The Ghosts Are Just Guys Under Sheets? 12 Delectable Facts About Arcade Classic ‘Pac-Man’

35 years ago today, Pac-Man first waka waka waka-ed its way into Japanese arcades, and it’s nearly impossible to overstate the game’s influence. Pac-Man was the first game to feature power-ups, and its level design and AI was far more advanced than anything else on the market at the time. Pac-Man was the first title to prove video games could be more than simple, reflex-testing digital toys. Pac-Man had characters, carefully designed stages, and — in its own simple way — actually told a story. Oh, and it was also really fun.

Pac-Man is one of those rare games that simply refuses to age. Three-and-a-half decades later, the little yellow guy is still going strong. Here’s a few tasty facts you may not know about the original Pac-Man

The creator of Pac-Man had no formal training, and didn’t even like computers.

The creator of Pac-Man was in no way qualified to create Pac-Man. Toru Iwatani joined Namco in 1977 at the tender age of 22, with basically zero qualifications. Iwatani had no formal training in engineering, programming or graphic design and had no particular interest in video games. The guy didn’t even like computers.

“I don’t have any particular interest in [computers]. I’m interested in creating images that communicate with people. A computer is not the only medium that uses images, it just so happens I use the computer. There’s a limit to what you can do with a computer. Hardware limitations become my limitations. They restrict me, and I’m no different from any artist – I don’t like constraints.”

Iwatani wanted to get into making pinball machines, but Namco didn’t even make pinball machines. Whoops. So, the bosses filed this unqualified, directionless kid away in their design department, likely expecting to never hear from him again. Little did they know.

Iwatani may not have had the qualifications, but he was clearly quite the artiste.

Pac-Man was designed to appeal to female gamers. Iwatani’s general disinterest in gaming and computers would actually serve him well. Iwatani wasn’t a fan of ’70s arcades. He thought they were dirty and smelly and figured they’d be much nicer places to visit if somebody other than teenage guys hung out there, so he specifically set out to create a game that would appeal to women and couples.

Unfortunately, poor Iwatani didn’t have a terribly deep understanding of the women he wanted to attract. In his mind, girls really liked to eat, particularly sweets and desserts, so he decided to make a game based around eating. I’m not sure that chomping desserts is specifically a girl thing, but it worked out well for Iwatani, so maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In addition to the eating theme, Iwatani focused on less violent gameplay than the shooters that were popular at the time and made the game’s enemies pastel-colored little cuties (the president of Namco wanted them all to be red).

Iwatani’s gambit worked. While hardened Space Invaders fans turned their noses up at Pac-Man (yes, the hardcore vs. casual gamer divide already existed in 1980) kids, women and older gamers gravitated toward the unique, less stressful charms of Pac-Man. Quickly Pac-Man became the title less obsessive gamers sought out when they were dragged to the arcade, and soon even the hardcore types started to come around.

Getty Image

Pac-Man doing exactly what it was designed to do. 

The ghosts all have unique personalities and strategies they follow. To the untrained eye, it may seem like there’s no particular rhyme or reason to how Pac-Man’s enemies behave. The reality is, all four of the ghosts have unique personalities and surprisingly complex AI for a game released in 1980.

Blinky (the red one) is the most aggressive of the bunch, honing in on Pac-Man and sticking to his heels like a wild-eyed stalker. Pinky (the pink one, duh) is an ambush master, always trying to get around ahead of Pac-Man to cut him off. Inky (light blue) is unpredictable, basically copying the strategies of the other three ghosts on a whim. Finally, there’s simple, cowardly Clyde (orange) who actually runs away from Pac-Man if he gets too close. In the Japanese game, the ghosts had names that clearly gave away their strategies (Chaser, Ambusher, Fickle and Stupid) but the American translators decided to go the cutesy route with the names, and thus generations of western gamers played Pac-Man without really understanding what they were up against.

The early-80s version of “Friends”.

Midway won the American rights to Pac-Man on a coin flip after Atari passed on the game.

Pac-Man was a success in Japan, but it didn’t become a true phenomenon until it was released in the West. Pac-Man was published by Midway in America, and you may think they had to do some serious bidding to get the game, but you’d be wrong. Atari, flush with that sweet Pong money, would have been able to outbid Midway, but they passed on the game, thinking it was too easy. It came down to Midway and a pinball maker named Game Plan, and they decided to flip a coin for this strange dot-eating game. Needless to say, Midway won and would soon make Atari and Game Plan regret not going after Pac-Man more aggressively.

Puck-Man became Pac-Man in America because Midway thought vandals would change the arcade cabinet’s “P” to an “F”.

Pac-Man doesn’t have the same name everywhere in the world. In Japan he’s called Puck-Man, because the Japanese onomatopoeia for eating (paku paku) sounds like “puck” and he looks a bit like a hockey puck. Midway decided this name wouldn’t fly in North America, because our insolent children were likely to tamper with the “P” turning Puck-Man to F*ck-Man. So, at the last moment, they turned Puck to Pac, which probably saved them a lot of headaches, but maybe cost them a few extra quarters. I don’t know about you, but I would have been more excited to play F*ck-Man than Pac-Man as a kid.

Good ol’ F*ck-Man himself. 

Most of Pac-Man‘s arcade sequels were made without the consent of Pac-Man‘s creators.

The runaway success of Pac-Man spawned a steady stream of spin-offs and sequels. Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus, Super Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man … the list goes on. Super Pac-Man was Namco’s official follow-up to Pac-Man, but the rest of them were made without any input from Namco or Iwatani.

Ms. Pac-Man started an “enhancement kit” (basically an old-school ROM hack) of Pac-Man called Crazy Otto. The makers of the hack showed it to Midway, and they were so impressed they decided to buy the game and put it on the market. Since Pac-Man had been popular with women, they slapped some lipstick and a bow on Pac-Man, and were off to the races. Midway continued to release their own Pac-Man games, despite not actually owning the property, which is very much not allowed. Namco sued, and Midway, having no leg whatsoever to stand on, handed over full rights to Ms. Pac-Man and all the other Pac-Man titles they produced. Unsurprisingly, Namco then dropped Midway like a hot potato. It was all a bit sordid, but hey, at least we got that sexy Ms. Pac-Man out of the deal.

Mmmm, that is one (disconcertingly) sexy yellow blob.

There’s a secret safe spot on the screen.

Feeling a little overwhelmed by the action? Need to take a quick break? Well, too bad, Pac-Man‘s a quarter-munching arcade game, so it doesn’t let you pause. Thankfully there is a spot in the maze where you’ll be safe. At the beginning of a level, head right and immediately up, then just chill out. Head to the bathroom, or just stand around twiddling your thumbs and annoying the line of people wanting to play the game after you, because none of the ghosts will attack you while you’re in this spot. You can check out the folks at GameTrailers confirming this little trick below…

The ghosts are just dudes wearing sheets.

Here’s an interesting tidbit that’s been hiding in plain sight for decades – it turns out Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde aren’t actually ghosts. The evidence for this can be found in the handful of little cutscenes or “intermissions” between some levels. Most of us have seen the first intermission, but you actually have to be fairly good at the game to get to the others, so most gamers remain unaware of their secrets.

After the fifth round, we see Blinky running down Pac-Man. Mid-chase, Blinky’s costume catches on a nail and rips, exposing what looks like a leg underneath. The third intermission is even more revealing. Blinky, who’s patched up his cheap-ass costume, chases after Pac-Man and they both exit stage right. A second later, a weird fleshy blob of a creature scoots back into frame dragging a red sheet behind him. These cutscenes have mostly been swept under the carpet; Namco themselves never reference them; but the fact remains, the “ghosts” aren’t actually ghosts.

More than $3.5 billion has been pumped into Pac-Man arcade machines.

Obviously Pac-Man was a successful game, but it’s hard to conceive just how big a deal it was. Namco and Midway sold more than 400,000 Pac-Man units, which generated $3.5 billion in revenue by 1990. Taking inflation into account, that’s the equivalent of $7.6 billion in today’s dollars. And of course, people didn’t stop playing Pac-Man in 1990. There’s no telling what the final tally is as of 2015, but it’s obviously quite a bit higher than $3.5 billion. And all of it was made one quarter at a time.

Iwatani didn’t even receive a bonus for creating Pac-Man.

So, what did Toru Iwatani get for creating possibly the most profitable video game of all time? He’s living high on that Pac-cash now, right? Chomping caviar like power pellets? Nope. Not only did Iwatani not get a cut of the billions of dollars generated by Pac-Man, he didn’t get a raise, a bonus or, from the sounds of it, even much of a pat on the back.

“The truth of the matter is, there were no rewards per se for the success of Pac-Man. I was just an employee. There was no change in my salary, no bonus, no official citation of any kind.”

So, did Iwatani tell Namco to cram it with walnuts and try to sue for a cut of the profits? Haha, no, they don’t really do that kind of thing in Japan. In fact, Iwatani still works for Namco. He was eventually promoted up the Namco corporate ladder, so I suppose there was some sort of small, delayed pat on the back, but much like Pac-Man itself, there was no big reward waiting for Iwatani at the end of the game.

Chances are Iwatani didn’t get paid for this tasteful tribute either. 

The terrible/terribly awesome song ‘Pac-Man Fever’ hit the Billboard Top 10.

During the ’80s, the Pac-Man craze spread far beyond the arcade. People gobbled up every bit of Pac-crap they could like they were going for a high score. Multiple “How to Win at Pac-Man” guides hit the New York Times best-sellers list, even though it’s not actually possible to win Pac-Man. Pac-Man even hit the Billboard Top 10, with the novelty song Pac-Man Fever. If you can’t play Pac-Man at the moment, you may as well listen to an awful song about playing Pac-Man! See if you can make it all the way through this masterpiece.

Pac-Man is the most recognized video-game character in the world.

Pac-Man may be rapidly approaching middle age, but the guy isn’t about to slow down. According to a recent poll, 94 percent of Americans know who Pac-Man is, a higher percentage than for any other video-game character. Not bad for a neon yellow hockey puck.

Hope you enjoyed this celebration of our hungry birthday boy. Know any interesting Pac-facts I missed? Got any cherished Pac-Man-related memories you’d like to share? Hit the comments and let’s talka-talka-talka.

(Via Progammers at Work, The Pac-Man Dossier, Pac-Man MuseumGaming History, USGamerABC News and Did You Know Gaming?)