My feelings of nostalgia are often tied to brief flashes of memory where I can still feel the essence of that moment in time. While my most vivid memories of childhood stem from the 90’s, it’s my life from 1982-1989 that contains the dreamiest cloud of magic in my mind. It’s a wood-paneled era laced with a neon glow that I know I’ll truly never see again, so I thought I would share some of those “Random Access Memories” that always make me wistful for days gone by. (Note: Originally this article was going to focus on a whole range of retro-topics, but once I got going I couldn’t stop myself.)
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Being born in ‘82 at the height of Pac-Man Fever, it should be no surprise that everyone’s favorite compulsive eater was on my radar from the very beginning. What might surprise you is that it’s not the classic yellow pizza with a slice missing design of the Pac-Meister we’ve all come to know that I identify with this time in my life, it’s this bizarre 2-footed monstrosity of unknown origin.
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I say unknown because it’s obvious that the artist never laid eyes on the game before putting pen to paper. I mean, it looks like a melted blob of cheese with two cherries dropped in for good measure. Yet this version of Pac-Man adorned the actual video game cabinets of the arcade classic’s original release and accompanying merchandise. Merchandise that includes the above bit of nightmare fuel in costume form. Yikes, that thing is all trick and no treat!
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Among the less frightening bits of merchandise were party supplies, which somehow managed to be found in the junk drawers of my childhood home. I can only assume they were leftovers from my Atari loving older brother’s birthday bash of a few years prior to my birth. As a toddler the ranking for preferred items goes candy, stickers and then balloons, so it stands to reason that I should remember a particular Pac-Man balloon as well as I do.
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First of all, it was black, which is an odd color for something to be used for festive celebrations and second, it had this strange yellow creature printed on it. I remember carrying this thing around our dining room endlessly, but never wanting to inflate it for fear that the stretching would ruin it. It’s not surprising that such an item would be hard to find photographic evidence of 30 years later, so I had to approximate it from my mental image in the composite above.
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Speaking of the dining room, I do remember the anticipation of a meal that consisted of Pac-Man pasta courtesy of your friend and mine, Chef Boyardee. Even though the pasta had the vague shapes of our titular hero, “Pinky”, “Clyde” and the rest, it was the power pellet like mini-meatballs that were the real stars in my book. Much like when I would eat Popeye brand spinach and begin humming the sailor’s theme song while flexing (yeah, I was a spazzy kid), these “power pellets” made me feel like I was Pac-Man for a brief moment. But let's be honest, don't we all wish we could be praised for eating ghosts and pellets?
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Frankly, I can’t believe I’ve talked this much about Pac-Man in an article that was not meant to be video game related, but really if you think about it, Pac-Man is to arcade gaming what Hulk Hogan is to professional wrestling. Wait a minute, do you see what I see? The bold yellow color scheme, the gleaming round head, a pasta branded with their likeness? These two titans are a pop culture tag team for the ages. Boy did Vince McMahon miss out on a cash generating crossover here. Just imagine these two cutting a promo together, “Whatcha gonna do, when Pac-Mania and Hulkamania combine to run wild on you, brother?”
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You know what, I can’t deny where this article is taking me, it’s like the joystick got one too many sodas spilled on it and finally got stuck going one direction. Let the Pac-Manifestation of my long gone lost memories continue. So growing up our garage never had enough room to fit a car in it, instead we had piles of “junk” everywhere from the floor to the rafters and I would often go “treasure hunting”. One day I came upon a copy of the Pac-Man board game and was instantly entranced.
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Look, I didn’t know how to play it and I didn’t care, the thing may have been more complicated than Shoots N’ Ladders, but it had marbles and plastic ghosts so...SOLD! The coolest part was the Pac-Man game piece that you could actually place on top of the power-pellet marbles (there they are again!) and make him gobble them up. There was something so satisfying for a 4 year old to operate a device that worked on such simple principles, yet represent the cutting edge gaming “technology” of the time.
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As the decade wore on, Pac-Man’s cache seemed to give way to the power of Mario’s mustache, resulting in fewer toys and fewer food product endorsement deals. The only place I seemed to see “Ol’ Paccy” was in passing as I scanned the Toys R’ Us video game aisles in search of the latest and greatest. As I walked by I couldn’t help but see the old copies of various NES ports being neglected in favor of Megan Man 3 or A Boy and His Blob. They even tried to re-invent Pac-Man for the 90’s by giving him arms and legs that created a poor imitation of Super Mario World, but by then the magic was gone.
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Still, I can always look back at my fascination with that yellow rascal and find that it puts a smile on my face. Like my previous article about the NES, Pac-Man’s influence on me was less about the game itself (though the tabletop version is pretty much the coolest thing ever) and more about the crazy imagery and tie-ins which caught my imagination. So I say thanks to the money-hungry merchandising companies that saw an opportunity and exploited it, you gave me some memories and I hope you managed to make enough to buy yourself a Lamborghini along the way.
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Hey, remember when everyone wanted to drive a Lamborghini? No, no, next time, next time…