Longform

Jeff Pickles's quest for Pac-Man perfection

The end was near. Jeff Pickles had been standing in front of the weathered Pac-Man machine for more than three hours, guiding the yellow puck through the same maze over and over and over again, gobbling up every dot, power pellet and piece of fruit in his way. He was sweating, shifting his weight from foot to foot; his hand kept cramping. There were only two possible ends to this pixelated dance: Either Pickles would steal every point and become one of the few to boast a perfect score on the game — or Pac-Man would die trying, collapse in on himself and disappear.

"This is such a great game; this doesn't happen very often," the 33-year-old Pickles reminded himself. "If you mess this up now, there's no telling the next time you'll get this far again."

The right half of the screen was an impenetrable mess of text and pixels: The game's makers had never intended Pickles to get this far when they introduced Pac-Man to Japan nearly 34 years ago. Running blind in the 8-bit morass, Pickles needed to hunt down every possible dot to reach what had been determined to be a perfect score of 3,333,360 points. Missing even one would mean failure. The ghosts were closing in, the pressure was on.

And he was late for a Christmas party.

It was at this point that Pickles's wife of seven years, Marika Lorraine, walked into the 1up in LoDo. In the precious seconds between levels, Pickles had texted her that he was working on a long game — but she didn't know how long it might be. She'd seen her husband get four hours of game play out of a single quarter. "There are a lot more expensive hobbies out there," she notes. But she also knew that her pellet-chomping hubby could whiff it at any time. "Any moment, there was the chance that he would explode," she says.

The minute she laid eyes on Pickles at his machine in the back of the bar, though, she knew it was over. He'd just taken his hands off the cabinet and raised a solitary fist in the air.

"He didn't say anything; it was just quiet," Lorraine remembers. "And I look at him and say, 'Did you do it, was that it?' He turned and he looked at me and said, 'Yeah!' I gave him the biggest high-five."

"As I'm searching for the last dot is when she shows up," Pickles says. "It was perfect."

On December 13, 2013, Jeff Pickles became the eighth man in recorded history to achieve a perfect score on the original Pac-Man arcade game. In the process, he joined the odd club of competitive video-gamers, a category that includes everyone from Starcraft players with thousands of screaming fans to the guy trying to beat the record score on Sinistar.

He's not the first person to prove his Pac-Man mettle, or the fastest. But Jeff Pickles's Pac-Man victory was unique — and, in a way, an accomplishment he's been working toward his whole life.

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Jeff Pickles was born just between the time that the Japanese version of Pac-Man was released, in May 1980, and the date that Midway brought the game to the States, in October of that year. The late Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac-Man, had said that he designed the bright colors and cartoon characters of Pac-Man to appeal to people who didn't normally play the war and sports games that then dominated the fledgling arcade market. He succeeded.

From the moment the Pac-Man cabinet was released in America, the game became a smash hit across all walks of life. "It's one of the most popular games of all time, next to Space Invaders," says Jourdan Adler, owner of the 1up arcade bars. Along with the Rubik's Cube and yuppies, it was a cultural phenomenon, with breathless media reports painting a picture of a country stricken by yellow fever. It wasn't long before the little guy grew legs and got his own Saturday-morning cartoon — along with playing cards, lunchboxes, breakfast cereal and anything else he could be stamped on.

In 1981, the New York Times went in search of an explanation of Pac-Man's popularity: "As one player, a snack bar manager who averages seven to eight hours of video game play a week, explains it, 'It is so simple, but it has no relation to reality. It's different from space games, tank games and war games. The motivation is eating. This creature moves and eats dots.'"

The abstraction of Pac-Man was, and remains, a huge part of its appeal. Each dot must be collected in order to advance. Round power pellets enable Pac-Man to turn the tables and eat his ghostly pursuers. Fruit and keys provide bonus points. It didn't take long for dedicated players to see the patterns in the seemingly random paths of the ghosts and the layout of the maze. And while the arcade fad of the '80s soon faded, Pac-Man never really went away.

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Chris Utterback
Contact: Chris Utterback