This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of two enormous cultural icons. Or technically, Friday the 21st did. But, it’s a long weekend (at least here in Canada), so what better excuse to use the whole thing to celebrate?

One celebration comes from Star Wars, as the 21st marked the theatrical release of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, regarded by many as the best of the old trilogy. Personally speaking, however, it would be over ten years later before I ever saw the movie, which came about after I had rented Super Star Wars on the Super NES for a weekend.

The other occasion reaching the 30-year mark is the debut of Pac-Man, the legendary arcade game about a dot-munching yellow sphere-man. Or would that be a game about a cookie-munching pizza? It sort of depends on who you ask.

I think my earliest memory of Pac-Man comes from playing the game on my late cousin’s Atari 2600. And to be truthful, I wasn’t very good. Even so, it was the game I played the most, even though they had a few other games; those only came out when I got bored with Pac-Man.

And just so no one thinks I was just isolating myself on visits, these game sessions usually occurred when my mother and I would visit; typically, my cousin wasn’t around, and it was just my mother and aunt talking and such while I kept myself occupied.

Usually, my memory of how things used to be is pretty spot-on, but in the case of Pac-Man, something must have slipped. I would have sworn that the graphics of the game I played were nearly identical to those seen in the arcade, but the internet, YouTube, Retronauts, and more have clearly proven to me that this was not the case. I do know that the Atari 5200 had a more accurate version, but the console I remember my cousin having was the 2600, faux wood finish and all, as well as the cartridge looking as the one to your left appears.

It’s no secret that I love video games, and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was my first (well, that, or an arcade session with Pole Position). But I can honestly say that Pac-Man is not what ignited my passion for the medium. But then, it was the 2600 version.

Even so, I still liked Pac-Man. Why, I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. But America being caught up in what would come to be known as “Pac-Mania” might have been a part of it. You see, much like Mario, Sonic, Pokémon, and others who would come after, Pac-Man was everywhere… even at Arby’s:

Incidentally, I never got one of those glasses, as I don’t believe Arby’s arrived in my hometown until some time after. It is pretty cool, though.

And while Buckner and Garcia’s song “Pac-Man Fever” was topping charts and blaring from jukeboxes everywhere, Hanna-Barbera was busy bringing the Pacster to ABC Saturday mornings for 42 episodes (and two specials), which ran from 1982 to 1984. However, the show would find its way to USA’s now-defunct “Cartoon Express” block before I got to see it with any regularity.

Pac-Man: The Animated Series, as it is sometimes known, was a fun romp. Some decry it today, but given the amount of characterization and story found in video games of the day, it wasn’t so bad. Helping it along was a cast featuring some notable names in voice acting, including Frank Welker (Megatron in the original Transformers, Freddy from Scooby-Doo, and too many more to mention), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime in the first Transformers cartoon, Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh), and the late, great Lorenzo Music (Garfield, Peter Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters‘ early episodes).

The rights to the cartoon now belong to Warner Bros., who ironically acquired Midway recently, who was the company that brought Pac-Man to American arcades (and created Ms. Pac-Man, among numerous unauthorized sequels). Hopefully they will release a DVD set someday, but in the meantime, some episodes have shown up on Xbox LIVE.

Of course, as any kid (at least one who grew up in the 80’s) well knows, cartoons are only half of the Saturday morning package. And the other half?

Cereal! And Pac-Man has us covered there, too, with a cereal from General Mills whose commercials introduced the world to a young Christian Bale.

As I seem to recall, the cereal had a pretty good run, particularly for a licensed product. It began with simple cereal pieces accompanied by colored marshmallows shaped like Pac-Man and his four ghostly antagonists Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde. As newer games came out, additional pieces were added to the cereal to accommodate newer characters like the semi-politically correct Ms. Pac-Man and the powered-up Super Pac-Man, whose marshmallow pieces seemed absolutely ginormous at the time.

Truth be told, I wish they still made this today. But then, I imagine there would be an absolute slag-storm from “concerned parents” who would feel it’s the cereal’s fault that they couldn’t stop feeding it to their kids, perhaps bringing it to an end much sooner than its initial run.

Elsewhere in retail, Pac-Man might have had a great presence in the toy aisle, but if he did, I don’t remember it. I was no doubt shielding my eyes from the blinding pink of the Barbie section as we would pass by it on our way to check out the newest Hot Wheels, Masters of the Universe, or Transformers toys.

Nonetheless, I do remember at least one Pac-Man toy very, very well. While in kindergarten, one kid brought to show-and-tell a wind-up Pac-Man, which you can see at right. After being wound up, he would walk along, his mouth opening to reveal a ghost inside before snapping his jaw shut again.

For whatever reason, that just seemed like one of the coolest things to me, and frankly, it still does. Sadly, however, I was never able to acquire one of these little plastic gems.

Since the release of the original game, there have been many sequels, spin-offs, and collections. One of particular note, at least to me, is Bally Midway’s Pac-Man Plus, which I have enjoyed for the simple fact that it brings together one of gaming’s classic characters with Coca-Cola’s Classic soft drink.

Another interesting title was Pac-Land, which was an interesting arcade side-scroller from before the days of Super Mario Bros. I remember only seeing it at the local flea market’s arcade back in North Carolina, where I gave it a few tries. Unlike most games, however, including the original Pac-Man itself, the game did not use a joystick, instead requiring the player to use regular arcade buttons to move Pac-Man right or left (plus another to jump).

There would be other games which I would read about, such as Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures and the Pac-Man World series, but I never really got to play them. Pac-Man 2 in particular seemed like an interesting concept, but it seems those who have played it found that trying to guide an over-emotional Pac-Man didn’t work too well.

And in an interesting twist, when I first came to own my own Game Boy, the first game I got for it (as a part of the bundle deal) was Pac-Man Collection, which is comprised of the original Pac-Man, Pac-Mania, Pac-Man Arrangement, and the puzzle game Pac-Mania. And while I did play that game quite a bit until I got my hands on some other titles, it was another game that would draw me back to Pac like nothing else.

The original Pac-Man had been released on Xbox LIVE Arcade, and Microsoft teamed with Namco Bandai to host the Pac-Man World Championships, which featured a number of amusing promotional videos, such as the following:

As it would turn out, however, the Pac-Man World Championships were designed as a lead-in to the next big Pac-Man game from Namco Bandai: 2007’s Pac-Man Championship Edition.

Initially (and unfortunately) available only on Xbox LIVE Arcade (and more recently, the iPhone), Pac-Man Championship Edition just felt right. Designed as a wide-screen experience, the game features what amounts to two traditional Pac-Man game boards side by side.

Players guide Pac-Man along through the maze as usual, eating dots and avoiding ghosts, trying to get the best score possible within the allotted time (or until they run out of lives). When a special fruit or trinket appears and is devoured, the other half of the maze will change its shape, while the Power Pellets allow for some serious point gains from consecutively eating ghosts before the effect wears off. And the longer you last, the faster things get.

All of this is accompanied by a neon glow and simple techno-thumping soundtrack which seems to evoke the feel of the 80’s scene, yet still seem somewhat contemporary. Neo-retro, if you will.

I played the demo for a while, and was hooked. Ultimately, Pac-Man Championship Edition was the first Xbox LIVE Arcade game I ever purchased, and remains a favorite.

So, what comes next? Well, according to Namco Bandai, it will be the “next evolution of Pac-Man,” which admittedly sounds mysterious. Is part of it the recently-announcedPac-Man Reborn,” which is slated for… er, Twitter?

Whatever comes, hopefully it will be as fun and exciting as the Pac-Man we’ve all come to know and love.

Happy Birthday, Pac-Man. Here’s to 30 more years.

–LBD “Nytetrayn”

You can check out more news and festivities on the official Pac-Man website.

Wind-up Pac-Man image from What a Character!, Pac-Man Cereal box image from Tomorrow’s Heroes.

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