The Sordid History of Ms. Pac-Man by. Josh Elyea
It’s late, and I’ve had a long day. The pint of beer on the table in front of me is cold, inviting. This isn’t the type of joint you could’ve ever had a smoke in, but damn if I don’t feel like I need one right now.
You can read my mood, which is why I’m annoyed by the boisterous behaviour of the frat boys abusing Ms. Pac-Man to my left:
“Dude, she’s a total hussy.”
“Nah man, you got it all wrong. Ms. Pac-Man is a classy lady.”
“She’s a whore, dude. And a total Pac-Man rip-off.”
[Pause, for effect].
“Look, she swallows!’
Laughter ensues. It’s callous talk, and while I don’t approve, I can sort of see where the inspiration for this sort of dialogue emanates from. A nearby poster for the game, an old one from the 1980’s, shows the game’s protagonist clad in heels, rouged cheeks and a smearing of red lipstick. Text across the top reads “the new femme fatale of the game world”.
Far be it from me to give the neckbeards in the popped collars any real credence, but it certainly seems plausible that Ms. Pac-Man was indeed a sexed-up version of an old favourite, meant to adhere to that age-old platitude that sex sells.
But was it really that simple, that cheap? Is Ms. Pac-Man really a copy of the original Pac-Man console, or is there more to her story? Was she just a quick knockoff, dragged to the forefront of arcade culture to sell consoles to the female populace, or perhaps boost sales in a slow quarter?
Despite the dubious source of my inspiration, I had to do a little digging. I had to know more about the gaming world’s original femme fatale…
As history would have it, there is more to Ms. Pac-Man’s story. Plenty more, in fact. And to get this out of the way early, Ms. Pac-Man doesn’t just outdo her male counterpart. She destroys him, by almost every observable metric.
Originally introduced in February of 1982, several years after the release of the original Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man differs from her predecessor in a myriad of ways, not all of them sexy.
Significant changes in gameplay, level design and computer intelligence have cemented Ms. Pac-Man’s place in gaming history, and let me tell you, folks, she sure as shit isn’t playing second fiddle to our boy Pac. In fact, critical consensus surrounding both games suggests that while the original Pac-Man was indeed a pioneer and a crucial game in the proliferation of arcade consoles in the early 1980s, Ms. Pac-Man was the better game, and her popularity has only grown throughout the years.
I can’t help but notice that in this very bar, there’s no Pac-Man machine kicking around. Who needs him, when you’ve got the Ms.?
And upon digging deeper, I found that the introduction of Ms. Pac-Man wasn’t a shallow attempt to get more girls into video games. Why? Because a significant portion of Pac-Man players in 1982 were already women. That’s right, according to contemporaneous assessments, some 60% of people playing Pac-Man in the early 1980s were women.
Ms. Pac-Man would go on to become the best selling arcade game of 1982, with over 100,000 units shipped that year alone. But her success wasn’t just commercial; Ms. PacMan was named Video Game of the Year at the Arcade Awards in 1983, and the critical acclaim which accompanied Ms. Pac-Man on release continues to this day. In 2016, our girl ranked #5 on Time Magazine’s 50 Best Video Games of All Time list, and Game Informer placed her 10th on their “Top 200 Games of All Time”, with a review stating “it trumped [the original Pac-Man] in nearly every way”.
In case you haven’t heard, the future is female.
Upon closer look, I found that in the arena of pellet-eating, ghost avoiding game protagonists, it’s been that way since 1982.