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Pac-Man Merchandising Mania!

20 January 2010 by Gnoll 3 Comments

Just about everyone in the world is familiar enough with Pac-Man, but those who weren’t around between 1980 and 1984 don’t understand just exactly how ubiquitous this cheese-wedge-looking motherchomper was during his formative years. I’m not going to inundate you with a recap of the history of the game, its countless spin-offs and sequels, and its eventual loss of luster due to the infamous 1983 video game crash. There are a million web sites out there that can fill you in on this stuff, and I’m not about to just rehash what a thousand people have written about before. What I’m going to do is pay tribute to some of the amazing merchandising opportunities Pac-Man ever took advantage of.

By 1982, Pac-Man’s likeness was showing up on just about every product you could think of. T-shirts, keychains, wallets, stuffed animals, kitchenware…you name it, it probably had his picture on it somewhere. As a result of this oversaturation, Pac-Man became so entrenched in my psyche that to this day I still think of the guy when I’m sitting in a business meeting looking at a pie graph, and have an overwhelming urge to drive my car over dotted lines saying “waka waka”. Apparently I’m not alone in this phenomenon of near Pac-Man obsession, because whenever I wear one of my favorite T-shirts, featuring three of the “ghosts” that haunt the game’s hero, I get dozens of comments from strangers, quite often leading to an impression of the game’s signature sound.

My own personal Pac-Man collection was pretty impressive in hindsight. I had forgotten how much Pac-crap I obtained in my youth. I can’t really cover everything that I owned, nor can I scratch the surface of the monstrous amount of stuff that was released, but I have decided to highlight some of the key items here:

Pac-Man Tomy Handheld Game
The Tomy handheld game was a huge deal back in the 1980s. The Nintendo Game Boy was a few years off still, so getting a hold of a tiny little plastic box with springs and gears and tiny metal balls inside was quite an accomplishment. Adding Pac-Man to the mix was nothing short of a stroke of genius. The object here was to feed the little balls (or power pellets or whatever) down the Plinko-esque game board and move Pac-Man under in time to snag it. Your score was tallied at the end. I’m not sure how it happened, but I would spend hours at a time being entertained by this tiny little marvel.

Milton Bradley Pac-Man Card Game
The Pac-Man card game was somewhat of a mystery. I remember that I owned, for some unknown reason, something like three copies of this game. However, I don’t think I ever even managed to play a full game. I think it was supposed to be educational or something, like you had to add the numbers together, or it may have even been like a classic game of dominoes. I don’t remember. I do know that my mother found one of my copies of this game in recent years still sealed in package and wanted me to find out if it was valuable. I checked. It wasn’t.

Pac-Man Portable Radio
I recall getting a lot of use out of this neat little device. A fully functional AM/FM radio, it came with a belt clip and a pair of headphones complete with the spitting image of Pac-Man printed right on them. I’m sure I probably looked like the biggest dork in the Western Hemisphere going for a jog with this thing clipped to the waistband of my shorts, but still, there’s something about the feel of the sharply-grooved knobs controlling the volume and frequency on the radios of this era that’s unmistakenly and indescribably satisfying.

Pac-Man Aluminum TV Tray
Versions of these TV trays with every licensed property imaginable were pretty common during the heyday of Pac-Man merchandising, but I’m pretty sure this was the best-selling one of all. Almost every friend I had had one, and it was always reassuring when you went to your buddy’s house to play Lincoln Logs and eat spaghetti when you got to camp out in front of the TV watching the Dukes of Hazzard while eating off of this metal tray. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure the primary function mine served at home was a building platform for my Lego bricks.

Pac-Man Telephone
You know how in Juno the title character talked on that darling little hamburger phone? Well, it ain’t got nothing on this. I remember the Pac-Man phone becoming a member of our household sometime around mid-1982. I also remember that it was damned near impossible to have a conversation on this thing without hanging up on the other person, because the receiver button jutted out so that when the phone closed it would hang up, but wound up being pressed by your chin or cheek more often than not. Not the most ideal design decision, but it sure did look cool. This was probably the only piece of Pac-Man merchandise that was allowed regularly in the family room.

Coleco Pac-Man Tabletop Game
To those who weren’t around for this era, you don’t know just how coveted this little thing was. Standing at maybe eight inches tall, weighing maybe a pound and a half, and retailing for an absurd fifty dollars, the Coleco tabletop game was a veritable Holy Grail for the Pac-Man collector. And while I never had the chance to own one, I had a few friends whose parents were a little more liberal with their spending, so I got to log hours on end chomping dots and running away from ghosts on this bad boy. In retrospect, the lame LED screen was pretty underwhelming, even compared to the disappointing Atari 2600 port of the game. But to a Pac-obsessed kid in 1982, this was the closest thing in the world to having your own arcade.

Milton Bradley Pac-Man Board Game
Words cannot explain just how amazing this thing was to the Pac-fan of days gone by. The licensed board game was hitting its stride by the early 1980s, and everything from G.I.Joe to Donkey Kong had board games that were flying off the shelf. This one had more appeal than all of them, though. The complex setup involved kick-ass plastic ghosts, marbles for dots, and a little plastic molded title character that actually gobbled up the dots when he passed over them. It took forever to set up, and the gameplay was pretty unimpressive in hindsight, but the similarities to the arcade version were enough to make this one a favorite.

Pac-Man Canvas Tote Bag
Unlike the other items here, I didn’t find an image on the internet, I had to take a picture of the real thing from my own collection. I found this at my mother’s house a couple years ago and rescued it from a garage sale pile, and the girlfriend has been using it off and on ever since. As a tote bag, it’s not really much to write home about. The canvas is flimsy, the mouth is too narrow to accomodate much of note, and the handles feel like they’d rip off if more than a few ounces were inside. But the artwork is simply awesome, and that’s all that really matters.

Aladdin Pac-Man Metal Lunch Box.
Ah, the metal lunch box. For half a century, it’s been one of the cornerstones of kitsch. While they still make such lunchboxes, none made since 1987 have half the charm of the ones from their heyday. During the late 70s and early 80s, you could get one with practically any licensed property one could imagine. As a lad, I had a few of these things, but I was never able to grab the brass ring of the Pac-Man lunchbox. Only recently was I able to finally get my hands on the highly sought after prize, and now it sits proudly as one of the shining stars in our household collection.

And there was more. I had Pac-Man school supplies, with pencils and pens and notebooks and who knows what else. I had Pac-Man tin containers that I kept trinkets and stuff in on my dresser. I had a T-shirt bought at the beach one year that had a Smurf playing a Pac-Man arcade game. And I had an elastic belt with a magnetic belt buckle that was one of the prizes in my collection, but apparently is so obscure that I can find nary a mention of it on the internet.

All of this leads me to what is, quite possibly, my favorite piece of Pac-memorabilia to ever see the light of day: 1982’s “The Pac-Man Album”, released by Kid Stuff Records in 1982. This glorious double-sided picture disc was as stunning visually as it was when it was first plopped onto the turntable and that needle was cued up for the first time. Just take a look at the front and back of this sucker:

Those brilliant colors and hues were far more striking in person, but you can tell that a little more effort went into this one than a lot of similar products from the day. I remember waking up to find this under the tree one Christmas morning, while my sister got a Strawberry Shortcake picture disc record made by the same company. I don’t remember much about hers, other than the horrible butchering that Ms. Shortcake did to “Over the Rainbow”. But the Pac-Man record was damn near impossible to forget. Let’s look at that track lineup, shall we?:

  • The Pac-Man Theme
  • Pac-Man’s Magic Land
  • I’m Number 1
  • The Gang of Ghosts Quarter
  • Turning Blue
  • He’s Too Busy for Me
  • If It’s a Game
  • The Pac-Man Finale

Within these eight tracks was pure audio bliss for the true Pac-Fan. The lead-off track, “The Pac-Man Theme”, was a bouncy synth track that sounded nothing like anything that had ever been heard in a Pac-Man video game. “Pac-Man’s Magic Land” was a slow ditty about dreaming and imagination. “I’m Number One” was a self-sung ditty by the Pac-Man himself, boasting about how he rules the land of Pac. The last word in the title of “The Gang of Ghosts Quarter” was actually supposed to be Quartet, as that’s the lyric itself, but the typo was actually printed on the sleeve. The song was crooned by “Speedy”, “Pokey”, “Bashful”, and the menacing “Shadow”, the game’s antagonists. After a brief talk break by Pac-Man, “Turning Blue” was actually a somewhat passable new wave song whose lyrics might not have even had anything to do with Pac-Man. “He’s Too Busy for Me” was a sorrow-filled duet between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac, with her lamenting his overworked schedule. “If It’s a Game” was the low point of the album, to the point that I don’t really remember the track. It all wraps up with “The Pac-Man Finale”, a reprise of “The Pac-Man Theme” with a longer coda.

I probably spun this thing a thousand times on my cheap plastic record player in the day, and it left quite an impression. For one, it was interesting to hear terms that were commonly accepted in the Pac-community, such as “monsters” and “power pellets”, eschewed for terms like “ghosts” and “energizers”. The ghosts (or monsters if you prefer) were referred to by their characteristics only, and never by the more commonly used “Inky”, “Blinky”, “Pinky”, and “Clyde”. The grooves will sometimes find their way into my head at a random moment for no apparent reason, despite not hearing most of the album in a quarter century. In fact, the only stuff I have had the pleasure of hearing lately are some transferred tracks from the original pressing that somehow found their way online. And what kind of Pac-master would I be, if I didn’t allow you to share in the experience. So, for your listening pleasure, I give you three of the album’s finest tracks in MP3 format, complete with that deliciously satisfying vinyl crackle that we all know and love:

Download “Pac-Man’s Magic Land”
Download “I’m Number 1”
Download “Turning Blue”

I hope you find them as Pac-tacular as I did.

UPDATE!

Shortly after posting these, I got a phone call from the guy who wrote the music on the Pac-Man album. I thought I was in big trouble. However, he didn’t ask me to pull the MP3s down, but instead thanked me for posting them, because he’d forgotten not only what they sounded like, but that he’d even been involved with the project. It was surreal. I’m glad I was able to rekindle a memory for someone who made something that was so important to my childhood.

3 Comments »

  • TB said:

    I was either too poor or too cheap to buy the Buckner and Garcia’s PAC MAN FEVER record. Instead, my sister recorded it off the Rick Dee’s radio show. I filled one side of a certron c60 cassette with that damn song and drew dots and pac man all over it.
    And I can’t really fault people for standing in lines for the iphone release. I well remember being in the ginormously long line at midnight at Treasure Island for the game’s release.

  • Dooner said:

    I miss table top pack man, or was that mrs. pack man? the drink holders were rad.

  • The Eternal Optimist said:

    Oh the time spent listening to that album… that was always time well spent. I specifically remember writing out valentine’s cards for my class with my brothers and sisters while listening to “The Gang of Ghosts Quarte[t]” and inventing a crazy dance to it. Also, I made my little brother learn the Pac-couple duet and sing it/play-act it with me in front of an audience… will you ever forgive me Bobby?!?

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