In Honor of Pac-Man’s 30th Birthday

The best-known hero of early video games turns 30 today. Because the yella fella figured large in my own transition to young adulthood, so he does in the coming-of-age of Linus Tuttle, the hero of Mamba Point. In honor, here are two short scenes from the final draft — they both made it to the book, but might have changed in copy-editing.

First, a few days into his African experience, Linus gets a wonderful surprise:

After lunch we went home and unpacked our air freight, which was some of our stuff that we needed right away like clothes and dishes. The rest of our stuff was coming later in what they called sea freight. I put everything away really quickly. Mom popped in, and I was worried she was going to see that I’d crammed all my clothes into the drawer without folding them—you could see a sleeve here and there leaking out—but she didn’t.

“We need you in the family room,” she said.

Oh, no. I followed her to the second-biggest bedroom that Mom and Dad had decided would be a family room. I didn’t know what she needed me to do—the TV was already set up, along with the VCR and the Atari.

Wait. We didn’t have an Atari. I’d begged for an Atari back home and my parents said I couldn’t have one because they didn’t want me to go blind or turn into a drooling idiot. There was one now, though—a black box about the size of an encyclopedia, and two joysticks waiting to be used. We even had two games: Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Who needed anything else? I stared at it, stunned. Video games… at home. It was absolutely the greatest thing I could imagine. I looked up and saw Mom and Dad grinning at me.

Law came in, noticed the game, and grinned. “Neat! Thanks!”

“Surprise,” Mom said with a voila gesture.

“Thanks.” I hugged her and Dad, then turned everything on so Law and I could play. I guess Mom and Dad figured moving to Africa meant we needed entertainment more than we needed vision or brains.
I went first, navigating my yellow hero through the maze, chomping dots. It was easier than the arcade version. Pac-Man was faster, and the ghosts were dumber.

“When do I get to go?” Law asked.

“When I get eaten.”

“You mean like now?” he asked, taking a swipe at my joystick.

“Knock it off.” I pulled away from him, and barely managed to make my Pac-Man turn the corner instead of sailing into the mouth of the pink ghost.

“How about now?” Law waved his arm in front of the TV.

“Jerk.” I tried to read the screen in between waves of his arm, but missed the chance to nab the apple before it disappeared.

“How about now?” Law covered my eyes from behind.

“No! Argh!” I heard the familiar downward musical spiral and double-blip of a Pac-Man biting the dust.

“You’re such a jerk.” I gave him the joystick anyway, so he could have a try.

“Nah, you go again. It’s more fun to watch you.”

I didn’t argue. I grabbed the joystick and played.

Later, Linus shares the game with some younger Liberian boys he’s befriended:

We went into the family room and I showed them how to navigate the yellow hero through the maze.

“Why do those monsters eat the lemon?” Tokie asked. I started to explain that we were only on the cherry level until I realized he thought Pac-Man was a lemon. Actually, Pac-Man did look like a lemon.

“Those monsters love to eat lemons,” I told him.

“But how come the lemon eats the monsters sometimes?”

“When he eats the power pill, he can eat the monsters.”  I showed him how it worked, waiting for the ghosts to get lined up before I steered through the power pill and got all four of them. After that, Tokie was obsessed with eating the ghosts, but couldn’t seem to time it right and kept getting chomped.

“Just eat the dots,” Gambeh told him. “The goal is to eat all the dots.” He was right. It was a rookie mistake, obsessing on the ghosts. Gambeh was better at the game, even clearing the maze once or twice. He loved the teleport chamber where Pac-Man goes off one side of the screen and comes back on the other. “Where am I?” he would ask in the split second when Pac-Man was invisible, then scroll back on to the screen. “Here I am!”

“Does the lemon never get full?” Tokie asked.

“I guess not.” It was some life, wasn’t it? Always on the run and hungry. I felt sorry for the lemon.

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