Electronic Games magazine had several issues
under its belt when Atari shook up the videogame world
by asserting its legal ownership over the US home
license for Namco's coin-chomping arcade champion,
Pac-Man. Throwing its weight around like the
proverbial 900 lb. gorilla, Atari had backed down
companies from Arcade Plus (whose dot-gobbler Ghost
Hunter disappeared from retail shelves along with
the company itself; as founder Scott Orr rebuilt Arcade
Plus into Gamestar and went on to become one of the
era's most successful sports simulation publishers)
to Sierra Online (publishers of John Harris' beloved
then turned its litigious eye on Magnavox, whose Odyssey2
had just launched its own maze-chase game, K.C.
Munchkin. Flush with its victories over several
smaller publishers, Atari's legal nostrils flared
further when it appeared that the O2 game would actually
hit the holiday market ahead of Atari's problem-plagued
Pac-Man for the 2600 (as fans of the system
no doubt recall, Atari's version of the coin-op classic
looked as if it had been based on the adventures of
Blinky the ghost, rather than Pac-Man the gobbler).
Thus, the dogs of war were unleashed and Magnavox'
entry into the maze-chase race was legally challenged.
in NYC, meanwhile, I was more or less living in the
old offices of Reese Publishing. Our magazine, Electronic
Games, had really begun to take off, but Arnie
Katz was still working a well-paid full-time gig in
trade journalism (which explains why he is identified
as "Francis Laney Jr." in the first issue
or two). It was the middle of a typically busy day
when a call came in from Knoxville, headquarters of
the O2 division. It was Gerry Michaelson, a top executive
and our personal connection at Magnavox.
I will be forthright here and admit that Arnie, Joyce
Worley and I were much closer, personally, with the
execs at Magnavox than we were with Michael Moone
and the other Atari suits. The Odyssey folks had taken
great pains to establish a relationship with us whereas
our contacts at Atari were largely limited to public
relations personnel. Nonetheless, both companies were
great supporters of the magazine, buying ads and sending
us EPROMs (erasable programmable ROM cartridges which
were produced prior to the publication of the final
version) of whatever we needed. But Michaelson was
the first person in the industry, along with Diane
Drosnes at Activision, to truly "get" the
importance of a publication such as EG.
while we enjoyed much of the O2 software (UFO,
War of Nerves and, indeed, K.C. Munchkin
itself were among the finest games to emerge during
the Golden Age of programmable videogame systems),
the majority of our coverage was devoted to Atari.
Not only was the 2600 the dominant system of that
era, but Atari's coin-op division had also scored
in the arcades with such classics as Asteroids,
Centipede and Missile Command to its
also became the first of the home systems to offer
its gamers licensed versions of popular coin-ops from
other publishers. It was, in fact, Atari's experience
with Space Invaders that precipitated its litigious
behavior following the acquisition of Pac-Man
Space Invaders was a blockbuster, the first
mass-market videogame success story since the arrival
of Pong in 1971. Atari licensed the game for the home
market in 1979 and launched a massive marketing campaign
that included tournaments in cities across the United
States, with the ultimate winner (Bill Heineman, who
went on to carve out a career for himself as a first-rate
game programmer/designer) determined at a national
while Space Invaders became the killer app for the
2600 and established Atari as the dominant force in
the newly-emerging videogame industry, the Sunnyvale
giant could not help but notice the armada of Invader
clones buzzing around the electronic gaming landscape.
Virtually every console or computer system capable
of playing games had its own version of the game,
with the play mechanics, visual presentation and,
sometimes, even the famous thumpa-thumpa audio accompaniment
Atari was not about to stand by and allow the same
thing to happen with its Pac-Man license, especially
given the fact that its own 2600 version was not quite
all that it could have been. Bad enough those maze-chase
imitators were sprouting like wheat on a Kansas farm,
but when the clones looked to outshine the "legitimate"
home version, Atari let loose its legal eagles.
when Gerry phoned me on that memorable day, he didn't
ask for much. He just wondered if I'd serve as an
expert witness on behalf of Magnavox in the forthcoming
Pac-Man Versus K.C. Munchkin courtroom
slugfest. No problem, pal, I thought, I'll just alienate
the top execs in our industry and make myself persona
non grata with the number one producer of videogames
in the world.
not for nothing, that issue was never real. I talked
to the Magnavox lawyers, read the legal documents
and played the Odyssey2 game. In the process, I became
convinced that Atari was attempting something that
was, in my opinion, illegal and dangerous to the continued
success of the entire electronic gaming industry.
Remember, I used to write comic books. The historical
horror of DC Comics (AKA National Periodicals) taking
Fawcett to court based on the notion that Captain
Marvel was too much like DC's Superman was a piece
of history I knew only too well.
like DC Comics, was attempting to hijack an entire
argued that both Superman and Captain Marvel possessed
super powers, secret identities and capes. Had DC's
case not been ultimately overruled, there would be
one company in the United States with the right to
publish superhero comics.
however, the courts realized that ceding an entire
category of comic books to one publisher was no different
than restricting the publication of mystery novels
to Bantam or the release of R&B music to Atlantic.
this was an issue that Mattered.
while Atari could indeed claim that games such as
Ghost Hunter and the original Jawbreaker (the game
was later redesigned by Chuckles for the 2600) intentionally
duplicated the look, feel and play of Pac-Man, K.C.
Munchkin's designers (presumably Ed and Linda Averette)
had clearly taken great pains not to ape the original.
The differences included a greatly diminished number
of pellets which actually moved around the maze, fleeing
from the ravenous Munchkin. As fewer and fewer pellets
remained on the screen, their speed increased until
the final dot was literally racing around the playfield.
was no clone; this was simply a different game in
the same category as Pac-Man. And it was a category
that Atari intended to own, lock, stock and pellets.
case itself was surreal. Throughout most of the testimony,
a Namco Pac-Man machine was happily running
on attract mode while a TV monitor displayed the relatively
silent image of the accursed wannabe, the pretender
to the Pac-Crown, K.C. Munchkin.
remember two things about that case very clearly and
neither was the verdict.
On one trip to Chicago (where the trial was taking
place for reasons still unknown to me), it was bitterly
cold and windy, even by Chicago standards. As my taxi
moved through the Loop and into Downtown I noticed
that a building right off Lake Michigan had what appeared
to be gunwales attached to their brick structure.
A stout rope had been strung through the loops in
each of the metal structures and I asked the cab driver
what it was.
he asked. "You mean the rope?"
for when the wind off the lake REALLY blows hard."
for people - something for them to hang on to!"
rolled my eyes and dropped into the back seat thinking:
"They must tell that one to every tourist they
pick up at the airport."
then, the driver gestured out his window. "There
was a woman, thin, middle-aged, her hands locked in
a death grip around that thick rope, her legs lifted
off the ground by a great, Ice Age gust, wavering
like a pennant in the horrific Chi-Town updrafts.
As mentioned earlier, the sounds of Pac-Man's coin-op
attract mode accompanied almost every moment of the
trial - with one memorable exception. The bailiff
interrupted the judge at one point and His Honor ordered
the machines to be temporarily disconnected and removed
into a back room. As the lawyers, contesting parties
and interested bystanders looked on, the double doors
to the courtroom swung open and two US Marshals appeared
on either side of what looked like the nastiest biker
this side of a Roger Corman movie. Handcuffed and
manacled, the massive, bearded gentleman was escorted
up the aisle and stood between his bookend babysitters
as he faced the judge.
Honor explained that this fellow was up for sentencing
and he absolutely had to deal with it then and there.
Begging our indulgence, the judge looked sternly at
the prisoner and pronounced sentence.
years," was all I heard, upon which declaration
the prisoner and his escorts turned and shuffled back
out through the doors. The Namco coin-op, TV set and
Odyssey2 were then immediately returned to the courtroom,
plugged in and set on attract mode. Our strange little
interlude with reality had ended and as the familiar
Pac-Man music and sound effects filled the
hall, the entire trial took on a genuinely surreal
upshot of that trial has always remained something
of a mystery to me. Magnavox, it seemed, had won the
battle but would go on to lose the war. Apparently
over-confident following its initial victory, Atari
was able to get the judgment overturned on appeal
as the court ruled that the oral consumption of pellets
was proprietary to the Namco game. K.C. Munchkin disappeared
from store shelves that holiday season and entered
the videogame history books.
a wide array of maze-chase games continued to appear
using a variety of visual stratagems to deflect Atari's
litigious wrath. Atari had beaten back the Munchkin,
but it failed in its attempt to engulf the entire
we shall see, however, it would not be the last time
a game publisher would attempt to lock up an entire
In the second installment of
Kunkel takes on Nintendo on behalf of Galoob and the
© 2003 by Bill Kunkel