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GDC Showcase: A History of Ms. Pac-Man and Arcade Mods

When was the last time you perused an arcade? The forefathers of gaming, these cabinets have an interesting history when it comes to the mod community, and what better way to learn about it than by talking to Steve Golson, one of the original creators on Ms. Pac-Man. In his 2016 GDC Postmortem on the classic game, he provided some interesting context for us young’uns, so get your quarters ready and let’s dive in.

All images courtesy of GDC Showcase

First: a history lesson about arcades and arcade cabinets. The machines themselves are expensive, and while profits would be good for the first couple weeks (maybe months) that you have  your new machine on the floor, your coin rate would drop after a while. Nothing was wrong with the machines, nothing was wrong with the games, it would just be that your players got good at the games, and would need to spend less and less money on buying lives, thereby being able to play continuously for longer and longer than before. So how do you keep your old machines, but bring back the players and up the difficulty, causing them to spend money to play again? In comes Speedup kits, which would literally make the game go faster, often making the games harder than before.

Players loved it for the new challenge, arcade owners loved it the retention and profit, no sweat. So when a bunch of MIT students found the need to upgrade their favorite cabinet game, but no upgrade was available, they did what any pack of nerds might do and made one themselves. To try and avoid copyright issues, Missile Command became Super Missile Attack, and things were great. That is, until Atari caught wind of what was going on and took General Computer Corp. (the company those MIT students made, around the same time as when they dropped out of the school) to court. It’s a nasty battle, but ultimately Atari just wants them to drop the case and go away, so to get rid of the problem, Atari hired them.

GDC Showcase: A History of Ms. Pac-Man and Arcade Mods 4

GC Corp. had been busy during the trial, and after the success of Super Missile Attack, set their sights on the new hot game in town, which was just starting to get predictable to its player base: Pac-Man. After reverse engineering the original game, and adding new sprites, new randomization to the AI, and 4 new maps, they had their prototype: Crazy Otto. Using what they learned during the Atari court case to cover their tracks and avoid round two of court, this time with Midway, who owned Pac-Man, they needed permission, as was the agreement settled with Atari mere days beforehand. So they just… walk up to Midway, and say “Let’s make a deal.” Midway already had its hands full with court cases against pirates copying Pac-Man, and they weren’t eager to start another one, so a deal was struck. GC Corp., with Midway’s blessing, would adapt their Crazy Otto game into what we now know as Ms. Pac-Man.

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To clarify: Crazy Otto or Ms. Pac-Man weren’t made from scratch as their own games. Rather, they were modifications of the original Pac-Man, with hardware and software tweaks, including programming adjustments to allow for more challenging and different gameplay, such as different ghost behaviors and movement patterns. While games and IP have a much stronger legal defense nowadays against these kinds of things, game mods and map editors are very much alive and well, whether developers want them or not. Some have embraced them, while others fight to the death for their IP, hardly allowing for their games to appear online at all without their permission (looking at you, Nintendo). But that’s the magic of Intellectual Property, it’s up to the IP holder if they want you to be able to modify their work or not. We have precedent, and a history of court cases to rely on for defending them. But that’s a talk for a different time.

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