Bandai Namco’s second interview, following Namco veteran employee Sho Osugi, was Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, who would also later act as producer for other classic games like Ridge Racer, Time Crisis, and more.
Namco’s Foray into Video Games
Firstly, we’d like to hear about Namco’s shift from electro-mechanical games to video games. Namco bought Atari Japan, and began its journey into video games in 1974. Back then, video game arcades weren’t a thing, and games were things to be played on department store rooftops and bowling alleys.
Toru Iwatani, game producer: “Back then, the electro-mechanical game maker Namco had just bought Atari Japan, and the staff laid their first eyes on ‘video games’. When I joined in 1977, Namco was already importing games from America and selling them, as well as making them available to play at our store.
After entering Namco, what sort of work did you do on video games?
Iwatani: “Of course, back then the instructions of Atari games would be in English, and we had to translate them into Japanese, and I was mainly in charge of that. The senpais familiar with electro-mechanical games didn’t know video games well, so young me was put in charge of playing Atari’s sample games, understanding the contents, and writing the instructions.”
When you first played Atari’s video games, what did you feel?
Iwatani: “I was surprised at how amazing Atari’s ideas were as a video game maker. Video games with new concepts were coming in all the time, and internally we on the staff thought, “We want to make them too!”
So apart from Iwatani-san, a lot of other staff felt the appeal of video games.
Iwatani: “Right. Unlike electro-mechanical games, you could freely redraw the screen in video games. For electro-mechanical games, they were limited mechanically into moving how they were meant to. On the other hand, the video game world could continue to change as long as data was available. I’d say a lot of people went, “It’s the age of video games!” when seeing Atari’s games. So we decided we’d make games too, got together the development equipment, and made Namco’s first internally developed video game, Gee Bee.”
So the task of the company’s first video game fell upon the new staff’s shoulders. Would you say you challenged yourself with the game, rather than feel the pressure?
Iwatani: “That’s right. I thought, “Like heck we’re losing to Atari!” However, while Gee Bee did good numbers, it was a very hard game, and sales soon dropped. However, the lesson learned from making it too hard ended up playing a part in making Pac-Man.”
A list of dots showing where test players would die in Pac-Man’s maze.
Pac-Man and the Mystery of Its Popularity In The USA
The Pac-Man you created, Iwatani-san, is so beloved worldwide that it’s known as ‘the Mickey Mouse of the ‘80s’. (laughs)
Iwatani: “Before Pac-Man was produced in the US, we came to a game exhibition to show off our Japanese-made Pac-Man game. I would be standing next to the player, trying to explain how to play in broken English, and they would say to me, “I have no idea what you’re saying.” (laughs)”
So something like that happened… (laughs)
Iwatani: “In fact, rather than listening to me, they would play better when I stayed silent. That’s why I’m grateful we made it so you could easily tell how to play. When the players looked at the game, they had to be able to tell what they could and couldn’t do from the first look.”
It’s true that Pac-Man is a game distilled into its most concise form. The game was a hit in Japan, but was even bigger in the US. How would you explain this phenomenon?
Iwatani: “Firstly, having the game be a decent hit in Japan was exactly as planned. When we did location testing, we’d see women playing with smiles on their faces, and we’d realize we’d hit our target audience. Originally, the game was made with Japanese women and couples in mind. On the other hand, I didn’t imagine the game would do so well in America. It wasn’t that thrilling or exciting, and had a soft, comical look to it. I thought it wouldn’t leave an impact in America, and having it do that well was completely unexpected.”
So you have no idea why it became such a hit in the US?
Iwatani: “Well one thing I can say is, it became a lot of people’s ‘First Video Game’. For a lot of people, when they think of the first game they played, in Japan it would be Space Invaders. Even among those who didn’t game, there was a recognition that ‘Video games = Space Invaders’. I’d say that beginning with the US, as well as other countries afterwards, Pac-Man played that role.”
Why did Pac-Man play that role overseas?
Iwatani: “Probably because it had a low barrier of entry. The controls were simple. Also, as I mentioned earlier, you could describe the entire game in one sentence. I believe that was important.”
And to place that much importance on making the game easy to understand – instead than being something learned from Atari games, was that something you thought of yourself?
Iwatani: “That’s right. Because Gee Bee was so hard that it failed, I made it so newcomers, even young girls or other folk, would be able to become engaged immediately.”
You can read the full interview here.