Nerves were taut. Clammy palms and fingers clutched control levers; bloodshot eyes stared hypnotically at glowing white dots. An incessant “wucka-wucka-wucka” dementedly filled the room, along with occasional “glumps” and “weep-weep-weeps.” It was PEOPLE’S first celebrity Pac-Man contest, and more than 43 of Hollywood’s best and brightest video game freaks had gathered in the Square One L.A. showroom to test their skill at the biggest game craze in the country.
Bosom Buddies star Donna Dixon was eliminated in the first five-minute round. So were Real People’s Byron Allen, former NFL commentator and film star (Body and Soul) Jayne Kennedy, The Waltons’ Jon (Jason) Walmsley and Jimmy Van Patten. Over the next couple of hours Danielle Brisebois of Archie Bunker’s Place, Greatest American Hero wisecracker Jesse Goins, Trapper John’s Brian Mitchell and even Scott Baio—Chachi of Happy Days and its hit spin-off Joanie Loves Chachi—got monster-munched. “I just don’t work well under pressure,” alibied Danielle. In the end it was a showdown between Matthew Laborteaux, late of Little House on the Prairie, and Dorian (Strike Force) Harewood.
“In the last five seconds I was still behind,” Laborteaux gasped in his breathless postgame recap. “Then I saw a Galaxian. I zipped up to the top of the screen and ate it. But Harewood is good. I only beat him by that one fruit!” Galaxian? Fruit? As any self-respecting Pac-Maniac knows, they are bonus objects which, when gobbled, net a player up to 2,000 points. For accomplishing that feat and racking up 61,880 points in the 10-minute time limit, Laborteaux walked away with the grand prize: a $3,000 Pac-Man arcade machine. The 15-year-old put it in the family room of his parents’ Northridge, Calif. home, alongside his Missile Command game.
Dorian Harewood finished flukily. Through a timing error, his final round was halted at 59,510—good enough for second place. Given the option, he tried again, but got only 56,470 and so dropped to third—behind Timothy Gibbs of Father Murphy, who had 57,090.
What made Laborteaux and the other TV, movie and music stars who attended the tourney go slightly daffy was the same national obsession that has Americans spending $6 billion a year on video games (in arcades and on home cassettes, which cost between $12 and $38). That is more than the entire film industry grosses—or all the Nevada casinos combined.
Pac-Man is a small yellow disk guided around a maze by the player’s joystick. With its ever-chomping jaws, Pac-Man accumulates points by wolfing down dots and fruit, and is pursued by—and can pursue—four deceptively amiable-looking ghosts. It is the first video game to be exceptionally popular with women. Sociologists speculate that the reason may be that Pac-Man consumes its opponents, rather than shooting, bombing or otherwise zapping them as in other video games. (Pac-Man originated in Japan and gets its name from the Japanese word “paku,” which means “to eat.”)
In the 18 months since the game appeared in the U.S., Pac-Mania has swallowed up the lion’s share of the video game market. Some 96,000 arcade machines have been built (not to mention thousands of illegal bootlegs), and retailers now have long waiting lists of customers to snap up Atari’s home cassettes at $37.95.
The game has spun off into hundreds of other products, from Pac-Man dolls to blue jeans with Pac-Man patches. A couple of how-to books, Mastering Pac-Man (NAL/ Signet, $1.95) and How to Win at Pac-Man (Pocket Books, $2.25) are best-sellers. Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia’s title song from their LP Pac-Man Fever hit Billboard’s Top 10 (Buckner and Garcia’s new single spin-off is Do the Donkey Kong—see page 73). A Saturday morning Pac-Man cartoon show and a Pac-Man Christmas special are also in the making at ABC.
Like the game itself, the PEOPLE Pac-Man tournament was designed with one thing in mind—fun. Before emcee Harry Anderson, the comic magician who has appeared on Saturday Night Live, called the first five-minute round, contestants tested out the six arcade machines. Laborteaux, both a pinball and video wizard who ranks 10th in the world among Centipede players and who once played Missile Command for 13 straight hours, moved from machine to machine, muttering “This one is too slow” and “The stick is too loose on this one,” before he was satisfied. “Dorian was my hottest competition,” says Matt generously. Now that he owns his own machine, Laborteaux is pitting himself against even tougher competition. The all-time highest Pac-Man score, he learned, is 5.5 million, “and that’s something to shoot for.”