February 3, 2017 7:07 AM   Subscribe

"Eventually Atari came to us and said, 'What do you guys really want out of this?'" On the thirty-fifth anniversary of the popular arcade game, Benj Edwards chronicles the rise of Ms. Pac-Man and how a few MIT students created the next big thing off the back of the previous big thing in 1980s arcade history.
In 2011, I conducted extensive interviews with three of Ms. Pac-Man's creators for a planned feature about Ms. Pac-Man's creation for the game's then upcoming 30th anniversary. While the subject has since been covered in other venues, I have found that my original interviews are still packed with nuggets of information that have not yet come to light.

For this oral history, the participants' responses have been edited for length and clarity and arranged to tell the story. Set in New England rather than the familiar setting of Silicon Valley or Japan, their tale is one of creativity, gumption, and loyalty among a group of gifted friends who happened to work very well together.
posted by Servo5678 (17 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm old."
"How old *ARE* you, The Card Cheat?"
"I'm so old I can remember standing in a line, waiting for the chance to play Pac-Man in an arcade."
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:12 AM on February 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Homestar is that you!?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:25 AM on February 3, 2017


Ms. Pac Man was probably the only game I was obsessed with more than Pac Man and I grew up in the town next to Wayland and had no idea until now of the local history of this game. I even have vague memories of Crazy Otto, which they say was tested in Framingham, which would be my local arcade, Fun & Games. I remember seeing it and thinking "that's just Ms. Pac Man, but not." and now after all these years I finally have an explanation of what it was and why it existed.

Great post!
posted by bondcliff at 8:00 AM on February 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Thirty-five years later, I am still a fan of even the worst cut scenes in all games because I was so obsessed with getting to the act breaks in this game as a lad after I saw a much older kid get them once.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:13 AM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was going to be snarky about video game nostalgia, about how the games of the 70s/80s still have dominated the public consciousness despite not moving nearly as many units as modern best sellers, but then I looked up how much money Pac-Man made. $1B in quaters in its first year. $1B in hardware sales in first 18 months. Yeah that's a phenomenon.
posted by thecjm at 8:34 AM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is great, I never knew that all Ms. Pac-Man machines were mod kits.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:49 AM on February 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Great post, great read! I love that it ended up being "Ms.", I always wondered why a female character and why "Ms." The mod kit thing is pretty neat too- every time a Ms. Pac-Man was sold, standard Pac Man was sold too. Makes me wonder if there were cabinets where the Ms. Pac-Man board would get jostled loose and suddenly it only plays Pac-Man? I can't remember if I've seen that before or not.
posted by Secretariat at 9:06 AM on February 3, 2017

It was more of a fever.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:07 AM on February 3, 2017

Steve Golson also talked about (nearly) all of this in a "Classic Game Postmortem" talk at last year's Game Developer's Conference (GDC). I stumbled across the video a few days ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.
posted by ElKevbo at 10:41 AM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ah yes, Bucker & Garcia. Also famous for "Do the Funky Broadway" and "E.T., I Love You", and by "famous" I mean "yeah, they only had that one song".
posted by Quindar Beep at 11:58 AM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

[puts on heresy hat]

I think the Ms Pac story is a great example to bring up in the debate over emulation and ownership of ROMs.

Yes, a significant majority of games have been abandoned by the authors and/or manufacturers over time.

But not all of them.

And, until you know for sure (e.g. Jamie Fenton releasing Robby Roto to the world) you don't have the right to decide where that ROM goes. Good on the GCC guys for keeping that contract around and slapping it on Namco at exactly the moment it was needed.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:37 PM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ms. Pac Man and Galaga are my two all-time favorite arcade games. And yet, I think I'd rather not have the combo machine. Galaga as an upright, yes - but Ms. Pac Man always seemed right to me as a cocktail orientation machine.

And now I know, if I ever obtain one, I can unplug one board and play Pac Man...
posted by caution live frogs at 2:29 PM on February 3, 2017

I had a paper route 1979-81 so all my money went into arcade games.

'86 - '90 I put in 6,000+ hrs working at the college arcade, as attendant and later back-office accounting guy.

That arcade was doing boffo business -- $80,000/mo gross at the cost of 1 person watching over the machines.

I was a CS student but it never crossed my mind to get an Amiga 500 or something and author a homebrew game for it. Coulda done well in that arcade.

If I ever perfect my time machine, I'll do that, along with inventing Tetris for the Apple II in 1980 and MtG around 1990.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 8:08 AM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

And, until you know for sure (e.g. Jamie Fenton releasing Robby Roto to the world) you don't have the right to decide where that ROM goes.

Legally, yes, but it seems to me that you're trying to extend this to cover moral rights. And note, from the start, GCC broke the legal rights, and some might say the moral rights, to Atari's game with their upgrade kit for Missile Command. Under your scheme, we wouldn't have Ms. Pac-Man, because GCC would never have gotten off the ground. The gray areas were what made it possible in the first place; the only way that GCC survived, as explained in the article, is that they figured the lawsuit was coming eventually and so sued them first. (I'd like to know more details about that ploy, actually. What did they actually sue them for?)

Anyway, the notion of property rights as they apply to software are constructed. Nothing like this exists in nature. One might argue that they're constructed for a good reason, and I won't argue with that. But there is really nothing obvious about them, unless you've been taught by your environment so that they appear to be obvious.
posted by JHarris at 9:02 AM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ah, just spotted this error!

Thirty-five years after its release, Ms. Pac-Man remains both iconic and addictively fun to play. It even makes the news from time to time, as it did in January when computer scientists taught an AI to play the game better than any human, achieving a record-breaking high score of 43,720.

Ooh what an error! The article they link to specifically does not mention researchers had devised a way to play Ms. Pac-Man better than humans, it says that it could beat intermediate players but not anyone who had played a significant amount of it. And anyone who's played Ms. Pac-Man knows 43K, while good, is by no means a stellar score. The record broken is only for machine players, it excludes human players.
posted by JHarris at 9:27 PM on February 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

thecjm: "$1B in quaters in its first year. $1B in hardware sales in first 18 months. Yeah that's a phenomenon."

Which is more than $2.75B in today's currency.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:36 PM on February 4, 2017

Nice error catch, JHarris!
posted by Secretariat at 11:29 AM on February 5, 2017

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