Thursday, January 6, 2011

At Random: K.C. Munchkin! (Odyssey 2, 1981)

I'm dipping back a little farther into videogame history for a random selection from my random collection, as I blindfold myself, run my fingers along the shelf, and come up with Magnavox's K.C. Munchkin! for the Odyssey^2 console.  (Magnavox had a predilection for using exclamation points in its game titles, so please forgive the punctuational oddities in the following.)

K.C. Munchkin! is historically noteworthy as one of the first home videogames "inspired by" an established coin-op title, without benefit of appropriate licensing, to become the subject of related legal action.  Namco and Midway owned the arcade game that clearly provided the Munchkin's core concept, but it was actually Atari who brought suit after paying big bucks for the console rights to Pac-Man.

The lawsuit was closely followed in the industry, as Magnavox/North American Philips argued successfully, at first, that their game was significantly different from Pac-Man, then lost the case on appeal.  The final verdict established that game images and sounds can be copyrighted as distinct elements from the underlying source code -- essentially, the court confirmed that K.C. Munchkin! looks and plays an awful lot like Pac-Man, and ordered it off the market, even though the game's programming by Ed Averett was completely original work.

Of course, Magnavox had already managed to sell quite a few of its cartridges during the time it took to settle the matter, and despite being yanked unceremoniously from the shelves, K.C. Munchkin! is hardly rare today.  It's a decent game, too, a standout title in the limited Odyssey^2 library that provides good, solid maze game action while taking advantage of the console's unique capabilities.

How is K.C. Munchkin! different from Pac-Man?  Well, it foreshadows Ms. Pac-Man by providing more than one basic maze -- there are four preset configurations, with random and invisible-maze variations.  The rotating center block also changes the gameplay -- with careful strategy and timing, the player can trap the monsters safely out of the way for a while.

There's even a programmable mode that allows the player (using the Odyssey^2 keyboard) to configure the maze directly, turning walls on and off, and even creating impossible configurations, though there's no way to save the results:

Pac-Man scoring is altered to fit this game's 4-digit score limit, though it follows a similar pattern with escalating point values for quickly eating multiple monsters.  The gameplay is also altered -- there are only a dozen pellets to consume, but they move freely around the board and must be chased down, and they move faster as their numbers are reduced.  The three opposing monsters (not four as in Namco's game) don't really change their patterns when they're in "scared" mode, and they still look insectoid until they become ghosts (resembling Namco's graphics more directly) when the player actually contacts them.  Then they have to return to the rotating center block to recharge, and often end up chasing the entrance for a while before they can actually get in and return to their normal lethal state.  It's entirely possible, at least early on, to finish the level with all three enemies stuck in ghost mode:

The monsters aren't as smart as Namco's originals, and they don't work together to any great degree, but they are capable of chasing the player into a dead end on occasion.  There are also invisible maze modes, where the actual map is only displayed when the player stops moving, providing additional challenge when the monsters start to seem brain-dead.

K.C. Munchkin! was not an innovative game, and is remembered today mostly because of the accompanying legal fracas.  But its gameplay holds up fairly well almost thirty years later; maze chases were a dime a dozen at the time, but at least Magnavox and N.A.P. tried to do something different within the genre.  It just wasn't different enough.

This one is fairly readily available today, and can usually be found for sale here:


  1. I got my Odyssey^2 system too late in its life cycle to get this game back in the day; it was already pulled off the store shelves. Most of my time was spent playing Quest for the Rings.

    Even a Pac-clone on a second-rate system like the O^2 was a far cry better than the rushed-to-market garbage that was Pac-Man on the Atari 26oo.

  2. K.C. Munchkin! was certainly better than the industry-killing 2600 version of Pac-Man, and K.C.'s Krazy Chase! was a worthy followup. Definitely two of the better games on the O^2.