My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

For all of my history with Pac-Man, I don’t actually have a great deal of history with Pac-Man the arcade game. I mean, I’ve played it and its sequels and its spin-offs loads over the years, and I’m not bad at it, but for me Pac-Man has always been about Pac-Man rather than Pac-Man! Make sense? Of course not…

Like everyone else, I was certainly aware of Pac-Man when The Animated Series came along in 1982, but that’s where I became a fan. Thanks Roland Rat Superstar! I went into huge detail on that when I went into huge detail on its video game spin-off, Pac-Land, here, which is not only my favourite Pac-Man game (yes, I know, the heresy, but there’s even more to come…), but also one of my top five favourite arcade games ever, and probably the single game I’ve spent the most time playing across the most systems, from Spectrum to Atari Lynx and Atari ST to PC Engine. I love it!

The “proper” Pac-Man game I’ve played the most would be Pac-Man 256 on iOS. This came out in 2016, and is an endless runner inspired by the level 256 glitch on the original Pac-Man, where you’re moving Pac-Man up a vertically scrolling maze that plays a lot like original Pac-Man, with a lot of strategic depth from the different ghost’s AI, and risk-reward from the lure of chaining together continuous dot pick-ups, power-ups and power pill collection with the glitch on your tail. It was addictive as hell, I ended up way higher on the online leaderboards than is usual for me, and then it came crashing down with a load of free-to-play mechanics. Hell of a lot of fun while it lasted though!

Speaking of free-to-play, it can be done right, as 2021’s battle royale take, Pac-Man 99, demonstrates almost perfectly. We had a bit of a rough start, and I really didn’t appreciate having to buy a skin when it turned out I kept getting into the top ten then dying because of a red enemy Pac-Man on the black background that I couldn’t see because no settings compensated for my very common red-black colourblindness… But the skin was a Xevious one, and it was cheap, and the game was free, and it’s a really, really good competitive multiplayer take on the classic core mechanics (with a bit of Championship Edition thrown in). And it’s really, really addictive, so I’m going to begrudgingly forgive it and say that at the time of writing, it’s about number eight in my top ten games of the year so far.

What about favourite proper, proper Pac-Man ever though? The one with mazes and dots and ghosts… It’s not Pac-Man, or Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, Pac & Pal or even Pac-Mania (although the Atari ST version of that comes pretty close). In fact, my favourite doesn’t have ghosts in it, or even Pac-Man! Just aliens, or to be more specific, Alien. On Atari 2600. You’re having a wander around your ship, Nostromo, investigating weird sounds that turn out to be alien eggs being laid around its maze-like hull. And apart from a flamethrower and a Frogger-style bonus stage, it’s a really pure version of Pac-Man, in a very Atari 2600 way, and is far better than the original on there! I wrote a load about that too here, and yeah, I know, but it’s my favourite Pac-Man and you can’t stop me!!!

When Pac-Man: The Animated Series came along, I don’t even remember seeing the original arcade game anywhere, let alone playing it, but I definitely remember the first Pac-Man I did play. Kind of! Apart from Donkey Kong, in the early eighties Wild West of video games, I reckon Pac-Man got cloned more than anything else. As well as the aforementioned Alien on Atari 2600, it had Bank Heist, Lock ‘n Chase and Mouse Trap. The early home computers were at it too! There was Gobbler and Dung Beetles on Apple II, as well as Taxman, which ended up becoming one of the first officially licensed versions after a bit of legal argy-bargy with Atari. The Atari 8-bit had Jawbreaker and Ghost Hunter; there was KC Munchkin, Scarfman, Snake Attack and Munch Man on those weird Texas Instruments computers that no one ever wanted. The ZX81 had pac rabbit, and on the VIC-20 I’d have Jelly Monsters a couple of years later, although Hungry Horace on the Spectrum is probably my favourite old clone! There were loads more as the Spectrum and Commodore 64 began to dominate, but remember that before them we’re still in that period when home computers were still science fiction for most of us, and the best we could get was an electronic handheld or tabletop version, so we’ve got a ton of clones to look at over there too!

Most of the ones I know were gazed at longingly every time a new Argos catalogue came out… The starting point was actually a licensed tabletop Pac-Man (or Puck-Man in America) by Tomy in 1981, but this led to what might be the first clone, when Grandstand licensed the technology from them that very same year, but they didn’t license the Pac-Man name itself, so here in the UK we got Munchman… Complete with Pac-Man art on the box, but as I said, Wild West, and you could still mostly get away with it. And as you might have guessed, we’re going to come back to Munchman (not to be confused with Munch Man) very soon.

Also in 1981, there was PacMan2 from Entex, who were no strangers to the courts after their handheld versions of Space Invaders and Galaxian, although they did briefly end up with a license. Anyway, this one had a cool (if not entirely practical) two-player mode with individual controllers on opposing sides of the game. A year later they released another similar one, Turtles, which had you rescuing six turtles around the maze, and you both had actual little joysticks this time that were just crying out to get snapped off! Likewise, Tandy’s Ogre Eater had a prominent joystick that was almost lost on the huge case it came in! One of the best tabletop versions also arrived in 1982 from Gakken with Puck Monster, and as well as being a great version, it has a great-looking multicoloured LED screen too. There was even a watch and game (as opposed to Game & Watch) that year, with Tomy Watchman: Monster Hero; a simple Pac-Man game that wasn’t branded as Pac-Man when it initially released even though they owned the rights, but that did change when it eventually arrived in America.

And now we conclude our tour by going back to 1981, and Epoch’s Epoch Man (also known as Pak Pak Man) handheld, where you’re guiding your little not-Pac-Man around a little maze with two charming, rustic bridges, collecting fruit and avoiding ghosts. Like lots of Epoch games, it was licensed to German handheld company Schuco where it was given a wider screen and rebadged as Pocket Pac Man – sometimes referred to as Pocket C-Man, because instead of the world “Pac” they used a picture of a Pac-Man that also looks a bit like the letter C, and I guess either avoided or solved any legal complications. And then in the UK it was picked up by Grandstand, who seem to have just taken the design wholesale, made it yellow and rebadged it Mini Munchman. And here we are!

I reckon my brother Phil got his Mini Munchman either for Christmas 1982, when I think I got my Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch, or as a birthday present the following June; it was quite possibly the latter because he also had Bandai’s Missile Invader, and that might have been the Snoopy Tennis equivalent when we were both getting presents… Absolutely awesome Space Invaders clone that I’d completely forgotten about until just now, and seems like you can pick up for a not outrageous price, although with all of its little recesses you’ll be lucky not to be doing some cleaning of decades old sweat and crumbs! And now that thought is in my head I know that we might come back to this at some point soon! Needless to say, all three of those games were a hit with both of us. It really is hard to imagine now that we’d never seen anything like this before, let alone owned anything like it – the nearest you’d come was mechanical stuff like Tomy’s Pocketeers or my beloved Demon Driver. From about 1982 to 1984 though, these were the kings of playground status symbols, and everyone used to love the last day of term at school when you could bring in toys, and we’d all be queueing up for a go on Cavemans and Scrambles, Turtle Bridges and Donkey Kongs! Then after 1984 it was all Walkmans and Kappa tracksuits!

There was always something both exotic and fragile about these LCD games, in no small part down to the warnings that used to come with them, coupled with the mysterious liquid crystal itself and the subsequent tales of friends of friends with burnt skin after touching it! This comes from the yellow warning paper in my Snoopy Tennis box: “The liquid crystal uses glass parts. It should not be dropped, hit or placed under pressure. Any of these can cause damage to the liquid crystal. The liquid crystal is designed as well as possible to prevent shattering of glass and leaking of liquid if the crystal is broken. If, however, liquid does contact the skin, wash immediately with soap and water.” I seem to remember the screen on our original Mini Munchman just died though, like when the battery is low and it starts fading away. And that was the end of that for quite a long time!

Unlike Missile Invader, Mini Munchman isn’t an easy game to come by now. Unless you’re prepared to pay silly money, especially for a boxed version. That box is worth it though! As much as I love the gold and silver Nintendo Game & Watch box designs, this one was proper silver, like a mirror! And like its non-Mini big brother, it’s got proper Pac-Man artwork all over its shiny surface! The other thing that was a big deal back then was that it wasn’t only an “LCD pocket arcade game” but also came with a myriad of other features, all getting almost equal billing on the box with the game itself – watch, stopwatch, lap timer, day / date and alarm. Digital clocks were still a novelty then – if you were lucky your parents might had a radio alarm clock in their bedroom with those numbers that flipped over – and this was a selling point to certain people, like the educational value of a Commodore VIC-20 would be to me a couple of years later!

Once I’d put my mind to getting a working version of this again towards the end of 2020, and after months of not wanting to spend really silly money, I did pick up an unboxed but fully working game from eBay at the top end of what I was prepared to pay. You do get what you pay for with these things though, and there is a small blemish on the liquid crystal, though it’s partially covered by the maze overlay, and once you’re playing and there’s loads of other stuff on the screen it’s pretty unobtrusive. Apart from this, theres a few tiny scuff marks where silver is poking through the matt black surface areas, but the buttons all work fine, the battery unit is in perfect condition, and the display is still very clear all over. And that brilliant, bold yellow plastic case is as brilliant and bold as it was when it was new!

Mini Munchman is a proper handheld! It’s about 7cm wide, 10cm high and a slimline just under 1cm thick. And for someone with girl’s hands like me, it’s a great fit, and was even better when I was 10 or 11 years old! And far more so than that Invader From Space beast, which, as insanely good as it was and still is, I remember laying on the floor, elbows down, with it plugged in to one of those multi-power adaptors on the floor, scared to move because if you did that dodgy power socket was switching it off mid-game for you!

The instructions for these things are always a treat! It tells you to select the game mode, which you’ll recognise because “monsters and foods are displayed in the gameboard.” After a display of your previous high score and simple intro tune, you’re starting off at the bottom-right corner of the maze, with Munchman looking out at you with a mischievous grin on his face. There’s not a great deal to talk about graphically here, but he’s always looking at you, with alternating facial expressions once you get going – open-mouthed then a kind of wiggly Halloween pumpkin smile. That’s about as far as any animation goes, with the two ghosts just moving around, one blink at a time, and the “?” bonus symbol appearing now and again. There’s a nice variety of fruit to collect though, with very recognisable and detailed pineapples, black cherries, seemingly white cherries, a bunch of grapes, bananas, strawberries and what could be apples or could be oranges, but we’ll cut it some slack there because it’s monochrome and about 2mm high!

It’s a simple concept, with four directional buttons controlling your movement around the maze. There’s about twenty fruit to collect before you move on to the next level, two of which are hidden under the bridges. Get caught by one of the ghosts and it will eat you, using up one of your four lives, though getting to 500 and 1500 points will bag you an additional Munchman. As well as the fruit, there’s two pieces of power food on the maze, and once you’ve nabbed one you’ll have five seconds to eat the ghosts, which are now blinking more deliberately than in their regular animation! Get one and it will reappear at one of the warp tunnels; there’s four of those, one in each corner, but only two are ever open at the same time, so you need to keep an eye on those opening and closing, especially when you’re a few levels in and everything’s moving a bit quicker! Anyway, eating monsters quickly is the key to a big score – the first one is 10 points, but keep eating them and they’ll be worth 30 points, 50 points, 70 points and so on. In theory, because you’re never doing that! You get a nice double-beep for catching a ghost too, but otherwise the sound is just a beep for going over fruit. All perfectly simple and perfectly pleasant…

And that’s a perfect summary of the game as a whole! It’s a very pure version of Pac-Man, and that core mechanic works as well on a small-scale maze like this as it does on a bigger one, whether the original game, Pacmania or Championship Edition DX+. It may sound ridiculous, but those two bridge overlays really give this version something unique, resulting in some great up, down, over and under interplay with the ghosts when you’re out of power pellets. And like the best Pac-Men, once you’re in the zone with a fix on how the ghosts are moving, this is as addictive as hell, and when you’re a few levels in and things start moving at crazy speeds, your brain is moving at the same speed, and it’s a real rush! Then it’s all over and it’s going to tease you with that high score as that intro music starts again, and those sweaty fingerprint ridges are starting to appear on those cool protruding silver direction buttons and you’re in the Munchman Pac-Man zone, which, actually, is probably worth every penny of that silly eBay money!

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

In the very early 1980’s, there was nothing more exciting than checking out the handheld gaming pages in the latest Argos catalogue! You had never seen anything like it, even though the last edition had only come out six months previous, and you’d have bitten anyone’s arm off to get your hands on any of them! Half of them were variants on Space Invaders (and for a time, I think half of those were probably called Space Invader, singular), including what must have been the first electronic game I ever laid my hands on, Grandstand’s Invader From Space – also featuring the first of many joysticks I ever broke!

You also had stuff like Missile Invader and Astro Wars, Scramble with its tiny controls and Galaxy Invader 1000 in its iconic yellow and black case. If you weren’t into space shooters, there was Caveman and Firefox F-7, some rubbish LED sports games, and it wouldn’t take long for Pocket Pac-Man, Munchman and Mini Munchman and loads more Pac-a-likes to appear. And these things kept coming and, of course, getting more advanced, like the wonderful BMX Flyers – my favourite example of the genre – all the way through to the TomyTronic 3D games like Thundering Turbo, Sky Attack and Shark Attack just a couple of years later!

And in parallel to these handheld – or often, in reality, tabletop – battery-guzzling beasts (Mini Munchman aside), there was the increasingly mind-boggling range of truly handheld Game & Watch games from gaming upstart Nintendo. At least until Donkey Kong Jr. arrived on Game & Watch Tabletop on the very day of writing this, the 28th of April, in 1983.

These things seemed to breed every time you looked away, with 60 of them eventually produced between 1980 and 1991 when the Game Boy had all but made them redundant. Even if you didn’t own it (though my next-door neighbour did) the first one that springs to mind is usually Donkey Kong from 1982, with its orange flip case, two LCD screens and the first ever incarnation of a D-Pad, but the first Game & Watch love of anyone that had one was probably one of the classic single screen, foamy, rubbery button games with Game A and Game B (usually harder, meaning faster), a clock and an alarm; and a little metal ring on the back you could pull out to make it stand up!

My first experience of Game & Watch, and one I’d continue to experience for what must have been hundreds of hours for years after, was Fire. Didn’t belong to me – was my auntie’s and resided at my Grandma’s house where we spent every Saturday afternoon, and whilst I must have played it all over the house, my abiding memory is stealing her armchair next to the big 1970’s mahogany-effect dresser while she was cooking lunch and playing it in comfort there!

This was originally one of the early Silver generation of Game & Watch, but the one I played was part of the Wide Screen generation released a year or so later in late 1981. This update looked similar but was nicer to hold, had a great looking case, even better looking graphics, and was widescreen! Either way, you were catching people jumping out of different floors in a burning building and bouncing them on your stretcher into an ambulance. Things soon got crazy frantic as you literally juggled multiple people bouncing at different speeds. Fantastic game! Even better was the alarm function though, with the fireman waving his bell about with a crazed look on his face!

I reckon I’d have first played Fire in the middle of 1982, which was enough bugging time for my parents to have got me my one and only Game & Watch for Christmas 1982. I’ve no idea how that ended up being Snoopy Tennis though. It could have been my idea – at aged ten I was definitely a fan of Charlie Brown in comic and TV form, but not a huge one; he might be better known for his Christmas and Halloween exploits, but was as much a part of school summer holiday morning TV back then as Roland Rat, Why Don’t You? and Huckleberry Finn (or Silas if you were unlucky that year). It was probably around the time I started playing tennis at school too, which I always enjoyed, but again, not a mega fan. Alternatively, that might have been the one that was in stock wherever it came from! Doesn’t really matter which because it was definitely the right choice!

Like all the great games from this period, it’s all so simple, so skill-based and so fiendishly addictive! You’re playing as Snoopy, stood with his tennis racket waiting for Charlie Brown to serve a ball at him, high, low or in the middle, and you’re moving up and down a tree to return them with perfect timing (first time or you’re screwed waiting for the animation to restart!) from the right position. When you return a shot, it flies over the top of Charlie Brown, who’ll be busy lining up his next ball, but now and again Lucy will appear on the wooden platform above him and hit the ball back at twice the speed, and if you return that she might disappear for a bit and let the ball go, or she might keep returning it like this for a few more shots at the same time as Charlie Brown is lobbing his balls at you with increasing frequency.

You get 2 points for every Charlie Brown ball returned and 3 points for Lucy’s, and as your score increases, so does the speed! It all starts out very sedate, especially on Game A (where Game B has more balls that move faster), but it won’t be long before there’s all sorts of balls moving at different speeds all over the screen, and your main task is judging which one you’re going to hit first. Miss three balls and it’s game over. Get to 100 points and it slows down again for a while before getting faster until another 100 points passes. Get to 200 points, 500 points, 1200 points, 1500 points… (yeah, right) and your misses are all cancelled out; should you have got there with no misses, then you’ve got about a minute of bonus time, where Charlie Brown’s shots are worth 5 points and Lucy’s are 6 points.

You’re controlling Snoopy with up and down buttons on the right side and a hit button on the left for your perfectly timed returns. The buttons feel great – really tactile and responsive and a bit spongy. And after about ten minutes of play, will be surrounded by a sweaty fingerprint outline spreading across the main case; and being able to wipe that away is actually the main benefit of getting that brief slowdown every 100 points!

The character graphics were incredibly sharp and perfectly realised – something these LCD games were years ahead of home computers in achieving – and these are perfectly complemented by the coloured overlays of Lucy’s platform on one side and Snoopy’s dog house on the other, with a wonderfully detailed and shaded tree for Snoopy to return shots from and Woodstock to sit in his nest surveying the action (at least until the alarm is ringing and he jumps out of his nest to the sound). The great attention to detail is capped off by the tufts of green grass along the bottom of the screen. The user interface is just perfect too; completely unobtrusive, but all-important stuff like your score and the current number of misses – shown by broken bottles – are just a tiny change in focus away without having to move your eyes from the very frantic later game action.

The other incredible thing about these games was the battery life. You’d easily get months of play out of two LR43 or SR43 cell batteries before the screen started fading and the sound disappeared, and, from experience later, you could literally leave it for years sleeping away and it would come back to life! And speaking of back to life, it still works absolutely perfectly today and is still as fiendishly addictive as ever!

Despite how pictures might look, because cameras don’t seem to like the technology when it’s running and show blemishes that just aren’t there, Snoopy Tennis and it’s early Game & Watch brethren (unlike some of the far more complex later releases like the Gauntlet abomination by Tiger Electronics!) are utterly timeless. And this is true whether you’re talking about the technology, the graphics or the gameplay – nothing has dated and it never will. It also sold 1.2 million units after its release in 1982, so if you don’t have it, I’ll bet it’s not that hard to track down. And whatever the asking price is when you read this, after almost 40 years of enjoyment at the time of writing, it will be worth every penny…

Just don’t push down on the LCD screen, no matter how cool it looks, because it’s not going to last another 40 years if you do!

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

Now we’re going right back into my early gaming days! The first video game I remember playing was Tennis (Pong) on something with a wooden box my uncle bought in the late 70’s – we knew it was a special occasion when we were allowed into “the parlour” on our weekly Friday night visit to my Grandma and Grandad’s small mid-terrace house to see it! It had two paddles, a lightgun, and you flicked a switch to cycle between tennis, football (Pong with two bats) and a couple of games where you shot a square moving around the screen, providing you had the gun pressed against the TV! No idea what it was. A Telstar maybe? Some knock off? 

What I do remember is that it was also the first game I owned when we got our own Interstate 1160 console soon after, with exactly the same set up. And a garish orange box that I think still sits in my Dad’s loft. 

That would have been around 1978 when I was six years old. The same time that Space Invaders appeared. I don’t have any recollection of arcade games back then, and having a game like that at home was still science fiction, although in reality my Grandstand Invader From Space game was only a couple of Christmasses away!

But what I did have was my Tomy Demon Driver tabletop electronic game, which brought you “all the thrills & spills of Formula 1” right there in your hands!

To a six year old, you can only imagine how realistic this was – the steering wheel was the highlight, making it just like driving a real car. You had three gears too, that sped you up and slowed you down as you raced along the plastic film track filled with other racing cars to avoid as you racked up laps on the counter. Crash and it was game over, but a new game was only a firm push on the Start / Reset button away. 

It’s hard for anyone that wasn’t that age at that time to imagine not just how much fun this game was, but what a big deal it was. We’d flicked balls into plastic pockets, rolled balls into holes and, more recently, pumped balls submerged in watery cases into hoops and stuff, and let’s not forget Pocketeers (definitely worth a separate post!), but this was a whole different level with batteries and everything! A real taste of things that were, in retrospect, to come very soon, but were then still beyond our wildest dreams. 

And almost forty years on, with an engineering degree behind me, I still can’t work out how they pulled off the collision detection. Two films? Holes in one? The mind boggles to this day!