As one of the oldest characters in video game history, Pac-Man has seen a number of design iterations despite his aesthetic simplicity. The extent to which these versions of Pac-Man have captured his essence varies wildly. In my desire to understand the natural state of Pac-Man, I’ve sifted through countless official renderings of the character to determine which are faithful to his true self and which are mere artists’ interpretations.
8. Litigious Bully Pac-Man
IP law often does more harm than good. For proof of that, look no further than this pugilist Pac-Man based on Don Mastri’s classic artwork. In the early 80s, Midway was very protective of their cash cow Pac-Man license, so they ran this threatening ad in magazines with copy warning violators of swift legal action if they were to, say, make and sell unauthorized mods to the original Pac-Man arcade cabinet. That’s a bit ironic given the origin of Pac-Man’s wife. Years later, IP law is now presumed to be the reason Ms. Pac-Man has largely been memory-holed by Bandai Namco. Seems appropriate that this Pac-Man is wearing what appear to be clown shoes.
7. TV Pac-Man
These guys (from the original 1980s Pac-Man show and the 2010s Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures respectively) are fine, but they lose major points for just being worse versions of the mascot Pac-Man further down this list. The one from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon looks like he could be the father of the Ghostly Adventures incarnation. The latter, who goes by “Pacster,” has needless additions like teeth and irises. His eyes are at least still shaped like little Pac-Men, though. Also, his redesigned sneaks also have his own face on them, but Pac-Man apparel has already been done better by another Namco character.
6. Atari 400/800 Pac-Man
According to the book Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon, Atari staff artist Hiro Kimura was largely unaware of the phenomenon that Pac-Man was when he was asked to make the art for the 2600 port. After playing it for the first time — and with no additional reference materials — he got to work on his interpretation of the character pictured above. (His first draft was deemed “too frightening” by Atari.) I admire his quirky take on Pac-Man. It’s sort of a North American Mega Man box art situation but with cleaner, prettier execution. Ultimately, Atari asked him to take fewer artistic liberties for the final 2600 box art, but when it came time to release it on the Atari 400/800 home computers, Kimura was allowed to revisit this design, and it made it to retail. As much as I like this guy, I must admit he’s a bit of a freak. He’s kind of not a Pac-Man. A Pac-Man should not have limbs (more on that later), let alone a torso. Furthermore, he does not nibble at dots, he inhales them. Nevertheless, I give this Pac-Man the edge over his TV appearances because this is at least a novel look for the character and not a weird, needless downgrade from an existing design.
5. Original North American Cabinet Pac-Man
Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon also provides some insight on this vintage look. Evidently, the folks at Midway were unimpressed by the original Puck Man artwork by Tadashi Yamashita. They thought it was crude and overly-simplistic, so they exercised their right to make their own. I don’t know why they thought this version was some big improvement, but it adorned the sides and marquees of every North American cabinet of the most lucrative arcade game in history. I do think this guy has some charm with his bug eyes, mischievous grin, and rabbit-like legs. Still, he’s just so far from what we conceive of as Pac-Man these days. I don’t think any official art exists of him opening his mouth, which is fundamentally un-Pac. He does have the vague shape of an Among Us crewmate, though. Add that to the long list of games Pac-Man has influenced.
4. Mascot Pac-Man
Despite Midway’s dissatisfaction with the original Puck Man design, that design has endured and with only minor tweaks has since become the mascot for Namco (and later Bandai Namco). I think it’s kind of outrageous that they got away with having a slightly dressed-up smiley face as their corporate mascot, but I gotta admit it’s a cute little design. This is the highest-rated Pac-Man with limbs because of the little circle sockets where his arms and legs connect. I’m convinced he can remove them to achieve the state he’s in in games like Pac ‘N Roll. But sometimes he’s forced to be a mid-tier platforming mascot even though Namco has a better one. Hate it for him.
3. Classic “Pizza” Pac-Man
Pac-Man has an oft-repeated, famous origin story: one day creator Toru Iwatani was at lunch when he removed the first slice from a pizza and noticed the shape of an open mouth in what remained. Inspiration struck, and the character was born. In an interview for the 2001 book Game Maestro Vol. 1: Producers and Directors, Iwatani admitted it may just be a nice-sounding bit of apocrypha but that it had “passed into legend,” and he was happy to consider it canon. That unmistakable 2D shape is now a classic of the medium, and they still trot it back out from time to time for bangers like Pac-Man: Championship Edition and Pac-Man Battle Royale. By returning to his birth, we’ve finally reached a Pac-Man free of his burdensome appendages. He doesn’t need to justify his ability to move with legs nor his ability to eat with teeth. But he also isn’t quite fully-realized. He’s missing just a little bit of depth.
2. Sphere Pac-Man
Perfection. This Pac-Man has made appearances in many of the more modern iterations on the original maze gameplay, starting way back with Pac-Mania in 1987. This utilitarian being has one articulable body part, his jaw. I’m not even sure he blinks. He exists only to consume. He has no lore, no charming wink or thumbs up — he just eats dots and ghosts. That’s the whole essence of the character. Much of the same could be said of his original 2D appearance, but the third dimension and self-portraits for eyes give this Pac-Man just enough personification to actually be a guy. Anything more is an embellishment. He doesn’t need to be a platforming hero or a kart racer or any of the other things so often expected of video game mascots. He just needs to eat.
1. The Pac-Men We Carry In Our Hearts
Pac-Pix is an early DS title that heavily utilizes the once-novel touch screen by taking advantage of the fact that everyone that can use a stylus can draw a Pac-Man. He is effectively a glyph. Just as importantly, its engine also ensures basically anything remotely resembling Pac-Man will animate and come to life, chomping across the screen in the direction its mouth is facing like a pigeon bobbing its head as it walks. It axiomatically requires a mouth and something resembling a curved body, but beyond that, its generous detection algorithm allows all manner of misshapen Pac-Men occupying the collective unconscious to spring to life. Pac-Pix reveals the truth: Pac-Man belongs to the people. His true form exists in infinite varieties in our minds’ eyes.