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Pac-Man is a maze game. The player maneuvers Pac-Man, a yellow circle with a mouth, to navigate a maze while eating small dots and other item prizes. A level, or board, is finished when all the "dots" are eaten. Four ghosts (Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde) also wander the maze in an attempt to catch Pac-Man. Each level begins with three ghosts in their "ghost pen" and one above it, and Pac-Man near the bottom of the maze. The ghosts are released from the pen one by one at the start of each level.

Fruit Value Board(s)
Cherries 100 pts 1
Strawberry 300 pts 2
Orange 500 pts 3-4
Apple 700 pts 5-6
Melon 1000 pts 7-8
Galboss 2000 pts 9-10
Bell 3000 pts 11-12
Key 5000 pts 13 and up

There are four power-up items near the corners of the maze, known as "energizers" or "power pellets" which provide Pac-Man with the temporary ability to eat the ghosts. The ghosts turn a deep blue and reverse direction immediately when Pac-Man eats an energizer, and they move more slowly while they are vulnerable. The ghosts are worth 200, 400, 800, and 1600 points, in sequence. The values reset back to 200 each time another Power Pellet is eaten, so it is advantageous for the player to eat all four ghosts per pellet. If a ghost is eaten, his eyes return to the "ghost pen" where they will be restored to normal. The ghosts flash white up to five times before they become dangerous again. The amount of time the ghosts remain vulnerable varies from one board to the next, but the time period generally becomes shorter as the game progresses. After a certain number of boards, the ghosts no longer turn blue at all, though eating an energizer still causes them to reverse direction.

Regular "dots" are worth ten points each (there are 240 of them on each board), and energizers (known as "power food" in Japan) are worth fifty points each. Additionally, two prizes commonly referred to as "fruit" (even though several of them are not fruits) appear twice during each board just below the monster pen — eating a fruit scores extra bonus points. The prizes change throughout the game, and their point values increase as shown in the table on the left.

A myth arose that far into the game, an extremely rare item would appear, either a bar of gold or a screwdriver, with these items giving 10,000 and 25,000 points respectively. In reality, there are no such items.[citation needed]

Pac-Man is awarded a bonus life one time only, at 10,000 points (the default setting; DIP switches inside the machine can change the required points to 15,000 or 20,000 or disable the bonus life Initially, Pac-Man’s enemies were referred to as "monsters" on the arcade cabinet, but soon became colloquially known as "ghosts".

Ghost Color Original Puckman[15] American Pac-Man
Name Translation Nickname Translation Alternate
Name Nickname
Red Oikake (追いかけ) chaser Akabei (赤ベイ) red guy Urchin Macky Shadow Blinky
Pink Machibuse (待ち伏せ) ambusher Pinky (ピンキー) n/a Romp Micky Speedy Pinky
Cyan Kimagure (気まぐれ) fickle Aosuke (青助) blue guy Stylist Mucky Bashful Inky
Orange Otoboke (お惚け) stupid Guzuta (愚図た) slow guy Crybaby Mocky Pokey Clyde