've both seen a lot of games come and go. But I can confidently say that one of us is wearing their years rather more gracefully than the other, and remains rather more sprightly too, even without any on-screen legs, arms or eyes. What a monster. What a legend.
(* Don't @ me, I do know why. Obviously. Cheers.)