Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde: Smarter Than You Think

At the moment, I am haunted by the ghosts of Pac-Man. Unlike regular hauntings, which more often make people go crazy or become possessed or move away, this timely supernatural occurrence has prompted me to write another entry in the games-and-names file.

Way back when, I blogged about a prolonged night at Elsie’s in which I sat next to the Pac-Man machine and ended up watching the attract mode for way longer than I should have. As the lights flashed and repeatedly drew my attention, I watched the introduction of the game’s characters again and again and I noted that the four ghosts have two sets of names. Where as the four are introduced as Blinky (the red one), Pinky (the pink one), Inky (the blue one) and Clyde (the orange one), they’re also given an alternate set of names: Shadow, Speedy, Bashful and Pokey, respectively.

image courtesy of spritestrich

It gets weirder: This particular machine was one of the ones that contains all the major Pac-Man games and therefore scrolled through them, one by one. The included ghosts change. In Ms. Pac-Man, Clyde is replaced by another orange ghost, Sue, possibly in an effort to even out the gender ratio. In Pac-Man Jr., Sue is replaced with Tim, also orange.

But it all seems arbitrary, right?

In a sense, it is. However, Ashley Davis, a blogger over at Destructoid, put a post up last week specifically on the Pac-Man ghosts and why they got the names that they did. In short, though it might seem like Blinky, Pinky, Inky and the Clyde-Sue-Tim hivemind hover around dot-filled mazes in the exact same way, they don’t. In fact, the way they move is explained by their nicknames.

As Davis explains it, Clyde (a.k.a. “Pokey”) might seem like he’d move especially slowly, but he doesn’t. Instead, he moves around at a normal speed but not at all in pursuit of Pac-Man. He does his own thing; if he happens to snag Pac-Man and make him rotate counterclockwise into oblivion, it’s a total coincidence. His Japanese name, Otoboke, translates to something like “stupid” or “dopey,” Davis explains. Thus, “Pokey” — or, as we shall interpret it, “mentally challenged.” Thus, if Clyde kills Pac-Man, it’s probably as a result of the player being equally as mentally challenged.

Inky, as Davis explains it, is equally unlikely to kill Pac-Man. His Japanese name, Kimagure, translates to “whimsy.” And it might seem like his pattern is based on pure whimsy, but it’s apparently not. As it’s explained on the Twin Galaxies forum, Inky’s position on the screen may seem random, but it’s actually based on a the relationship between Pac-Man and Blinky, the red ghost. More or less, Inky resides on the part of the screen that’s twice as far from the distance between the red ghost and two spaces in front of Pac-Man. It’s very complex.

Pinky (a.k.a. “Speedy”) doesn’t actually move any faster than the rest of the ghosts. His Japanese name — Machibuse, “ambusher” — is more accurate, as she takes it upon herself to trap Pac-Man into corners with the help of the Blinky. (This website, by the way, switches the Japanese names for Inky and Pinky, but since it’s in the minority on the matter, I’ll assume it’s a mistake.)

And then there’s Blinky (a.k.a. “Shadow”). In Japanese, he’s Oikake, “chaser.” He bases his movements on Pac-Man himself, always with the goal of reducing the amount of distance between himself and the yellow dot-gobbler. If the vertical distance is greater, he’ll do what he can to reduce that so long as the horizontal distance doesn’t become greater, in which case he’ll reduce that instead. Davis notes that when Pac-Man consumes a certain number of dots, the behavior of Blinky — and only Blinky — changes. He goes into what is known among Pac-Man aficionados as “Cruise Elroy” mode. (Davis supplies some guesses as to where the term might come from, but she rightly leaves it as being obscure.) In this mode, Blinky moves faster than he would normally be able to.

Interesting, in my book, for two reasons: The four ghosts each have their own programmed motivation for getting around a given maze (one) and these motivations are hinted at by their names (two).

Davis leaves out one additional ghost, however, who’s little known even among those who pride themselves in their Pac-Man skills: the especially obscure green ghost, Miru (also translated as “Mil,” unfortunately). I read about her while browsing Wikipedia sometime back and had been meaning to reveal her existence to the world for a while before the Destructoid post gave me an opportunity. Miru appears in the 1983 Japan-only title Pac & Pal, which Wikipedia alleges could be the rarest Pac-Man title.

I’m fairly certain that Miru is the only truly female ghost in the series, Sue and Pinky’s names notwithstanding. You can tell by the fact that she, like Ms. Pac-Man herself, wears a bow on her head. And that’s a sure a sign of femininity as there ever was. (She looks like “a gooseberry with legs,” according to Wikipedia.) She apparently zooms around the maze, unaffected by the evil ghosts, and will grab items. If Pac-Man doesn’t intercept them from her, they get dropped in the “ghost box” in the center of the maze, where they become lost forever.

In short, Miru doesn’t sound like all that much help. In some versions, she’s apparently replaced by Chomp-Chomp, Pac-Man’s dog. If that’s not a slap in the face to early gender equality in video games, I don’t know what is.

courtesy of

And that, my friends, is everything I know about the Pac-Man ghosts, their weird alternate personas, their additional American alteregos, and their dumb little sister that no one talks about anymore.

EDIT: I’ve found a bit more on the ghosts. First, what’s in the comments below is accurate. Pac-mania did, in fact, introduce new ghosts into the mix. The green one is, in fact, named Funky and the gray one Spunky, though they’re also apparently known as the far less fun-sounding “Common” and “Gray Common.” And Sue does reappear, now purple.

However, these aren’t the last of the ghosts. There’s also one named Yum-Yum, who appears in Jr. Pac-Man as some kind of Juliet to Jr. Pac-Man’s Romeo. The latter’s boyhood is represented by the fact that he wears a little propeller beanie on his head, while the former’s femininity is once again represented by the fact that she wears a bow. Below is a screenshot, which I nabbed from this YouTube clip.

Here’s Jr. Pac-Man, just after he’s dropped off by the stork.

And here’s little Yum-Yum meeting Jr. for the first time.

Finally, regarding the big four ghosts, I noticed in Chris Kohler’s Game Over a little section on their names. He translated the Japanese names of Clyde, Inky, Pinky and Blinky as “Slow,” “Capricious,” “Ambush” and “Chaser.” He also notes that the four Japanese versions of the ghosts have their own Japanese nicknames, just as the American versions have nicknames. The nicknames, in order are Guzuta, Aosuke, Pinky and Akabei, three of which are references to their respective ghosts’ colors. “Pinky” is obvious. The Japanese word for “red” is aka, and the word for “blue” is ao. Kohler theorizes that Guzuta comes from the Japanese guzutsuku, meaning “to linger” or “to languish.” Now we know.

Pac-Man, previously:
The intersection of video games and all things verbal, elsewhere on this blog:
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  1. There’s other ghosts. In Pacmania, there’s Sue again, but she’s purple now, and there’s two new ones, Funky (green) and Spunky (gray) who can jump.

  2. Is it weird that I'm disappointed the title wasn't "Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde: Smarter Than You Think(y)"?

    ...thought so.

  3. Now that you mention it, yes.

    Harumph. Oh, lost opportunities.

  4. You left out one ghost: Kinky, though I can't remember which game he's from. One of the later ones. He's really weird. If Pac-Man eats him, he turns into a power pellet. And Pac-Man can eat him at any time. But he can also merge with other ghosts into a big, worse ghost.

    Not a major player, though. You did pretty good!