A couple of decades ago, the gaming section of bookstores featured, at most, some boxes of Far Side puzzles and a diminutive collection of neglected video game strategy guides. The ’90s kids who couldn’t afford those Prima guides (and copied cheat codes into their math class notebooks) have since grown up and gotten salaries. Book publishing has grown alongside them, eager to capitalize on the audience’s inflated wallets. Now the “video game book” section of what few bookstores remain spans fiction and nonfiction, dense academic doorstops, and glossy coffee-table picture books. The gaming book is having a moment.
The latest entry in the category, Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon, jams together a bit of everything. It’s a delightful throwback to the effusive guides of the ’90s; a thoroughly researched video game history; and a gorgeously curated collection of Pac-Man art, photography, and scans of rare internal design documents.
It’s priced to match its scope. The special edition, which includes a clever and sturdy Pac-Man-shaped slip case, a vinyl single of “Pac-Man Fever,” and a Pac-Man arcade token, retails for $99.95. The regular edition, which only includes the hardcover book, goes for $55.95. Neither are cheap by the standards of video game books, though collectors of art books from publishers like Taschen likely won’t flinch.
Unlike so many art books, Birth of an Icon is a pleasure to read. It’s written in plain English, and it never falls into the writerly trap of “important” writing. Even as authors Arjan Terpstra and Tim Lapetino dive deep into the minutiae of the Pac-Man phenomenon, they resist industry jargon and the textbook tone. The pair wisely focus on people rather than the nitty-gritty of game design. Within the first few pages, we meet Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani, and learn about his rural upbringing (with details like catching crawfish in the Meguro ward of Tokyo) during the years before Japan’s economic boom in the final quarter of the 20th century.
The authors have an almost workmanlike approach, presenting the breadth of Pac-Man in snackable, though still nutritious, chunks. They spend a surprising amount of time pouring a sturdy foundation of cultural, historical, and regional context before getting to the Pac-Man of it all. For example, “The Rise of Pac-Man’’ is the sixth of nine chapters. Before that, Terpstra and Lapetino document the ascendance of video games in Japan, the life of Iwatani, and the arduous process of actually making a video game in the ’70s, when practically nobody yet knew how. It’s a bold choice in terms of pacing, one that places Pac-Man in the center of the pop culture zeitgeist, however briefly, and elevates the series to feel worthy of a tome.
Terpstra and Lapetino really find their stride when they’re writing like archaeologists, dusting off little details from forgotten interviews, game and culture studies books, and old marketing materials. Their access helps. A standout story recounts how Iwatani and company looked at the newly popular Sanrio and Hello Kitty characters for inspiration for “kawaii” colors, softer pastels that didn’t align with the popular action video games of the ’70s.
Created in collaboration with Bandai Namco, the book includes a number of internal design documents and drawings. In the artwork, you can see Iwatani prodding against the limitations of technology. One image shows the ghostly antagonists squishing through the doorways of the tight corridors, a character detail that couldn’t be animated on the bulky machines of the time. I am smitten with these doodles, how they capture a vibe that the game couldn’t quite convey, but that would in the long term fuel the series.
Last year, one brave soul dedicated a three-hour video essay to the world’s favorite pellet-gobbler. Tim Rogers’ loving and exhausting video breaks down Pac-Man into smaller and smaller pieces until he’s picking the game apart on the atomic level. Early in the video, Rogers explains that the game can be split into two parts for its two audiences. The first batch of 20 levels is welcoming to new players, allowing for amateurs to feel like experts after a few rounds. But the dozens of levels that compose the second part of the game, culminating with the kill screen, are meant for hardcore players. They’re punishing and demand an understanding of the game’s habits and quirks.
What’s peculiar about this book is I’m unsure of which of those audiences is the perfect match: the person who loves Pac-Man because it’s simple, immediate fun, or the giga-fan who must know every little detail? When the book goes comically deep into Pac-Man Fever, or the timeline of every Pac-Man spin-off, or Pac-Man fashion, like a Giles Deacon runway show with models wearing Pac-Man helmets, it’s serving both.
That’s what makes it so delightful. No matter what you want from a video game book in 2021, you’ll find something charming within these pages.
Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon is now available. It was reviewed with a copy of the book provided by Cook and Becker. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.