With the rise of personal technology in the '80s came a whole slew of new icons - you are, of course, familiar with the way that video killed the radio star. "Allegedly." Video was found innocent despite all the DNA evidence, though Radio Star's family did file a civil suit against Video. In the '70s, the premiere superstar of video games was the Pong paddle, but his lack of personality (or recognizable physical traits) made way for a new man: a Pac-Man.
Created by Toru Iwatani for Namco, Pac-Man was intended to appeal to a wider audience than the typical video game fans. The name was originally pronounced "pakku-man," after the onomatopoeia of opening and closing your mouth rapidly in succession. In Japan, the game is called Puck-Man; it was changed in the US because of the threat of vandals scraping away part of the P. The game wasn't an immediate hit in its native country, but its success in America soon translated all over the world, spawning an entire merchandising empire based on this little yellow puck.
There was a pop song [actually an entire album. --ed.], a cartoon and even a board game. Poe has previously reviewed one of the wind-up toys, but when it comes to quality goods, this genre-pioneer is just now seeing some love.
Though you won't find it in stores, clubNAMCO.com has a whole selection of Pac-Man swag. Sure, there are T-shirts and ringtones, but that's not what we care about, is it? What we want is toys (okay, the shotglasses are pretty cool, too). Now, obviously they can't do much in terms of action figures - when your main character is a circle, it's hard to think about sculpt and articulation, right? That's why it makes sense that their most expansive product line seems to be plush characters.
The star of the show is the man himself. Pac-Man is 8" tall, which means he's also 8" in every other direction.
Such is the fate of a living sphere. He's a pleasingly bright yellow and, of course, his mouth is open wide. The mouth is a rich black, as are his eyes.
He's got those classic "Pac-Man eyes," the ones with the little wedge cut out of each side. That always bothered me, as a kid - I remember taking a black marker to a Pac-Man coloring book because I wanted to fix his eyes. Of course, the ink bled through to the other side on every page, pretty much ruining the whole thing. Stupid eyes, makin' me ruin my book.
Pac-Man is constructed from seven panels, with the eyes as flat pieces stitched securely in place. There are some kind of stiff, arcing forms inside the mouth to keep its proper shape. Because there's a separate form for both the top and bottom of the mouth, you can make Pac-Man "eat" - if it was a solid piece, he'd be stuck in one pose. That almost counts as articulation, I suppose.
Have you ever been playing a game of Pac-Man and thought you were about to die, only to pass through the ghost unscathed? It's a programming glitch that (rumor has it) happens when you have your mouth completely closed at the instant you touch the ghost. Since the timing of that is almost impossible to control, it's difficult to make this happen on purpose.
This Pac-Man comes from the "Moving Power Plush" collection, which means he doesn't just sit there like a lump.
There's a battery compartment on the base, and two rotating "feet" that move Pac around (with the addition of two AA batteries, of course). He really does have a cute little gait when his switch is flipped, waddling around in a little circle on an appropriately hard surface - like most moving toys, this isn't one for people who have wall-to-wall carpet.
The moving figures are probably aimed more at collectors than kids - with the exposed plastic housings, that's just asking for trouble if you give it to someone who's more likely to throw it at their sister than play with it properly. The battery compartment closes with a screw, so that's child-safe, at least, but if you want something that won't bruise anyone, you want the regular Plush Collection. And hey, here are some examples of it now!
The creatures that lived in the maze with Pac-Man were originally called "monsters" on the game cabinet, but these days everybody knows them as ghosts. The ghosts actually displayed a primitive form of artificial intelligence, as they each had unique traits and pursued Pac-Man in different ways.
The red ghost, Blinky, would chase you. Once he spotted Pac-Man, he would do his best to follow him throughout the maze, often coordinating his attack with Pinky, who tried to get in front of the player. They'd sandwich you in, leading to a quick demise. The blue ghost, Inky, would usually run away from Pac-Man, while the orange ghost seemed to make the worst possible choice at any opportunity. None of the ghosts moved randomly or had a pre-programmed pattern - they hunted for Pac-Man, and reacted in their own way when (and only when) they saw him.
The plush ghosts are assembled from six panels - five for the body and one for the base - and have two-piece eyes. Yes, unlike Pac-Man, they have black pupils against white eyes. They each stand about 8" tall, and have 10 nubby little "feet." All the plushes are assembled well: the stitching is invisible and the seams are tight. The edges of the eyes have a thick line of embroidery holding them firmly in place, to combat the trend of kids' stuffed toys having floppy eyes after years of hard play.
The stuffing is soft and squeezable, but firm enough for the characters to keep their shape. They actually have a nice "bounce-back" factor: squish one mightily, and it still pops back to normal right away when you let go. That also allows for an unintended but entirely fun mode of play: volleying the thing back and forth, or just bouncing it around by yourself. It's like knocking a balloon into the air and waiting for it to drift back down. Total dormroom fun.
Most of the ghosts were the same from one game to the next, but not our stupid orange friend. In the original Pac-Man, he was Clyde. When Ms. Pac-Man needed some gender balance (so that she wasn't being hunted exclusively by men), Clyde became Sue. In Jr. Pac-Man, with its triple-wide mazes, Sue became Tim. The clubNAMCO site calls him Pokey, which was the character name shown on the games' demo mode and title screens - "character" in this case referring not to his name, but to his personality. So basically the ghosts are Inky, Blinky, Pinky and whatever the heck you feel like. Kwyjibo.
Over the years, players have developed strategies for avoiding the ghosts and "beating" the game - when you reach the 256th level, the board gets screwed up and you can progress no further. That's how you "win." Other than memorizing increasingly complex patterns to lead you to a "perfect" game -
playing all 256 levels and earning all the possible points (3,333,360) without losing a life - here are some general rules to keep in mind: remember the ways the four different ghosts attack, and try not to get between Blinky and Pinky; the ghosts are faster on the straightaway, but Pac-Man can lose them on the corners; Pac-Man doesn't lose any momentum when he goes through the escape tunnels on the side, but the ghosts do; Blinky speeds up after you eat a certain number of pellets; and finally, if you live long enough in any level, the ghosts will enter "scatter mode," in which they break off their pursuit and head for the four corners of the maze before attacking again. This was done because Iwatani-san felt that it would be too stressful for Pac-Man to constantly be hunted, so he programed the ghosts to regroup and attack in waves.
The Pac-Man plushes are a bit expensive - they seem to be perpetually on "sale" at about $20, with a few dollars added if you want one of the electronic walking ones. You can get Pac, all four ghosts, and even a Pooka from Dig Dug. The only things missing are a blue "scaredy" ghost and a four-pack of power pellets.
They do offer smaller 3" plushes and, if you must have something closer to a traditional action figure, Mini-Figures in rubber or plastic.
If they offer all this Pac-Man merchandise, why no gear celebrating the exceedingly more popular Ms. Pac-Man? Because she started life as an illegal bootleg that was purchased by Midway, with the rights eventually ceded to Namco. So while Ms. Pac-Man is generally recognized as a better game, she tends to get short shrift in official sources. Or, hey, maybe they're saving her for later. You could always stick your own red bow on a Pac-Man plush.
Only available from clubNAMCO.com, the Pac-Man plush collection is a bit pricey, but well-made and definitely fun. If you're buying for a kid, your best bet is the non-motorized version, but for collectors, both are nice.
What's your favorite Pac-Man ripoff? Tell us on our message board, the Loafing Lounge.