‘Ms. Pac-Man’ is a Product of College Dropouts Reverse-Engineering Someone Else’s Game!

On February 3, the iconic “Ms. Pacman” video game marked its 35th year as one of the most successful and enduring video games of all time.

It first came out in its original form as an arcade game from developer Bally Midway and has since come out in at least 28 different gaming and computer platforms. Back in the 80s, “Ms. Pac-Man” was regarded as the ‘first lady of video games,’ a title which she may very well hold to this day, notes Venture Beat.

Everyone also knew that before “Ms. Pac-Man,” there was the classic “Pac-Man.” However, it should be noted that the former has outpaced the original game over the years in terms of sales.

“Ms. Pacman” remains the ambassador of coin-operated video games, as the machine can still be found in restaurants, truck stops, arcades, and other venues across the US.

The game still holds the all-time sales record for a standalone arcade video game in the US while “Pac-Man” holds the No. 2 spot.

Not from a Japanese game developer

However, little did everyone knows that “Ms. Pac-Man” was actually a result of a bunch of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dropouts reverse-engineering someone else’s game.

“Pac-Man” was developed by Japanese game developer Namco, but its spouse game was actually created by three MIT dropouts from New England.

In an astounding feat of business acumen and teamwork, they sold Midway on the concept and quickly pushed the game into record-breaking reality. The three are Steve Golson, Doug Macrae, and Kevin Curran, details Fast Company.

Golson was a student at the MIT in 1978 with Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran, who started setting up pinball and arcade games in their dorm.

Around that time, speed-up kits, also known as enhancement kits, were popular in the glory days of arcades. They would slightly change games, like speeding them up, which kept players who had thought they mastered them interested.

The first speed-up kit came out for “Asteroids,” which literally sped the game up. However, more advanced kits could introduce new characters and levels. It allowed arcades to present old works as completely new games.

Making their own speed-up kit

“Missile Command” was a 1980 arcade hit. Macrae and Curran were looking for a speed-up kit for it but couldn’t find one, so they decided to make their own.

They started General Computer in 1981. Along with Golson, they created “Super Missile Attack,” an enhancement kit for “Missile Command.” Essentially, they reverse-engineered the game to reprogram it. They eventually figured out how it worked and used graph paper to design new characters.

Intellectual property was a problem at that time. That’s why they did not use the “Missile Command” name. They also used complicated hardware to make sure no one could copy their game.

Still, what they sold was a single circuit board that owners of “Missile Command” could then insert inside the original’s cabinets.

They sold 1,000 copies of their enhancement kit in two months, making a profit of $250,000. At that point, they all dropped out of MIT. However, Atari soon sued them for $15 million.

Golson noted that Atari was the high-tech company back then. He also said the court appearances gave them extra publicity. General Computer did not back down. So, Atari just hired them in October 1981. It dropped the suit, and General Computer made $50,000 a month.

However, General Computer was no longer allowed to market enhancement kits without the permission from the distributor of the original game as part of the settlement.

On that same summer, General Computer was developing another kit. It wanted to work on another game with a large install base. They thought about working on “Asteroids,” but settled on “Pac-Man,” which was a hot game at the time.

As popular as it was, “Pac-Man” was a predictable game. The ghosts would always go in the same paths. General Computer worked on a version that would kill the predictability. Once again, they reverse-engineered the original game.

They were able to disassemble the code into 180 pages. They learned things about the game, like that “Pac-Man” would move a little faster around corners, and that the ghosts would look in a direction before moving that way.

General Computer decided to add four new mazes, which they designed on graph paper, randomize the monsters’ movements, and then make the fruit bonus move through the maze, which was static in the original.

They also thought about adding vertical tunnels and letting the ghosts move through walls, but those ideas were scrapped.

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