There’s a World Video Game Hall of Fame now, and the first class of inductees was announced yesterday. Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Doom, and World of Warcraft are to video games what Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner are to baseball.
Canonball—the process of assembling a canon—is one of my favorite games, because it never ends and no one can win. It’s an intellectual endless runner. The Strong National Museum of Play and its selection committee did a perfectly acceptable job, and the Strong is a terrific museum in Rochester, N.Y., that you should visit. Yet I also think there’s a tragic mistake in the inaugural class: Ms. Pac-Man should have made the cut instead of her overbearing husband.
The Strong’s committee included journalists from outlets like Game Informer, Polygon, and Wired, and academics from places like Georgia Tech, New York University, and Stanford. The committee was restricted to a list of 15 nominees—Angry Birds, Doom, FIFA, The Legend of Zelda, Minecraft, The Oregon Trail, Pac-Man, Pokémon, Pong, The Sims, Sonic the Hedgehog, Space Invaders, Super Mario Bros., Tetris, and World of Warcraft—provided by the Strong, which sifted through thousands of nominations from the public.
Yet Ms. Pac Man is the greatest game of the arcade age, one of the only cabinets you can still find in pizza joints and bars all across America. People no longer play Pac-Man, much less Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, or that amazing vector graphics sit-down Star Wars game. But even in her 30s, Ms. Pac-Man is ubiquitous. Go to a retro arcade like New York City’s Barcade and, more often than not, people will be huddled around the one game that you don’t have to go to a retro arcade to play.
The best video games are not necessarily the ones that most influenced the history of the medium. The question to consider when assembling a list like this is the one that Harold Bloom posed at the outset of The Western Canon: “What shall the individual who still desires to read* attempt to read, this late in history?” (*Find: read; Replace: play)
Ms. Pac-Man is, simply, the better game. People still play it, because you should still play it. In addition to variety in its mazes, moving fruit, and the barest outline of a story, Ms. Pac-Man introduced randomness into the movement of its ghosts, making it unbeatable by pure memorization, unlike its predecessor. (I learned this fact in Joshuah Bearman’s masterful Harper’s story, “The Perfect Game.”)
But Ms. Pac-Man is historically important, too. It was created as Crazy Otto, a kit that MIT students sold as a modification for Pac-Man cabinets, before being sold to Midway, who turned the kit into a cabinet of its own, a sequel to the most popular game of its day. (A talk last year at the MIT Game Lab by Steve Golson, one of the game’s developers, went into some of the details.) Ms. Pac-Man might be history’s most famous mod.
My brother hung a Pac-Man bulletin board on the otherwise barren walls of his childhood bedroom. I used to watch the Hanna-Barbera Pac-Man cartoon on Saturday mornings in the 1980s. I know Pac-Man. Pac-Man is a friend of mine. Pac-Man, you’re no Ms. Pac-Man.
Chris Suellentrop is the critic at large for Kotaku. Contact him by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter at @suellentrop.
Top photo of Ms. Pac-Man in a Denver bar by Aaron Ontiveroz | Getty Images