ICONS: Toru Iwatani gave the world the gift of Pac-Man
By Patrick Scott Patterson Posted on Apr 8, 2016
People credit Pong for introducing most of the general public to video games. People credit Space Invaders for growing the industry several years later, and credit Atari's Asteroids for proving that Space Invaders was no fluke. Then came the monster that swallowed them all, credited nearly across the board for being the game that forever changed both the gaming industry and culture. That game is Pac-Man, and this edition of ICONS focuses on the game's creator, Toru Iwatani.
Born on January 25, 1955 in Tokyo, Japan, Iwatani grew up wanting to be a train conductor. He enjoyed board games with friends, including Snakes & Ladders and games similar to it. His love for fun and games stuck with him as he grew up, a love that led the way for him when he entered the job market in the 1970s.
"When I started job hunting, I was keeping an eye on toy companies such as Takara and Tomy," Iwatani-san recalled. "I became interested in Namco — then Nakamura Seisakusho — through a corporate recruitment magazine and noticed their slogan 'Create Fun,' so I took an entrance exam. I found the key word of 'fun' very attractive."
While the Namco name today is synonymous with video gaming, the company was not yet in that business at the time Iwatani joined on. He recalls wanting to make a pinball machine for Namco, but states that the company wasn't making those, either. Finally, in 1978, Namco entered the video game business with Iwatani's Gee Bee, a game he describes as a fusion of pinball an Atari's hit Breakout. He then took a longer look at the video game market, including both the games and the players. It gave him the inspiration for his next game — Pac-Man.
"In 1979, when I started working on Pac-Man, people usually played video games at arcade game centers," he noted. "Most of the games were space-battle themed, and arcade game centers were packed with just guys, creating kind of a bad mood. I thought arcades would become cleaner and brighter if more women came there to play games, so I started working on a concept of a game with the key word of 'eating' to make it more familiar and comfortable to women. During the research, I happened to take a piece of pizza, and out of the shape of the pizza left there, I came up with a shape for Pac-Man. I then created the game along with its cute enemy ghosts."
While the yellow dot gobbler was the star of the game for gamers across the world, Iwatani-san expresses a deep love for the four monsters that pursue Pac-Man as well. Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde were inspired by some of Iwatani's favorite fiction as a child. He also states that his feelings for them do not allow room for favorites.
"The ghosts were inspired from Japanese comics called Obake no Q-taro, which I read when I was a child," Iwatani-san said. "A TV animation series from the U.S. called Casper the Friendly Ghost also inspired me. The reason for four different colors was to make them more attractive to female players, and they also represent the personalities of the ghosts, each of whom moves in a different way based on different algorithms. I cannot name a favorite one just like you can't if you are asked which of your kids do you like the most. I love them all, all of the ghosts."
Beyond the characters, Pac-Man stood out to players in 1980 for the inclusion of bonus items. Twice per maze, the game provided bonus points to players if they could eat a prize that appeared near the middle of the maze. To expert players, collecting these fruits, bells, and keys became an important part of running up high scores. Iwatani recalls the inspiration for each of the included items, including the very first and very last to appear in the game.
"The fruit in the game was designed as a game feature that you can have at a specific place as an extra food, other than the normal cookies and dots," he added. "Think of the fruit as a sort of dessert. The cherry appears first because I thought the cherry artwork on slot machines was very nice. Regarding the key, I always enjoyed making things out of metal, and I even created a copy of my key when I was in high school. I chose a key because of this old memory and also because a key is a tool that works to both close and open things. My memories, as well as the mysterious potential of this image, made me use the key as an icon."
Another popular element of the original Pac-Man was the inclusion of cartoon intermissions. Between certain stages, the game would treat the player to a short comedy act using the on-screen characters. While common and elaborate today, this was considered groundbreaking at the time, and an element Iwatani-san included with both the player and branding in mind.
"As you continue playing a game, you will feel stress both mentally and physically," he said. "For this reason, I inserted an animation you can just watch and enjoy between the stages so that the player can take a break. I inserted a different animation after each stage so that the player's desire to view the animations would become another goal for them. I was also thinking of character merchandise while developing the game, like plush and t-shirts, so I can say these animations were preparing for those kinds of activities in a way."
Iwatani's foresight paid off, as the worldwide popularity of Pac-Man saw the game characters become one of the hottest licensed properties of the 1980s and beyond. Cartoons, t-shirts, bedsheets, board games, and even breakfast cereal came along while the original game was setting sales and earnings records in the arcade. Out of all this merchandise, however, Iwatani has one particular favorite.
"There was a Pac-Man phone that has a closed mouth when not in use, and you push the button to open the mouth in order to make a call," he noted. "This mechanism and design represents very well the characteristics of Pac-Man, making it one of my favorites."
Today, not only is Pac-Man merchandise still sold, but records set by the original arcade game continue to stand. The game is still available on the majority of platforms and devices on the market, having never seen exclusion from any console generation since the characters made their debut. Iwatani-san has many thoughts as to why the game continues to endure unabated after all this time.
"Pac-Man has simple rules with a clear goal, cute characters and a simple operation system with only four directions to go," he stated. "These features attracted many people in the world, including women, the young and the old. That is why it became so popular, I think. Pac-Man and the Ghosts have sort of a 'frienemy' relationship, fighting to get along and live in the same home, like the animation series Tom and Jerry. There are some moments when the position of Pac-Man and the ghosts are reversed. Players can show their skill and must be strategic, which is another reason the game was also well received."
Even the creator of one of the most iconic video games of all time has his personal favorites to play. Some of Iwatani's favorites fall outside of the world of Pac-Man, while others fall within it. One in particular, according to Iwatani-san, even inspired another iconic video game creator to make another one of history's most important game titles.
"I like Marble Madness, not only for its game system but also for the winding columns to which I can feel empathy," he said. "Mr. Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo once told me that he created Super Mario Bros. because of Pac-Land. I think Super Mario is also an amazing game with a well-balanced intervention of technologies and its variety of stages, such as ground stages and underground stages, which players can happily experience. Among the games in which Pac-Man appears, I like Pac-Land since it created the basis of the scrolling platformer. Pac-Man Championship Edition is also a favorite as an evolved version of Pac-Man with a time attack system that brought more speed to the game. I like Pac-Mania, too, because of its aesthetic quality and introducing the 3D model of Pac-Man that became the basis of the character that appeared in the Pixels movie."
Pixels, released in theaters in 2015, marked a rare on-screen appearance for Iwatani. He appears early in the film as an arcade technician, fixing a Pac-Man machine. His creation, as well as an actor playing him, appear as key points later within the movie. Iwatani-san says he feels the film stands as a bit of a coming of age for his classic arcade hit.
"Pixels took its theme from video games in the 80s. It was very impactful to see many 2D video game characters appearing in the movie in 3D form," he added. "I also felt that 2D Pac-Man became 'grown up' with his 3D form in the movie, just as the players who originally enjoyed these games are now grown up and have their own children. I think the movie has a clear storyline that even those children can enjoy with their parents. My appearance is just a few seconds, however, as I worked for a long time in the video game industry, it was a great pleasure to play a part. I feel very happy I could support the movie."
While Pac-Man has stood the test of time, technology has drastically shifted in almost every possible way. While the connectivity and devices of today have changed the world, Iwatani states that he feels the rules of video gaming and interaction remain unchanged. He has many opinions about the approach young game developers and companies should take when creating for modern tech.
"I think Pac-Man proved that, so long as you create based on core concepts while being mindful of others, it will receive a high reputation," he explained. "Pac-Man also proved the importance of simple composition. The game was designed in detail, taking into the utmost consideration of the psychology of players so that they will not feel stressed. It was designed in such a high level where the designer can add nothing more, or can remove nothing else. I think that is one of the biggest reasons why it has been loved for so long. I would like developers to further explore the possibilities of using games beyond the traditional genre of video games, with a playful mind and service spirt that always thinks of how others feel first. To create games is to know the minds of people, and if you keep this in your mind, I think you can expand the world of games much further."
Even after almost four decades in the video game industry, Iwatani continues to look for ways to innovate and create. His latest work involves education as well as the development of a unique new way to game. Not surprisingly, his old friend Pac-Man is involved as well.
"I am teaching at the Department of Game, Faculty of Arts, at Tokyo Polytechnic University," he added. "I'm also researching and developing a game system based on a brand new concept — a wearable 'gaming suit' which combines a display monitor, a controller, and a player into one whole-body display. This gaming suit contains Pac-Man as one of the examples. I think Pac-Man will continue evolving along with the game itself, exploring possibilities to propose new entertainment, arts, and more."
A special thank you to Michiko Kumagai and Mio Kaneko at Bandai Namco Entertainment and David Bishop at Namco USA for setting up the interview done for this feature. Also, of course, special thanks to Toru Iwatani for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this feature, as well as for Pac-Man, which served as the author's entry point for the wide-open fun of the video game world.