This week, Oreo cookies announced a new tie-in with arcade legend Pac-Man. Fans can use their phones to scan any of the six different Pac-Man themed biscuits in the packet which gives them access to a neat mobile version of the classic maze game – each cookie provides a different maze layout. In the interests of research, I acquired three packets, and while the game is pretty good, it was tough to get my phone to recognise the cookie and it sometimes took so long I’d already eaten it.
Anyway, the offer is a sign of how immensely popular Pac-Man remains, more than 40 years after his debut. At the time of the game’s launch, the circular hero was almost unique, a lovable character in an industry dominated by spaceships, cars and guns. Its creator, Toru Iwatani, has said he wanted to make a game for everyone, so he used a simple protagonist with a name resembling the Japanese phrase “paku-paku”, a term for eating, while the sound design was ridiculously pleasing with its waka-waka noise and spiralling “game over” ditty. His eye-catching yellow colouring also recalled the Smiley character devised by graphic designer Harvey Ball – a symbol of the hippy era – and Iwatani even made his ghost characters cute rather than scary.
These factors combined beautifully to make a game and a character that lodged themselves in the collective consciousness and wouldn’t let go. It was obvious when the game started to make $8m a week in the US alone that tie-in merchandise would follow – and it wasn’t long before you could buy Pac-Man T-shirts, books, bedspreads and jewellery.
But at the heart of Pac-Man licensing there has always been one product: food. The US got in early, with 1980 seeing the launch of a Pac-Man bubblegum, courtesy of candy company Fleer. By 1982 there were Pac-Man ice lollies and a legendary Pac-Man breakfast cereal from General Mills, a mixture of crunchy corn balls and ghost-shaped marshmallows. “Chomp chomp, delicious,” went the catchy TV commercial. A year later came, Chef Boyardee’s Pac-Man pasta in three different flavours including the frankly disturbing “golden chicken”. Meanwhile, Australia got Pac-Man Ghost Muncher cheese snacks, which at least looked vaguely edible. Naturally, in Japan, there is Pac-Man sake.
Some tie-ins have made more sense. In 2018, Red Bull ran a Pac-Man promotion, which clearly made a connection between the drink and the character’s manic energy. There were also brilliant Pac-Man gumball machines in the 1980s that played on the whole pill gobbling element, to seductive effect. Google Pac-Man cakes or Pac-Man bento box lunches and you will discover a wealth of culinary creativity, in which the beloved character is represented by everything from marzipan shapes to shrimp dumplings, the latter of which remains a signature dish at London’s RedFarm restaurant.
Why do we want to eat Pac-Man? Perhaps it’s the fact that the character is effectively a giant mouth, endlessly chomping through power pills – it’s the ultimate act of meta-cultural consumption. Perhaps its that he resembles a pizza with a slice missing, another supposed influence behind Iwatani’s design. Recently Pizza Hut highlighted this connection by launching a limited edition Pac-Man pizza box that let you play an augmented reality version of the game.
In this era of gigantic open-world adventure games, which take 10 years and many millions of dollars to make, it is interesting and perhaps even beguiling that Pac-Man remains instantly recognisable to people who weren’t born when PlayStation classic Pac-Man World was released in 1999 let alone the arcade original. The adoption of the smiling yellow circle face into the international emoji lexicon has perhaps helped to keep the central image alive, but much more than that, it’s the stark visual simplicity of Iwatani’s design, it’s the sheer style and attention to detail, and, ultimately, it’s the universal nature of the concept: eat, move, avoid supernatural threats at all costs.