Despite having a simple concept, Pac-Man is also host to one of the most abstract game worlds ever created. Why is he in a maze? What purpose do the Pac-dots and Energizers serve? What are the ghost-monsters, exactly? What are their motivations? Why does no one seem to have legs? How can you eat a key?
These and many more questions were answered, in part, by Hanna-Barbera’s 1982 cartoon series, eponymously named “Pac-Man.” One question it answered that we possibly didn’t ask, “What does Pac-Man sound like?” was also answered in a way we may not have foreseen — “Like a raspy-voiced Jewish comedian.”
In the game, Pac-Man has to sneak around his antagonists, who are seemingly guarding munchables from the yellow fiend. The cartoon turns the tables on this concept, setting Pac-Man as the guardian of the Power Pellet Forest — this would be the first time the term “Power Pellet” would be used — and repelling the invasions of the ghost-monsters — another term coined by the animated series*.
The ghost-monsters reported to some dude in a mask called “Mezmaron,” who seemed to want control of all the Power Pellets for some unspoken reason. Sending the ghost-monsters after said Power Pellets seemed to be either an exercise in futility or irony, because it was somewhat like sending Superman after the annual Kryptonite harvest. And not the purple Kryptonite that would give him extra arms with which to complete the task more quickly, either.
Anyway, Mezmaron would send the ghost monsters out to pick up the objects which were their one weakness, and then be surprised and angry when their plans inevitably failed. Despite how simple the plot in Pac-Man was, Hanna-Barbera somehow still got it wrong, casting Clyde, who was the dumbest ghost-monster in the game itself, as the leader, and Blinky, who may not have been the leader in the game, but was certainly the most persistent foe and always the first out of the monster lair, as a complete idiot. Plus, Sue from Ms. Pac-Man was included as well, leaving us with five ghost-monsters, which any true fan can tell you is wrong. Totally wrong in so many ways.
Much like so many other properties, Pac-Man was “Hanna-Barberified,” becoming filled with stuff that had nothing to do with the actual game. Ever see the Hanna-Barbera “Dragon’s Lair” cartoon? Wow, talk about unrelated. Maybe a little too unrelated. Anyways, where was I? Oh, yeah. Ever see the Super Bowl episode? Or “Presidential Pac-Nappers,” where the ghost-monsters kidnap the President of the United States? Or “The Pac-Mummy?” Yeah, Pac-Man the Cartoon was very much influenced by the likes of “Josie and the Pussycats” and “Jabberjaw,” albeit with less mystery-solving and fewer meddling kids. Or, if you prefer, by “The Jetsons” and “Yogi Bear,” with fewer talking robot appliances and pick-a-nick baskets.
Despite adhering to many Saturday morning precepts, Pac-Man was the pioneer of video game cartoons, much in the same way that he pioneered popular arcade gaming. While the television show adhered to many cartoon tropes, it also helped push the game series forward as well. Did you know the side-scrolling Pac-Land was in part based on the TV series? Although we don’t see Pac-Man in a fedora much lately, several of the games’ covers and promotional art did, in fact, feature him so throughout the 1980s.
*The original arcade packaging referred to the villains as “monsters,” while the Atari 2600 port manual referred to them as “ghosts,” which was actually to account for a technical deficiency in which only one monster could be displayed at any given second, leading to a flickering effect. The cartoon series got around this discrepancy by combining and hyphenating the terms.