The Japanese corporate executive Masaya Nakamura (1925–2017) built his career in the entertainment industry. In 1955 he founded the video-game firm Namco, which was responsible for the runaway hit Pac-Man as well as a variety of other successful mechanical game classics of the arcade era.
Although Masaya Nakamura was not a game designer, he participated enthusiastically in testing the games his designers devised, and he insisted on creativity in the designers he hired. He was one of the pioneers in Japanese video-game manufacture, taking note of the early growth of game devices in the 1970s and redirecting the efforts of his company, which had previously made department-store rides for children, toward the new entertainment market. Nakamura had an unusually long career, founding Namco in 1955 and retreating to a ceremonial role in running the country only in 2002. Popularly known as the Father of Pac-Man, he also spearheaded other innovations in the video-game industry and made forays into amusement park rides as well as film and television production.
A private man who shared little personal information with the public, Nakamura was born in Yokohama (one source says Tokyo), Japan, on December 24, 1925. He attended Yokohama State University, majoring in shipbuilding, but this degree was of little help in Japan's devastated economy following World War II. Unable to find a job in the field he had chosen, Nakamura went to work for his father, a gun repairman who had once owned a business offering custom-made shotguns. “I would do everything from sweeping the floor to designing posters advertising the work shop,” Nakamura was later quoted as saying, according to the London Times. “I would spend my evenings cycling around Tokyo pasting up the posters. We were eventually able to sell new rifles, and I would visit the suppliers.”
The Nakamura family business encountered difficulties, however, when Japan began to clamp down on private gun ownership during the post–World War II era. Initially, a series of laws restricted general firearms sales, and then new limitations were put in place limiting permissible game for hunters. Repairs dried up, and the Nakamuras at first tried to adapt by offering repairs to airguns. Then the younger Nakamura hit on the idea of using the company's gun expertise to make toy guns rather than real ones. From there, the family's activities expanded into public children's entertainment devices that required some engineering sophistication. In the early 1950s, Nakamura purchased two wooden crank-operated mechanical horse rides and offered to install them on the roof of a Yokohama department store.
This venture proved successful enough that Nakamura decided to form a new company devoted to entertainment devices. In 1955 he started Nakamura Seisakusho Co., Ltd., changing the name to Nakamura Manufacturing Co. in 1959, and ultimately Namco, when the company expanded its business beyond Asia in 1971. Children's rides, at first a sideline to toy guns, became a major focus of the company's activities after the large Japanese department store chain Mitsukoshi installed a Namco product—a children's ride in which small cars ran on tracks—on the roof of its Tokyo flagship store. When that device, named Roadway Rides in English, proved popular, the chain placed orders to similarly outfit all of its stores.
Namco's first foray into adult games was a coin-operated driving device called Racer, released in 1970. A second major step in its growth came in 1974, when Namco acquired a controlling interest in financially struggling Atari Games, which had pioneered electronic video arcade games with Pong in 1972. Namco's other main rival, Sega, was also interested in acquiring Atari, but Nakamura scared off this and other potential rivals with a large bid of $800,000 at the beginning of negotiations. Analysts criticized Namco's large investments in Atari at several points, but Nakamura's judgment was ultimately vindicated.
Namco's engineering staff grew as Nakamura steered the company toward pursuing the growing international arcade game market. In 1978 it released the pinball-like Gee Bee, which was designed by a 23-year-old, newly hired designer named Toru Iwatani. While Iwatani also devised the game's two sequels, Bomb Bee and Cutie Q, a bigger Namco hit was Galaxian, inspired by rival Taito's Space Invaders. Released in 1979, Galaxian was quickly sold to the U.S. firm Midway Games. A sequel, Galaga (1981), marked the second Namco-Midway partnership and became an enduring success. Nothing, however, prepared the video-game world for Pac-Man (in Japan, PakkuMan), which appeared in 1980 and propelled the arcade video game from niche hobby to ubiquitous cultural phenomenon.
Designed by Iwatani, Pac-Man was also shaped by Nakamura's marketing sense. Like Iwatani, he reasoned that young women constituted half the potential market for arcade games but had little interest in the existing shoot-the-alienships games currently available in arcades. “When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortunetelling, or food or dating boyfriends,” Nakamura explained in a Wired interview, as quoted by Travis M. Andrews in the Washington Post. He and Iwatani decided to focus their new game on food and eating, and Pac-Man was born.
Pac-Man became a runaway success among both male and female users and remains the highest-grossing arcade game of all time. With its central Pac-Man figure cheerfully eating dots and powering up by eating pieces of fruit, while pursued by monsters Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde (in Japanese, Chaser, Ambusher, Fickle, and Feigned Ignorance), the game resembled nothing else on the market at the time. Nakamura was heavily involved in the game's testing process and was reported by Namco employees to spend sometimes as much as 23 hours a day playing Pac-Man. As quoted by Jonathan Soble in the New York Times, he once shared his concern “about the way some young people play it so much. Once it goes beyond a certain level, it is not good for young people.”
Even Nakamura failed to predict the dimensions of Pac-Man's success. “You know baseball?,” he remarked in an interview quoted by Andrews. “Well, I knew it would not be a single. But I thought maybe a double, not a home run.” Namco continued to produce successful games through the mid-1990s, including a girl-focused console version of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, whose arcade version was developed in the United States by Midway. In addition to Galaga and Pole Position, successful Namco releases also included Final Lap (1987), generally recognized as the first multiplayer game; Ridge Racer (1993), another driving simulation game but this time featuring 3-D computer graphics; and Tekken (1994), a 3-D fighting animation game that became one of the company's most successful franchises.
In later years Namco acquired business interests outside the video-gaming sphere. The company opened a chain of food-themed amusement parks in Japan, most of which have not survived, and in 1993 it acquired the film studio Nikkatsu, largely known for samurai action films and soft-core pornography. Nakamura was listed as executive producer on several of Nikkatsu's releases. In 2005 the company merged with games company Bandai to form Bandai Namco. Nakamura was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government in 2005, and in 2010 he was inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame. He died on January 22, 2017, in Japan; Namco, citing the Nakamura family's desire for privacy, did not reveal the place or the cause of his death.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 17, 2017, “Masaya Nakamura; Amusement Park Entrepreneur Responsible for Pac-Man, One of the World's First Computer Games.”
Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2017, “Masaya Nakamura, the ‘Father of Pac-Man’ and Gaming Pioneer, Dies at 91.”
New York Times, January 31, 2017, Jonathan Soble, “Masaya Nakamura, Whose Company Created World of Pac-Man, Dies at 91,” p. A27.
Sunday Times (London, England), August 31, 1997, Rupert Steiner, “Pac-Man Creator Bites into County Hall; My First Break,” p. 8.
Times (London, England), February 2, 2017, “Masaya Nakamura; Founder of the Video Game Company Bandai Namco.”
Washington Post, January 31, 2017, Travis M. Andrews, “Father of Pac-Man Dead at 91.”
Variety, http://variety.com/2017/film/asia/pac-man-pioneer-masaya-nakamura-founder-of-namco-dead-at-96-1201973117/ (November 5, 2017), Patrick Frater, “‘Pac-Man’ Pioneer Masaya Nakamura, Founder of Namco, Dies at 91.”
Wired, https://www.wired.com/2017/01/masaya-nakamura-obit/ (November 5, 2017), “Masaya Nakamura—the ‘Father of Pac-Man’—Dies at 91.”□