Dick Clark’s American Bandstand had more than its share of cheesy guests over the years—bands that lip-synced their tunes in front of a TV audience under orders to cheer. But few acts quite equaled Buckner & Garcia, two friends who’d met at Perkins High School in Akron, Ohio, and managed to write a song that, by March 1982, skyrocketed them to fame. Their efforts would land them a gold record, a No. 9 slot on the Billboard charts and, of course, a spot on Dick Clark.
The song? “Pac-Man Fever.”
Americans initially caught the Pac-Man fever two years prior in October 1980, when a little-known Japanese gaming company called Namco licensed its latest game, Puck Man, to Midway for stateside distribution. “Pac” is short for “pakku,” the Japanese word for munch—so knowing very well what American mall rats would do with a name like Puck Man, Midway wisely changed it to Pac-Man.
A deceptively simple game that requires the player to help the title character gobble his way through a maze, Pac-Man was cute, family-friendly and surprisingly challenging. By year-end 1980, Namco had sold 100,000 units; 15 months in, $1 billion worth of quarters had disappeared into the arcade slots. America was never the same—and isn’t today.
Almost four decades after its stateside debut, Pac-Man is still being played, albeit on considerably different platforms, from smartphones to revamped consoles. When Google rolled out a playable Pac-Man doodle in 2010, so many flocked to it that the global economy lost 4 million productivity hours in a single day. In 2017, “Weird Al” Yankovic finally released his parody “Pac-Man” (set to the melody of the Beatles’ “Tax Man”) 36 years after he wrote it. The original Pac-Man arcade units (in all, there were 400,000) are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian. To date, according to best estimates, some form of Pac-Man has been played over 10 billion times.
The question is: Why? What is it about the game that seized the imagination 37 years ago—and continues to hold it? According to Jeremy Saucier, assistant vp for electronic games at the National Museum of Play, Pac-Man not only introduced the first character-based story into a realm otherwise dominated by games based on tennis (Pong) and shooting (Space Invaders), but it also tapped into a collective childhood experience. “Pac-Man combined the sheer delight of playing chase and playing tag with this very hip, cool video game personality,” he said.
Dustin Hansen, game designer and author of the definitive video game history book, Game On!, adds that part of Pac-Man’s appeal was its early incorporation of artificial intelligence (yes, in 1980), which governed how the ghosts behaved.
“Blinky always chases you around corners, and Clyde is random,” he said. “They have their ultimate directive to find the player, but they respond to what you do.” Which, of course, freaked people out—and kept those quarters coming.