Day 111: Are We Not Pac-Men?

originally published April 20, 2012

When Pac-Man was released in 1980, it became a phenomenon that so clearly defined the youth culture of that era, it became a totem of a generation. More importantly, it became a vehicle for cheap rip-offs by companies hoping to score a few thousand dollars off Namco’s hard work. The sales of these machines totaled almost 300,000 – that’s almost the same number of actual Pac-Man machines sold. This was big business.

So how did these companies get away with it? Cloning a game was not illegal. As long as there were no blatant trademark rip-offs (say, a crimson Pac-Man eating dots while running away from poorly-drawn disinterested ghosts), the game was legal. The engine was relatively easy to copy, and the formula for instant addiction solidly in place.

The most popular clone of Pac-Man is this lovely lady:

Ms. Pac-Man has nothing to do with Namco. She was originally named “Crazy Otto” and she was developed by the General Computer Corporation. GCC was sued by Atari while the game was still under construction because of their adaptation of “Missile Command”, and as a result GCC was not allowed to produce any direct game adaptations (called ‘conversion kits’ in the business) without consent from the manufacturer.

Rather than toss Crazy Otto in the crap-heap, GCC reached out to Pac-Man’s North American distributor, Midway, and showed them the game. Midway was tired of waiting for Namco’s Pac-Man sequel, so they repackaged Crazy Otto, snipped off his manhood and stuck a bow on him. And thus a legend was born.

Here’s one that sucked a myriad of hours away from my childhood, keeping me off the streets, out of the sun, and safely away from the dangers of exercise. Taito brought this from Japan to North America, a game called “Lock ‘n’ Chase”. It appeared in arcades, as well as at home on the Intellivision game system. Arcade-cabinet games that were ported to home game systems were huge business. This one was a hit.

Instead of an amorphous yellow mouth-blob, you control a thief. The yellow dots are ‘coins’ (though they look suspiciously like ‘dots’). Instead of cherries, random pieces of pixilated treasure appear. And instead of being chased by the undead, you are pursued by policemen. This is a great way to introduce children to the concept of evading authority in pursuit of illegal selfish gain. I learned a lot.

This is racist Pac-Man. The game is called “Hangly-Man”, derived from the uproariously comical way that Japanese people say the word “Hungry” (seriously). This game is tremendously close to the real thing, mostly because, unlike “Lock ‘n’ Chase”, this is an illegal hack. An underground knock-off. If your local arcade featured a copy of “Hangly-Man” (which was most often built into a Pac-Man cabinet), that means the owner was too cheap to pay for the real thing. He probably had other rip-offs too, like Donkey King, Space Invasion, and Zaxxoff. Jerk.

The game is not an exact clone. “Hangly-Man” has mazes that were altered from the original, including the one pictured above, which would appear on the third level and every odd level afterward. You’ve got the central ghost house and the level’s borders, but otherwise it’s a free, no-walled space. Another variation of this rip-off (a hack within a hack, to put it in Inception-like terms) is “Caterpillar Pac-Man”, in which you play as a caterpillar running from spiders. There is also a version released in which Pac-Man is replaced by a Popeye head. That’s just weird.

“Munch Man” is not so much a direct theft of the original game as a backwards re-imagining. Instead of eating dots, you’re running through a maze trying to create a continuous chain while little globules called ‘Hoonos’ chase you. This was manufactured by Texas Instruments for the TI-99 home computer, which explains its rudimentary, less-fun-than-the-real-thing graphics.

One thing that Texas Instruments did well though, was the development of your Pac-Adversaries, the Hoonos. The further along in the story you get, the tougher the Hoonos become. Pac-Man’s ghosts never really wised up to the little yellow guy eating all their dots. At least I assume that’s the situation.

Really, why else would the ghosts have such a passionate desire to kill Pac-Man? And, if Pac-Man is devouring dots that rightfully belong to these ghosts, should we be rooting for him? I feel a little hypocritical, helping along a compulsive thief who frequently eats a magic pill that allows him to (albeit temporarily) destroy the people from whom he is pilfering.

Anyway, back to Munch Man’s Hoodos. These guys would get faster and smarter as you progress through the game, assuming you hadn’t lost interest and gone to beg your parents for an Atari instead.

“Snapper”, which is a line of tools as well as a euphemism for a vagina, was a Pac-Man clone produced for the British BBC Micro home computer. The original release was so close to Pac-Man, it had to be yanked and re-configured to avoid a lawsuit.

They stretched out the ghosts’ limbs and turned them into vaguely humanoid blobs, then stuck a green cowboy hat and legs onto the protagonist. That’s all you needed to do in the 80s to avoid getting sued. It was a glorious time for green hats.

The “Snapper” edge is that the ghosts each have their own personalities. The red one is temperamental; he will kick in to double-speed once your hat-dude has eaten a certain amount of dots. That’s the only ‘personality’ change mentioned in the article, but I’d like to think the purple guy suffers from ADD and stops caring about your Pac-Man guy after a minute or so, the blue guy is a depressive who just sits in his corner and mopes, while the green guy is sociopathic, often turning on his companions and destroying them for you. That would have been a game.

A lot of games are similar to one another these days, but I’m impressed with just how much game manufacturers could get away with back then. If the law hasn’t changed, I’m going to try to get rich off a “Grand Theft Auto” clone.

With a green hat.

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