The little-known story behind Ms. Pac-Man

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference yesterday, programmer Steve Golson shared the origins of Pac-Man's fashionable distaff counterpart.

Everyone knows Ms. Pac-Man: it’s that game where someone slapped a bow and red lipstick on an inhuman yellow blob and called it a female character.

But not so many people know about its origins as an unauthorised bootleg mod whose creators tricked one of America’s biggest videogame companies into paying them to make it.

In 1981, Steve Golson was one of five who dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to found the company which made Ms. Pac-Man. This Wednesday, 35 years later, he told his story at the Game Developers Conference

Golson clearly relished the role of cranky old man (“Hard disks? We didn’t have any hard disks! 12kb was a big game!”) but he reacted with palpable joy when he found many in his audience had played Ms Pac Man on the original coin-operated cabinet.

His talk was a journey back to the Wild West of the game industry, filled with arcane arcade lore and obsolete cheat codes. In those days there was a strong trade in ‘speedup kits’ -- challenge-boosting computer chips which arcade owners could attach directly to their machines in order to lure back jaded customers.

Soon Golson quit college to make kits full time. That was how they came to the attention fo Atari -- then a gigantic megacorporation on par with Tron’s ENCOM -- which took umbrage at their enhanced version of Missile Command and sued them for $10 million.  

Copyright protection for videogames at this time was very weak, and the company couldn’t afford losing and setting a precedent. “So what do they do?” asked Golson with a grin. “Naturally, they hire us.”

It was a sweet deal: settle out of court, take the money, and stop making speed-up kits without manufacturer permission. The only problem was that Golson and his friends had spent the last few months making one for Pac-Man. To do so, they had meticulously disassembled its 18kb of code and printed it out on about 150 pages (there was a murmur in the audience when Golson held up the entire document in a bound book – “the annotated Pac-Man!”). They had added new mazes, new power-ups, new enemy AI.

This was a lot of work to throw away, so one of the team, Kevin Curran, decided to bluff.

At this time, Golson reminded his audience, “Nobody knows about our agreement with Atari. That’s secret. All the industry knows is that Atari dropped their lawsuit. So Kevin -- a 21-year-old MIT drop-out -- calls Dave Marofske, president of Midway. Midway who has the most popular game in the western hemisphere right now." He continues:

[Marofske] is just annoyed as heck because there’s all sorts of copyright violations going on, people wholesale pirating his game and making copies of it. There’s people making Pac-Man T-shirts and Pac-Man trashcans and all this kind of thing, and he’s just in court all the time trying to shut these people down. And here’s someone who calls him up first.

And Kevin says: hey, you may have heard that we trounced and pounded Atari in court and they dropped their lawsuit. We’re about to do the same thing to you. We’re about to bring out a kit, and we just want -- if there’s any disagreements you think you may have, let’s settle ‘em now, because we don’t want to have to take you to court too.

The bluff worked. Midway paid them for the speed-up kit and handle the marketing for them.

But Ms. Pac-Man herself was still nowhere in sight. Instead there was only “Crazy Otto”, an attempt to dodge copyright by giving Pac-Man  legs, and his spouse “Anna”. Then, in early November, Golson received a call from Stan Jarocki, Midway’s marketing man.

“Stan says, ‘Hey! We want to make the female character the main character in the game. We’re gonna call it Ms. Pac-Man. It’s gonna be cool.”

“’Stan, [I said,] there’s all these 14-year-old boys in the arcade, aren’t they gonna be turned off by that?’ He says, ‘no no no, it’s really cool, ‘cause Pac-Man is very popular with girls and women’. We’re like, cool, sure, no problem.” 

Someone at Midway pointed out that she couldn’t be “Miss Pac-Man”, because that would mean her child with Pac-Man was born out of wedlock.

Now there was only the matter of her title. Someone at Midway pointed out that she couldn’t be “Miss Pac-Man”, because that would mean her child with Pac-Man was born out of wedlock. So instead she became (briefly) Pac-Woman, before settling on the more progressive “Ms. Pac-Man.”

The arcade boom ended with the great videogame crash of 1984. But 32 years later, Golson and his former partners still get royalties from Ms. Pac-Man, in part thanks to a secret message they embedded in the code.

It was their “Hello, Nakamura!” easter egg -- intended for Namco founder Masaya Nakamura -- which proved the company had directly replicated their code rather than rewritten it themselves.

“So buy more for your phone,” concluded Golson. “Ms. Pac-Man lives on.”

(Top image: the Crazy Otto version of the romhack.)

John Brindle is a critic and journalist who lives in south London, working as a mild-mannered editor for a metropolitan newspaper. He tweets @john_brindle.