Chomp champ for 20 years

Pac-Man: Devotees of the character have a new, 3-D PlayStation game to feed their fever.

November 01, 1999|By Ward Triplett III | Ward Triplett III,KANSAS CITY STAR

Pac-Man, the little yellow round ball with the big mouth, is turning 20.

Send bright dots and fruit and a power pellet or two.

To celebrate the anniversary, Pac-Man's keeper has turned loose "Pac-Man World." More than two years in the making, the new home video game for Sony's PlayStation takes Pac-Man out of his traditional maze and into a 3-D world.

This Pac-Man has a face, arms and legs, and can run, jump, shoot, climb, swim and "butt-bounce," all the better to save his friends and family from a new villain, Toc-Man.

The new game from Namco Hometek also can be played in two other formats to suit traditional tastes. One has the game's bad guys -- the tireless ghosts Binky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde -- chasing Pac-Man around a maze that, with new technology, is three-dimensional. The other looks and plays just like the original.

"In the past we hid an arcade version of Pac-Man in some of our Genesis and Super Nintendo game codes, and we still get calls every single day asking how to open up the secret mode and play [Pac-Man]," said Mike Fischer, marketing director at Namco Hometek. "This time we decided to give true Pac-Man fans the original classic right up front."

Pac-Man wasn't the first video game, but "he was the world's first video game character," in Fischer's opinion. "Even though he was just a little puck going 'waka waka waka,' he was imbued with a personality and people could relate to him."

Indeed Pac-Man stood out from other early-'80s games such as "Space Invaders," "Asteroids," "Missile Command," "Sinistar," "Defender" and "Astro Fighter." You didn't just zap something and see it disappear with a metallic-sounding fizz; you were the Pac-Man, running through a maze filled with dots of light and servings of fruit. If one of four ghosts caught you before you ate all the dots, that was the end of you.

Adults, teens, kids, even the hard-to-reach female audience took to it. Games found their way into restaurants and fast-food joints across the country. Somehow in the short time it took to find a table in a restaurant, kids always found the video console.

It all helped Pac-Man and its spinoff, Ms. Pac-Man, stick around the longer, make more money and leave the biggest impact on a still-young gaming industry. Consider:

Pac-Man has swallowed more than $1 billion in quarters.

The Pac-Man image has been licensed for 430 products, including toilet seats, breakfast cereal and a hot rod.

The name has been co-opted by big business: the "Pac-Man Defense" is invoked when one company tries to swallow up another company attempting a hostile takeover.

People still play it. In July, Florida resident Billy Mitchell achieved what is thought to be the first perfect score on a Pac-Man. Mitchell guided one Pac-Man through 256 boards and grabbed every fruit and ghost for a total of 3,333,360 points. It took him six hours.

There are entire Web rings of players devoted to the game. One site, the First Church of Pac-Man (www.geocities.com/SoHo/Lofts/8112/pac.htm), has had 60,000 hits in its two years online.

Tim Crist, 24, of Liverpool, N.Y., said he started playing it around age 5 in the early '80s. He remembers why it appealed to him.

"In a game market saturated with spaceship shoot-'em-up games, this was a nonviolent eating game with a strange-looking character whose only weapon was his appetite," Crist said.

Some people spent time considering Pac-Man's metaphysical meaning. In May 1982, Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe wrote about wanting to "save her man" from his tormenting ghosts: "Maybe it was his cute round shape ... his oral fixation ... maybe it was because he seemed so easy to manipulate."

But she concluded that "he had all the fatal charm, the promising allure of a sadistic lover. He was like all the three-dimensional people you know who lead their lives by microchip. They're programmed to get you in the end."

The old comic strip "Bloom County" touched on the same idea. In one Sunday edition, a giant, depressed Pac-Man moaned about our "crazy maze of a world ... just eatin' and runnin', and all the while our various fears are forever chasing us close behind."

The commentaries, a handful of guidebooks and the Top 40 song "Pac-Man Fever" were confirmation of Pac-Man's status in pop culture. When the arcade boom faded, he moved easily to home formats and still ranks as one of the top 10 titles in the Gameboy format. Last year, Next Gen magazine proclaimed him "the greatest video game character of all time."

For its part, Namco thinks there's many an ex-video whiz kid who dropped many a quarter in Pac-Man who has nary an hour to figure out the new video games. But that person will love playing Pac-Man with his or her growing children. Even better, the children won't have to be told what Pac-Man is.

"I think it's fair to say the Pac-Man icon is recognized even more than Mickey Mouse's ears," Fischer said, "and that's quite an achievement."

Information: www.namco.com.

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