Ms. Pac-Man, one of the first playable female characters in video games, first came on the scene in 1982, wearing a fur stole and heavy stage makeup in a piece of cover art that described her as “the new femme fatale of the game world.” She was yellow. She was spherical. And she was unforgettable.
Pac-Man’s playable wife had actually been created as a reward for all of the female gamers who had propelled the original Pac-Man to great heights. Midway Games spokesman Stan Jarocki put it this way to Electronic Games in 1982: “Pac-Man was the first commercial videogame to involve large numbers of women as players. It expanded our customer base and made Pac-Man a hit. Now we’re producing this new game, Ms. Pac-Man, as our way of thanking all of those lady arcaders who have played and enjoyed Pac-Man.”
Did those “lady arcaders” appreciate that one of the very first depictions of a playable woman in a game involved lipstick, a hair bow, and interstitial cutscenes depicting the romance and eventual progeny of Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man? I know I wouldn’t have! Of course, Midway had only so many pixels with which to communicate the idea of femininity, so the results were simplistic and stereotypical — but the game played great, sold well, and received critical acclaim for its improvements over the original Pac-Man.
And so, in 2021, we look back on the legacy of Ms. Pac-Man, and we celebrate her through the power of our artistic talents. Without looking up any of the original art depicting her, the staffers of Polygon did our best to remember what she looked like, drawing her based on those memories — and some of us even attempted to give her a new look for a new era.
“I reimagined Ms. Pac-Man as a combination of Christine Baranski from Mamma Mia and Christine Baranski from The Good Fight.”
“In retrospect, the teeth were a bad idea. The Timbs, however, were not.”
“So I was going to do a sultry booba Ms. Pac-Man as an ironic joke, but then I got worried that people wouldn’t be able to tell it’s a joke and I would just look like a weird pervert. So here we are. Waka waka.”
“Untitled, 2021 (Water-soluable wax pastels on paper)”
“I wanted to capture Ms. Pac-Man forever yearning for what is just out of her reach, as she battles societal expectations and the constant reminder that she will forever be in Pac-Man’s shadow, without an identity of her own.”
“The title of this piece is ‘Ms. Pac-Woman,’ because I don’t know why she took Mr. Pac-Man’s last name. This piece, when viewed in conjunction with Petrana Radulovic’s, illustrates the duality that comes with being a woman in games. In it, we see Ms. Pac-Man eating a fruit power-up, and then shattering the glass ceiling.
I made this piece with the first web-based drawing app that came up after a Google search. I added the flowers because it was a pre-loaded shape on Sketch.io, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about Ari Aster’s Midsommar when drawing it.”
“I feel like this speaks for itself.”
“In this Polygon Draws, I went for a simpler — but dare I say refined? — Ms. Pac-Man. I tried to combine some of the more detailed, 3D versions of the character with the sprite people know and love. And I think I’ve accomplished that here.
But then I fucked up. I worked really hard to put those polka dots on there, only to find out that she always wears solid-colored pink or red boots with a matching bow. And now we just have Ms. Pac-Man by way of god damn Minnie Mouse. I regret the error. But I will not fix it.”
“I drew a lot of Ms. Pac-Man in third grade (1981-1982, if you must know), picking up her traits from a series of trading cards and stickers that I stuck all over the inside of my school desk. So after attempting a more anthropomorphic Ms. Pac-Man — who did not turn out well at all — I went back to what I knew, tossing in a rather hacky joke about box wine.”
— Owen, Mrs. Miles’ class, Elkin Primary School
“All I could remember about Ms. Pac-Man is that she was yellow, round, had a red bow, and her eyes were drawn in a retro ’30s style. However, I completely forgot that she also had hands and red boots. This basically my excuse for why my drawing of Ms. Pac-Man is bad.”
“I asked myself, ‘What if Ms. Pac-Man began a path toward human evolution, like the first sea creatures to gasp for air on land?’ From there, the pen took over.”
“This is a strong Ms. Pac-Man who is saving Pac-Man with the power of gun and empathy. A Ms. Pac-Man who tests well with the action movie market.”
“Imagine what Ms. Pac-Man would look like on a sexy CW adaptation from the creator of Riverdale. You don’t have to, because this is it right here.”