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Still Hungry: Iconic 'Pac-Man' arcade game turns 34 years old

Actress Eva Longoria enjoys a game of Pac-Man on an original arcade cabinet
Actress Eva Longoria enjoys a game of Pac-Man on an original arcade cabinet
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When the calendar switched to 1980, more changed than just the decade. Disco died, America elected a former actor as President of the United States and the world was caught up in the grip of the first-ever video game boom. While games such as Space Invaders, Asteroids and Galaxian had ruled the video arcade scene, a cute and hungry cartoon character would leave them in the dust.

That character, still known today as Pac-Man, has now turned 34 years old. Originally installed in a Tokyo, Japan movie theater on May 22, 1980, the Namco classic began life known as Puckman. The name was changed a short time later out of concern that the name could be misread or vandalized to read as a common American expletive.

Pac-Man caught on quick in Japan and caught on even quicker when released in the United States toward the end of 1980. While trade show experts originally felt the game was "too cute" to succeed in an arcade market dominated by space shoot-em-ups, Pac-Man quickly became the most popular arcade video game on the map. Bally / Midway, who held the license to manufacture the arcade game in the U.S., sold 100,000 units of the game, a record that still stands in second place all-time for American arcade machine sales.

The only coin-op game to sell more units than Pac-Man in North America is Ms. Pac-Man, the first sequel in the franchise. It was released in January 1982.

In addition to breaking sales and coin box records, Pac-Man set the bar for merchandise rights for a video game property. Various portable versions of the game were accompanied at retailers by items emblazoned with the Pac-Man logo and characters, from bed sheets and pillows to shirts, hats, shoes, shoelaces, underwear, sleeping bags, cigarette lighters, plates, bowls, lunch boxes and more. A strategy guide for the game hit the New York Times Best Seller List while a hit single named Pac-Man Fever appeared on the Billboard Top Ten. ABC began airing a Saturday morning cartoon series while grocery store shelves began stocking a Pac-Man cereal, Pac-Man vitamins and a series of Pac-Man pasta items from Chef Boyardee.

Eager to follow-up on the success of the game also came a series of sequels that would make even the Call of Duty franchise blush. Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus and Baby Pac-Man were released in 1982 alone, with Jr. Pac-Man, Professor Pac-Man and Pac-Land to appear in 1983 and 1984. Atari released home versions of the original game as well, from the poorly remembered translation for the Atari Video Computer System to more accurate versions released for the Atari 5200 and the Atari series of 8-bit computers.

The legend of Pac-Man's success didn't end in the 1980s. Over the years, at least one Pac-Man title has been released on almost every video game platform in every video game generation. The characters appeared in Disney's hit film Wreck-It Ralph and a modern day cartoon entitled Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures now airs for a new generation of dot gobbling fans.

While the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will no doubt be grabbing all the video game headlines as the E3 event approaches, Pac-Man continues to resonate as a certified all-time video game smash.

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