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Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon – Book Review


As you may or may not be aware, Pac-Man turned 40 years old in 2020. Well, it appears that the Pac-Party had only just got started, as now a new book has appeared on the market to celebrate the life and times of that most unlikely of video game hero. I mean, looking back, who would have foreseen that a simple yellow shape, looking a bit like a pizza with a slice missing, would go on to be one of the most long lived and beloved mascots of the video game world? The question is, is Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon a must buy for the Pac-Maniacs out there, or are you better off ignoring what the authors of the book, Arjan Terpstra and Tim Lapetino, have created, preferring to look stuff up on Wikipedia?

First things first, and there’s no getting away from the fact that this publication is big. I don’t just mean in size, but also in weight! My wife is a lady not much given to expletives, but when this book arrived at the door, I received an irate text asking what I’d had flipping delivered. When I got home, the package was waiting on the coffee table, and boy was she right (I’m sure she would say “as usual” at this point). 

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Opening the package, Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon is seen in all its glory, and the packaging of the book is a thing of beauty. Contained in a representation of Pac-Man’s iconic yellow face is a box, lovingly printed with scenes from the game. And then contained in the box is not only the book, but some extras as well. Strangely, I’ll cover these extras first: there is a slim hard backed book, red in colour with ghost eyes on it, making it look like Blinky. Inside this volume is not only a Pac-Man coin, a token with an image of one of the ghosts on, but also a 7-inch vinyl record. The record is an official re-release of Pac-Man Fever by Buckner and Garcia, and on the B-side is the same thing, with commentary by Jerry Buckner. On the back of the sleeve are the lyrics from the song, and the record is pressed from bright yellow vinyl, a nice little nod to the source material. Now, sadly, I don’t have a record player so I can’t tell you what it actually sounds like, but a brief search on the YouTube will let you see and hear what it is all about. If you haven’t heard it, you’re not missing much, as it is very much of its time, but it’s still a cracking addition. 

Now onto the meat of the package – 335 pages of Pac-Man trivia and history awaits inside the beautifully decorated hard back covers of the book. 

Birth of an Icon details every part of Pac-Man’s history, from his early origins, all the way up to his conquering of America and the West in general. For instance, did you know that the way that Pac-Man eats power pills in order to turn the tables on the ghosts  was originally copied from Popeye, who’s eating of spinach made him able to beat his nemesis Bluto? I have to be honest, even doing my research for the 40th anniversary article didn’t flag this up to me, so every days a school day and all that!

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Also, the ghosts themselves, over here in the West were called Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde had completely different names in Japan. Their nicknames in the land of the rising sun were Akabei (Red Guy), Pinky, Aosuke (Blue Guy) and Guzuta (Dawdling, slow, unsettled guy). It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue that last one, does it? And just one more fact from my reading of the book: the iconic “waka waka” noise that Pac-Man makes is based on one of the ideas that game designer Toru Iwatani based his game on, which is a Japanese phrase for gulping food down quickly, “paku paku taberu”. The character was called Pakkuman to begin with, then Puck-Man, and finally Pac-Man when it was discovered that naughty vandals in America could make the name of the original game very rude indeed by scratching out part of the first letter! And waka waka waka? It is apparently very similar to the sound of “paku-paku-paku” when spoken aloud. 

This book is clearly a labour of love for the two authors, and has a lot of content included in its pages. There are pictures from the early days of Pac-Man in the arcade, there are snapshots of even the original code that the game was written with, and the book as a whole contains everything that you could ever want to know about Pac-Man. It even details the reason behind the infamous level-256 glitch – a glitch which was built on in Pac-Man 256 – and why it happens. 

In fact, this is a book which will allow you to learn more about Pac-Man than you’ll think possible, and it is presented in an interesting way. If you have the slightest interest in the game industry and where the characters in it came from, this book is a great place to start. 

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Are there any downsides? Well, there’s only one really, and that is that the edition with the record and all included is a limited edition, with only 2000 copies being printed in the world. And as we all know, making something limited edition comes at a premium. There’s no easy way to say this: it costs $100. That is a lot for a book, if I’m honest. However, the content in the pages is very interesting, so I shall leave the decision as to whether that is worth it, down to you, dear reader!

Huge thanks to Cook and Becker for sending us the Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon book for review. If you wish to grab it for yourself, head over there – tell them we sent you. 

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