Looking Pac

Frank Cifaldi dug up the most amazing thing today: Photos of Toru Iwatani’s Pac-Man concept sketches, including map and monster pattern layouts (above) and pixel designs for the little yellow guy himself. I’ve spent most of the day boggling at the fact that this article went practically unnoticed by most people; I guess it didn’t have enough booth babes and 3DS tethergirls? So it goes, I suppose.

This is the most fascinating videogame thing I’ve seen since… hmm, I guess since that Iwata Asks where Shigeru Miyamoto showed off similar graph paper sketches of the original Legend of Zelda. This is literally a medium’s blueprints, a look at the construction of one of gaming’s most important and iconic creations. It’s especially fascinating in a case like this — Pac-Man is such an incredibly simple game, so all the conceptual changes it underwent are an insightful look into how the process of game design got its start. The early maze layout above is interesting for the way it artfully integrates the score display into the play area… but at the same time, the maze itself looks kind of painful to play. The little boxed in areas on either side are especially terrible, seemingly existing for the sole purpose of killing players. No thanks, Mr. Puck-Man, sir.

You have to wonder how many iterations the game’s layouts underwent through the months before its final build. There were tons of Pac-Man inspired maze games back in the early ’80s, and none that I’ve ever played were half as enjoyable as the real thing. One kind of assumes Iwatani and his associates burned through stacks of graphic paper, working and reworking the maze layouts until they were perfect.

Are most people just not interested in this? I wonder. Maybe it’s because I’m all old and stuff. Seeing the prototype outlines for a game that was such a cultural force when I was a very impressionable young man is like seeing the raw clay of my childhood. It’s kind of amazing! I would kill to dig through those reams of graph paper.

Yes, kill. I told you the violence of modern videogames is a bad thing, but did you listen?

28 thoughts on “Looking Pac

  1. That’s quite an amazing picture, but the thing that strikes me is that there are no power pellets on the maze. It makes you wonder when other integral concepts were introduced in development.

  2. At first, the only major difference from the final product that struck me was the lack of the tunnel that takes you to the opposite edge of the screen. But then I looked up a Pac-Man screenshot and compared, and it’s amazing how refined the final product is—the key seeming to be giving the player more paths to choose, more frequently. And yes, no dead ends.

    The pixel diagrams just remind me that Pac-Man’s mouth isn’t actually a perfect “pizza slice” cut out of a circle, which has always become distractingly obvious when people have blown the sprite up to higher resolutions.

    All in all, though, this is pretty fascinating. I wish more raw development materials from the 2D era like this and the Zelda layouts would be made available for all to see and analyze.

  3. I love stuff like this, with possible game designer bias just because holy cow, the older a game is, the more thought and planning was put into the most incidental details.

    What’s depressing is that this no longer being the case isn’t because all the foundational work is already out there to build off, it’s just that craft has kinda been completely devalued by the industry.

  4. dude, i’d pay for a coffee table book which was just graph paper design documents of early 8 bit games.

    history is awesome.

  5. Just for kicks, someone should make a Pacman hack that uses that original maze layout. That’d be super-cool.

  6. There were tons of Pac-Man inspired maze games back in the early ’80s, and none that I’ve ever played were half as enjoyable as the real thing.

    Seconded. I’d go so far as to say it’s better to play one of the watered down ports than the vast majority of games Pac-Man directly inspired.

  7. Maybe one day, my history degree will be worth something, when all these old video games are ancient enough that they start to belong in museums. But sadly, I don’t think the average person gets excited for what’s collecting dust in the corner of their closet.

  8. I think the people that care about this sort of thing are the people that visit your webpage, but I bet most videogame players are more “forward” looking than back (about videogames, I mean).

  9. moirae, thanks, that page is wonderful. i love the photo taglines at the bottom: “Here, Mr Tezuka, a director and planner of SMB3, works on a CGCAD machine to design a picture of Mario.” “Mr Kondo lays down some tunes…”.

    simple times. wonderful.

  10. I’m with shivam on the coffee table book idea. This sort of thing is endlessly fascinating to me.

  11. Thirded on the coffee table book. That would rock faces.

    I love these sorts of early sketches because they remind me of doodling worlds in middle school… only these doodles significantly shaped an entire industry.

  12. @[Googleshng]: I’m not certain about your points. I’d be really surprised if current-day level designers didn’t have loads of design documents of this sort, especially for the games we hold dear this generation.

  13. I think it’s absolutely amazing to get a glimpse at the sketches that lead to such an influential game. I mean jeez, look how many iterations they drew out for a character seemingly as simple as Pac-Man! There really is something infinitely compelling about the architecture that went into these pixelated figures.

    It really is a shame we don’t get to see much of the concept art from these older games, what with the more frequent release of gaming art books these days–at least from Udon.

  14. I saw that on 1UP, it’s always cool when old design documents are brought out of storage to be preserved for history. It’s great to see how the entire design of Pac-Man was laid out on paper before any programming was probably done. It’s so simple you could just play around in the maze on paper first to test out the concept.

    I think interest in the document has more to do with Pac-Man being an older, simpler game than something like Super Mario Bros. and Zelda that have long sheets of detailed levels and sprites.
    (I need to pick up that Nintendo Power issue moirae linked to, that was the oldest look at EAD at the time, and its still inspiring.)

  15. Seeing the layout for Pac-Man on simple graph paper carries much more significance than the slick art book pack-ins that occasionally accompany newer releases. This is not just because Pac-Man is so important as a historic figure, but these drawings are raw and intimately connected to the designer’s thoughts.

    I’d love to see them reproduced in a book on graph paper. Out of curiosity, is there any such archive or museum that houses video game concept art and the like?

  16. A book of old graph paper drawings would be lovely, but I wonder just how many people kept their old stuff. Except for people with extreme foresight (“Hey, maybe someone will want to make a coffee table book out of these things one day!”) I doubt most would see much value in keeping old paper documents around. Then again, there are already some known cases where people did keep them, so maybe it is not such a crazy idea.

  17. I don’t read 1up, so that’s probably why I missed it. =p Or would’ve, but shawnstruck posted it over at metafilter today, so I saw it anyway! (1up and the other gaming sites are mostly games I’m not interested in, so I rely on other sites or forums to pass along anything genuinely interesting)

  18. I’ll 4th (5th?) the coffee table book idea. That would be amazing.

    Also, at first glance I thought this was yet another article about Etrian Odyssey.

  19. I guess it would be WAY too much to ask if Parish could abuse his 1UP privileges to interview some older game designers and ask them about the existence of gaming documents like this for a future volume of Gamespite?

    It’s a pipe dream, but such a wonderful pipe dream.

  20. It really is amazingly well preserved for being as old as I am. In addition to the lack of power pellets, are there only three ghosts? Anyway, I’m glad he recieved an A for this work.

  21. The Dutch site these came from says there’s going to be a more in-depth feature on Iwatani coming up. I guess it’s the interview they did with him when those pictures were taken. Should be cool.

  22. I nth shivam’s coffee table book idea. I did a double take when I saw that image, “is that Pac-man?” It took several seconds for my brain to register what I was looking at, and several more before I bothered to read the title of the post. I just turned 25, so I’m a little younger than some, but many of my earliest memories involve watching and attempting to play my dad and uncle’s strange video machines.

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