I remember in 1981 I got excited when I heard there was a home video game that was basically a knockoff of Pac-Man. My cousins had a 6-switch Atari VCS, and I was hoping it was for that system so I’d have a chance to play it next time I was at their house, as Pac-Man hadn’t yet been released for the VCS, nor do I think it was even mentioned publicly as coming in the near future. But as for the game I had heard about, I didn’t remember exactly what it was called, but it had the word “Munchkin” in the title. Alas, I found out that the game, K.C. Munchkin!, was for the Magnavox Odyssey², a game system that neither my cousins nor anybody else I knew had. Ah well, it was fun to hope.
Nonetheless, the curiosity about K.C. Munchkin! stayed with me for over thirty years. My curiosity (and Pac-Mania) was so high that for a brief time I needed to have Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes for breakfast because each box had a chance to win an Odyssey²; but it wasn’t to be. To this day, I’ve never touched an actual Odyssey² machine, although I’ve had chances in the three trips I made to YesterCades in Red Bank, New Jersey. Have I played K.C. Munchkin!? Yes — but only via Odyssey² emulation…and on my Atari 7800.
K.C. Munchkin (punnily named after K.C. Mencken, president of Philips, owner of Magnavox) is a quirky-looking character who moves around a maze, his mouth making a constant chomping motion, and eats munchies, all while munchers are chasing after him. Munchkin can eat one of four blinking munchies and temporarily eat the munchers, who meanwhile go to a pen in the middle of the screen to eventually regenerate and resume the chase.
Sound familiar? Good. Because there are many differences between what you’re thinking of and K.C. Munchkin!.
- On the surface, it looks like Pac-Man is just a yellow circle with a mouth. Munchkin is blue and has antennae and eyes.
- When playing Pac-Man, Pac-Man will continue to move in the same direction until he either gets to a wall or is eaten by a ghost, regardless of whether you let go of the joystick. Munchkin, however, only moves a few steps unless you continue to hold the joystick in the direction you want him to travel.
- Four ghosts chase Pac-Man. Three munchers chase Munchkin.
- The ghosts specifically pursue Pac-Man. The munchies don’t necessarily pursue Munchkin, though; he is more likely to die by colliding into a muncher rather than by being chased by a muncher.
- Pac-Man has 240 dots and four energizers, all stationary. K.C. Munchkin! has eight munchies and four blinking munchies, all of which move throughout the maze, moving faster as Munchkin eats them.
- If Pac-Man eats a ghost, only the ghost’s eyes remain, and they return to the pen in the middle, where the ghost regenerates. If Munchkin eats a muncher, the muncher turns into a ghost, then returns to the pen where it regenerates.
- Depending on the setting of the machine, Pac-Man has either one, three, or five lives, with a bonus life awarded after 10000, 15000, or 20000 points (if there’s a bonus life at all). Munchkin gets one life. Period.
- In Pac-Man, the ghosts’ pen is longer than wide and has an opening on top, and Pac-Man cannot enter it. In K.C. Munchkin!, the munchers’ pen is square with an opening, and it rotates constantly, and with proper timing, Munchkin can enter the pen — and in one maze, he absolutely must enter the pen to clear the entire maze.
- Pac-Man has one maze. K. C. Munchkin! has several mazes and includes a maze editor so you can make your own mazes; you can opt to play just one maze throughout the game or to play random mazes for every level.
More Different Than Same? Tell It To the Judge!
Upon enumerating the ways that K.C. Munchkin! is different from Pac-Man, you might think that there are so many differences that the two are essentially different games. Well…Atari’s lawyers would disagree with you. In 1979, Namco granted Atari the right to produce home video game versions of the former’s arcade games, which means that this license would include 1980’s Pac-Man. Although Atari’s version of Pac-Man wouldn’t hit any video game system for another year, Atari felt that Magnavox had infringed on said right with K.C. Munchkin! Atari took North American Philips to court, where a judge ruled that K.C. Munchkin! was not Pac-Man and was different enough to not infringe on that right. Atari, not satisfied with the verdict, appealed the case and won.
Now, that’s the short version of what happened. Rather than get into long, drawn-out details, I’ll give you some info that you won’t find on other web sites that just briefly touch upon the legal issues. K.C. Munchkin! was designed by an independent video game developer named Ed Averett. Not only did Averett and Philips testify that they had made every effort to not copy Pac-Man, but Averett also had said that he had developed a game called Take the Money and Run, in which your character would maneuver through a maze filled with robots, grabbing money along the way, and at certain times, you could turn the tables on the robots. Sounds familiar, right? Only allegedly this game was developed before Pac-Man was even thought of, and after various tweaks and revisions requested by the powers that be, the game evolved into K.C. Munchkin!
Atari initially filed a lawsuit on November 18, 1981, in the United States District Court here in my Sweet Home Chicago. On December 4 of the same year, Judge George N. Leighton took many of the aforementioned differences into consideration and ruled that Atari had not provided sufficient support saying that K.C. Munchkin! was infringing on Atari’s rights. Atari filed its appeal, and then on January 19, 1982, presented its case, which was decided in favor of Atari on March 2, just a month and a half later. Apparently what helped Atari’s case was that the character of K.C. Munchkin too strongly resembled Pac-Man, the mouth movements of the two characters were too similar, and the way the ghosts would be eaten and regenerate was also too close. After the ruling, K.C. Munchkin! was still available for sale for months thanks to a $1,000,000 bond posted by Philips that allowed sales to continue.
Of course, those who were into video games back in the day probably remember that K.C. Munchkin! was not the only Pac-Man clone to come about for home video games. Off the top of my head, there was Munch Man on the TI 99/4A and Clean Sweep on the Vectrex. So why did Atari sue Magnavox but not Texas Instruments or GCC (maker of Vectrex)? Well, one blogger opines, probably correctly, that it was jealousy: Magnavox beat Atari to the punch with a Pac-Man game, and Atari wanted to be the first. Since the aforementioned clones post-dated Atari’s home version of Pac-Man, they weren’t considered a threat to Atari’s ego, let alone bank account.
But did Magnavox let these Atari lawsuits get their spirits down? Not quite: Magnavox, in a display of humor and snark, released a game called K.C.’s Krazy Chase!, kind of a surprisingly enjoyable melding of Pac-Man, Centipede, and Nibbler, meant as a metaphor for all the legal challenges the company had to face.
Atari Users Can Have It Both Ways!
In a seemingly ironic twist of fate, the game that caused such a legal hassle on the Odyssey² was recently produced for two Atari systems. K.C. Munchkin! is (or at least was) available for Atari 2600 under the title K.C. Monster Maze!, and more recently under its original title for the Atari 7800. Now, I can’t speak for the 2600 version, but the 7800 cart is yet another excellent homebrew by Bob DeCrescenzo. I don’t know what more to say, other than that the game play perfectly replicates that of the Odyssey² version. The 7800 port actually has some enhanced graphics to take advantage of the more advanced power of the ProSystem; if you feel more nostalgic, there is a yet-to-be-exposed Easter egg that will allow you to play the game with its original graphics.
These are good times for Atari video gamers who like Pac-Man. With the three officially-sanctioned Atari 2600 Pac-Man titles, the numerous homebrew versions of the original for both the 2600 and 7800, and now K.C. Munchkin! on both the 2600 and 7800, there’s no shortage of ghost-chomping games available for these classic consoles.
You can watch Bob DeCrescenzo demo his brilliant conversion of this lawsuit-inducing game here:
And with all the Pac-Man knockoffs that existed for old systems and clones for more modern technology, this new, recurring feature in my blog won’t be going away any time soon.