Pac-Man Review: Crowning a Cultural Touchstone

Animation showing a game of the arcade version of Pac-Man (1980) with the characters as neon outlines.

It would be easy for me to sit here and praise Pac-Man to the skies for its impact on the gaming industry, or to rave about a phenomenon that birthed one of the world's most recognizable video game characters.  But my reverence for it has nothing to do with either one of those things.  What Pac-Man is, more than anything else, is a brilliant example of game design.

Much like Space Invaders before it, Pac-Man keeps you coming back.  Every time you weave through the maze corridors, only to fall victim to a roving ghost, it taunts you with an escape route that was only just out of grasp.  One decision made differently is that all that it would have taken to make it to that next power pellet or clear that next level, like some gaming holy grail that sits forever on the horizon.

However, unlike Space Invaders, taking that next step towards success is less a matter of physical skill than it is knowing the game, and learning to perceive it more completely.  It's true that the ghost movements are too fast to predict deductively, but they are consistent enough that they form recognizable patterns.  When you die, you usually see what you should have done and why you should have done it; you just didn't see it quickly enough.  But next time... next time, you'll know what to do.

And therein lies the crux of its success.  The human mind is not like a computer.  We aren't optimized to process and recall huge quantities of information in the blink of an eye; rather, our strength lies in recognizing patterns that we've seen before, and then responding based on what happened the last time we encountered them.  When top chess players were able to beat computers that calculated hundreds of millions of moves per second, they weren't doing more calculations, they were just responding to patterns in the game pieces.  Pac-Man works in essentially the same way.  A great player isn't computing the rules of ghost movement at every turn, they just recognize that a particular ghost configuration resembles one they had seen in past plays of the game, and then they respond accordingly.

So it's appropriate that the aspect of the game that holds the most fascination for modern game developers is the ghost AI.  With a relatively simple set of deterministic algorithms, the designers of Pac-Man created a well-balanced challenge that never seems to get old, even after hundreds of games.  What's more, as you progress through the levels and the game speeds up, the character movements take on a sort of hypnotic quality, like spirits forever dancing on some alternate plane.

Animation showing a polar projection of a game of the arcade version of Pac-Man (1980), as if being played on the inside surface of a cylinder.

Some have criticized Pac-Man for its lack of randomization; that is, the beginning of each level is entirely deterministic until the ghosts enter frightened mode, so players can memorize fixed patterns to gobble up the majority of the pellets right off the bat.  However, in my view, this is a perfectly valid design choice.  It makes the game more puzzle-like, something to be unraveled through experience.  It could be said of adventure games that they're much easier if you have a walkthrough, but that would be missing the entire point of the adventure game experience.

And unlike adventure games, Pac-Man remains fun even after you know patterns.  I had a blast both figuring out and using this pattern, which worked on levels ~6-15:

Animation showing Pac-Man tracing out a route in the classic arcade game.

Another brilliant thing about Pac-Man is just how claustrophobic it is.  When I talk to random people on the bus or airplane about the game, of those who don't like it, the most common complaint I hear is that it makes them anxious.  It's easy to see why -- beneath the cartoonish exterior, what you really have here is a frantic character trapped in a maze and being pursued at high speed by four relentless enemies.  Hardly a day at the park.

But I've found from experience that with great art, the thing that its detractors most abhor is often the very thing that makes it great.  There's no exit to this maze, and the only way to finish the game is to go so far that you break it.  I doubt that many gamers spend time pondering the existential implications of this, but it reflects us nonetheless.  Pick up a joystick close the doors, you may never find your way out.


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