22 May 1980: Pac-Man hits the arcades

Children playing Pac-Man, 1982 © Getty images
Pac-Man soon turned into a craze

In the late 1970s the growing popularity of video gaming saw arcades stuffed with coin-operated machines springing up across the globe. Namco’s Pac-Man was one of the most popular and successful games of the era. It had a design inspired by both the shape of a pizza missing a slice and the Japanese symbol for mouth and was developed by Toru Iwatani, a games designer at the Japanese company Namco.

In May 1980 it was released in Japan as Puck Man. It was relatively unsuccessful in its home market. But when Midway Games released an American version (retitled Pac-Man to stop people defacing the machine) in October 1980, it proved a massive hit. Its addictively simple design focused on a yellow character that ate dots and tried to avoid four ghosts (nicknamed “Clyde”, “Inky”, “Blinky” and “Pinky”).

Within 18 months Midway had sold 350,000 cabinets at around $2,400 each ($6,900 at today’s prices). It was also lucrative for the arcades who bought it – the machines took an estimated $2.5bn in total revenue in their first decade, which would have been even higher had it not been for the huge number of clone and outright fake machines.

One estimate suggests that as many counterfeit machines were sold as legitimate ones. As video gaming evolved, versions of Pac-Man for home consoles sold millions of copies. There was even a hit single, Pac-Man Fever, inspired by the craze.

In 2010 a “Google Doodle” with a playable version of Pac-Man caused an estimated $120m drop in global productivity as a result of time wasted. However, as an employee, Iwatani didn’t benefit directly from his hit – although he eventually became a senior Namco executive.