The professor behind Pac-Man

The professor behind Pac-Man
Professor Toru Iwatani, 60.

Friday marks the 35th anniversary of the day that Pac-Man, that classic icon of arcade games, was unleashed on the world.

Ahead of this momentous anniversary, his creator has a dirty little secret to share: He is pretty lousy at the game.

Professor Toru Iwatani, 60, still plays it, though. "I occasionally play the original arcade video game because we have it in the game archive room at the university," he said. "I am not a good player and don't last too long."

His children - a son, who is 30, and a daughter, who is 26 - are casual gamers who enjoy console games.

Prof Iwatani left game developer Namco behind eight years ago for Tokyo Polytechnic University, where he teaches game theory, game planning, and serious games in the Department of Game in the Faculty of Arts. But the Pac-Man franchise has been a constant in his life.

This year is also special because it marks Pac-Man's big screen debut in a big budget Hollywood movie called Pixels, starring Adam Sandler,

In the movie, aliens, believing Earth to be hostile, use classic video-game characters, such as Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, to attack the planet.

"When I heard that it is a story about aliens mistaking the images of old arcade games as a declaration of war, and deciding to attack Earth, I instinctively thought this will be an interesting movie," said Prof Iwatani.

He also created the lesser-known video game Libble Rabble and others, though none have had the impact of Pac-Man.

Columbia Pictures wrote him into the movie. In the trailers released so far, you can see that he is played by the Japanese Canadian actor, Denis Akiyama.

The professor noted: "It is very unusual that an actor plays a video-game creator in a big summer action movie. Mr Akiyama is a great actor and looks like me, so his character was instantly believable to me."

While Pac-Man reportedly has generated more than US$2.5 billion (S$3.3 billion) over the last 35 years, in all this time, it has inspired only a single cartoon series, Pac-Man And The Ghostly Adventures.

Hollywood was interested in making a Pac-Man movie for a time, he said, but it never materialised.

It is public knowledge that Prof Iwatani never profited from the game's material success, but he said it has never been an issue.

He explains: "In Japanese companies, employees don't receive special compensation. What's more important is the environment where one can engage in development activity freely."

On top of teaching, he is working on a new technology that has a foundation in video games.

"I am researching and developing a brand new concept game system at the university. It is a wearable gaming suit that turns your entire body into a display, and has the combined function of a display, a monitor, controller and player."

"This may be used for artistic expression and other things, and may expand the possibility of games."

sherwinl@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 20, 2015.
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