"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Future generations will not believe it, but there was a moment when Pac-Man was as big as “Star Wars.” A quick glimpse on eBay reveals, in no particular order: a set of Fleer wax-pack trading cards; the classic Pac-Man metal lunchbox; the Milton Bradley Pac-Man board game; a 12-inch remix of the “Pac-Man Fever” single, featuring an instrumental version and, scarily enough, a club version; Pac-Mania, the Official Pac-Man Joke Book (“96 Pac-filled pages of biting humor!”); and yes, a Pac-Man telephone. And that’s all on Web Page 1 … of seven.
Video games have become a part of contemporary life. The kids who grew up steering Pac-Man around his dot-filled maze have grown up to make video games one of the biggest slices of the entertainment-industry pie. Yet no game to date has come close to dominating the popular landscape the way Pac-Man did in the early 1980s. Certainly, the novelty of both the game and the medium itself was a major factor in creating the Pac-phenomenon. But all the later and equally novel video game landmarks — Donkey Kong and Mario, Street Fighter, Myst, Doom, the Sims — are eclipsed by Pac-Man’s gigantic, canary-yellow sun.
Pac-Man was the brainchild of Toru Iwatani, a designer for Namco, the Japanese company best known at the dawn of the 1980s for releasing the first-ever color video arcade game, Galaxian. Apart from its chromatics, Galaxian was typical of video games of the era, which is to say it was a more or less blatant rip-off of Taito’s Space Invaders. Released in 1978, Space Invaders cast its player as a last line of defense against marauding aliens: The bad guys marched down the screen to get you; you fired back up at them. Space Invaders proved so addictive that it not only inaugurated an entire video game paradigm, it caused a nationwide coin shortage in Japan.
Iwatani imagined something different, a video game that looked and felt like a cartoon. Inspiration struck, as it so often does, while he was eating a pizza. Noting that a pizza pie with one slice removed resembled an open-mouthed head, Iwatani had a vision: an animated pizza, racing through a maze and eating things with its absent-slice mouth. By any account, this is a bizarre vision, and it still packs a certain deranged wallop, even in the current animated-food era of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. (Animated food did indeed hit the video game world soon after, in Data East’s deeply weird 1982 release, Burger Time.) But we can be thankful for the technical limitations that forced Iwatani to abandon his pizza epiphany and recast his protagonist in the lemony hue we’ve come to know.
The game and character were christened “Puckman,” from the Japanese pakupaku, meaning to flap one’s mouth open and closed. (Is there anything the Japanese don’t have a word for?) In one of the great preemptive acts of damage control in marketing history, an executive at American licensor Bally/Midway changed the name of the import to Pac-Man, after noting the near-limitless vandalistic potential of the original moniker. This individual’s name is lost to the ages, but we can offer silent thanks to him for ensuring a healthy and unblemished Pac-legacy.
In late 1980 and 1981, the game became a massive hit on both sides of the Pacific, moving an unheard-of 100,000 units in America while inciting another shortage of coin-based yen in Japan. Even now, it’s easy to see why. The short answer is that Iwatani succeeded: Pac-Man feels like a cartoon, from the bouncy theme music to the animated eyes on the ghosts to the forlorn sound effect as Pac-Man is apprehended and shrinks away to nothingness. Far more so than any other game before it (and many that came after), Pac-Man possessed elements of drama, giving names to its avatars and featuring them in brief comic interludes that played out after the player had achieved a certain level of success.
The long answer, however, is that Pac-Man’s creative design dovetailed perfectly with its gameplay. With its single joystick, Pac-Man boasted the simplest player-control mechanism since Pong. It didn’t require the frantic button-pressing of, say, Asteroids or Missile Command, the reigning arcade champions at the time of Pac-Man’s release. Combined with the unabashedly cute visuals and the explosion-free sound design, Pac-Man began to attract more kids and younger kids than any other video game to date. Most prominently, Pac-Man gained notice for its appeal to girls, at that time (and arguably still) an almost completely untapped segment of the market.
The game’s non-threatening complexion not only proved that video games could succeed and indeed thrive without spaceships and explosions, but in fact led to broader acceptance of the entire medium. Even into the late 1970s, the primary venues for video games were bars, pool halls and other hidey-holes of grown-up recreation. More than any other title, Pac-Man claimed video games for kids. Even the strictest parents could see the game’s appeal. So could the proprietors of snack bars, comic book stores, movie theaters and other social hubs of early-’80s kid life. Pac-Man took video games out of the bars and into the malls.
Of course, Pac-Man’s potency as a game was eclipsed only by its perfection as a symbol. Having entered the mall, he proceeded to take over the joint. The little yellow guy who could consume an endless quantity of pixilated dots turned out to be the object of near-endless public consumption.
The psychic space that Pac-Man grew to occupy in early 1980s popular culture was truly enormous, filling in the vacuum of downtime between “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” and stepping into the breach vacated by Kiss, when all of America realized that the “Unmasked” album sucked, and sucked hard. Kiss and “Star Wars” are important for an understanding of Pac-Man, in that they created the model for the multimedia marketing blitz that Pac-Man subsequently adopted. But there’s a crucial difference here.
The pseudo-mythic underpinnings of both “Star Wars” and Kiss gave their marketing campaigns a relative embarrassment of semiotic riches around which to build licensing opportunities. I mean, of course there was a Kiss comic book. Of course Toys ‘R Us carried a full line of toy light sabers. But I can guarantee that no marketing executive looked at Pac-Man in 1980 and said, “You know what? I think there’s a phone here.”
Rather, it was Pac-Man’s very spareness and abstraction that allowed for so many permutations to make their way into the culture. Pac-Man became a kind of Everyblob. Licensed images of him were slightly humanized, lending him arms and legs to allow for a variety of active poses, as well as a set of black eyes with the suggestion of pupils. But by and large he remains an abstract figure, limited to a few stock activities: eating, chasing, being chased. The most commonly reproduced image shows Pac-Man at a moment of triumph, devouring his ghostly nemeses. In nearly every image, he is smiling broadly, his eyes given a mischievous tilt; he looks like a good-time guy, a cross between R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural and a Wilson tennis ball.
Why did America grip Pac-Man so fiercely in its mercantile embrace? The novelty record album “Pac-Man Fever” went to No. 9, for Christ’s sake. Though the bulk of the licensing effort targeted children, it wasn’t just the kids that were buying: Witness the Pac-Man coffee mug, the Pac-Man ashtray, the Pac-Man Zippo lighter. While it’s become fashionable to read the success of this merchandising orgy as a direct outgrowth of the game’s content — Pac-Man gobbling dots equals kids buying Pac-Man lunchboxes — such an explanation smacks of over-reliance on hindsight. Markets aren’t that self-conscious. Pac-Man didn’t occupy its place in commercial culture because consumers wanted to metaphorically imitate an insatiably hungry little yellow ball; they bought because the game was good enough to tap into genuine sources of pleasure.
It was a thrill to be able to play Pac-Man and create your own cartoon; the action of the game echoed the theme of all the great Warner Bros. shorts: The chase. Add to that the fact that the game really wasn’t that hard. One quarter let a good player dominate the machine for a long time, and a Pac-Man novice could gain a sense of mastery after a couple of games. Even little kids could clear a screen or two without much difficulty. And though the design didn’t downplay its cuteness, that cuteness was always tempered by the abstraction that the game’s technical limitations required.
The result is a game suffused with gentle absurdities, as with the ghosts’ names: Inky, Pinky, Blinky and the punch line, Clyde. Or consider the only representational images in the entire game, the pieces of fruit that materialize out of nowhere to be scarfed up for bonus points. The game makes no attempt to explain their bizarre intrusion into an otherwise completely abstract world, and the effect is one of casual whimsy. More than anything else, these ingredients blended to give Pac-Man an aura of uncommon warmth, and it’s that quality that most accounts for the fondness with which the game’s fans recall it.
The triumph of the original design was never more apparent than when Atari rushed its home version of Pac-Man into stores in 1982. The product was one of the great disasters in the history of home video gaming. Gone was the stately blue-on-black of the original, replaced by a truly hideous orange-on-blue. The bubbly opening theme was replaced by an atonal siren, and the satisfyingly cartoony waka-waka-waka sound of the dot-eating was ditched in favor of a horrific twanging noise, like someone snapping rubber bands into a sheet of tin foil. Playing it, it was impossible to fathom how the game could have been made so ugly. Atari’s travesty ultimately not only exposed the limitations of its own gaming console, but signaled the beginning of the end of America’s romance with the game.
Bally and Namco did their part to kill the phenomenon, over-saturating the video game market with sequel after sequel. These included the credible and popular Ms. Pac-Man, which capitalized on the game’s appeal to girls while also offering more challenging and less predictable gameplay. Unfortunately, the company also threw its weight behind such forgettable titles as the no-dots/all-fruit Super Pac-Man, the video-pinball bastard child Baby Pac-Man, the trivia-based Professor Pac-Man, and the heretical Pac and Pal, in which Pac-Man is assisted by a green ghost whom he has initiated into the discipline of dot-munching. Apart from Ms. Pac-Man, none of the later games contributed anything to the culture or the industry, apart from proving that it was indeed possible for a video game to jump the shark.
But the original Pac-Man was that rare creation that materialized at just the right moment, when its charms, modest in retrospect, took on the power of a revelation. It’s not difficult to argue that had Pac-Man not existed, another game would have served its purpose. Asteroids, after all, boasts more fluid and ingenious gameplay. Donkey Kong not only boasts a similarly friendly, narrative cartoon appeal, but its design model — the platform/jumping game — has proven far more influential than Pac-Man’s closed-circuit maze. Then again, Asteroids and Donkey Kong aren’t in the Smithsonian Institution. Pac-Man is.
Contemporary nostalgia now casts the 1980s as a carefree, airhead decade, when we took our cue from the grandfather in chief and smiled our way through junk bonds, exploding space shuttles and Rubik’s Cube. But in those secretly uneasy times, Pac-Man was one of the signposts that suggested that the future might be OK, that circuitry could provide the good spirits, character and taste that so much of contemporary culture only pretended to have. We pumped in the quarters and bought the trading cards and lunchboxes and sleeping bags because that lovable yellow guy promised a world where even the lamest kids could get past that first maze, where the ghosts weren’t scary and where, even when you died, you went out with a funny noise.
Chris Green is a writer in Los Angeles and the editor of Produced By magazine.More Chris Green.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)