The Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time #64: Pac-Man

“The Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time” is a statistical meta-analysis of 44 “Best Video Games of All Time” lists that were published between 1995 and 2016. Catch up on how we decided to sort the games and the rest of the Top 100 in the Introduction.

You can also help support the completion of this project through Patreon.

With more than 40 years of history behind it, it’s not surprising the video game community has developed its own catalog of urban legends that have been passed from player to player over the years. Everyone who played it desperately tried to resurrect Aerith after her tragic demise in Final Fantasy VII, and we all heard stories about the “nude codes” that supposedly existed in games like Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat II, and The Sims.

Unfortunately, every one of those rumors has more in common with the hook man at lover’s lane than they do with the unvarnished truth. But some of the legends are true. And nearly all of them revolve around Pac-Man in some way.

Pac-Man is a simple creature. Just a yellow circle with a triangular wedge removed to represent his mouth. Some will say his design was simplistic because the designers at Namco were working within the hardware limitations of the day. Those people would be wrong. The inspiration for Pac-Man overcame Namco’s Toru Iwatani after he snatched the first slice at a company pizza party and noticed that it looked like a circle with a mouth.

But it gets weirder from there. The American dinner staple had only been introduced to the Japanese public a few years before, so a pizza party at Namco’s offices was something of a rare occurrence. And if Iwatani was a little slower on the draw, would he still have had his eureka moment if he had reached for the third slice, or even the fourth? Without one of gaming’s most recognizable faces staring back at him at just that moment, would we have ever met Pac-Man?

But it all worked out, and the simplistic face that Iwatani saw in the pizza pan carried over to the finished game. The developer created a “maze” by twisting an unbroken double-line into a series of turns and corridors. The “ghosts” were patterned after the simple “sheet with two eye holes” Halloween costume, and were built in-game by attaching several small triangles to the bottom of a circle. And true to their name, the “dots” were just a single white pixel.

When combined with the thumping music and the speed of the characters, these simple and evocative designs drew in the people who haunted early arcades. It was easy to get lost in the game, and players dashed down straightaways and stopped on a dime to dodge the ghosts, all the while gobbling dots for as long as their quarter could last. Many fans would later say they were hypnotically drawn to Pac-Man, and from a medical perspective, it’s possible this feeling wasn’t just psychosomatic. It’s very likely the game did have some hypnotic qualities.

Even today, Pac-Man provides a very meditative experience to those who still play it. Just ask the people who spent millions of hours playing a Google Doodle created to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Even if you weren’t good enough to use Pac-Man as a type of meditation, you likely heard the rumor that Iwatani’s game was completely unwinnable. And that one’s true too. Due to a bug in the game’s code, the 256th level will split along the center forcing the player to stop playing. The left half of the screen will display normally, but the right half will become littered with random letters and numbers. This corruption came to be known as a “kill screen” and it is why no one has ever beaten Pac-Man (though a perfect score of 3,333,360 was achieved by legendary arcade gamer Billy Mitchell).

Believe it or not, the rumored raunchy origins of Pac-Man’s name are also real. The first Pac-Man arcade cabinets were produced under the name Puckman. The “Puck” prefix was Namco’s attempt to anglicize the word “paku,” which means “munch” in Japanese (the word is also related to Baku, a Japanese spirit that eats dreams). When representatives from Namco showed the game to their North American distribution partners, they became visibly upset, for obvious reasons. A bit of white paint is all it would have taken to transform “Puckman” into something rather objectionable. Namco, wisely, agreed to change the game’s name.

Pac-Man also had a bit of a role to play in gaming’s most notorious urban legend: Atari’s New Mexican landfill. For years, many people believed that the existence of the landfill was just a joke, first told as a way of sticking the knife even deeper in Atari’s back over the failure of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. For most, they only truly believed when Microsoft got permission to dig up the site in 2014 for a documentary film and pulled out dozens of E.T. cartridges (and confirmed that thousands, perhaps millions, were buried in the dirt). But they also found other games including Pole Position, Defender, and Pac-Man. Contrary to the legend, Atari never sealed the site with a concrete vault to keep out looters, nor did company executives crush the cartridges with a roller before they were entombed. The New York Times had it right all along when they reported in 1984 that the dump was just a company throwing out unsold stock to qualify for a tax write-off.

But in many cases, video game urban legends were created out of whole cloth to dupe a classroom full of kids that want something to be true so much. Like when Jeff Rovin, the first video game writer that most children of the 80s identified with, told a fairy tale about a “Chocolate Factory” hidden in Super Mario Bros. in his game guide, How to Win at Nintendo Games #4.

The next year, the writers of Electronic Gaming Monthly printed a “Tricks of the Trade” article detailing how to battle Sheng Long, Ryu and Ken’s mythical master, in Street Fighter II. Thanks to a mistranslation in the original arcade game, players believed that one of Ryu’s taunts hinted at the in-game existence of his sensei, Sheng Long. The localization team that created the Super NES version of the game was even fooled as they included a reference to “Master Sheng Long” in the instruction manual. This swirling soup of miscommunication lead to EGM’s April Fool’s joke and a million frustrated Street Fighter fans. But the joke’s on all of us. Capcom eventually included Gouken, Ryu and Ken’s actual master, in Street Fighter IV.

Namco, today known as Bandai Namco, also used this kind of fan reaction to rewrite one of the legends surrounding Pac-Man. The publisher created Pac-Man 256 in 2015, and the mobile game was an “endless runner” that gave Pac-Man a chance to outrun the glitched code found in the infamous “kill screen.”

Pac-Man 256 was a huge hit with fans, but some legends will always have a kernel of truth to them… it’s still impossible to escape from the “kill screen.”


In 2008, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Pac-Man the “Most Successful Coin Operated Game,” so it’s possible it may still be available to play at your local arcade (if you have a local arcade).

But Pac-Man’s popularity has also given Bandai Namco the opportunity to release it on a number of different home platforms as well, beginning with the previously-mentioned (and rather terrible) Atari 2600 rendition. More faithful recreations of the game were eventually launched on the NES, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation, Xbox, and others. Today, an “arcade perfect” re-release of Pac-Man is available to download for the PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.


Publisher: Namco
Developer: Namco
Release Date: October 1980

Average Ranking: 68.43
Selection Percentage: 36.36% (16/44)
Scientifically Proven Score: 132.07

Publication Rankings For Pac-Man
Hyper (1995) 1*

Next Gen (1996)

NR

Next Gen (1999)

NR

Edge (2000)

74
GI (2001) NR

GameSpy (2001)

NR

Edge (2003)

NR

EW/G4TV (2003)

NR
GameSpot (2003) 1*

IGN (2003)

NR

1UP (2004)

1*

The Age (2005)

NR
IGN (2005) NR

Yahoo! Games UK (2005)

25

Edge (2007)

NR

IGN (2007)

NR
IGN HoF (2007) NR

Stuff UK (2008)

66

Edge (2009)

NR

Empire (2009)

NR
GI (2009) 52

FHM (2010)

77

GamesTM (2010)

1*

The Phoenix (2010)

41
Gamereactor (2011) NR

GamesRadar (2011)

NR

Stuff UK (2011)

24

1UP (2012)

13
G4TV (2012) NR

GamesRadar (2012)

NR

Time (2012)

1*

EPN (2013)

NR
GamesRadar (2013) NR

Gaming Bolt (2013)

9

PC & Tech Authority (2013)

NR

GamesRadar (2014)

NR
Popular Mechanics (2014) NR

Slant Magazine (2014)

NR

Stuff UK (2014)

6*

Edge (2015)

NR
GamesRadar (2015) NR

IGN (2015)

NR

GamesMaster (2016)

29

Time (2016)

NR

Bandai-Namco – Pac-Man: A Visual History

Ceccarini, Rossella – Pizza and Pizza Chefs in Japan: A Case of Culinary Globalization – Brill – 2011

New York Times – Atari Parts Are Dumped – 1983

Penn, Zak (Director) – Atari: Game Over – Xbox Entertainment Studios – 2014

Wright, Tony – RescueTime Blog – The Tragic Cost of Google Pac-Man – 4.82 million hours

This entry was posted in Features, PC, PS3, PS4, Retro, SPBVGOAT, Top Story, Xbox 360, Xbox One and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
John Scalzo is Warp Zoned's Editor-In-Chief and resident retro gaming expert. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at john AT warpzoned DOT com.

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