Category: Arcade

Copyright, contractual obligations screw Ms. Pac Man out of existence

Ms. Pac Man has an interesting history.

Pac-Man, the original game, was developed by Namco in Japan, and distributed by Midway in the United States, and was a massive, massive hit — the most popular arcade game of its day, and still one of the most popular arcade games of all time.

The videogame industry was different 40 years ago than it is today, and video games were still new enough that a lot of the intellectual property rights weren’t yet established in law, leading to unsettled (and often unasked) questions.

As a result, there was a sub-industry of third-party mod kits for arcade games, which gave arcade proprietors a way to renew interest in older games that had waned in popularity. It wasn’t illegal to modify an arcade cabinet that you owned, and so over time kits were developed by third parties to do just that.

One of the companies producing these hardware mod kits, named GCC, hacked Pac Man to create an unofficial “sequel”. To avoid trademark infringement, they named it “Crazy Otto” at first, but that wasn’t enough to avoid a lawsuit. In the end, a settlement between GCC and Namco turned Crazy Otto into an official sequel which became Ms. Pac Man.

GCC’s contract entitled them to royalties on each Ms. Pac Man cabinet manufactured or sold by Midway-Namco. Ms. Pac Man was a smash hit, just as popular as the original Pac Man. Everyone got rich and everyone way happy.

Ms. Pac Man went on to have a long life, and has been ported, re-packaged, and re-released on many platforms over the years, but GCC’s contract entitled them to royalties only from “coin-op cabinets”. Twenty-five years later, new cabinets were produced for the anniversary, and hybrid Galaga/Ms. Pac Man cabinets were a popular sight in bars in the mid-2000s.

By this time, the executives now running Namco had forgotten about the contract with GCC, who reminded them of it by suing for their royalties. Namco paid what they owed, and weaseled out of paying on arcade cabinets made for home use, which didn’t have coin slots, since the contract wording specified “coin-op cabinets” (which was simply what arcade machines were called at the time the contract was signed). And then, to avoid ever having to pay another royalty to GCC again, Namco wrote the Ms. Pac-Man character out of the picture, replacing her with other female pac-man characters such as “Pac-Girl” and “Pac-Marie”. Thereafter, future Ms. Pac-Man re-releases only came out on platforms not covered by the GCC contract, so Namco wouldn’t have to pay the royalties.

It just goes to show the level of sheer greed that companies have when it comes to paying creators and ownership of intellectual property. If the company can make money without having to pay the creators, they will do that. Granted, GCC wasn’t producing an authorized work, and this could have colored the relationship. But considering how much money Ms. Pac Man earned for everyone over the years, you’d think that those profits could go a long way toward smoothing over any rough spots in the relationship. Apparently not.

GCC later sold their ownership rights to Ms. Pac-Man to AtGames. If they had instead sold to Midway-Namco, this might never have been an issue. But because of how things worked out, one of the most iconic videogame characters of the 80s golden age of the arcade is basically sidelined indefinitely. Because contested or jointly owned intellectual property rights are that much of a legal pain to negotiate around that it’s better to just kill the property and make no money from it at all than to try to work out agreements for sharing revenues. How sad.

Champ Games ports Robotron 2084 to Atari 2600. OMG.

Champ Games revealed their latest project last night: an Atari 2600 port of Robotron 2084. One of the best videogames of all time.

The announcement, released through ZeroPageHomebrew’s twitch.tv stream, comes a year after Champ announced their homage to Galaga, later renamed Galagon.  Champ is also working on an Atari 2600 port of early 80s arcade classics Zookeeper and Lunar Lander, both of which look fantastic even in pre-release work-in-progress states.

The video stream doesn’t start to show the actual Robotron gameplay until about an hour in.

Champ have been consistently delivering amazing port of classic games on the Atari 2600 platform that far exceed the system’s original capabilities, and play very close to arcade-perfect. This version looks a tad bit slower and not as smooth, but is incredible considering it is running on an Atari 2600.  There’s an ARM processor inside the cartridge helping out, too.

This is a must-own port of a classic game if you own an Atari 2600, and it’s on my very short list of eagerly awaited Atari 2600 games that I want but don’t have. 

Even if 2020 is a complete dystopian hellscape, at least we’ll have Robotron and Zookeeper to play during our indefinite social distancing and sheltering at home. That makes it almost OK, right?

Book Review: Arcade Perfect by David L. Craddock

An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.

I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.

I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand. I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same. He was. I felt oddly watched.

Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.

Of course I said yes.

I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.

Arcade Perfect is a collection of histories on over a dozen popular arcade games, and the story of how they were ported to home consoles. If you’ve read Racing The Beam, or The Ultimate History of Video Games, this book will be of interest to you.

The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.

The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.

The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.

Arcade Perfect is available today. Follow the author on Twitter @davidlcraddok.