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Return of Pac Man

The munching blob that captured the spirit of an era.

It's 1982. Next to a letter suggesting that Tron, the arcade game, should be read as a "Jungian myth", the journalist Bill Freda quietly announces a new epoch: "In days gone by, the national pastime was baseball. Today, it is Pac-Man." Freda's column appeared in the 30 August issue of InfoWorld ("the news weekly for microcomputer users"), when the Namco corporation's Pac-Man franchise was just two years old. Pac-mania was in full swing.

In April that year, the Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Simon predicted that Atari would sell nine million units of the game by Christmas. Its advent in May 1980 had ushered in what aficionados now call the golden age of arcade gaming, till then only intimated by the Space Invaders craze of the late 1970s. American teens were soon spending over 20 billion quarters a year on video games, translating to approximately 75,000 hours of continuous play. In Japan, the sudden popularity of arcade parlours reportedly caused a national shortage of ¥100 coins.

Freda's declaration of Pac-mania's "epidemic proportions" was no exaggeration. Months after its release, game centres became more common than convenience stores in many American towns. According to Eddie Adlum of RePlay magazine: "Even a few funeral parlours had video games in the basements. I believe churches and synagogues were about the only types of locations to escape."

Pac-Man's profits, meanwhile, quickly surpassed the earnings of 20th-Century Fox's Star Wars, which was the highest-grossing film to date. The video-game format had found its first bona fide pop icon. Stanley Jarocki, then vice-president of the US software distributor Midway, said in an interview with Time magazine: "I think we have the Mickey Mouse of the 1980s."

Thirty years on, it seems curious that a concept so simple could have inspired such devotion and excitement. A two-dimensional, yellow blob moves along a grid, eating nondescript dots or fruit while evading ghosts. And that's it. There's no narrative and no resolution -- not even an end sequence to reward you for your time. Those who try to complete each stage of the game are met with a "kill screen": an unplayable, glitch-ridden half-grid that betrays the limitations of a simple circuit board.

The programmers, it seems, never expected players to reach level 256 -- or that anyone would even want to. Yet six gamers, so far, have reached the fabled finish line. As recently as 2009, David Race "clocked" each stage in an unprecedented three hours, 41 minutes and 22 seconds.

Controversy once raged over whether the kill screen could somehow be negotiated to gain access to further levels, but even after a $100,000 bounty for proof that a 257th level existed was issued by the Florida-based hot sauce manufacturer Billy Mitchell -- himself a record-holder for achieving the first perfect game of Pac-Man -- no gamer came forward. "I have reached the 256th screen hundreds of times and cannot get through," said Mitchell in 1999.

On 5 December 1982, however, an opportunistic Ronald Reagan attempted to ride the craze and sent a presidential letter of congratulation to Jeffrey Yee, who had reported a new record of 6,131,940 points. Other players were sceptical: Yee's score would only have been possible if he had somehow beaten the kill screen.

In late May this year, Google celebrated the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man's Japanese release by hosting a basic version of the game on its home page. The retro tribute proved so popular that the search engine giant has since decided to make it permanently available -- which may be bad news for businesses. According to the software analysts Rescue Time, internet surfers around the world wasted almost five million work hours playing the embedded game during the course of one day.

Pac-Man is, on the other hand, the purest product of the hyper-capitalist, 1980s mindset: a fantasy of the consumer who does nothing but eat and acquire ("rampant consumption", says the games writer Siva Vaidhyanathan).

No wonder Reagan's interest was piqued. With the Tories back in No 10, and a sequel to Wall Street on the way, perhaps no other game will better sum up the spirit of the coming decade.

Tags:games