Though it may be difficult to imagine today, when video games have become a cultural force to be reckoned with, in the early ’80s many people saw them as just another passing fad. And therefore, like all fads, there were some attempts at quickly cashing in on video games while they were still popular. This is the story of one of them.
According to an old interview with the now-defunct Video Games magazine, in 1981 songwriters Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia were approached by Arnie Geller, an executive at BGO Music, who had the idea to write a song about megahit arcade game Pac-Man. Buckner and Garcia – who professed to be gamers themselves, “hooked” on arcade classics like Pac-Man, Frogger, Centipede, and Asteroids – jumped at the chance to write a song about the game. Apparently, they’d already been planning on writing songs about the games they liked, but “never got the project off the ground” themselves.
Their first video game song, “Pac-Man Fever,” was released as a single in December 1981 and became a huge hit, peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 list and selling over a million copies. From this sprang an album of the same name, released in January 1982, which exclusively featured songs about video games, including their favorites as well as games they were less familiar with, like Donkey Kong and Defender. The album went on to sell 900,000 copies but their second single, “Do the Donkey Kong,” just barely failed to make the top 100 chart.
A vintage ad for the Pac-Man Fever album from Video Games magazine.
So, as an attempt to cash in on popular video games, it’s safe to say that Pac-Man Fever was a success. But how good are the songs themselves? Well, it depends on who you ask. The folks over at Yummy Vinyl have declared the album “horrible” and a “pure money grab” – in other words, the Pixels of music. But no matter what the execs intended, the songwriters themselves saw it as more than a cynical cash grab and claimed that the album’s success was due to the quality of the songs as well as the popularity of the games:
Buckner: “The one thing we tried to do is make good songs, regardless of the games’ sounds. If “Pac-Man Fever” wasn’t about Pac-Man and didn’t have the appropriate sound effects, we still feel it would’ve been a hit.”
Garcia: “We’ve always written what we consider good songs, but it did take a record with a very popular theme to make the people in the music business finally take notice of us.”
Certainly in terms of video game concept albums it’s not on par with modern bands like The Protomen, but many of the songs on the album are rather catchy, or at least fun. And it was well-regarded enough that the album was re-recorded and released on CD in the late ’90s, and Buckner & Garcia were asked to write a song in the same style for the 2012 film Wreck-It Ralph. Also, an updated version of “Pac-Man Fever” called “Pac-Man Fever (Eat ‘Em Up)” was released in 2015.
Nowadays, when video game-focused musicians are plentiful and popular enough that we can have conventions centered around their performances, it can be easy to forget that they used to be a rarity. It’s important to remember the early days of video games, when a catchy song about everyone’s favorite pellet-munching ghost-eater became a surprise hit.