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Pellets, Ghosts and the Yakuza: The Journey Of Pac-Man

It’s hard to imagine a world without Pac-Man. That yellow pellet eating machine has burned himself into the pop-culture consciousness in a way few fictional characters have. From the initial video game that ate up as many quarters as the titular hero ate cherries, to cartoons, shirts, toys, and an endless supply of merchandise.

The game even had a song that reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. How bonkers is that?

Gotta say, that song is a banger.

But how did this all happen? How did Pac-Man become a worldwide sensation? And what does America’s favorite fictional spinach eater have to do with it? Well, I’m about to fill you in…

Masaya Nakamura And The Rocking Horses

Masaya Nakamura was a Naval Engineer during World War II, but in the decade since the war ended, he couldn’t find work that took advantage of his skill. A graduate of the Yokohama Institute of Technology with a degree in shipbuilding, Nakamura found himself working at his father’s repair shop at a department store.

Nakamura saved up $3,000 and purchased two mechanical rocking-horse rides and set them up on the roof garden of the department store. Nakamura worked the horses himself. He fixed them up himself. And, in time, he bought more rides. After a few years, Nakamura had his rides on the roofs of every Mitsukoshi department store. Nakamura used the success of his company to start building rides and games of his own designs. He made a deal with Disney to make rides with their characters for the Japanese audience. Things were going great. Then Atari came a knocking…

Nakamura Versus The Yakuza

By 1973, Atari was crushing it in the United States with Pong. With all those quarters they were collecting in the US, Atari decided to enter the Japanese market. The coin-operated entertainment industry was going strong in Japan, and Atari’s Nolan Bushnell wanted a taste.

It turned out that for Atari, Japan was very sour. The American company didn’t really understand Japanese culture and set up their machines in all the wrong places. After a year of major losses, Atari was looking to get out of Japan. Sega came in and offered Atari $50,000 to take over Atari Japan, but Masaya Nakamura wasn’t about to let someone else get the better of him. Nakamura offered $800,000, which is quite a huge jump, and one Atari couldn’t refuse.

It turned out that Atari maybe should have waited a bit before selling off their Japan business. While Pong never quite hit it big in Japan, Atari’s follow-up, Breakout, was a huge success in the country. Nakamura tried to license the game from Atari for his own company to produce in Japan, but Atari refused. The two came to an agreement – Namco could distribute the Breakout cabinets and take a piece of the revenue. Some money was better than no money, and Nakamura ordered as many Breakout cabinets as he could.

Breakout was a massive hit, and Nakamura was psyched. Still, something felt off to him. What was off quickly became clear – someone was ripping off Breakout and setting up their own cabinets around Japan.

Nakumara sent out his employees to figure out what was happening, and what they found was pretty nuts – the Yakuza was making knock-off Breakout cabinets. In a scene that would be super intense in a movie, Nakamura met with the head of the Yakuza and asked him to stop ripping off the game. This may surprise you, but the head of the Yakuza said no. He did offer to mess with Namco’s competitors in the market so that Nakamura’s company could become the biggest coin-op company in Japan, but Nakamura was really into doing things legally and politely declined the offer.

Nakamura met with Nolan Bushnell to discuss the Yakuza situation. At this point, things get a little… unclear. According to Nakamura, a hungover Bushnell told him that Namco could just build Breakout cabinets themselves instead of waiting for Atari to send them more. According to Bushnell, he was under the impression that Breakout, like Pong, wasn’t a success in Japan and that was why Namco stopped ordering new cabinets. Whatever the case, Namco didn’t have an actual deal to build their own cabinets, and after a lawsuit, they had to pay Atari.

Still, Nakamura saw the writing on the wall – video games were the future, and that was where Namco would put their focus moving forward.

Toru Iwatani Takes A Bite Out Of Games

Toru Iwatani wasn’t a good student. He filled his textbooks with drawings of his own design and never really bothered with school work. It wasn’t that Iwatani was lazy or that he wasn’t intelligent. No, it was quite the opposite. Iwatani was very motivated and very smart. He taught himself computers, visual arts, and graphic design. Iwatani used his self-taught skills to get a job at Namco in 1977 and was quickly put to work on their new video games.

He worked on Gee Bee, Namco’s first in-house game. It wasn’t a big success, but it did well enough.

Then came Cutie Q, which Iwatani designed the sprites for. What he designed was bright and colorful. Today, Cutie Q is considered one of the first “character games” – a game where the sprites have a style that makes the player connect to them on a deeper level.

Iwatani liked his work, but he felt like games were missing out on a lot of possibilities. So many games were about war and destruction, and the rest were just Pong or Breakout clones. Even Cutie Q was a brick-breaking game. Iwatani wanted to do something different, something that would speak to more than just the boys and men who overwhelmingly made up the market for games. Iwatani wanted to make a game, the first game, for everyone.

In 1980, Iwatani came up with “Pakku-Man”. The game would be based around something everyone loved, eating. Iwatani saw it as a person eating while being chased by ghosts who wanted to eat them. He took a cue from Popeye and included special “power pellets” that would give the player superpowers for a limited time (that superpower being that they could eat ghosts). This, by the way, is the first time EC Segar’s comic strip creation heavily influenced a historic game. The second time came a year later with Donkey Kong.

Iwatani’s game was released in May of 1980 under the name Puck-Man. The name was a goof – it was supposed to be called Pakkuman after the Japanese term “paku-paku” – the sound a person makes when they open and close their mouth repeatedly. Mistaken name aside, Puck-Man was an immediate hit in Japan. People loved the look, the gameplay, and the endlessly fun sounds of the game.

Midway quickly jumped on Puck-Man and got the US rights to the game. To avoid the chances of American kids being goofy and vandalizing the Puck-Man cabinets by turning the ‘P’ into an ‘F’ for a cheap laugh, they changed the name of the game to Pac-Man. Faster than you could eat a ghost, there were over 100,000 Pac-Man cabinets being fed quarters by the masses, making Iwatani’s creation became the biggest coin-op game of all time.

Soon enough, everyone wanted in on Pac-Man. There was Pac-Man cereal from General Mills. A Pac-Man cartoon series by Hanna-Barbera. And, of course, a hit song by Buckner & Garcia.

Since the first Pac-Man came out in 1980, the pellet loving disc and his family have starred in over 50 games. Chances are we’ll be seeing plenty more in the years that come.


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