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Bandai Namco sues throwback console maker over Ms. Pac-Man mini-cabinet

The company alleges AtGames was misrepresenting rights to Namco licenses

A height chart showing a cartoon lineup of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Baby, Blinky and Sue
From an exhibit in Bandai Namco’s lawsuit against AtGames. The image is part of branding documents meant to show Namco’s ownership of the Pac-family copyrights.
Screenshot via Bandai Namco
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Bandai Namco is suing AtGames, the makers of plug-and-play retro game consoles, alleging AtGames’ production of an unauthorized Ms. Pac-Man mini-cabinet ruined negotiations with the game’s original developers that would have resolved ownership issues going back to 1983.

Bandai Namco’s lawsuit also references a controversy last year in which a licensed plug-and-play Pac-Man device that hit shelves was substantially different — and worse — than a product played and given glowing reviews by the games press. In both cases, Bandai Namco is saying AtGames’ work has harmed its business. The complaint was filed on Sept. 20 in federal court in San Jose.

AtGames is known for its Flashback line of hardware based on retro consoles and games from the 1980s and 1990s. It was behind 2017’s Sega Genesis Flashback, a roundly panned design that suffered from poor emulation, a bad user interface, and a catalog that was heavy on shovelware and light on classics. Sega last year delayed plans for its Mega Drive Mini, removing AtGames from the project and taking development in-house. Sega’s throwback console hit shelves last week, and has been well received by critics.

The furthest reaching allegations Bandai Namco makes against AtGames concern the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet. Bandai Namco’s lawsuit alleges that AtGames manufactured at least one such cabinet, “and may well have already produced and distributed” more, to secure sales and distribution contracts with retailers. The suit notes that in 2012, AtGames chief executive Ping-Kang Hsuing asked about obtaining a Ms. Pac-Man license and was flatly refused, though the two companies did go on to partner on other products.

Interestingly, Bandai Namco says it became aware of this cabinet because AtGames sent a model to Kevin Curran, who, along with two other students at MIT, created a mod of the Pac-Man arcade game that would become Ms. Pac-Man. The three created a company called General Computer Corporation that, in 1983, entered into an agreement assigning rights over their development to Namco. Still, enough issues remained that another agreement was negotiated in 2008, and talks were still ongoing as of late August 2019.

Image showing a miniaturized version of a Ms. Pac-Man arcade cabinet next to a full-size Galaga cabinet
The mini-cabinet in question, from an exhibit filed with Bandai Namco’s lawsuit.
Bandai Namco

AtGames’ Ms. Pac-Man mini-cabinet, which apparently the GCC developers (or their successors) took as an officially licensed product, tanked those negotiations. Curran told Bandai Namco that AtGames had gotten in touch about acquiring GCC’s royalty interest in Ms. Pac-Man. Then Bandai Namco started hearing, from AtGames’ legal counsel and even other sales representatives, that AtGames had acquired that interest in the IP. At this time, Bandai Namco said it became aware of the Ms. Pac-Man mini cabinet. Curran, according to Bandai Namco, also said that AtGames had been in discussion with Walmart, “who had expressed significant interest in selling the Unauthorized Ms. Pac-Man product.”

With regard to the Pac-Man Flashback Blast device (a controller and USB dongle), Bandai Namco alleges that AtGames created review units using the original and better-quality arcade game ROM, but for retail the units shipped with the Nintendo Entertainment System port. The discrepancy was so bad reviewers later issued warnings not to buy the device, which Bandai Namco’s lawsuit cites as an example of AtGames harming its business. Bandai Namco said that it had approved of the version that had been sent to reviewers, not the one that went on shelves.

Bandai Namco is suing on the grounds of false advertising and unfair competition as well as copyright infringement under U.S. and California law. The company is seeking unspecified damages, but does say it deserves triple damages under federal law for “willful, knowing and intentional infringement” related to the Ms. Pac-Man product.

Polygon has reached out to an AtGames representative to ask for comment on Bandai Namco’s allegations.

Separately, AtGames was also hit with a breach-of-contract suit filed in August by Walgreens over tens of thousands of unsold AtGames products, which the pharmacy chain said AtGames had promised to refund. Walgreens said the returned units are worth $1.62 million, but it hasn’t been paid anything yet. The products in question were not specified in the complaint.

Update: An AtGames representative replied to Polygon saying that it was the company’s policy to not comment on pending litigation.

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