Electric Curiosities: Pac-Man vs. K.C. Munchkin
The game is familiar. You play a round creature that lives in a maze. You’re chased by monsters and have to eat dots to survive. Some of the dots let you attack the monsters temporarily. When you get all the dots, the maze resets at a higher speed. It’s a lot like Pac-Man, but it isn’t. The game is K.C. Munchkin, and you’ve probably never heard of it, let alone played it.
If you have heard of K.C. Munchkin, then it’s probably because of the lawsuit.
Back in the early 80s, a widespread and highly contagious disease known as “Pac-Man Fever” infected millions of people around the world. The only known cure for this pandemic was to eat lots of dots, power pellets, and ghosts in your local restaurant, bar, convenience store, or darkened rooms where people repeatedly paid good money to stand in front of a TV for five minutes, known as “arcades”. 1 Eager to help fight the spread of this horrifying condition, Atari, who was the leading video game manufacturer at the time decided to help sufferers of Pac-Man Fever get their treatment in the convenience of their own home, and purchased the exclusive rights to develop and distribute a home version of the cure.
Obviously, this was a big deal for Atari, who was starting to get a bit of competition in the home console market. Most of it was weak and incapable of causing any harm, but some of it, like the Intellivision, constituted a clear and present danger. By grabbing the license to the biggest video game in the history of video games2, they grabbed a license to print money. Not only would the Atari 2600 have a sure-fire hit, their under development Atari 5200 console would have a sure-fire hit, their computer line would have a sure-fire hit, and, on top of that, the Intellivision would have a sure-fire hit, because Atari put profits before console exclusivity. To summarize, Pac-Man == $$$.
Naturally, mega hits will spawn imitators. Magnavox, the makers of the Odyssey2 system, which was one of the legitimate competitors to Atari3 decided to produce a Pac-Man imitator. However, since it was clear that a straight Pac-Man ripoff would get them sued, they made some changes to the game play. Keep the maze, but make change. Keep the big round chomping critter, but make it blue and give it antennae and a smile. Keep the creatures that chase you, but only include three of them and make them look like aliens. Keep the dots and power pellets, but have far fewer of them, and, most importantly, make them move. Throw in multiple mazes, invisible mazes, and a maze editor.
And one more thing, release it first.
Here is a leaked photograph of Atari executives at the very moment that they heard about K.C. Munchkin:
Pac-Man == $$$. Threat To $$$ == Lawyers.
Atari sued to halt distribution, claiming copyright infringement. K.C. Munchkin was clearly inspired by Pac-Man, and the differences clearly show that Magnavox knew that they were stealing. Atari lost. Although there were similarities, the court reasoned, there was nothing directly stolen and any reasonable person looking at both works could easily tell that they were different.
But remember, Pac-Man == $$$. Threat To $$$ == Lawyers.
Yep, Atari didn’t go down that easily. They appealed and this time, they won. K.C. Munchkin was pulled from the shelves, Atari was free to make millions from the distribution of home versions of Pac-Man, and Atari, Inc. v. North American Philips Consumer Elecs. Corp. entered into court precedents.
The thing I don’t understand about all this is how this lawsuit didn’t completely devestate the video game market permanently. As I’ll talk about, K.C. Munchkin is clearly not Pac-Man, but it is clearly Pac-Man like. But the same holds true for many games. The industry is founded on imitation. Sonic stole from Mario and Mario stole from Pitfall. Gradius is Space Invaders moving forward. There are hundreds of Doom clones and GTA clones. And I can’t even tell the difference between Guitar Hero and Rock Band. All of these knock-offs should have been destroyed by the precedent set by the lawsuit, but it never seems to get used. In fact, I don’t think Magnavox was sued for their Breakout clones Blockout/Breakdown or their Space Invaders clone Alien Invaders – Plus!4 or their Outlaw clone Showdown in 2100 AD or their Street Racer clone Speedway or their Indy 500 clone Spin-Out or… The list can go on. Why, then, was K.C. Munchkin singled out for the attack?
Magnavox did it first, and, more importantly, Magnavox did it better. 5 The existence of K.C. Munchkin was an embarassment to Atari. It was not a real threat to Atari. Atari was guaranteed to make bucketloads of money with the Pac-Man license, and K.C. Munchkin on its own wouldn’t have put a dent in it. However, because Atari was guaranteed to make bucketloads of money with Pac-Man, they wanted it fast, they didn’t care about getting it right. I’m not going to say that Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was an unmitigated disaster of a game, because it’s not. As far as Atari games go, it’s not that bad. Where it fails is in the comparison to the arcade version. It’s blocky, the ghosts are all the same color and they flicker, the colors are all wrong, the sound is horrible, the maze is different, there’s a weird rectangle instead of fruit. It’s like ordering a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and getting a crayon drawing from a six year old instead. It’s just disappointing. So to have K.C. Munchkin laughing from the sidelines, where a third-rate competitor one upped the official licensee, with its multi-colored non-flickering enemies, its decent sound and its sharper graphics, that was intolerable. If the Atari 2600 of Pac-Man version had been a closer replica of the arcade game and had it come out first, Atari probably would have left K.C. alone and that game wouldn’t be remembered for anything today.
So, then, let’s take a look at the legendary K.C. Munchkin for the Magnavox Odyssey2 and how it compares to the infamous Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.
Straight away, it’s clear that KC Munchkin is not Pac-Man. You would not have seen this game in a store and mistakenly believed that you were buying Pac-Man. From the front, it’s hard to even tell that the game is Pac-Man like. I do have to give KC Munchkin (And Odyssey2 games in general) bonus points for their box art, which always looks like it should be painted on velvet and viewed under a black light. Bizarre smiling shaggy things and glowing cubes, and the wooshing Odyssey2 logo ruling over all.
Pac-Man, on the other hand, just looks like the game. It’s really boring, by Atari standards. Usually the box art is so fanciful and wild that it barely resembles anything remotely related to the game inside, but for Pac-Man, it looks like the game. Even worse, it looks like the Atari 2600 version of the game, not like the arcade version. Consumers should have known what they were in for when they saw it. Somewhat mysteriously, the large Pac-Man figure on the outside of the box looks nothing like the cartoony Pac-Man that’s on the cartridge itself. I don’t know of any other Atari game where the box art is different from the label art like that.
As far as the back of the boxes go, KC promises multiple mazes, invisible challenge mazes, and a maze editor. Pac-Man promises … a children’s mode.
While KC Munchkin wins on the packaging, Pac-Man wins on the instruction manual front. Inside the Pac-Man manual are detailed and whimsical drawings of the characters and items in the game. Inside KC Munchkin’s official rules book is difficult to read white text on a black background, surrounded by game sprites and random numbers and letters, some of which have inexplicable Superman trails. I think the glowing question mark sums up the KC Munchkin instruction book.
The Pac-Man playfield just looks sickly. Blue and kinda sickly yellow. Really? The arcade game was blue walls on a back background. The Atari is capable of producing the colors blue and black. So why the change? Even Pac-Man looks queasy in that environment. K.C. Munchkin, however, has bold purple walls on a black background. Easy to see, and look how happy KC is as he6 strolls around the maze. The Pac-Man maze is a symmetrical, rectangular affair, without the twists and turns of the original. KC lives in an asymmetrical tangle of passageways, forcing you to develop different strategies for the left or the right of the board.
If you look at the Pac-Man shot, you’ll see that there are only two ghosts and only two power pills. That’s because the ghosts and power pills flicker like mad because the Atari has limited sprite capabilities. The programmer actually only displayed one ghost every frame, and it just looked like four because the other ghosts hadn’t faded from the CRT yet. They’re all the same color because he was lazy. Unfortunately, the all digital PC input device I’m using captures frames as they are. I recorded at 30 FPS, which means that I got two frames of the Atari screen, therefore two ghosts. There really are four ghosts and four pills. For the KC shot, what you see is really what’s there. Three creatures, each of a different color, and four special munchies. The special munchies will flash to an X every once in a while, so you can easily tell what they are, but that’s the only flickering you’ll get in this game.
The KC characters are more detailed. They have more visible features and have distinct up and down animations, as well as left/right. Pac-Man is always in profile and the ghosts never look like they’re moving in any particular direction.
And then there’s the dots. The dots are really what makes K.C. Munchkin stand out. Most Pac-Man based games are full of dots. They’re everywhere, and you have to go everywhere to get them. Not so in K.C. Munchkin. In this game, there are only twelve dots. Four power dots and eight regular dots. The catch? The dots move. That one little feature is what makes K.C. Munchkin be powered by awesome. Not only do you have to run away from the monsters, you have to chase down the dots. At first, they’re lethargic, but as you eat their brothers and sisters, they become less complacent and more alert, until the last remaining dot is hauling ass at the same speed you move through the maze. You have to plan ahead to cut it off, while at the same time, you have to make sure you’re not being drawn into an ambush by the three critters.
Another major difference in the gameplay of KC Munchkin is that you only get one life. It’s a theme that runs through many Odyssey2 games7. One life, no bonus lives. Your score is only as good as your best run. Make one mistake, and you’re back at zero. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but it ends up working to the advantage of the game. Your near death scrapes with the red critter as you hunt down that last dot are made much more tense and exciting by the fact that you don’t get to try again.
And finally, the sound. Pac-Man is about as pleasant to listen to as a trash compactor. Every dot you eat sounds like an electric banjo being massacred, the death sound and start game sound are just grating. Only the power pellet and eating ghost effects are remotely pleasant to listen to. None of them sound anywhere remotely like the arcade sound effects. The programmer didn’t even try. K.C. Munchkin has a considerably mellower sound. It’s still early home console sound, so it’s not all that great, but it won’t have you reaching for the mute button and a pack of earplugs to block out the horror while you play.
Of course, all that text and all those pictures don’t really mean much. You have to see the games in action to truly compare them.
What came next? Well, Pac-Man obviously continued on his path of fame and fortune and is still making games today. On the Atari 2600 front, Ms. Pac-Man was released a few years later and was simply awesome, fixing pretty much everything that went wrong with the original. Fame, however, was not in store for K.C. Munchkin. He starred in one other game, called “K.C.’s Krazy Chase”, which was a semi-autobiographical depiction of his legal battles. Afterward, he retired from the video game scene, and is now a veterinarian in Upstate New York.
Bottom Line: If you’re a hard-core dot munching Pac-Fan or if you are considering buying an Odyssey2 system for your collection, you need to get a copy of K.C. Munchkin. If you already have an Odyssey2 system and don’t have this game, there is something wrong with you. If you’re a more casual fan, not willing to drop $100 on a 30 year old console just to play this one game, then there might be emulators or Flash versions available. I’ve never bothered to look, since I have the real thing.
- Sadly, arcades are now thought to be extinct in the wild. The last non-captive arcade died in late 1994, in Burlington, WA, when it was eaten by a Seattle’s Best Coffee. [↩]
- Which, of course, was only about ten years at the time… [↩]
- And by “legitimate competitor”, I mean that it had measurable market share, a decent library of games, and had survived for more than a year. You may not have heard of this console, but it did exist. Honest. [↩]
- Where Plus == Suck [↩]
- See also the lockout chip lawsuit that Nintendo filed against Tengen/Atari when Tengen released a better version of Tetris than the Nintendo one… [↩]
- He? I don’t know. I suspect that KC is pulling a Samus on us. [↩]
- Probably unsurprisingly, since half of them were written by one guy. [↩]