A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Pac-Man: coming (back) soon to a theater near you

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., June 15, 16 or 16

Next month, a new motion picture – “Pixels” – will bring back an iconic character once beloved by arcade-game customers for years: Pac-Man.

And he’s “grown teeth.”

Last month, the classic game celebrated its 35th anniversary, and the years since have seen such an explosion of blood-splattering video games it’s almost appropriate that Packy is returning as a villain of sorts.

Directed by Chris Columbus, “Pixels” stars Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox and Jane Krakowski in a sort of light-hearted cross between “Independence Day” and “Ghostbusters.”

As a result of a 1980s NASA probe sent into space in an attempt to establish peaceful relations with any extraterrestrials that might receive the message’s slice of life about Earth, aliens misinterpret some of its imagery as an offensive declaration of war and retaliate, attacking by using Earth’s old video games as models for their assaults, including Pac-Man.

The U.S. President (James) calls on an old buddy, a former video-game champion (Sandler) to lead a team to deal with the invasion, and he recruits a former arcade arch-rival (Dinklage, whose character is based on real-life Billy Mitchell, who in 1999 achieved the first perfect Pac-Man game – surviving all 256 levels for a 3,333,360-point score).

Silliness ensues – and some goofy violence and property damage, which is odd considering Pac-Man’s origin and popularity.

A U.S. variation of a Japanese video game called Puck-Man, Pac-Man became a classic by stressing nonviolent action, humor and the “personality” of its main character, the yellow, dot-gobbling circle.

The original Puck-Man was developed by Toru Iwatani for the Japanese company Namco and released in Japan in 1979. Licensed for U.S. distribution by Bally’s Midway division, Pac-Man was released here on May 22, 1980, and quickly became popular.

In the game, Pac-Man has an insatiable hunger for dots and a fear of ghosts, the onscreen enemies Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde. Players controlled Pac-Man, navigating a maze while munching dots and avoiding ghosts. Pac-Man could also swallow “power pills” – which would temporarily enable him to eat the ghosts – and “fruits” were worth bonus points. When all the dots and power pills were consumed, players advanced to more difficult levels. When Pac-Man was introduced, most other arcade games involved either killing enemies or destroying objects with weapons – often in outer space. Pac-Man was different – essentially nonviolent. (Even when the title character ate a ghost, the ghost was not destroyed. Instead, its eyes would float back home, where it would then re-grow its body.)

By pioneering this new video-game concept, Pac-Man was able to appeal to both women and men, growing the arcade-game market. It sold more than 350,000 arcade units, dethroning leading games of the era, such as Space Invaders and Asteroids. It was able to endure through an industry slump in the middle of the decade. As the best-known arcade game, Pac-Man was first exported to many other video-game platforms, including home game consoles, handheld games, and personal computers. Pac-Man also spawned sequels, such as Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus, and Baby Pac­Man. (Although most weren’t successful, Ms. Pac-Man achieved a level of success and cultural recognition worthy of the original.)

Further, in a triumph of merchandising, the property expanded to include dozens of licensed spin-off, non­ video games. In addition to board, card and video games, licensed Pac-Man products included toys,
clothes, chalkboards, pillows, erasers, bubble pipes, costumes, shower curtains, pens, jewelry, lunchboxes, bumper stickers and books. The game also inspired a 1982 hit single (Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever”) and a Hanna-Barbera cartoon show, starring Marty Ingels as Pac-Man, which ran on ABC-TV from 1982 to 1984.

The popularity of the Pac-Man character also proved decisive in the video-game industry. Companies realiazed that iconic franchise characters – such as Donkey Kong, Mario brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog – were essential, not only for merchandising but also to drive sales of new games and systems.

But today – a time when violence in video games such as Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat is awfully gruesome – Pac-Man’s using humor and minimizing violence seems not just quaint, but charming – even if somewhat sensible.

Hopefully, “Pixels” will have more laughs than casualties.

[PICTURED: Top, left to right, are "Pixels" stars Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage; above, Marty Ingels starred as Pac-Man in the 1980s.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.