Chasing pellets: Pac-Man tries to make history again

carlos romero
Xbox 360 Pac-Man World Champion Carlos Romero (Pachuca, México)

On Monday, Microsoft was struggling to generate interest in the Xbox 360 Pac-Man World Championship partly because those in-the-know had kept their mouths shut about the Iwatani-made Pac-Man sequel to be unveiled during the event, and partly because, well, this was just Pac-Man. Fearing that the championship would be ignored -- and the game announcement unnoticed -- Xbox 360 group product manager Aaron Greenberg let it be known that "video game history" would be made through a surprise revelation during the competition. Though Greenberg would later back out of his overstatement, word had spread, rumors ignited, and, for a moment, all eyes were watching for a megaton out of SupperClub in Manhattan's Times Square. The news came and went with a few groans and a shrug.

But someone was listening with eager anticipation last September when Microsoft announced plans to co-host a Pac-Man World Championship with the game's creator Toru Iwatani. Most of us were too busy tracking Sony and Nintendo's last-minute moves to notice -- just about everything Microsoft dragged overseas to Tokyo Game Show seemed irrelevant at the time. But when Microsoft again talked "World Championship" in mid-April, this time with a date and details, a few more ears perked up and a few more Xbox 360s were sold (yeah, just for Pac-Man -- and just a few). And then, on Wednesday, April 25th, some of us started competing.

When the qualifying round had ended and all the legalities had been sorted out (or not sorted out), ten competitors were flown to New York City to play for the Pac-Man World Championship title and, with only a few practice hours beforehand, forced to compete within the new and unfamiliar settings of Pac-Man Championship Edition. Among them was 13-year-old James Rodgers of Ipswich. As the lone representative of the United Kingdom, James may have been the event's youngest player, but he was far from the least prepared. Spread atop a padded ottoman, the gangly Brit was draped in a track-shirt and matching nylon pants, his Charlie(of The Chocolate Factory)-like boyishness disguising pure Pac-pedigree. In his prime, James's father Graham was said to have drawn crowds at the local Suffolk county arcades, and for a time, his Pac-Man score was atop the UK leaderboard during the initial qualifying round of competition. But when Graham's record was eventually surpassed, it was James who upheld the family name and sent "Rodgers" to the World Championship. Introduced to gaming at the age of 5, James took to Sonic on Sega Mega Drive, developing an early knack for speed and timing. But by the third round of the final competition James had burned out and was eliminated, finishing sixth, despite strong scores in the first and second rounds.

james rodgers
James Rodgers (Ipswich, Suffolk, UK)

Another teenager, 15-year-old Reuben Anderson lacked the juvenile confidence of his younger opponent and held his arms close to his body, hunching forward. He seemed disinterested in conversation (at least, about games) until the topic switched to music -- the faded Dark Side t-shirt gave it away. Reuben is from a small town in New Zealand (which he declined to name owing to its obscurity) and made the roughly 9000-mile flight, his first, with older brother Thomas, 19, because his folks had to stay home for work and to care for the brothers' four younger sisters. Neither mom nor dad had whittled away the glory days at the arcade. It's just as good that Reuben didn't win. He'd never heard of "Quiznos" and would have little use for the 26-year free food card; this despite Microsoft's claim that at least one Quiznos existed in each of the participant's home countries (Reuben would need a car). Reuben finished 9th, just ahead of last-place qualifier Huang Wei Hua of Taiwan. Huang didn't stick around for the free drinks and sandwiches. He left as soon as he was eliminated, eager to make it to a Yankees game, a Microsoft representative said. Did someone neglect to tell Huang that the Yanks were on the road in Chicago? Or had he hopped a late-afternoon flight to Chi-town?

Kitayatsu Hiroaki joined Huang as the additional qualifier from Asia. After a long drive from his home in Ibaraki to Tokyo, and after an even longer flight from Tokyo to Newark International, the 34-year-old reached New York just in time for rehearsal, disorientated from the 13-hour time difference. An oddity in Japan, Kitayatsu has limited his console gaming to the Xbox brand (he has purchased both Microsoft consoles), shaking his head "no" as his translator confirmed that he didn't own any Nintendo or PlayStation products. In-between jobs, Kitayatsu had time to travel to the event, but not time enough to overcome his exhaustion. He placed 7th, just ahead of Billy Mitchell.

Yes, Mr. Perfect PACMAN (Mitchell's gamertag) was in the house and toting along boxes of his hot sauce and bumper stickers, which proclaim, "Work is for people who can't play video games!" Mitchell, a healthy 41, couldn't remember what place he'd finished in -- he'd definitely made it past the first round -- but besides, he'd forecast his fate in the losers' circle with a quote printed on the official placard that hung in front of his assigned station: "I think I am going to get WHIPPED." Despite being the obvious favorite, Mitchell seemed to downplay the significance of this particular "World Champion" title (after all, it was for Pac-Man Championship Edition, not the celebrated original), unintentionally drawing speculation that he was a celebrity guest planted by Microsoft. But Mitchell insisted that he had heard about the competition from several unnamed sources and had purchased his own Xbox 360 to compete. He recalled qualifying with around 2.8 million points, although he had apparently been disconnected from Xbox Live during another attempt in which he had collected roughly 2.1 million points and was still on his first life. (For the record, Mitchell confirmed that the Xbox Live Arcade version of Pac-Man emulates the arcade original down to a 60th of a second.) Like the other old-timers competing in the event, Mitchell struggled to find a control method that felt comfortable. During the competition Mitchell switched between pinching the thumbstick between his thumb and fingers (mimicking a mini-version of an arcade cabinet joystick) and using just his thumb, which he observed the younger players doing with success. Neither worked, and Mitchell was eliminated in the second round, finishing 8th.

Mitchell was eager to show that his blown-dry mullet, tight black jeans, and American flag tie were not evidence of an unruly, macho disposition, as Seth Gordon's documentary The King of Kong has audiences believing -- he's more like a proud relic of the Cold War, when it mattered that we know an American had been recognized as the "Video Game Player of the Century." He brought along most of the family, including his wife, one of their daughters, and Billy the Third, who slammed his controller to the ground and stormed off after losing his final life during free-play at the reception following the competition. "He's got my temper," grinned Mitchell, adding that little Billy had managed the unofficial top Pac-Man Championship Edition score at the event, he thought.

While on the topic of King of Kong, Mitchell reiterated many of the discrepancies between his reality and the film that have recently surfaced. It's not that Mitchell doesn't make valid points in his defense, he does, but it's hard to feel sorry for someone who willingly signed away his self for use in "reality" entertainment. By his own admission, Mitchell's ego has been damaged because he got played. Walter Day (also featured in and unhappy with King of Kong), who was at the Pac-Man Championship not as Mitchell's co-conspirer, but as an official referee representing Guinness and his own organization Twin Galaxies, explained that most of the film's participants had been duped into believing King of Kong was to be "a grand celebration of everyone's contribution" to classic arcade competition -- not an underdog defeats big, bad Billy myth. Walter is visibly worn down by the unsettled bickering between parties and eager to retire and move on to a musical career; he's got a catalog of more than 100 original songs to hit the road with.

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Dwayne Richard (Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada)

Dwayne Richard, 38, who competed alongside Mitchell during the golden era of competitive gaming (which ended in '86, according to Mitchell), managed to avoid the mess of King of Kong and is shooting his own documentary that's closer to Walter's ideal (but it lacks Hollywood funds). Dwayne, whose penchant for speediness extends through his speech and jittery limbs, is the only participant of his era to overcome modern obstacles and succeed -- though not without injury; he tore open his fingernail during a practice session when his hand slipped from the gamepad's thumbstick. He placed third in the World Championship competition. "I got paid today," declared Dwayne, stretching out his thumb and pinky, forming a shaka sign and shaking his wrist, "I'm stoked!" Indeed, the eBay seller turned part-time wild mushroom picker is eager to compete if money's involved -- at least, whenever something with monetary value is at stake. Guess where his Quiznos gift card will end up?

But even an experienced hustler like Dwayne couldn't best the event's dark horse: 27-year-old Carlos Romero from Pachuca, México. Romero, reserved in English, had already begun to capitalize on the free exposure, showing off his Nusof tee, baring the branding of his five-person development studio, which is hard at work on a sequel to the PC first-person shooter Biops -- "The first one didn't do so well," he lamented. The champion played the part well, declaring Pac-Man to be his all-time favorite -- "of course" -- and calling the new Championship Edition a classic "reborn." He even insisted he'd regularly make the 58-mile drive to Mexico City to cash in on his 26 years of Quiznos subs. "Of course," he shrugged. We shook hands and he lounged back in his white leather chair with the ease of a king in his throne, turning to his friend who had already begun an animated conversation in Spanish. It had nothing to do with Pac-Man.

The Xbox 360 Pac-Man World Championship didn't make the front pages. Pac-Man Championship Edition won't spawn a TV show or Top 40 single. As Iwatani's final game, it's a footnote, not a history lesson. Face it, he's a one-hit wonder. Can you name a Iwatani game besides Pac-Man? Didn't think so.

Still, Microsoft has managed to quite unexpectedly forge a direct link between its 'Box, gaming's baby brand, and the industry's quintessential root. Sure, purists might cite Spacewar, or even physicist Willy Higinbotham's 1958 tennis sim, which was played on an oscilloscope. And the mainstream has always been fond of Pong as an origin. But Pac-Man ... Pac-Man is a cultural icon, a capital creature, a brand that led us out of the 70s and into an era of economic rapture. Reborn, exclusively on Xbox 360, Pac-Man won't win market share alone, but even at 40, Michael Jordan was a threat coming off the bench. Pac-Man is just 26. Well played, Microsoft.


This article was originally published on Joystiq.