Calling all Gamers: Get ready for the ultimate retro trip back to the 1970s and 1980s in Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon

Review by C.J. Bunce

Not many books give you goosebumps as they take you back to a moment in time.  How do you create not only a new game, but a new industry?  Your next time travel adventure needs to be Arjan Terpstra and Tim Lapetino’s giant look back at not only Pac-Man but the rise of video games.  It’s Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon, simply an incredible, deep dive into the development of the video game and all its incarnations from its beginnings as Puck-Man, almost called Paku-emon (sound familiar?).  From development via pinball, coin-op, and theme park companies Namco, Bally, and Midway (and side-dances with Atari), fans of 1970s and 1980s nostalgia will see how a few key players in Japan created Pac-Man, and even more around the world expanded it into an icon–all out of 111 yellow flashes of light on a computer screen.  The giant book is full of vintage photographs, marketing materials, corporate and engineering design notes, and much more.  Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon might be the best video game history yet, and it’s now available here at Amazon.

How exactly do you get from Space Invaders and Galaxian to Pac-Man?  Who would have thought a game about eating (the name reflected the Japanese sound for gulping down food quickly)–derived in part from elements of Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse, and Popeye–could have had such an impact?  On May 22, 1980, Puck-Man debuted in Tokyo atop what would be many roof-top amusement centers across the city.  Immediately the development team noticed girls and women, businessmen, and senior citizens were enjoying the game.  Soon you could find women in New York City were playing the games on lunch breaks, at a time when video games were thought to be the next step after pool and pinball, stuff only boys and young men cared about.  But Namco couldn’t produce the games fast enough for demand, and players and arcades didn’t want any other game.

Each of the 336 pages of Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon has curious and entertaining detail or trivia that will have you shouting it out to someone across the room.  The book has everything, even reprints of the original sketches of each ghost type, color palette choices (and what surprising imagery they were based on), a look into the heart of the game: the algorithms that determined the complex movement of the ghosts, with examples of key bits of computer code printouts with programmers’ notes, thoughts, and fixes.  Readers will learn about the sounds in the game, see the sheet music for the introduction, and understand why every bit of the game had meaning that was vetted by multiple creators to get everything perfect.  It’s far more than you’d think.

And once successful the developers and marketing team had to keep innovating.  An appendix reveals dozens of progressive incarnations of Pac-Man, logos, cabinet types, color types, beginning with Ms. Pac-Man and continuing with bedsheets, stickers, and a top 100 pop song on the Billboard charts (by the same guys who created the theme to WKRP in Cincinnati).  Atari cartridge cover art should bring back memories, along with all the vintage photographs of people playing the upright consoles and sit-down versions of the games.

Moving from a Japanese amusement roofs to an American coin-operated arcade had its own challenges (Sega and toy company Tomy played a factor), which the developers in hindsight seem to have waded through easily.  Learn why Miss Pac-Man and Mrs. Pac-Man was a no-go.  Licensing shifted Pac-Man from only the biggest video game to a household word.  The cultural aspects of the game can’t be overstated.  Much like Bruce Lee helped bring parts of Asian culture to America, Pac-Man helped export some Japanese culture and aesthetic around the world.

If that weren’t enough, an appendix includes the first ever translation of designer Toru Iwatani’s 113-page book, Pac-Man’s Game Study Manual, a must-read for any designer of roleplaying games, video or otherwise.  Writer Lapetino, author of Art of Atari (reviewed here at borg), and Terpstra, author of Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Anniversary Art Book, upped their game with this project.  It’s more than the history of a single video game.  The book began as a 40th anniversary chronicle to be released in 2020, but was yet another victim of pandemic delays.

Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon is a big chunk of the history of an era, not simply about a key shift in the technology of entertainment, but a springboard in the world’s acceptance of bits and bytes into their daily lives.  It’s housed in a sturdy, colorful hardcover edition with large pages exceeding 9×12 inches to allow for brilliant reprints and photograph enlargements.  If Netflix’s documentary High Score only scratched the surface for you, this should be your next retro fix, sure to be the cornerstone of any gamer’s library.  Sure to be one of the best non-fiction reads this year, and new from Titan Books, get Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon now here at Amazon.

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