RetroVision – Kill Screen: Pac-Man & The Ultimate Glitch

Kill Screen. If there ever was something that would strike fear into the heart of a retro gamer, it was this. No ifs buts or maybes, when a game was known to have a kill screen, it meant one thing, that the game was ultimately impossible to finish.

You may not know it today, but Kill Screens can actually be found in some of the most famous games to come out of the Golden Age of the Arcade. Whether it was Donkey Kong’s unbeatable timer, Galaga’s “existential void”, or even Frogger’s completely random game ending error, these software bugs and errors in the code would result in unpredictable gameplay and strange glitches. What’s more, they’d always end the same way for the player – Game Over.

Pac-Man & Ghosts

However, amongst all of these, there was one that always stood above the rest, the Kill Screen to end all Kill Screens if you will. In fact, it became so famous that gamers would actually hone their skills in order to see the legendary de-facto end game with their own eyes. Not only that but, this ultimate glitch would go on to become the basis for its very own game. Yes, that’s right, welcome to the ultimate Kill Screen, welcome to Pac-Man’s infamous 256th level.

Pac-Man 256

So what exactly is Pac-Man’s 256th stage? Well, as previously explained, 256 is a bug within the game that prevents the player from ever truly finishing the stage. This glitch occurs as soon as stage 256 begins. At this point the right hand side of the stage becomes a corrupted mess of numbers, letters and symbols, rendering the stage, and as such the game itself, completely unplayable.

Pac-Man Kill Screen
An image of Pac-Man’s Kill Screen.

The reason for this happening goes all the way back to the core programming of Toru Iwatani’s generation defining game. You see, Pac-Man’s level counter was simply a single 8-bit byte, and as such could only store 256 distinct values due to the fact that in binary the highest storable number with eight 1 digits is 255. Consequently, when another 1 is added, this causes the value to overflow to 0000000 or 0.

As such, this overflow causes the game to revert back to board 0. However, on the other hand the fruit counter’s logic was not designed for this, and instead tries to continue on to board 256. This creates a conflict within the game, one that causes the game’s drawing routine to present glitches symbols to the player, as it is attempting create symbols from missing data.

Toru Iwatani
Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac-Man.

Finally, the game also doesn’t account for the fact that this garbled mess has removed some of the pellets from the game. Therefore, as far as the game is concerned, the player hasn’t consumed the number of pellets required to move on. Effectively trapping the player in an impossible maze.

Rumours & Legends

Nevertheless, despite it’s negative connotations, the glitch within Pac-Man’s 256th stage actually became something of a Holy Grail moment for gamers. You see, back in the days before the internet, many believed this to be nothing more than a myth. These rumours were even given further credence thanks to how difficult it was to actually cause the infamous Kill Screen to occur.

This is because even to this day, activating the legendary glitch requires somewhere in the region of three to six hours of non-stop play. A true challenge even for the best of players. And that’s without focusing on grabbing a high score.

Record Breaker

Breaking the never ending nature of the game wasn’t the only side effect of Pac-Man’s 256 glitch though. As this game breaking glitch effectively gave the game a stopping point, it therefore effectively capped the highest possible score to 3,333,360 points. As such, this also had the side effect of forever altering the way the world’s best played the iconic game.

You see, now rather than becoming a game of endurance, for the world’s best Pac-Man players, the game was now a battle for perfection. With the end game coming, there was ultimately no longer any room for error. And for one man, Pac-Man’s Kill Screen and perfect score of 3,333,360 points, would become his most prestigious badge of honour.

Billy Mitchell King of Kong
Billy Mitchell (left) is also famous for being a former Donkey Kong World Champion, and was one of the lead personalities in the story of newcomer Steve Wiehe’s (Right) attempt to eclipse Mitchell’s High Score, as documented in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

That man is Billy Mitchell, someone who Oxford American referred to in 2006 as “probably the greatest arcade video game player of all time.” It’s easy to see why too, given that in 1999, some 19 years since Pac-Man’s arcade launch, Billy Mitchell became the first person in the world to achieve a perfect score on Pac-Man, a record that to this day he still only shares with six other people. For this achievement, he was even awarded the title of “Video Game Player of the Century” by Namco founder Masaya Nakamura at the 1999 Tokyo Game Show.

A Virtual Legacy

To this day, the glitch is still just as famous as it was back in the days when it was the talk of the arcade. Actually, it’s arguably even more famous, with the internet age now documenting it for everyone to see and believe. It even became one of the critical plot points within Ernest Cline’s futuristic 80s inspired novel Ready Player One. Furthermore, what with the addictive novel soon to be turned into a Steven Spielberg live action movie, Pac-Man’s ultimate Kill Screen will soon be broadcast to an even wider audience.

Ready Player One
I won’t reveal just how Pac-Man’s Kill Screen plays into the plot, but trust me, it’s very important.

Pac-Man’s 256th stage may be the Kill Screen to end all Kill Screens, but in some way it arguably helped in some small way to making Pac-Man what it is today. Quite literally if you look at the recent hit mobile game that it inspired Pac-Man 256. A game wherein the gibberish code now chases you as you try to out run, all whilst collecting pellets and dodging ghosts.

I can only imagine how devastated Iwatani and the team over at Namco must have been when they discovered the Kill Screen, and realised that Pac-Man may not have been as perfect as they imagined. However, in truth the glitch found in the 256th stage actually had the reverse effect, and helped further cement Pac-Man’s legacy into what it has become today. Pac-Man is one of the greatest games ever made that’s not in doubt, and the ultimate Kill Screen has simply become just another part of its charm.

Game Over has never been so sweet.

Simon Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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