This week, Oreo cookies revealed a new partnership with the iconic game Pac-Man. Users can scan any of the six Pac-Man themed cookies in the package with their phone to play a mobile version of the classic maze game. Each cookie offers a unique maze design. For research purposes, I purchased three packages. While the game is enjoyable, it was a challenge to get my phone to recognize the cookie. At times, it took too long and I had already consumed it.
The offer demonstrates the ongoing popularity of Pac-Man, even after more than four decades since its debut. When the game was first released, its circular protagonist stood out in an industry dominated by spaceships, cars, and guns. Creator Toru Iwatani aimed to create a game for everyone, choosing a simple character with a name that sounded like the Japanese phrase “paku-paku”, meaning “eating”. The game’s sound design was also memorable, with its satisfying “waka-waka” noise and catchy “game over” tune. The character’s bright yellow color was inspired by the Smiley face created by graphic designer Harvey Ball, a symbol of the hippie era. Iwatani even made the ghost characters cute instead of scary.
The perfect combination of these elements resulted in a game and a character that became ingrained in the minds of many and remained popular. As the game started to earn $8 million per week in the US, it was inevitable that merchandise related to it would be created. Soon enough, Pac-Man T-shirts, books, bedspreads, and jewelry were available for purchase.
Pac-Man licensing has always revolved around one main product: food. In the US, this trend started in 1980 with the release of Pac-Man bubblegum by candy company Fleer. As the years went on, there were more food products featuring Pac-Man, such as ice lollies and a breakfast cereal from General Mills that included crunchy corn balls and ghost-shaped marshmallows. One popular TV commercial for the cereal boasted “Chomp chomp, delicious!” In 1983, Chef Boyardee released Pac-Man pasta in three flavors, including the bizarre “golden chicken” option. In Australia, Pac-Man Ghost Muncher cheese snacks were available, which at least looked somewhat edible. And of course, in Japan, there is Pac-Man sake.
Certain partnerships have been more logical. In 2018, Red Bull implemented a promotional campaign centered around Pac-Man, effectively linking the beverage to the frantic energy of the character. Additionally, during the 1980s, there were clever Pac-Man gumball machines that capitalized on the game’s concept of consuming pills, resulting in an alluring appeal. A quick search for Pac-Man themed cakes or bento box lunches will reveal a plethora of inventive culinary creations, ranging from marzipan figures to shrimp dumplings. The latter remains a signature dish at RedFarm restaurant in London.
What is the appeal of consuming Pac-Man? Maybe it’s because the character is essentially a large mouth, continuously devouring power pills – it’s the ultimate example of meta-cultural consumption. Or perhaps it’s because he resembles a pizza with a slice taken out, as some believe this to be an inspiration for Iwatani’s creation. Pizza Hut recently emphasized this association by releasing a special Pac-Man pizza box that allowed customers to play an augmented reality version of the game.
In today’s age of large-scale open-world adventure games, which require a decade and millions of dollars to create, it is intriguing that Pac-Man remains easily recognizable to individuals who were not yet born when the popular PlayStation game Pac-Man World was released in 1999, let alone the original arcade version. The incorporation of the iconic yellow circle with a smiling face into the global emoji repertoire may have contributed to the continued popularity of the image. However, it is primarily the striking visual simplicity of Iwatani’s design, meticulous attention to detail, and universal concept of eating, moving, and evading supernatural dangers that has kept Pac-Man relevant.