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Pac-Man at 30: An iPad Comeback?

Pac-Man might want to ease off a bit on those power pellets. His metabolism is about to slow down considerably.

The arcade icon hits 30 this year – but he isn’t planning to give up his rat-race life anytime soon.

Namco Bandai, the company behind the character, is planning a number of new Pac-Man game releases to coincide with the anniversary. The first big one will become available Saturday – when an iPad version of the game goes on sale for $4.99.

The company is also planning to bring back the community element that was such a big part of the game’s early success. When Pac-Man was an arcade standard, the machines were more of a social gathering place than the office water cooler. People congregated to play or just watch others navigate the maze. And outside of the mall, it was a sure-fire conversation starter.

But as the gaming world moved into the living room (and later onto the mobile device), Pac-Man became more insular. Namco Bandai hopes to revise the social aspect by adding a global leaderboard (allowing people to once again compete for high scores) and a virtual lobby, where fans of the game can chat to coming versions of the game.

Other anniversary plans are still under wraps and will be announced at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in June.

Pac-Man is hands down the biggest product in the Namco Bandai catalog. It’s so big, in fact, that the sole reason the company formed and launched its mobile division was to get the game onto cell phones and other handheld devices.

“The appeal of Pac-Man crosses a lot of boundaries,” says Jonathan Kromrey, general manager of Namco Bandai’s Apple Games division. “It’s always looked to as a classic arcade experience, but it’s always there on new product launches.”

Pinning down financials for the franchise isn’t as easy as you might expect, though. The tens of millions of dollars that the game raised during its arcade heyday are impossible to definitively calculate (not surprising, given it was an all-cash businesses with lots of third-parties involved). And the character has appeared in so many different games and been merchandized in so many different ways (remember Pac-Man: The Breakfast Cereal?) that it’s an accounting nightmare.

Namco Bandai itself says it's incapable of providing even a ballpark number, since he game has splintered in so many directions since its launch.

The licensing has been effective, though. A May 2008 poll by the Davie-Brown Index found Pac-Man to be the world’s best-known video game character – beating out Nintendo’s Mario by a single percentage point and earning a Guinness World Record.

That awareness has also allowed Namco Bandai to keep Pac-Man gobbling dots long after the mall arcade business disappeared. The company sold millions of new Pac-Man games during the last generation of consoles.

For this generation, though, things have been kind of quiet. “Pac-Man Championship Edition” was released for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade in 2007 (and is now on its way to mobile devices), but no version of the game has appeared on the Wii or Sony’s PlayStation 3. That will likely change with June’s announcement.

The trick will be evolving such a nostalgia-centric character without alienating the core user base.

“Pac-Man has to evolve,” says Kromrey. “There are different types of mechanics and gameplay that you’ve come to expect because the gameplay has become so pervasive across multiple platforms. At the same time, we have to ask players ‘What do you think of Pac-Man performing this kind of game?’ and see how the market reacts to it.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the classic game that flashes to mind when people hear Pac-Man. And while financials might be a bit squishy, it’s much easier to pin down the game’s popularity.

In the late 1990s, Twin Galaxies, a company that tracks video game world record scores, visited several used game auctions and counted how many times the average Pac Man machine had been played. Multiplying those figures by the total number of machines that were manufactured, the organization believes the arcade game was played more than 10 billion times in the 20th century.

Not bad for a middle-aged icon.

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