Frank Breneman Killed Pac-Man Then Pac-Man Chased Frank Forever

Jason Bennett,

March 31, 2020 10:00 PM

When it debuted in 1980, Pac-Man made a strong impression on gamers everywhere. A select few achieved a world record.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Pac-Man, Namco’s genre-defining video game and pop culture phenomenon. Twin Galaxies is marking the occasion by catching up with the original champions of the iconic title who brought dot-filled mazes and world record arcade fame to a mainstream audience. Our series begins with Frank Breneman.

To hear Frank Breneman say it, a Pac-Man world record is like money in the bank -- or at least a good deal at a local auto dealership. 

“So I have someone I met last year when I bought my truck,” he explained. “I always try to get the best deal I can, so I usually use the line ‘can I get a discount,’ or ‘is that the best you can do,’ or ‘can I get a famous person discount?’”

Frank couldn’t help but laugh. 

Thirty eight years after reaching the famous kill-screen on Pac-Man at a North Carolina arcade, Frank enjoys using the currency of a world record to connect with people.

“I had a Pac-Man sound on my phone when I was at the dentist,”  Frank offered by way of another example. With Frank already in the chair staring down a dental needle, “the dentist stopped, started smiling and telling me he loved playing that game and how he would get really good scores.” Frank couldn’t resist before the freezing set in. “I told him about me and he went into another room and googled my name, came back smiling and couldn’t believe it.”

The mantel display from the Breneman household with a copy of the article announcing the Pac-Man world record [Image by Frank Breneman]
The Breneman household mantel with a copy of the 1982 article announcing the Pac-Man record [Image by Frank Breneman]

A lifelong resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, Frank works at Classic Graphics, one of the largest marketing firms in the United States for printing, mailing, and signage fulfillment. As a machine operator and mechanic, Frank’s ability to anticipate and solve problems in fast-moving machinery to maintain optimal efficiency has echoes in his knack for identifying patterns and employing strategies in his favorite games. Perhaps not surprisingly, as an avid gamer he’s embraced a range of gaming platforms in his downtime such as World of Warcraft. But the classics form the foundation of his gaming outlook.

“As I grew up, arcade games were a big part of my life,” Frank confessed. “Talking to some people, they say ‘those games aren’t relevant any more,’ [but] those few never experienced the culture and times of the ‘80s.” Highlighting the lineage of contemporary gaming, Frank is convinced of the staying power of those original titles. “You can call them fads, cultural icons, or whatever you want but forty years later you still see the merchandise, the conversations about Pac-Man.”  

Frank’s childhood feels like it could have come straight out of a 1970s “coming of age” movie. Under flashing lights, booming music, and announcements to “change direction,” Frank discovered Holiday On Wheels, a local roller skating rink in Charlotte. Although he was a “new-to-the-scene” 14 year old in 1972, it wasn’t long before Frank went from cautious learner to someone who excelled at skating. Not content to meander his way around the rink to the music of “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress,” he joined the speed skating team. 

“I competed all over the East Coast,” he recalled, “[even] tried roller hockey until I saw a friend lose his teeth.” 

Life lessons at the roller rink didn’t end with hockey. Between spending money at the concession stand or the vending machines, Holiday On Wheels also had a small row of pinball machines. When it came time to use his last quarter on either food, drink, or the silver ball, pinball usually won out. When Holiday on Wheels unexpectedly closed down, Frank moved over to Kate’s Skating Rink. 

“Everyone it seemed lived [there],” he remembered, “it was a blast being around friends, music, meeting new people every time you went.” 

Among those new people that Frank met was Carol Baumgardner, who also enjoyed escaping to the rink to hang out with friends and play pinball. It wasn’t long before their chance encounters while lacing up skates or stepping onto the rink floor led to premeditated plans to spend more time together skating alone or playing doubles. With the blur of years that followed, the two of them decided that they were ready to make their roller skating arrangement more permanent and were married in 1980.

The Brenemans at Player1Up Arcade in Rock Hill, SC. Pac-Man is celebrating 40 years, and the Brenemans are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year as well [Image by Frank Breneman]
The Brenemans at Player1Up Arcade in Rock Hill, SC. Pac-Man is celebrating 40 years, and the Brenemans are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year as well [Image by Frank Breneman]

As the Decade of Disco made way for 80s New Wave, Charlotte skaters started to see something new alongside pinball machines at the rink. 

“These arcade machines started popping up,” marvelled Frank. 

Over the next few years, he would try his hand at all the new titles. “Asteroids, Centipede, Galaga, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, I liked all the games,” he declared, “they were different than anything we had seen.” 

When surveying other players at their machines, Pac-Man’s gameplay after a maze was cleared caught his eye. “All of the sudden they got to the cut scene where a ghost chases Pac-Man and then Pac-Man chases the ghost across the screen. I thought ‘wow, that’s pretty cool’ and I wondered how many scenes were like that.” 

Frank’s curiosity got the best of him and he started to play Pac-Man regularly. His goal in confirming all of the different intermissions was soon overtaken by seeing how far he could push the high score. 

By the summer of 1982, Frank’s leisure time to chase dots was competing with new responsibilities: holding down a job at a local printing company and impending fatherhood as Carol was expecting their first child. Now 24 years old, Frank had learned to maximize his time in front of Pac-Man and developed his own patterns or techniques to clear each screen, permitting him to extend his gameplay far beyond the time and score achieved by an average player. 

Working through a slow July day at Washburn Graphics, Frank decided to head home early. It was a sweltering afternoon but an escape to the local roller rink was out of the question due to Carol’s pregnancy. After a quick review of the options, the Brenemans opted for the Tivoli Amusement Center on Central Avenue. Typically, Carol would mostly play skee ball, but on this occasion she played a little pinball as Frank settled into a game of Pac-Man. 

“I wasn’t going in there for a high score,” explained Frank, “I was just going to play.” He thought it would be a nice distraction to spend some time out of the heat while getting some further screen time trying out his patterns. But things didn’t pan out the way he imagined.

“After about an hour I started attracting a crowd,” he recalled, “the manager came over and offered Carol a stool to sit on.” 

The game stretched into two hours, then three. Frank sensed that he was having a special game. 

“The score kept getting higher and higher and I wasn’t losing any lives,” he said. By the four hour mark, he pushed the score over three million points with two lives in reserve. By this point, Carol knew there was no turning back. “I was in it for the long haul no matter how long it took, unless I went into labor,” added Carol with a laugh.

Then the unexpected happened. 

No, not labor.

“[My] pattern was perfect until I cleared a level,” recounted Frank, “and then the next thing I knew half the screen was messed up.” Confused but not deterred, Frank pushed ahead. “I tried to clear as much as I could - not being able to see the whole screen.” 

The Infamous Pac-Man 'KillScreen' (Level 256)
The Infamous Pac-Man 'KillScreen' (Level 256)

In a 1982 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Frank surmised that a malfunction was probably the culprit leading to the premature end to his game. “The machine got hot, I guess,” he said at the time. 

Years later, he realized that the half-screen wasn’t the result of overheating but was actually the famous killscreen that ends the game on Level 256. His interview, in turn, serves as one of the earliest published accounts of this game-ending event. 

With the game over, Tivoli arcade manager Jeff Harlow sprang into action by taking down names of witnesses and vowing to call the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard to share news of Frank’s feat. Jeff also called the local paper, and Kathleen Galligher in turn tracked Frank down to pitch an article for the Saturday edition. By the time the article went to press, Twin Galaxies confirmed that Frank’s score of 3,149,120 beat the existing world record by 1,690 points, earning him recognition as the TG world record holder at that time. 

In speaking to the Charlotte Observer, Frank was determined to push the score higher, save for an even greater challenge than the split screen. “My wife (Carol) is expecting a baby in August,” he said, “so I’m not going to play for a while.” 

Twelve days after his world record, the Brenemans became parents to baby Andrew.

Over the intervening years, the Breneman household grew with the arrival of another son, Jason, and Frank’s troubleshooting skills led to an inescapable conclusion. 

“Being a parent, providing for family means your priorities change,” he concluded. “[We] started doing family stuff as the kids grew up, and I never got back into playing in arcades so much.” 

With the stress and excitement of raising a family, it was inevitable that things might get misplaced. “I had my pattern written down but it was lost over the years,” Frank admitted, “I could have written a book that would have sold I think back then, but that’s hindsight.”

As much as Frank enjoys talking about his past world record, he always looks forward. Between hiking, crafting with his wife (Carol has a Facebook page “Wreaths by Mama Carol”), and dog shows, Frank has even found time to do a little painting.

But after talking to Frank, one gets the impression that the yellow dot muncher is never that far behind. For both Brenemans.

“When I tell people about my score, or I start a conversation, I let my wife finish telling it,” he revealed, “countless people tell me that Pac-Man was their favorite game.” 

And remember that truck dealership with talk of a Pac-Man discount? 

“I went to my credit union to get a loan for my truck, it was right before Hallowe'en,” he said. “They had a pumpkin carved and painted like a Pac-Man screen.” 

Last year staff from a Charlotte credit union treated patrons to a Pac-Man themed environment for Hallowe'en. [Image by Frank Breneman]
Last year staff from a Charlotte credit union treated patrons to a Pac-Man themed environment for Hallowe'en. [Image by Frank Breneman]

After more conversation, Frank learned that the staff was going to set out a Pac-Man theme for the big day, dressing as ghosts and creating a maze on the floor. Returning on Hallowe'en, Frank was impressed. “Everything looked really cool,” he added.

So while Pac-Man may not have led to a cheaper truck or an interest-free loan, there's another kind of value that a young man discovered at the moment he crossed paths with an iconic game. The chance to share, to reminisce, and to celebrate a special era of gaming and pop culture. 

Even when Frank isn’t looking for Pac-Man, Pac-Man seems to find him.


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