Toru Iwatani1 designed the seminal arcade game Pac-Man for Namco Ltd. in 1980, in the process creating the first recognisable videogame character (or perhaps recognisable game protagonist would be more accurate, the earlier Space Invaders enemies are still widely recognised today). Pac-Man went on to become the best-selling arcade machine of all time, securing Namco's position as a major player in videogames, and influencing all kinds of games that followed.

Toru Iwatani was born on January 25, 1955 in Tokyo. His knowledge in the field of electronics and computer science was completely self-taught. In 1977 he joined amusement manufacturer Namco Limited, whose main product lines at the time were projection-based amusement rides and light gun shooting galleries. Iwatani had expected that his job would involve working on pinball machines,2 and was initially disappointed that he would instead have to work on these strange, clinical 'video-games' instead. By way of compromise, Gee Bee (1978) was a heavily pinball-inspired paddle game, as were his next two designs (presumably developed by modifying Gee Bee), Bomb Bee and Cutie Q (both 1979).

But bat-and-ball games were already on the way out, and Taito's introduction of Space Invaders in 1979 began an industry-wide shift towards shoot-'em-up games (indeed, Namco were quick to stake their claim in this territory with the Galaxian/Galaga series). Observing that there was too little variety to prevent this schmup-craze from eventually going the same way as the paddle games, Iwatani wanted to try to take his next game in another direction. He wanted to make a game that did not focus on conflict, and would be appealing to male and female audiences. The underlying theme he chose for his new game was 'eating' and the result was Puckman, later to be renamed Pac-Man.

As videogame legend has it, Iwatani took his inspiration for the shape of the Pac-Man character from seeing a pizza with a slice missing.3 Pac-Man's form was dictated by punitative hardware limitations, which Iwatani used to his advantage in a move that was either a great insight or a marvelously lucky fluke: Pac-Man does not represent a physical, real-world being, he represents his primary function (eating). This leap to iconic representation spread to every aspect of the game's interface, putting in place some representation conventions and commonly understood gameplay rules that would be reiterated in countless games right up to the present day (for instance the concept of the power-up). The other advantage, possibly less important in the context of the largely narrative-free Pac-Man game, was that the minimalist representation allowed the player to 'fill in the gaps', superimposing an imaginary persona on a visual entity as yet too crudely represented to convey such characteristics explicitly.

"I designed Pac-Man to be the simplest character possible, without any features such as eyes or limbs. Rather than defining the image of Pac-Man for the player, I wanted to leave that to each player's imagination."4

(Other key games that use this approach include Sensible Soccer, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Half-Life. An example of such a system breaking down can be seen in the progressive installments of the Toejam & Earl series, where each title leaves less characterisation to the imagination. Ironically, even Pac-Man himself gradually acquired eyes, limbs and clothes.)

The project took a five-man team (a designer, programmer, hardware engineer, composer and a cabinet designer/artist) 17 months to complete- a project of unprecedented scale at the time. (Namco hadn't yet struck upon the method of waiting for Sega to develop something at enormous expense and then copying it with better graphics. TWAJS)

Iwatani followed up the success of Pac-Man with the long progression of sequels and enhancements. One notable title was 1984's Pac-Land, a rudimentary scrolling platform game with a distinctive theme tune, which was the direct inspiration for Shigeru Miyamoto's Super Mario Bros. Of all his designs, Iwatani's favourite is a 1983 game called Libble Rabble, which he worked on immediately after Pac-Man.

Iwatani is still employed by Namco although now has moved to an advisory role.

1. Incorrectly refered to as 'Moru Iwatani' with alarming regularity.

2. A later Pac-Man game, the rare oddity Baby Pac-Man, actually merged an implementation of Pac-Man with a physical pinball table, but was designed by other hands.

3. "Well, it's half true. In Japanese the character for mouth (kuchi) is a square shape. It's not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out." - Programmers at Work, Susan Lammers (1986)

4. Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, Steven Poole (2000)


The books mentioned above, EDGE and Retrogamer magazines.

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