Pac-Man – Birth of an Icon details the meteoric rise of Namco’s groundbreaking arcade game in glorious, vivid detail.
My first Pac-Man experience was with the 1983 ZX Spectrum game, Gnasher. It was a low-budget maze game that took an age to load, played poorly, and, well, wasn’t actually Pac-Man.
Gnasher was one of many many many shameless Pac-Man clones that emerged in the wake of Namco’s 1980 arcade classic. To be copied so often, as was the case with Pac-Man, is a sure sign of its importance and quality.
Few video games have had Pac-Man‘s cultural impact. It was a lightning strike of design, engineering, character, and, most importantly, fun. It was a game worth copying by budget UK software houses because it was – and still is – so damned good.
The term icon is often overused, but Pac-Man is deserving of the word. The little yellow fellow sits alongside Madonna, the Walkman, and Jane Fonda as one of the defining images of the 1980s. And this status helps elevate Pac-Man – Birth of an Icon above many other video game histories.
The sumptuous visuals will immediately snare your attention. It’s exquisitely laid out – as you’d expect from publisher Cook and Becker – with carefully selected examples of in-game assets, iconography, design sketches, product packaging, and photography. Visually, the book is a masterpiece, but it’s also much more than that.
My bookshelf has numerous examples of well-made, large-format game books – from The Art of Mass Effect and Hyrule Historia to Kirby Art & Style and Mega Man: Complete Works – but none come close to this reassuringly heavy tome.
Pac-Man – Birth of an Icon rises above similar books by giving just as much attention to its written content as its artwork. Authors Arjan Terpstra and Tim Lapetino have assembled a detailed narrative that begins with Namco’s pivot from pinball machines to arcade games and then charts the story of Pac-Man from its inception to its cultural takeover.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, but the engaging and informative text provides a fascinating insight into the period. Early chapters paint vivid portraits of several industry pioneers, including creator Toru Iwatani, who wanted Pac-Man to attract a more diverse audience, and artist Tadashi Yamashita, whose arcade cabinet illustrations gave personality to simple on-screen sprites.
Later chapters cover Pac-Man‘s cultural importance, both as a game and a mascot for the industry. Engrossing tales of opportunity and opportunism, detailing how the franchise was advertised, licensed, and ported to other systems.
Along the way, the book explores the negotiations between Namco and US licensor Midway – which resulted in the loss of the original Puck-Man name, for fear of sweary vandalism – and the efforts of a group of MIT students whose arcade game expansion kit led to the creation of Ms. Pac-Man. It’s an evocative examination of an era in which the manufacturers of mechanical games joined the arcade gold rush in the hope of making the next big thing.
It’s compelling from start to finish, and a lack of courtroom drama doesn’t prevent the book from being equal to David Sheff’s acclaimed Game Over! or Dan Ackerman’s The Tetris Effect. As a paperback, it would be a page-turner. That it comes so lavishly illustrated takes it to another level.
In 2021, Pac-Man remains an important character. The classics of the franchise are available across multiple platforms, a new compilation is on the way, and he can be found pumping Power Pellets in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
But, underpinning the spin-offs, guest appearances, board games, pasta sauces – and knock-offs like Gnasher – is a game. A great game. One of the best games ever designed.
This book dissects and celebrates the ingenuity, imagination, and business judgment that came together to create a hit, a global phenomenon, and an icon. It’s beautiful to hold, thoroughly researched, and comfortably one of the best books about video game history I have ever read.
Book: Pac-Man – Birth of an Icon
Authors: Arjan Terpstra and Tim Lapetino
Publisher: Cook and Becker (review copy provided by the publisher)
Release Date: Out Now