A Quick Look At Namco Museum

Namco's output on the Dreamcast is curious. The Japanese arcade masters came out all guns blazing with the launch of Soul Calibur, and the game was never bettered as far as arcade fighting games go. Many tried, but ultimately the likes of Dead or Alive 2, Project Justice et al - while amazing games in their own right - never usurped Soul Calibur as the king of the 3D brawlers on the Dreamcast. After Soul Calibur though, Namco seemed to go a little quiet. The only other games the firm released on Sega's little box were retro compilations or games in that mould.
Mr Driller was a variation on the earlier Dig Dug; while Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness was an updated version of the classic dot-gobbler with added 3D platforming elements thrown in. Both of these games are of above average quality, that's undeniable, but these were hardly the types of offering many early Dreamcast adopters were hoping for as follow ups after the initial impact made by Soul Calibur. Namco did release another game for the Dreamcast though and - surprise - it too was a retro-themed title: Namco Museum.
Namco Museum was only released in North America and was a continuation in the trend of repackaging older games for a new audience. The Dreamcast played host to a number of these compilations, with things like Atari Anniversary Edition, Midway's Greatest Arcade Hits and Yu Suzuki Game Works representing the higher end of the genre, and Sega Smash Pack occupying the opposite end of the spectrum. Where does Namco Museum fit into this little party? Well...somewhere in the middle to be honest. It's a collection of Namco's most important arcade games repackaged for play on a home system, but it's not perfect by a long shot. Before we delve into the reasons for this though, let's have a look at the games included on this compendium of Namco's rich history...

(Original release: 1980)
Everybody has played Pac-Man, right? It's a concept (almost) as old as gaming itself and sees players guiding the little yellow glutton around a maze, eating dots, pieces of fruit and power pills that will allow you to turn the tables and swallow the marauding ghosts. Imagine being chased though a bus station by a group of drunk tramps, only to find a fully loaded harpoon gun discarded in a rubbish bin. The hunter becomes the hunted, such is the power of the pill. The tramps ghosts all have their own characteristics, meaning some will chase you while others will move around the maze randomly.
I've never been a massive fan of the repetitive gameplay and because I only really started gaming in the early 1990s, Pac-Man doesn't really hold much nostalgia for me. I appreciate that this isn't the case for gamers older than I and as a fan of retro games in general, I also fully understand the importance of the Pac-Man franchise and phenomenon in a wider sense. Pac-Man is without doubt one of the most recognisable and influential creations in the history of gaming, period  - not just the history of Namco. However, even with these credentials playing any incarnation of the game today leaves me a little cold...and a bit bored. Namco Museum's offering is no different.

Ms. Pac-Man
(Original release: 1981)
A variation on the original Pac-Man formula, Ms. Pac-Man is an odd inclusion in this compilation as it wasn't originally developed by Namco, but instead by Midway initially as an enhanced version of the original. This isn't really a history lesson though - anybody can go and copy stuff from Wikipedia. No, you've come here for my gloriously inept opinions and that is what you'll get dammit.
I actually prefer Ms. Pac-Man to Pac-Man simply because it's faster and the brighter colour palette appeals more to my malformed brain. Furthermore, the fruit moves around the maze making you chase it and work for your sweet, juicy, pulpy reward. The design of Ms. Pac-Man herself is quite interesting, with the only thing differentiating her from Pac-Man (oddly not called Mr Pac-Man, although the Ms. prefix suggests that both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man may not even be related) is the bright red bow in her...erm...hair.

(Original release: 1979)
Galaxian was Namco's answer to Space Invaders and the format is pretty similar, not only in aesthetic but also in practice. You move a little ship left and right at the bottom of the screen and shoot the marauding aliens at the top of the screen. The unique selling point in Galaxian is that the aliens have the ability to swoop down into the player's personal space and get uncomfortably close - a bit like that weirdo at the office Christmas party who stands way, way too near to your face. The one guy who also happens to have the breath of a low-level demon and spits when he talks.
Imagine that guy, talking about anti-drama in the accounts department, standing too close; his hot Chernobyl breath searing your flesh while he simultaneously sprays thousands of tiny spittle blobs onto your lip, nose and cheek. Happily, you have the ability to unleash a laser beam with divine accuracy into his solar plexus, frying him with the heat of a thousand suns in the blink of a (spit covered) eye. That's Galaxian in a nut shell. Now go and get another free beer and wipe your face with a napkin.

(Original release: 1981)
The sequel to Galaxian, Galaga plays an awful lot like the prequel but with a couple of new features. The player can now shoot two shots in succession as opposed to the single shot mechanic seen in Galaxian, and there's an added threat (which is actually pretty inventive) in the form of bosses that can capture the player ships and add them to the alien invasion force at the top of the screen, thereby using your own craft against you. My first experience with both Galaga and Galaxian came on the original Gameboy when my brother got one for Christmas in around 1995 (if memory serves), and it came with a two in one cartridge with both of these Namco classics on it.
Even then it was a bit antiquated, but it was fairly addictive and I would constantly find myself sneaking a sly crack at Galaga when he wasn't around. That's because he was a tight bastard and wouldn't let me play on his Gameboy even if I asked nicely. I turned the tables in the ensuing months when I somehow managed to get hold of an Atari Jaguar. Oh how I laughed manically as I played Cybermorph for hours on the only TV in the house, rubbing the amazing 3D graphics in his stupid face! Actually, that isn't strictly true. He just said it looked shite and went out to play football. Meanwhile, I cried...and then went to find his Gameboy.

Pole Position
(Original release: 1982)
Going to be honest here. Before playing Namco Museum I don't think I'd ever played Pole Position, but that's not to say I wasn't aware of the game's legacy. Pole Position is one of the most highly regarded and critically acclaimed racing games of all time, and back in the day it represented a huge leap forward in terms of arcade graphics technology. Playing it today, you can still see why. Pole Position was originally released in 1982 - the same year as I was born - and yet it still holds up as a decent arcade racer. The graphics are bright and colourful, the cars handle really well and the two-speed gear system quite possibly influenced a whole host of other racers from another company we all know and (sometimes) love.
From a personal point of view, I actually found that Pole Position reminds me more of Hang-On than Sega's car-based arcade racers and that's probably got more to do with the colour palette used in that game than anything else. The options are fairly threadbare and there is only one track (upped to four in the sequel), but the game moves really quickly and handles so well it's hard not to fall in love with Pole Position. Easily my favourite game in this collection, and you've got to love the digitised speech. I bet that was mind-blowing in 1982 - I can still remember the first time I heard my Amstrad CPC464 Plus speak while I was playing Super Robin Hood, and with hindsight that probably sounded like a Speak & Spell transmitting through a long wave radio with the volume turned down. While being recorded in the middle of a hurricane. On a wax cylinder.

Dig Dug
(Original release: 1982)
My least favourite game in the collection, Dig Dug is clearly the inspiration for Namco's later (and aforementioned) Mr Driller series. In fact, you actually play as the father of Mr Driller in Dig Dug...so there's that. Anyway, players have to dig down into the Earth and find innocent beasts who are just minding their own business...and then blow them up to obscene proportions with a pump until they explode in a grizzly mist of blood, bones and offal. What a twat.
Dig Dug isn't my cup of tea to be honest, but as a puzzle style game I can see why it would appeal to the more bloodthirsty gamers out there. Before Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Carmageddon...there was Dig Dug. A game where you blow up animals with a high pressure hose until they pop. Naturally, I jest - I'm not actually bothered about the gameplay mechanics employed - I just find Dig Dug a bit tedious.

The Science Bit
The Namco Museum series actually goes back several years before the Dreamcast version was released and has its roots on the Sony PlayStation, beginning with Namco museum Volume 1 in 1995.  The series spanned 6 different volumes before Namco Museum was brought over to the Dreamcast, Nintendo 64 and Gameboy Advance...and this is where I have an issue. See, while the PlayStation games all had similar number of games contained in each volume, they also had a sort of 'museum' where you could walk around a fully 3D environment and examine game artwork, read facts and figures and further information on the games themselves. You know, like in an actual museum. Reports of a disgustingly over-priced souvenir shop located near the exit, just opposite the equally expensive cafe, are unconfirmed.

When the series jumped to the other platforms, all of this extra content seems to have been dumped into the ether. The games in the PlayStation series also came with different letters on the front of the cases, so once you collected the main entries they would spell 'Namco' when lined up in order.
Unlike Atari Anniversary Collection though, which is literally stuffed to the brim with extra content in the form of artwork, interviews and video clips; Namco Museum on Dreamcast has nothing but a static menu screen and the games themselves. Obviously, the games are the main attraction for anyone who would even entertain the notion of buying a compilation like Namco Museum...but how hard would it have been to include some box art scans or some arcade marquee photos?
Granted, the games offered by Namco Museum do offer some cool options menus where the dip switches from the arcade cabinets are shown and moved accordingly depending on the options you select; and there is the added extra of being able to see a simulated version of the arcade boot screens for each cabinet (see above), but that's it. No history of the games, no artwork or interviews with developers...nothing. Just the fairly stingy selection of 6 games, a few playing tips and an options screen. That's your lot with Namco Museum.
This could probably have been forgiven if Namco had combined all of the previous volumes in the PlayStation series into one big collection...but they didn't. They simply shoved six - yes six - retro games onto a GD (or a cart, in the case of the N64 and GBA versions) and pushed it out the door. I'm no expert on these matters but that probably makes the Namco Museum GD-Rom the most criminally under-filled in the Dreamcast's library, right? Those games can't be more than a few MB each, and coupled with the music and the static menu screens you're probably looking at the best part of a gig left unused. They could have hidden a totally remastered port of Ridge Racer Type 4 on that disc as a bonus for finishing Pac-Man with a perfect score, but a) that's asking a bit much and b) you'd have to hire Bily Mitchell just to unlock a glimpse of Reiko Nagase's lovely smiling face. I could be totally wrong (and if I am, I'm sure somebody will educate me with laser guided voracity in the comments), but at best that seems like a total own goal on Namco's part, and at worst is just plain lazy.
So in summary, Namco Museum is a nice collection of some truly monumental games from the industry's formative, golden era. But on the other hand it also represents one of the laziest, most lackadaisical retro compilations I think I've ever seen. Sure, Sega Smash Pack was a clusterfuck in terms of emulation...but at least it had some additional content. For that reason, Namco Museum squarely occupies the 'average' section on the scale.

As mentioned earlier, if you want an example of how a retro compilation should be handled, check out either Atari Anniversary Edition or Midway's Greatest Arcade Hits volumes 1 and 2. You could also investigate Yu Suzuki Game Works (we'll be looking at that very soon) or Jimmy White's 2: Cueball if Dropzone is your thing. If you're a collector and/or see Namco Museum going cheap then by all means add it to your shelf, but I wouldn't go spending a fortune on it. Bang for puck* it ain't.

*This was a weak attempt at humour using Pac-Man's earlier title Puck Man as a comedic device. I am truly sorry for any offence caused. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Now I need to get it. . thanks a lot! Seriously tho. Awesome lil article. Just always love to read these!