Several years ago, when the hills were young, I started NamCompendium. My goal was, and remains, an exploration of the entire output of Namco. That is not done! It will surprise likely zero folks reading this that the last few years have not gone entirely to chalk for me, as they likely have not for the readers either. Plans change, schedules change, priorities change, and my ability to devote the sort of time I’d like to a serious, measured capital c Chronogaming thing has been impacted. It does claw at the back and stem of my brain, the slow progress of that project.
So, what the hell, let’s start another one!
I am on the record stating that NEC’s PC Engine, known also by the street name “TurboGrafx-16”, is a top five console for its industry impact. I said that, without having grown up with one, and with an entire pile of misgivings about the platform. It is very easy to blast holes in the system with a Hindsight Cannon. A platform with peculiar sound, a limiting storage format (for a time), and an absolute over-reliance on arcade and STG experiences at the expense of other broader genres. That’s before you even begin to address the anemic efforts to sell the system in North America, or the phantom presence of the console in Europe and other territories. A niche system for only the most slobbering, degenerate shooter fans, done and dusted.
What goes unsaid is just how wildly pioneering the system actually was, over and over again. Suppose I were to tell you the story of a major Japanese home electronics manufacturer whose CD-based platform entered and disrupted a domestic market formerly locked down by Nintendo. If you think this is the tale of Sony and its PlayStation, you’d be wrong. NEC pulled off the same stunt six years earlier.
There was a shining period, albeit a brief one, where the PC Engine stood toe to toe with the Famicom in console sales. This obviously did not last, and various web citations have the PC Engine selling between 6 and 15 million units across all regions; for reference the lifetime sales of the Sega Master System surpassed 20 million, and NES/FC sales trebled that. Still, as a first go in an industry with three established players (Nintendo, Sega, and a slowly dying Atari) the system availed itself quite well.
(I'll note here that I've had a hell of a time finding concrete sales numbers for PC Engine software outside of running totals in Famitsu. If you have a source for this information, I'd love to talk to you.)
There’s also the bit where the system pioneered CD-ROM compatibility, being the first home platform to support the format. The system over time would morph into a disc-based platform with a vestigial cartridge slot, used primarily to house more RAM for increasingly complex CD-based titles. It was the compact disc format which allowed the PC Engine to live its quixotically long life, receiving its final commercial release in Anno Domini 1999. Consider that. The Famicom it struggled against had been dead and buried for five years when the PC Engine received its last game. The Mega Drive and Master System both limped into 1998 but no farther, officially. Yet the same guts of a console one purchased in the Showa era, during the Nancy Reagan administration, had one last glimmer of life left in it for the truly deranged fans a year after the launch of the Dreamcast.
I think that’s neat as hell. Mayhaps somebody should write about this thing a bit. Might as well be me. And, seeing as GB Blog demigods @mento, @borgmaster, @arbitrarywater, and even @zombiepie make a lot of hay writing shorter form pieces about Games What They Played Lately, I should be allowed to write about these games without having to commit to feverishly trying to interlibrary loan Japanese reference materials to cross-check company names and patent dates pertaining to Namco (true story).
So, I’m going to take a brisk stroll through this funky little freak’s library for as long as I see fit. I’ll be relying on a lot of groundwork laid by the myriad hands who have touched ol’ Jimmy Wales’ list of PC Engine games by date, as well as the editors of PC Engine Bible and the dates on the site, to present this in a running release order that is as close to accurate as I could hope. I say this up front because the early goings of this console are just a little bit silly.
I’m going to prebake a section for every game in this series, “Foreknowledge”, to outline what I know (or think I know) about the title in question. Then I’ll play each game for as long as I care to (no Mento-esque systems for me) and relay my thoughts. Finally, I’ll throw in some very official numbers.
On that end, I will probably be doing some sort of tier list thing out of this. Borgmaster, your quartile system is so deliciously devised that I’m probably stealing it. Too bad you can’t patent math, sucker!
(Just fooling, you seem like a decent guy. I am stealing your thing though.)
Something I intend to append to each entry is particularly spicy. As noted above, the TurboGrafx-16 was a commercial flop in North America, and as a result the distribution of games here was quite thin. This has led to a wildly distorted aftermarket, its closest cousin being the Sega Saturn, where the NTSC-U versions of games can cost several times the going rate of their NTSC-J versions. Whenever applicable, I’ll provide this “Turbo Ratio” based on street prices per your favorite website and mine, pricecharting.com
A final note: Chris “spida1a” Bucci on YouTube recently wrapped up, after several years, a complete video exploration of the North American TG16 library called Turbo Views. He was there at the launch as a young person, and the enthusiasm he brings to his videos is truly infectious. May we all have something in our lives that brings us as much joy as talking about the dang TurboGrafx gives to him. Where applicable, I’ll be embedding his videos.
Next week, let’s kick this thing off with a piece about how the launch games for this system were volumes 2 and 4, for some reason.
For a defined period of time (might I suggest one month), the challenged member of the Giant Bomb staff must forsake all music except that performed by Australia's Kylie Minogue. This reasoning extends to the realms of film and television as well, by which I mean the only TV programming you'll be watching for the predefined period will be reruns of Neighbours.
More to follow, maybe.
This space might see more content in general, soon.
For the last few years I've had the distinction and privilege of working alongside a few other Giant Bomb community members on the Deep Listens podcast series. You can hear my takes, hot or otherwise, on Final Fantasy games and/or media properties going back two years, and on the "RPGs @thatpinguino refuses to play" Off the Deep End episodes alongside @arbitrarywater and @zombiepie.
The aforementioned zombiepie said to my face (well, into my earphones) that he wished I wrote more on this site. So, what the hell? In the spirit of the season, let's do a little recap of my 2021. It's been a strange year of false starts, adapting to home ownership in a house built in the FDR administration with a squirrel infestation, and adjusting to a new work schedule split between long commute days and audio work for A Website. It has been defined, as well, by changing time priorities. Hosting a podcast focused largely on role playing games means a lot of time is spoken for by long, obtuse and dubious (hey there Braden) games in that genre.
All this adds up to me having only "finished" (whatever the hell that means) 34 games in the last calendar year, with several others lying partially finished or abandoned along the way. That's low compared to the last several years for me personally, but when I look at what makes it into this little blog entry that makes sense.
Without further ado, some preliminary categories. People like those!
Best Comfort Food Revisit: Katamari Damacy Reroll
Katamari Damacy is my favorite game of all time. I was a more casual fan of the video game medium as a whole before GameSpot pointed me to this title. I can't remember classmates or teachers from my sophomore year of high school, but I have a hazy memory of buying my copy of Katamari Damacy from the Pearl Ridge Mall on O'ahu near launch. Between multiple moves since that point in time I've lost a lot of items to time, yet I've managed to keep that original copy of Katamari (along with another title which manages to make this post). On my first trip to Japan, a priority "weeb used game shopping excursion" pickup was a Japanese copy. I love Katamari.
That said, I waited until it was on Game Pass until I spent some time with the shiny new HD remaster. Priced appropriately it's a fine deal, I mean for shit's sake it's Katamari Damacy. If you're like me and have played the original dozens of times, plus the sequels which at a certain point were just gently upcycling older environments, it might seem a little too familiar. But if you've somehow managed to miss the series since its debut nearly twenty years ago, Reroll is the most accessible the game has ever been and remains a joyous technicolor explosion. We are lucky to live in a time where we can play Katamari Damacy in any form, much less one presented in a nice shiny 1080p presentation.
Honorable Mentions: Halo 3 and Rock Band 4
I spent some time revisiting Halo 3's campaign and multiplayer this year, in light of the original's online features announced termination. That's a mighty fun campaign to this day, with remarkable contrasts in mood and tone. I did not scrape together all of the multiplayer achievements I could, but I would rather have one unobtainable achievement on my sheet than zero.
As for Rock Band 4, I continued my absolutely torrid affair with the game through most of the year. There's a world where Rock Band 4 is my Game of Every Year Since It Came Out Including The Years I Didn't Play It. Alas, between returning to work and committing more time to podcast business, this autumn I bid farewell to my noble Rivals crew after five straight Bloodstone seasons. We were generally in the top 50-100 crews on the Xbox platform, and I managed to get my guitar and bass scores both in the mid-920s. I haven't touched it in months and honestly feel bummed out that there's just not enough time to play competitively anymore, but eventually I'll bust out my fake plastic instruments again and probably have a blast.
Biggest Disappointment: Murder by Numbers
Imagine having the mind behind Hatoful Boyfriend, which is either a hilarious goof about a girl who is gonna Literally Fuck Them Birds or a witty send up of tired genre tropes depending on how much you care (it's the latter by the way). Now imagine you have that writing talent put together the most pot boiler ass mystery imaginable, with zero replay value and only the most mobile phone hidden object game dross to connect a batch of about a hundred picross puzzles.
The art is all fairly cheap looking, which is not something I thought I'd have much of an opinion on but here I am saying that a visual novel with sprite flips is of insufficient quality. The variety of tunes is lacking for the game's length to boot, which would make for an okay podcast experience... except I wasn't on a bus, because this cursed year had me working from home. Most of the underwhelming elements on display here may have not sunk this one outright. But the lack of any interesting plot elements at all, particularly when you factor in the pedigree, cements this here. Murder by Numbers, how dare you.
(EDIT: It has been brought to attention that the involvement of Hato Moa, they of Hatoful Boyfriend fame, was in fact limited to character design. So, fair play. Leaving the original text because In This House we acknowledge when we fuck up.)
Honorable Mentions: Final Fantasy IX and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards
FFIX just escapes the top spot here. I'm on record saying a wide range of shit about The Ninth Final Fantasy this last year, and for those who don't know I am in a position to dethrone the game from the top of a Deep Listens ranking list. So here I shall set the record straight. Cards on table I like this game the least of the PSX series. That doesn't mean it is bad, or even that I don't like it. I just found the front half notably stronger than the back, and I think Amarant is one of the worst characters in the series. He's got competition though!
(FFIX is another one of my Hawai'i pickups which has survived in my collection for nearly 20 years)
Kirby 64 is not some meltdown disaster, but it did put on stark display just how awful the Nintendo 64 was as a platform. Imagine taking a franchise as bright and cheerful as Kirby, one with platforming that had a little pep to it, and just drowning it vasoline. The game is slower, softer, and missing some of the more delirious touches of something like Super Star or even Dream Land 3. I'm one of those pricks that think Kirby is the actual third pillar of Nintendo over Metroid, so I had it in my heart to like this one. At least those interstitial cut scenes are really sharp. Like, Gamecube quality video clips.
Games I Will Finish in 2022 For Real: Final Fantasy VI
I've been saying for years that the sixth Final Fantasy is my favorite FF game, and that's largely due to circumstances. A high school girlfriend introduced it to me, and it got me into both Japanese role playing games and PC emulation at the same time. So many fond memories of the first half of this game, but that does belie that I have never finished it. Until now! I will see the end this year, sooner rather than later, that I may debate its merits in good faith with friends.
I'll even drop a free take right here: Setzer is probably right on par with Amarant for suckage. I'm talking proper anime shitboy, Irvine and Hope territory. Imagine Irvine, Amarant, Hope, and Setzer in a party. Can you do that in Theatrhythm? Jesus.
Honorable Mentions: Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Xenosaga Episode I
Yeah I got hung up on the final boss of FFXIII-2. It just turns into a ridiculous plate spinning thing in the end, one that can probably be overcome by better timing or some good old "go grind a bit and put this one to bed". I'll find the time.
As for Xenosaga Ep. I, I'm a little farther back but I want to finish this because Braden has threatened me with the guaranteed good time that is Xenosaga The Second and I want to be able to import a nice full clear save into that game. I'm on the record as liking Xenosaga's brand of absolute gonzo shit, but honestly this and FFXIII-2 were directly competing with Rock Band brain and as mentioned this is no longer an issue. If one of these is a priority, let's go with Xenosaga.
Games I Regret Missing: Hitman 3
I've poured just a disgusting amount of time into Hitman 2016 and Hitman 2. I even put a little time into the HD remake of Hitman 2 (the original one) on my Sony PlayStation 3 this year before accepting that I won't be able to move backwards with this series. Sight unseen, a bunch of new modern Hitman maps is something I desperately need. As it happens, my procrastination has saved me a couple dollarydoos as all three games are now up on Game Pass. Huzzah! My spouse is not much of a fan of these, so I'll probably be getting to this when she's either away or otherwise occupied.
(Update: I have since started this game and am understanding why people have generally said Dubai is the most underwhelming level in Hitman 3).
Honorable Mentions: Halo: Infinte and Forza Horizon 5
To the former, I'm waiting for that sweet sweet coop so I can play with my friends. To the latter, I know damn well I'll be grinding out vaguely satisfying AI races and posting online times in this one soon enough and the experience will amount to "Forza Horizon 3 but with topography". A fine pick up and play experience with low stakes.
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Rather than set myself up for more work in doing a series of posts or some such, I'm going to treat you dear readers to two very different lists. We'll start with the one that's maybe a little more on brand for me historically. And Braden. And my podcast.
10. Jak 2
Have a heart for the PlayStation 3. Sony decided to bilk its disaster people user base last year by threatening to execute this legacy platform's digital storefront, only to later announce a stay of execution for both it and the Vita. I have been spending more time with both my PS3 and its chintzy controllers with decade old depleted batteries. Microsoft really does have the controller thing on lock with the swappable AAs, by the way.
Anyway myself and Mr. Water got taken to the cleaners for all the Drakengard 3 DLC and whatnot last year, but I had purchased the Jak trilogy a while before. They, along with their PS2 platformer ilk, weren't actually things I played in their day. Turns out Jak & Daxter 1 holds up pretty damn well! Nice exploratory platformer thing, in the Mario vein but with the Naughty Dog technofetishist touches. Then, they decided what this tropical open world jumparound needed was a bunch of GTA3 trappings. A new urban setting, vehicle levels, and an absolutely embarassing shovel full of 'tude. It sucks!
But at least the mission structure remained well enough to get things across the finish line. Or it would have, had the missions not devolved into nearly impossible disaster missions with one hit kills, paper mache hoverbikes, and a few rotten camera angles. I stopped maybe twenty percent of the way in, rolled onto Jak 3 and had a much better time. That one still has the GTA cruft, and even a bit more left field shit with the dune buggies, but the missions were also manageable.
I honestly don't even have much to say about Fable. I installed this on a lark (thanks Game Pass) wondering if the series would be a good fit for me. It is not. It's not entirely absent of that goddamn English charm and whatnot, but it also had the feeling of the absolute world Manichaean western RPG ethical shit ever. "Would you like to rescue these orphans or eat them?" Wow! Roleplay! That, nice case of 720p potato visuals, and not-like-at-all gamefeel got this one punted off this Xbox hard drive in very short order. Seems wild this one gets held up as a "great original Xbox experience" to me. Maybe just a statement about the OG more than anything else.
8. Dragon Age: Origins
And speaking of black and white ethical systems, here's BioWare! Hot off the heels of the wildly racist cult classic Jade Empire (plus some goddamn space game) they decided to dip their toes back into the eurofantasy milieu which spawned so many Baldur's Gates. But, to borrow somebody else's turn of phrase, what if it was hot fantasy that fucked? Enter a parade of absolute dipshits, just the dirt worst parade of lousy garbo fantasy characters, cast into a fantastically dark fantasy of darkness. A land of depraved leaders, ubiquitous violence, and the emerging threat of a scourge. Oddly familiar amirite amirite
Anyway my spouse was the one driving this but I was made to take over quite often. I got to man the assy inventory and menus and do a little bit of the (console version for reference) combat. It's all such a sludge. Just unpleasant from stem to stern for me, and not helped at all by having a good layer of 720p smeary visuals. That the plot resolves with a magical pregnancy hook is kind of a perfect joke to me. I will say that Microsoft cobbling together a way to play this game at a locked 60 frames per second in a web browser is a legitimately laudable accomplishment, even if this is categorically not for me. The combat was mushy and unresponsive enough that whatever lag the cloud added was not enough to make things any worse.
May as well put this note here: Dragon Age has its fans. All of these games probably do. That's fine! It takes less server space for me to say a lot of this warrants qualifying language rather than typing "In my opinion, etc" over and over again.
To round out this little trio of PS360 titles is Infamous, a game which sort of rolls up all of the problems with all three of the previous games. We get action platformer weighed down by an absolute sea of edgelord trash, plus a "will you build an orphanage or burn one" ethical system. One that, as far as I know, gives you red or blue energy powers respectively. Wow! Player choice!
I bought Infamous from a small market in my neighborhood in the Puget Sound. It's one of two little shops we have in the area. There's a sign outside which reads
DELI * GROCERIES * VIDEO GAMES
Maybe they did sell "new" games at some point, in the 90s. Now there's a little glass display case which contains a small selection of the Korean releases of severeal entries in the MLB The Show franchise for the PlayStation 3, plus a copy of Infamous which I bought. A lot of the Korean releases have full English support, I've learned. I was happy to buy one of the last non-sports franchise games available for sale in my neighborhood. I was also happy to trade it to Pink Gorilla for enough to buy a few sticks of gum.
Second Son seems, uhh, okay. Maybe don't go backwards.
6. Twelve Minutes
There's been so much goddamn discourse about Twelve Minutes this year that I would just as soon not write much here. Gerstmann said something to the effect of there are two groups vis a vis this game: those who played it, and those who finished it. I think there's enough ethical and mechanical baggage there to keep people from even seeing the real "stuff" that had The Twelve Minutes up on the pillory for a good month or so. As soon as I learned about The Stuff I knew I had to show this thing to borat voice my wife, as a sort of freak show. It's not great for that, what given the repetitive nature of the time loop gameplay. Nice to hear Willem get some work though.
I can see somebody who just cannot get enough adventure games having something approximating a good time with Twelve Minutes. I'm not necessarily a fan of the genre. Everything else was just gravy. Bad, lumpy gravy.
5. Fallout 4
You know what, shame on me for this entry. I got it into my fool head that, in spite of a few attempts in the past and all of the other large games on my plate, this last year would be the one where I appreciated Fallout 4. I even spent actual money on all of the (heavily discounted) DLC in anticipation of taking a good hard chop at the game. And like the last two or three times I've taken a run at FO4 I did have a pleasant time ripping apart my dilapitated home town and laying out a nice little prepper community for incoming wasteland survivors.
Then, you need to go find those survivors. And to do that you need to play this floaty feeling, suboptimally running shoggoth of a game. I'll admit knowing where the plot will ultimately wind up does not help matters, but then again I am imagining having to play twenty or thirty hours of this to wind up at the ending they wrote and good lord. I wasn't as jazzed about New Vegas as others I know in the moment, but goddamn do I appreciate it more in light of this last shot I shall make at this little ass disaster.
It does seem extra crazy that, even after buying the developer, this game still runs like absolute shit on an Xbox One X. Curious about the Series X|S situation. Not curious enough to start again though!
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age
We enter the fruits of a years work of podcasting labors now. Sorting this stack proved a challenge, and even then another title managed to slot itself in between the triad. This order does ultimately seem fitting.
The Third Age is one of the most disappointing games I have ever played. It does have a noble stab at meeting its brief of "Final Fantasy X clone", but as it happens FFX is a damn masterpiece made with a large budget by one of the great innovators of the genre. The Third Age was put together under duress by the people who made CyberTiger. Their Dollar General Fellowship is made to slog through famous locations from the films (more accurately the video game based upon the films), with a never ending barrage of identical mobs and meager stat increases. I will admit that it's not the worst looking or running game I've seen on an original Xbox, and having each equipment item appear on the character models is a nice touch. But then you spend five hours wandering through Moria and everything is ground to death, into a suffocating loam.
What's worse, this game constantly stops to tell you about the more interesting things happening in other parts of the LOTR world. Often a few hundred yards from you! They got literal by god Sir Ian in the booth to narrate over clips from the Rings films, taunting you with the much cooler shit the A-list Fellowship is doing while you play mop up detail in their wake. It's agonizing. There are hours of film clips in this game! What the fuck? The Gamecube version required a second disc just for the volume of cruft here.
What a maddening experience. Have I mentioned how tedious and slow the actual combat is? Or the wild "Evil Mode" option where you can play a gauntlet of fights from the perspective of the orc side? I now have mentioned these things. Just go watch the YouTube video of the endgame shit where (spoilers ahoy) you have a JRPG fight against the goddamn Eye of Sauron for some reason. I shall never see it in person.
3. BattleTanx: Global Assault
Remember a few minutes ago when I slagged off the N64 in regards to its sole Kirby game? BattleTanx: Global Assault is made of pure crystalline N64-shit-oleum. This game is allegedly an improvement over the first BattleTanx, a game where a plague wipes out 99% of all women in the world which immediately leads to men hording the survivors like cattle and fighting over them in tanks. The plot here reads a little less like something a dismal survivalist in Sandpoint, Idaho cranks one off to in between his Constitution readings; we get a little more comic book-y, Max Max-adjacent vibe here. You even fight a Queen for most of the game! Wow! Girl Boss Power!
The game is just muck. Mucky muck. You drive little shit box tanks in mud worlds and everything just looks dreadful. All of the nice soft, muted, low sample music and sounds create the sort of sonic landscape you'd probably find if you were buried alive twenty foot under a Poison reunion show. The gameplay feels cheap. Nothing has any real weight, which is not to say that the larger tanks are not slow. They in fact are. And the little fast ones? Nice and skittery and brittle. Skrittle. It's hard to really convey how awful this one is to play, but video footage online does get some of it across. A somewhat prominent N64-oriented YouTube personality has a soft spot for this and its prequel. I will say, this does remind me of being about ten years old and thinking the N64 was even a little bit good. This game is basically a ten year old boy's fever dream. Well, wake up kid, because play time is over! You aren't allowed to like bad games anymore! How dare you enjoy something that is not thought provoking and grown up like, uhh, The Last Guardian. You little loser.
For real though, this is bad. BattleTanx the first is probably worse though!
2. Tecmo Secret of the Stars
Back to Off the Deep End territory, and boy what territory we have here. This one was recommended to us by a dear fan. What fans we have.
Dragon Quest launched just a fucking billion clones in Japan, most of which never saw these shores outside of the most determined of fan translators. Inexplicably, this one managed to get translated. Not well, mind you. In fact I'd say this might be the worst official translation I have ever seen. That covers some breadth!
The post card version of events, such as I may speculate upon them, is one day Tecmo management walked into an office full of the folks who made Tecmo Bowl and told them they would be making a Dragon Quest clone within the year while they also worked on other sports projects. The resulting game is unsurprisingly dreadful. There are two separate parties which must be leveled independently, cannot share equipment, and can even block each other physically on the map while using one or the other. Staggeringly low experience yields lead to an absolute ocean of grindy dross, and all of this is held together by a poor story localized poorly.
The first boss encounter in this game happens thus: you, a little toeheaded dork, walk into a nondescript house in The Game's First Village Which Has A Name I Did Not Commit To Memory. There is a cat inside, which in these games generally have a little "Meow" line for fun. This cat, in effect, says "HELLO I AM THE CAT THAT IS IN THIS HOUSE" in text box one, followed by "ACTUALLY I AM A BOSS THAT YOU FIGHT, OH NO" in the second box. This leads to a fight, which at this stage you are doing solo. Did I mention the first hour or so of this game is played with a party of one, while meanwhile enemy mobs can have multiple enemies?
SotS aka Aqutallion is an immensely bad experience, and it would take heaven and earth to find a game that is actually worse than it. Unfortunately for me, I am a friend and associate of one zombiepie.
1. Revengers of Vengeance
Here we are, the worst thing I played in 2021. Competiton was stiff, but Revengers of Vengeance is something pretty special.
Secret of the Stars is pretty straightforward in its inequity: it aspires to be Dragon Quest but fails. Revengers is another ball game. If SotS is a DQ clone, RoV would have you believe it is one of the many Street Fighter clones. BUT it's also a Sega CD game, part of a broad movement of CD-ROM role playing games that crib from Falcom's work on the PC Engine. You can take part in the badly made fighting game, but you can also take part in an interactive CD based role play multimedia extravaganza! An extravagance of cack!
Imagine playing some unholy hybrid of Street Fighters I and II, but in order to have a character with meaningful good stats you must grind. You must grind, in a fighting game. You must play a bad fighting game, with a bad character, enough to become good. This is connected by a desperate attempt at something like the city exploration of Ys, and some charming "Japanamation" energy cutscenes to convey the main plot beats. These are by far the best part of this experience. They are not good, but they are at least charming in the way all of these CD-ROM experiences could be. Think the intro to Ys Book I & II on the Turbo CD, but about twelve pips below that presentationally.
As an added bonus, the final boss encounter is hidden behind interacting with a fortune teller. You could wander this game for an eternity without finding a final boss, instead stuck in a hellish limbo of a sub-Eternal Champions fighter with nothing else to its name.
This has to be the worst game on this list. Secret of the Stars is by several measures a worse time, but the inexplicable mixup of half baked elements and the breathless Mega CD energy with which they are dispensed put it over the top. Secret of the Stars, at its core, works. You play bad JRPG combat, the numbers go up, eventually the math bends in your favor and you win. A bad fighting game that is actually made worse by adding RPG mechanics, now that's the sort of ass disaster that doesn't just walk into your life. You have to dig for those, and that's why you (yes, you!) should check out the Deep Listens podcast!
Oh, it was also made by one person (probably). Also there are some shooter levels, which are mediocre at best. What a freak show.
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Alright, what better way to follow up that odd assortment of games with an even stranger one. Snide listical voice employed, here are the
Popeye is a three screen game with a simple gameplay loop: collect falling items while not dying. You can see everything there is to see in Popeye in about ten minutes. All it can really do for depth is quicken the pace of things, belying its roots as a quarter pilfering arcade game. So just what the hell is it doing here?
First of all, I think it holds up well enough aesthetically for a launch title on a nearly forty year old platform. The sprites are big for their vintage and hardware and animate well, and the title theme is suitably strident for something that apes a vintage cartoon. The dissonance on the airhorn sounding at the end is a nice touch.
More importantly, in fact the real reason Popeye makes this list, is that Bluto is an surprisingly sophisticated antagonist. Far more so than Donkey Kong, which launched day and date with Popeye on the Famicom and whose offense amounts to "throw shit". Bluto pursues you doggedly, akin to the ghosts in Pac-Man, but has the ability to fuck with your shit even when not on the same floor of a given level as you. He can do this dive at a steep angle down a floor, and punch at your grundle from beneath. You've really got to work to keep yourself safely spaced from Bluto at all times, giving him an uncanny feeling AI routine for a game of its era. I honestly had a blast flipping this one a few times and seeing just how long I could ultimately last against the bastard (not that long).
Give Popeye a shot, it's good! Maybe not the Game Boy or Switch titles by the same name though.
9. Simple 1500 Series Volume 56: THE Sniper
If I were a less shattered and broken person, THE Sniper would have a frankly deserved place on The Other List. Alas, I am sick. I have a true sickness. I think Simple 1500 Series Volume 56: THE Sniper kicks aaasssssssssssssssss
Why? Mostly because it has styyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyle
This game was on my radar before ThorHighHeels gave it some exposure in the recent past, and it too was a game I had bought prior to last year's rescinded kill order on PlayStation Store Classic. But I chewed through it in two sittings last year and goddamn, what a thing. It's a series of seven sniping missions, buttressed by fanfuckingtastic anime jazz intro and outro clips which are themselves stitched together with in-engine cutscenes about some sort of crime shit all conveyed entirely in nihongo. I, borrowing a Jeremy Parish turn of phrase, know "about" Japanese, but do not speak it. I cannot speak to the content of the story or the inner worlds of its handful of characters. I can speak to the incredible low polygon budget PS1 energy of the thing, however, and that is also glorious.
The shooting part of the game is, uhh, serviceable? I appreciate how firing your rifle is mapped to R1, i.e. you gotta pull the trigger on your virtual gun to shoot the man in the head. The missions do steadily escalate from firing on stationary targets to moving targets, culminating in a baffling final mission which required me looking up a solution on YouTube. Turns out you gotta shoot out the struts on a billboard such that it lands on a car! Not intuitive at all! Perhaps conveyed in Japanese with absolute clarity, but sadly this is lost on me.
Still, for the low price of That One Website That Has All The Old Games Now, Pick A Fake Japanese Address And Use PlayAsia To Buy PSN Credit in Japan, this is a pretty good time. That episode intro sequence is great, great stuff. Yoko Kanno eat your heart out.
8. Metroid Fusion
So, this Metroid thing, yeah? Turns out they are alright games! Crazy stuff here. Look at this lameass Nintendo fanboy with two Nintendo games on his list. What a little dipshit fanboy.
It took me a very long time to actually appreciate Super Metroid, but I finally got through the game a couple years ago and had a good enough time. I've also beaten Prime and Zero Mission previously, and this year I also got through Samus Returns on the 3DS as a way to keep myself from impulsively buying Dread while it was at its most zeitgeisty. But this was also also the year that I embraced using a DS Lite for all of my GBA with headphones needs, and in that spirit I played through Metroid Fusion during work commutes while those were happening.
If the game had been simply more Super Metroid it would have probably been fine. But two things got it onto this list. One, I think the overall bottled and cordoned off structure of Fusion lent itself very well to a portable experience. All of the game's portion sizes are substantial enough to feel rewarding, while generally bite sized enough to make meaningful progress on a bus ride. Lo and behold, Nintendo made a polished game that considered its use cases and the circumstances in which it would likely be played.
Second, the horror factor. Fusion gets a lot of mileage out of a slowly walking robot suit, and when you are actively pursued or in open combat with SA-X the game becomes surprisingly frantic for something meant to be played on a screen the size of a business card. Genuine dread (aha!) in places, something that I don't tend to seek out in handheld gaming.
That all said, the Nightmare boss can go to hell. Yeah flush my l33t gamercredz down the toilet, I was stuck on that prick for a day or two. Tell me how much I suck at games below!
7. Links 2004/Rallisport Challenge 2 (tied)
Ah yes, the "hacked original Xbox" special. I am a simple person at heart. When I come home from a hard day of, uhh, making sure reddit is still up, sometimes I just want to relax with something familiar. Sometimes I want to hit a pretend ball into a pretend hole in a pretend place. Sometimes I want to throw a Lancia Delta S4 around a few blind corners. There are certainly contemporary avenues for both, but let me tell you just how much joy I got out of acquiring a large IDE drive and doing the devil's work on a $25 eBay special Xbox.
Cards on the table, these are probably my second and third most played games of the last two years after Rock Band 4. I can't even say Links 2004 is all that good; it's easy as hell, and the career doesn't integrate its DLC courses at all. Yet I played a lot of this specific brand of pretend golf, and it was this game that finally got me on board with analog stick swing mechanics over Mario Golf-style three click. I should probably check out some Tiger Woods entries from this era... via That Website Where All Of The Xbox Games Are Now, and WinSCP.
Rallisport Challenge 2, as far as I know, is the Xbox title which pushed the most polygons per frame of any game on the console. It shows. The game looks very good even held against contemporary rally games. Props to the little known developer behind these titles, a company called DICE in Sweden. Hopefully they have all moved on to big things since the mid-aughts. Beyond being a looker, the racing action also holds up quite well. Fish around the right community and you can even get a little online racing in with this title thanks to XLink Kai. Absolutely worth your time, and cheap as chips. Or, you know, go to That Place Where The Games Are Now. And buy a loose copy of Spinter Cell, an Xbox-to-USB adaptor, get a decent FTP client installed on your computer, and start living the dream of 2002.
6. Jumping Flash
Just to kick the lowly N64 in its ribs once more, let us go ahead and say that a prototypical first person 3D platformer from 1995 made largely out afine texture warping is one of the best games I played last year. Or, more accurately, the one I enjoyed the sixth most.
But that's just it, the amount of swimmy PS1 graphics on display is fairly limited when you consider the scale of the levels. There is certainly a lot of texture pop-in, and I wasn't crazy for the boss fights in this game. But when you're just hopping around in the exploratory platform worlds full of future vaporwave album cover vistas, or blasting skung robots in the skung dungeons from a passable DOOM conversion, Jumping Flash is an alright time. People often cite Metroid Prime's subtle "she look down when she jump" mechanic as being some sort of revolutionary concept; buddy, Exact has had you covered there for half a decade. In fact, their Motorola 68000 dress rehearsal for this game called Geograph Seal may have featured this as well.
Jumping Flash reflect a sort of devil may care optimism that existed on the early PlayStation. A new console with no set identity yet, a blue ocean setting where you could throw shit like Crime Crackers, TAMA, Jumping Flash, etc. at the wall and all had a chance to stick. This spirit lived (and died, apparently) with the Japan Studio initiative-thing, and from my seat here I now think of the platform as "the one with really expensive forty hour open world games put together with astounding motion capture that will net a lot of 85-ish scores and people will look forward to seeing as HBO programs", and less the place for "yo have you seen this Vib Ribbon thing???" Boohoo things change, people got successful. Glad Asobi Studio is there still making things with some of that spirit. Astro Bot seems like a good time?
5. Picross S Genesis & Master System Edition
You know what's good? Picross. You know what else is good? The Sega Mega Drive. You know what else is good, as well? The plucky Mark III aka Master System, that thing with the Snail game. Goddamn there better be a Snail Picross in this game.
Look, it's just fucking Picross. Have you played one of these before? Then you've functionally played this one. I do like the Mega Picross puzzles for pushing the boat out on being a little challenging, whereas the Color Picross are even more simple half the time than the base selection. But sometimes I do a puzzle and a Dynamite Headdy picture appears. That's neat! I wish the music selection was deeper than the precisely four (gently remixed) tracks included, but it's also a damn Picross game. Just go put on your $100 vinyl pressing of the Panzer Dragoon Saga soundtrack arrangement and count some tiles. It's been an extremely pleasant time.
4. Psychonauts 2
I am grateful for many things in my life. I am happily married to somebody with whom I can share in this hobby and others, I was able to purchase a home just as the opportunity for me to do so was fizzling out, and I've been able to keep a job that has given me flexibility to avoid dying from the ongoing plague. On top of these wonderful things, I also have a supporting and challening group of friends. It is thanks to one of these folks, @thatpinguino, that I stuck with this game to the end. I am glad I did, as I wound up enjoying it quite a bit.
Psychonauts 2 is a game targetted, I would hazard to say, at a younger audience. In that spirit I think the fairly general things it has to say about broad mental health topics, and even the concept of consent, play well. It's also at times a very funny game. A lot of "laughing on the inside" twee stuff, but a few genuine laugh out loud moments to boot. The Grulovia theme park section is great stuff.
I do agree with popular criticisms about the maps being useless and/or bad, and the power mapping errs a little too far toward flexibility for my taste. Some of them are of such limited application, it feels double plus un-fun to have to reassign commmands to triggers throughout the game. Still, fun to jump around levels and learn about a bunch of hippies with regret.
Just, be ready for a lot of dental stuff up front. Not a sensitive thing for me, but I know you are out there.
3. Grandia II
Speaking of friends, I can already hear one now crying with an adult diaper full of pee pee poo poo.
BUT JEFF YOU PUT XENOSAGA EPISODE I: DER WILLE ZUR MACHT ABOVE GRANDIA II ON OUR LIST HOW CAN YOU PUT THIS SO HIGH AND YET NOT EVEN MENTION XENOSAGA HERE FIGHT ME YOU COWARD SACRAMENTO IS A REAL CITY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT SHODAI IS A BAD OZEKI, etc.
Well my dear friend @zombiepie, I'll cop to something: Grandia II. You put me in a position where I got to play this on my MODE-enhanced, re-capped kiosk model Dreamcast (with a big set of actual heat pipes) connected to a very large CRT television and I had a great time throughout. The turn of millennium Big Anime Energy is abounding in this upbeat, optimistic game with one of the truly great JRPG battle mechanics. Organically piecing together how to stunlock bosses while you unload a bunch of (kinda long) (also really it's just that one flame pillar) spells on them TO DEATH was a blast. The story won't win it any BAFTA nods but is a simple tale told quite well. Anime pope heal turn is fun! Not much in the way of horrible grindy shit either.
Grandia II is great! It's the third best thing I played last year!
2. WarioWare Gold
That notwithstanding, WarioWare Gold is a really special package. Is it a rehash of nearly twenty years of well worn tropes and games, sometimes literally the same damn micro games from the Bush administration? Hell yes, my guy, and those still whip ass! And that's not all!
WarioWare and Rhythm Heaven represent Nintendo in its most toy company-ass mode, and WarioWare is to date the most recent Nintendo game loaded with so much pointless shit. Unlockable first paragraphs of the Wikipedia articles on every Nintendo piece of hardware to date rattle out of an in-game capsule machine, alongside such useful tools as an Ashley vocaloid, a Dr. Crygor themed alarm clock, and a series of codes which may be dialed on an unlockable telephone to hear/read brief sketches that will be a real hoot and a holler to the nine year olds in the crowd.
Oh, there's also a bunch of little games! 300 of them in fact, largely collected from past entries but with a few new ones larded in. There are unlockable modes wherein they mix the button, gyroscope, touch, and blow controls with zero warning as to which you will need for a given game. These modes are my Dark Souls. I goddamn dare you to get a score in the 20s on these. Go ahead, gamer person.
Shit, there's even an unlockable challenge mode here that recreates Gamer. You know, that mode from Game & Wario. You know, the game that singlehandedly post facto justified the Wii U's creation beyond Nintendo Land. Gamer puts you in a classic childhood scenario, one which many of the people sick enough to spend time on this website share: I want to keep playing my game, but the cops my parents think I should be sleeping. Fuck 'em, let's play more Dawn of Souls! Don't get caught though! Bottom screen (Wii U screen originally) is WarioWare, top screen (television) is your bedroom. If you see that door start to crack open, hide that game and flop! Get caught and it's back to the salt mines, punk! What a great tension! What a fun idea! It's one of the best Nintendo creations of the entire last decade! AND NOW YOU DON'T NEED A PIECE OF SHIT WII U TO PLAY IT.
WarioWare Gold was not the last Nintendo first party physical release for the 3DS (that was that Kirby's Epic Yarn remake iirc, which looked fine) but it feels like it was. A fine sendoff the the DS line, probably the last WarioWare game we'll get, and a capstone to Nintendo's rocky post-Iwata years.
1. Shenmue II
Early on in my playthrough of Shenmue II I told zombiepie that the game was not landing as hard with me as Shenmue The First. What bothered me, I recall, was really more the shift in scale.
A friend of mine compared the original Shenmue to Red Beard, a Kurosawa film which is infamous for a few reasons. It was the last time he would work with Toshiro Mifune, their relationship desolving during the tortured production of the film. It was a monumentally expensive production for the time, involving live filming of a burning village. It was also a flop of such proportions that Kurosawa more or less went into a period of exile for years, doing joint production work in the Soviet Union and the like. Shenmue is of a kindred spirit; monumentally expensive, bloated, far out of line with the other work of the visionary behind it (Yu Suzuki, the Space Harrier guy), and not widely embraced in its day.
So naturally, being the pompous fucking prick that I am, I goddamn loved Shenmue. Is it a flawed work? Absolutely! My god, the flaws. But it's a game where so much care was put into its creation that I can only stand in awe of what it tried. Recreating the precise weather cycles of a Japanese city over a historical five month window in the mid-1980s, wherein the player can open damn near every single drawer and cabinet in every single apartment of entire neighborhoods and find something in nearly of them, is wild. It's The Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice, only with each letter a badly bleeding Sega got to spend about $25,000 dollars.
It is this microscopic detail that Shenmue II lacks, for the most part. But as I stuck with the game, I started to appreciate the tradeoff of the micro-detail for the macro. Yes this is a game that amounts to a series of, on paper, tedious item chain fetch quest bullshit with quick time events galore and some of the most "get Nanako from catering to read these lines, quickly now" voice acting you will ever hear. I do not care. I think it retains so many of the strength of Shenmue - a contemplative game whose deliberate pace serves to both highlight the inner workings of its settings while also underscoring the brutal and abrupt nature of its violence - while blowing out the scale so far. Cramming so much of Hong Kong onto the Dreamcast must have been a monumental feat, and Sega releasing this on the Xbox for North American dorks seems to me as a sweet sort of balm. "Yes, we will be multiplatform now, but we will continue to do weird shit," they said.
There's so much to love. Joy showing up on her motorcycle with terrible, TERRIBLE, Japanese butt rock in the background. Random NPCs telling you that you're going to be "good buddies" based on your mutual love of capsule machines. The several in-game days you are forced to spend just, carrying stacks of books around to learn some damn discipline (no joke this is the point where I deadass fell in love with Shenmue II). Ren basically staring straight at the camera several times to say "This Ryo kid is the biggest dork in the entire universe, and I will die for him without hesitation." The inexplicably placed Hang On machine. The long and largely uneventual ascent to Guilin in southwest China, which contains so much of the contemplative Buddhist energy one otherwise must squint to see in this game. Even the final sequence, which is made out of crystaline earnestness and honestly falls a little flat even with that proviso, is still something I would not change.
At this point it is pretty clear that Shenmue III was at least a mild disappointment. At least. But by golly I enjoyed the first two so much, significant warts and all, that I'll be damned if I don't give it a go eventually. Until then, here's hoping Ryo and his merry gang of misfit friends serve Lan Di his entire ass somewhere, someday. In the meantime, Yu, please release Planet Harriers on Steam or really anywhere. I will give you this $50 bill. Please do this.
Amidst the present unpleasantness, myself and the good people at Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run are thrilled to come together for another festival of livestreaming goodness! Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run X will run from 17-19 April, and I'm going to be a part of the proceedings! Yes, again! No, you can't stop me! I'll be live on my Twitch channel during the event, clowning and debasing myself in the hopes that you will help me meet my own fundraising goal.
Rather than bore you to pieces with the hows and whys, I'm just going to start dumping right here with what I'll be doing!
Friday: Trucking for Solidarity
(Spoilers: Last year this is almost what I did to the exclusion of everything else)
Alex Navarro and I are both sick in a very specific way. We have that truck fever. I grew up going across the continental United States, from Wisconsin to central Texas, dozens of times. On 17 April at 9pm Pacific, I will sate my driving lust by playing some Euro Truck Simulator 2. My plan is to choose one at least 3,000 kilometer route, spanning the length of the existing map, and to do the entire route in a sitting. In doing so, I hope to shine one small light on the resilience of the truck drivers and freight workers who are keeping our stores stocked and economies functional in these trying times. And listen to the finest in Norwegian radio for several hours! La oss klappe litt for det NRK P1!
Saturday: Kusoge Carnival 2020
Actual esports are wild, right? I'm no v-athlete, but I am an overly ambitious person who likes to create flimsy structurs and watch them crumble! So why not do a double elimination tournament of eight infamous PlayStation 2 titles to determine which is truly the turd of the herd? Really, here's the bracket!
I'll even do you one better: there are ongoing talks for a halftime show! I'm not kidding! It should be a laugh! Hopefully!
Sunday: The Bouncer Centipede
I have never played The Bouncer, but I've wanted to for donkey's years. Turns out the game is cheap as hell, and quite short. How short? Short enough to throw down the following gauntlet: for every $100 I raise, I will play The Bouncer. I mean that I plan to literally play The Bouncer from start to finish, per every $100 I raise. How many times will I play The Bouncer? That, Rambo is up to you. But hopefully, enough that I'll get pretty fucking good at tearing through it quickly. Our goal is to raise money, isn't it?
Yes, as ever, the entire purpose of this is to fundraise on behalf of Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit organization that builds schools and sanitary equipment in Laos, Ghana, and Guatemala. We love Pencils of Promise because 100% of donations they receive go toward direct services, so you can donate in confidence that your money will be helping to give children access to quality education. We've set the very ambitious goal of $15,000 this year as a team, and I'd personally love to raise $555 of those dollars. If you'd like to help directly, here's a URL for you: https://fundraise.pencilsofpromise.org/fundraiser/2694190
When you've rolled with this hobby for long enough, there's a very real chance that your pallet will start to shift. Games which once held a great appeal to you will start to feel passe. Entire genres that were written off as far outside of your interest or comfort zone will crop up on your radar, and might even eat you alive. To use myself as an example, my interest in massive RPGs of any sort has slowly given way to a blossoming and (to my partner) baffling interest in rally simulations and time trial racing. I've not developed an interest in actual cars necessarily, but the act of trimming off tenths of a second on a point to point race is now equally or more satisfying than taking down the final boss of disc three of *insert PS1 role playing game here*.
That's a positive example. There's also the chance that, in pursuit of ever greater games to play in your spare time, you will grow numb and find that the only way you can feel anything is to explore the outer reaches of the medium. In my case, this has led to a fascination with "bad games". Whether it's a singular fatal flaw, or a systemically broken whole, what makes a proper kusoge is a subject of interest to me at this point.
It is in this spirit that, beginning on 12 April at 2000 PST, I will join Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run IX! This year, I'll be taking the deepest possible dive into a truly infamous PS2 era role playing game: Unlimited Saga!
From the twisted mind of Akitoshi Kawazu, Unlimited Saga is the black sheep of the SaGa series. That is one of about three things I know about the game. Here's another one: the game is some sort of miserable JRPG-board game hybrid. That's two things! As a final fact, consider this: Brad Shoemaker rated Unlimited Saga as a 4.3 ("poor") on the GameSpot scale in 2003, which is actually a hair below the Metacritic average of 45. That makes it the lowest scoring Square RPG of the era, tying Shadow the Hedgehog's Metascore and actually coming in below The Guy Game (48). Which is to say, a game that committed an act of straight up sexual exploitation of a minor was better received in the West than Unlimited Saga.
Beyond that, I don't know what I'm in for this time. I have avoided reading guides, tips, anything. I am familiar with Kawazu's earlier work in general, and an currently playing Final Fantasy II for no reason in particular. All I know is that this will be a bad time.
But how much is up to you! The only "limit" here is how much you all are willing to help us raise $10,000 for Pencils of Promise this year! And what's more, I've even added some horrible bonus objectives for you!
**NEW** Every donation earns you the right, if you choose, to add an item to my Wheel of Horrors!
For every individual donation of $25 USD, I will inflict some additional sort of misery upon myself a la a Wheel of Horrors.
For every individual donation of $50 USD, I will double however much time left is on the clock ensure that I will be awake and aware by consuming one 5 Hour Energy shot.*
I have never taken 5 Hour Energy, but then again I've never played Unlimited Saga either. How bad can it be?
Editor's Note: I know now what I must do for this year's Community Endurance Run. May you all one day forgive me for what I must do.
*digs self out of a pile of Namco game cartridges* Hi there!
This year's Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run is less than three months hence! It was a treat getting back into the swing of things this last year with my definitely not a huge shit show playthrough of lengthy portions of Sonic Heroes. It has also been nice reconnecting, in a sense, with this site after spending a few years focused on working with the good folks at HardcoreGaming101 to produce a weekly podcast. Giant Bomb has basically been my Internet home for eight years now and having a bit part in the conception of the Community Endurance Run is one of my prouder achievements.
Last year I did a quick dash through the early Namco library on the Famicom, then spent an inordinate amount of time grinding rails and spider webs as a problematic giant purple cat man. I managed to finish strong with fine round of Golf Magazine Presents 36 Great Holes Starring Fred Couples, also known as The Greatest Video Game Title of All Times. It was a roller coaster ride, and I managed to exceed my own fundraising goal by a fair amount thanks to your help! I also sent one lucky winner a dang complete boxed copy of Ocarina of Time: Collector's Edition, so that was also great.
But, dear readers, I am really at a loss this year as to what the hell I should do. That's why I'm going to do something that I will probably not regret at all: open the floor to you for your own suggestions! That's right, I'd like to solicit ideas from this fine community for what I should do for the roughly 60 hours I have to commit to this fantastic event.
Before I cede the floor entirely to your whims, however, I would like to pitch the three things that I have considered up to this point. These are probably in declining order of my own preference.
Trucking across Europe. Between studying Norwegian in my spare time and my latent fascination with the older games in the Elite series, Euro Truck Simulator 2 has gotten its horrible hooks into me. There is nothing quite like cruising across the Austrian Alps hauling a trailer of industrial components to Milan with the soothing sounds of NRK P1 to occupy my mind. I'm not sure what exactly this would look like in Endurance Run form, but I'm open to the idea of doing a cannonball run from Toulouse to Tampere. I'd also consider putting my own money on the line, donating a dollar for every x Euros I accumulate over a session. Maybe I could even badger a certain well renowned drummer and long haul trucker on the GB staff to help me out...
24 Hours (or more?) of Le Mans. I recently learned that a) PS2 emulation on PC is basically solved, and b) Gran Turismo 4 just straight up has a 24 Hours of Le Mans race. I know! It even has both the straight and chicaned version of the track! I would consider doing a genuine run of this nightmare test of endurance, and I would even put it up to some sort of community vote as to what I was to drive. For the record, the only correct choice is the Lancia Delta S4. Group B for life.
Fly like a Panzer Dragoon. Panzer Dragoon is a brief game. Panzer Dragon II Zwei is also a brief game. Panzer Dragoon Mini is an incredibly brief game. Panzer Dragoon Saga is not as brief, but for a JRPG of the era it is shockingly short. I also own a real copy of it! Panzer Dragoon Orta is backwards compatible on the Xbox One, and includes a shiny 30fps port of the PC conversion of Panzer Dragoon. What I am saying here is that I have the ability to play every single entry in the Panzer Dragoon series, and it is possible if not plausible that I could get through them all in a weekend. That could be reduced in scope, for the sake of my own brain.
That's what I got. I would genuinely appreciate any and all ideas you have. To put some parameters on this thing, I don't have a neat way of playing games on the 3DO, CD-i, or Gizmondo. I will entertain any and all other ideas. So, what would you charming people have me do? Shout at me below!
1982 was a banner year for Namco, and I've endeavored to make the case that it represented the close of a golden age for the company. What better way to put a capstone on that year, than release one more barn burner? Xevious is quite the colossus, and has a rich history of ports (and port-adjacent things). Let's get right down into it.
It is tempting to rush headlong and claim that Xevious is the first vertical scrolling shoot 'em up. But is that really the case? What distinguishes Xevious from a game like, for instance, Galaxian? That title a steady parallax simulation of a star field in the background, creating the sense of forward movement through space while fighting a hoard of enemies. Indeed, what distinguishes a game like Xevious from Space Invaders?
Beyond the fairly important quibble of fixed horizontal movement at the bottom of a screen, there are several taxonomical considerations at play here. Thankfully, being an academic employee who defers to expert opinions, I can fall back on the research of Dr. Jim Whitehead of UC Santa Cruz to clarify this subject. Whitehead does make the case that Space Invaders is indeed the first shmup, and that the themes of Taito's breakout hit (a lone hero avatar set in an abstract, decontextualized battle with inherent xenophobic overtones) have remained at the core of the genre since 1978. His own research has it that Xevious was predated as a vertical scrolling shooter by Mission-X, Zoar (both by Data East), and Funky Bee (by Orca), which makes Xevious merely the first vertical shooter that anybody remembers at all.
(Special thanks to Dr. Whitehead for sharing slides of his research)
While the credits list for Xevious is another nightmare to assemble, there is one name to which the title shall be forever bound: Masanobu Endou, making his premiere here on the NamCompendium. Endou is credited with programming Xevious, but it is primarily his design vision that has his name so tightly bound to the game. His vision was wildly ambitious compared to what had been previously attempted in the young shoot em up genre. Endou wanted a world with a sense of mystery, both through the fiction and theming of the game as well as the mechanics. He followed a principe that would later be utilized in the Dungeon World tabletop roleplaying game, namely "Name every NPC." Every enemy in Xevious has some lunatic name and factors into an elaborate fiction concocted by Endou himself. It was this commitment to a fiction that probably lead to him personally designing and drawing the enemies for the game as well as handling programming.
Endou's strange mix of futuristic space craft, combining traditional sprite work and fully pre-rendered sprites (a NamCompendium First!), set over an earth-like landscape decked in Nazca lines, all blend to create something alien and utterly unique. Add in a few invisible towers to bomb (denoted by the cursor changing from blue to red while passing over them) and you get some dubious mystery content as well. That Xevious would launch an entire line of sequels and spinoff games was unknowable at the time, but even without that foreknowledge it is still a fairly evocative game to play.
Without really getting into details, it is incredible that this fictional setting has never intersected with Namco's retroactively assembled UGSF fiction. I've been waiting to talk about UGSF, seeing as we've already covered a handful of games therein. I think I know where to put it in this series, and you'll want to stay tuned for that entry because I love everything about it.
Oh, and another NamCompendium First: this was the company's first game to feature a boss fight. Andor Genesis is a real rotten bastard and I'd be lying if I said I've ever actually beaten the damn thing. Go ahead and confiscate my gamer card.
The music here also warrants discussion, despite my intense distaste of said. This is another Yuriko Keino joint, hot off the heals from her more understated work on Pac & Pal. While I will give her full marks for her strident, Star Wars-esque fanfare to commence proceedings, the actual background music of Xevious is basically a shrill four second loop of arpeggiated treble blips with an eight step steady downward syncopated bass walk. Over. And over. And over again. If I am entirely honest, I think a lot of my own complicated feelings toward Xevious stem from the music. Yet it is clear that this loop resonated with people. No less than Haruomi Hosono, noted Japanese experimental musician, released an electronic album in 1984 titled Video Game Music. The man responsible for Hosono House, one of the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, lead off an album of Namco remixes with a treatment of the Xevious music. It's true!
It should probably go without saying that Xevious was a success at home, and performed well in the United States upon its arrival in February 1983 (distribution by Bally-Midway). As came naturally for previous titles, there was a demand for home versions of this hit arcade shooter. And so, let us consider the ports.
The first of these is mostly a curiosity: an unfinished prototype of Xevious for the Atari 2600. Yes, I suppose I was slightly dishonest when I said we were done with the VCS in the last issue. It is not difficult to imagine why a port to Atari's 1977 home console was ruled out by company management: beyond the unfortunate timing—this appears to have been last worked upon in January 1984, the nadir of the North American home console market—this is also a desperate port. It's not so much that the game itself is bad, but rather that the platform and input device are entirely ill suited to a game like Xevious. Yes, the console did play home to other shoot 'em up games like River Raid, but you could play that with a single button. Xevious requires two buttons, and the solution here is to trigger a bomb drop with every button press to fire from the Solvalou. It's not great, but you have to admire the ambition of cramming an arcade game that ran on three Z80s clocked around 3MHz, to a single MOS 6502 that ran at around 1 megahertz. Atari actually announced that Xevious would come to the VCS at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1984, but ultimately shitcanned this port not long thereafter.
The primary point of curiosity here is that said developer was purportedly no other than Tod Frye, he who was whipped by Atari bosses into producing a port of Pac-Man for the aging system with inadequate resources as his third commercial product. AtariProtos.com, a site which deals in these sorts of unreleased games, has it that Frye was pulled off of SwordQuest: Airworld to put this port together. When you consider the sort of games the 2600 was meant to play, one would hopefully be inclined to give Frye a great deal of credit for producing ports that even resembled what at the time were cutting edge arcade titles. And it's all made even more impressive if you subscribe to the apocryphal note at Arcade-History.com, which states that Frye wrote a portion of the games code "under the influence of drugs".
As has been mentioned, the 7800's soft test launch in the United States occurred in mid-1984. Atari was in its "we are becoming two separate companies and this whole thing is a nightmare" phase, and Atari Incorporated were hemorrhaging money rapidly. New company management sought to realign the company's efforts toward supporting upcoming product lines rather than pouring money into moribund existing platforms, hence the ultimate axing this 2600 port. It was in this very same spirit that they also axed a 5200 port of Xevious.
Announced at Summer CES in June 1983, the 5200/Atari 8-bit computer port of Xevious had been the charge of Jim Huether (programming) and Alan Murphy (graphics). This is a more sophisticated game mechanically than what would have been made possible on the 2600, but it shares the dreadful sound and color palette of previously examined Namco ports on this family of systems. We do at least have a rendition of Keino's arcade music, as well as the thrill of two entire buttons to separate forward firing and bombing functions. It would have been a passable game for a platform positively starved for titles throughout its commercial life
For those of you wondering if Atari actually managed to squeeze out a single version of Xevious for any of its home consoles, you're in luck! The finally managed this feat of strength with the renowned 7800 conversion.
I actually went through the trouble of digging through recovered source code for this particular game to discover anything meaningful. It seems like work on 7800 Xevious had begun as early as July 1983. I'd give somebody named Stephen Keith an unspecified credit for his work on the title alongside somebody with the initials "NA". Keith, working for GCC on behalf of Atari, had originally been tasked with the 2600 conversion of Xevious before it that was handed to good old Tom Frye.
So, there are some who say this is the best 8-bit conversion of Xevious. I wouldn't go that far, but as 7800 games go this is one of the best on the entire system. The screen real estate is a bit cramped, but the pace of the game is slowed enough to prevent instances of off-screen bullshit merking you. My feelings on the music aside, they do a damn fine job replicating it here. While not utilizing pre-rendered sprites, the developers manage a simulacrum of the effect by cycling animations on the bacura enemies to simulate their constant rolling. Andor Genesis is also a little less fraught here, probably owing to a hard limit on sprites preventing the game from throwing as many shots at the player. In short, this was a fantastic 7800 launch title and its aficionados should not be brushed off so quickly when they tell you it's better than what NES owners got.
I'd like to make an aside here and talk about my reckoning of 7800 release dates. Those inclined to dig around on the Internet will note my dates are two years earlier than those conventionally used. It is practically true that the console released in 1986 for the overwhelming majority of people who purchased one during its natural life. I do not intend to a launch a grand crusade to alter years of accepted thinking (and hundreds of online sources) that place launch dates in 1986 or later for games in the 7800 library. I barely have time for this small website as it is. However, it is nevertheless true that a) the console did receive a test launch in mid-1984 in one corner of the United States, b) the console and every game available at this test launch were the creations of one second party company, General Computer Corporation, c) all five Namco licensed games for the 7800 were available day and date with this test launch, and d) people take the test launch of date of the NES to be the canonical launch date for North American titles like Super Mario Bros. I therefore see no reason whatsoever why it should not be said that Xevious and the four other Namco games on the system were 1984 games in a strict, literal sense. There is simply the enormous proviso that these games and their platform were then disappeared for two years while Atari dissolved and entered into protracted legal disputes over who owed whom what money for which work, as was the Atari way. Still, Xevious for the 7800 predated the Famicom port by five months and that's my position.
Speaking of which, here's Namco's third Nintendo game ever.
The first of these ports to have been developed internally at Namco, Xevious was the first "shmup" on the Famicom by the commonly accepted definition. It is also their most sophisticated game on the platform by a fair measure. The amount of moving objects on the screen is paired back, and enemy speed is dramatically reduced from the original arcade version. The scrolling background layer is also using a lower quality asset compared to the source. You also lose the pre-rendered sprites in this version, which should come as no surprise. Finally, the unique level count is trimmed from 16 to ten. Even with this changes, this is an incredibly refined title for the company's third outing on Nintendo's home console. The small development crew that handled this port managed to capture even some the smaller features of the arcade experience: the sound and music are very damn close, bombing for hidden Sol Towers still works as you recall, and even small touches like the smoldering terrain inside bomb craters is present. As good as the 7800 port is, this is absolutely my choice for best 8-bit home console port.
The nation of Japan agreed. On Wikipedia's combined list of best selling Famicom and NES titles, Xevious is the only Namco title to make the list without having "Family Stadium" in the name; in fact, it was narrowly outsold by Famista '87. 1.26 million copies of Xevious were purportedly sold in Japan. That's good enough to have Xevious as the 52nd best selling FC/NES game of all time. Now, I'm going to put about three pounds of salt on this claim as it cites one (dated) chart from an external website that does not reveal any sources, and it does not seem to included information on its subsequent re-releases. Still, that puts it ahead of celebrated titles like Mega Man 3, Gradius, and even Donkey Kong, the first and oldest title on the platform.
This is the second game we've encountered that was distributed in the west by Bandai. Xevious arrived on American store shelves in September 1988, just a month before Namco and their partners at Tengen launched their ill-fated unlicensed NES game gambit with Pac-Man. Fortunately, Xevious was spared such a fate and spent its natural life being distributed in a nice gray cartridge with a fun new subtitle: The Avenger. Bandai would release Xevious in PAL territories on 29 October 1989, and less than a year later Xevious received a Japan-exclusive Famicom Disk System reissue. Though I am assuming these FDS releases were all done as a cheap way to redistribute their own back catalog of FC titles, as a sort of precursor to the company's later efforts with the Namco Museum series, I continue to wonder if there is a more complicated back story to these re-releases. They occurred in the same window of time that Namco was seriously flirting with Nintendo's domestic console rivals Hudson/NEC and Sega, though even by 1990 those efforts were beginning to tail off and the company would publish games on the Famicom through 1993.
In any case, the FDS release was not the end for Famicom Xevious. Nintendo and Namco would pull this game out from mothballs in 2004 when it was included in the Famicom Mini line of FC/NES reissues for the Game Boy Advance. First arriving in Japan in February, the GBA port of the FC port of Xevious would make its way to North American and Europe in June and July of the same year, respectively. This is the only copy of Xevious I own! I bought it while I was in Okinawa, for somewhere in the 500 yen range. Like all entries in this series of reissues, the game suffers from having to be stretched and squished a bit to fit on a GBA display. It was also criticized at the time for its $20 asking price, a gripe that was leveled at basically every single one of these titles. I'd say $5 is a reasonable price for what is admittedly a slight experience these days, and the Japanese versions of these games all had nice Famicom colored cartridges that make them stand out from the crowd.
By the way, did you know there are two different ways to play Famicom Xevious on your Gamecube? It's true! You could go the Game Boy Player route with the GBA cart, or you could be decidedly cooler. In the midst of our ongoing "Star Fox is not an A-tier Nintendo property and basically nobody in the company cares about the franchise" milieu, Nintendo licensed out the Star Fox property to Namco for the follow to the also-licensed Star Fox Adventure on the Gamecube. The result was Star Fox Assault, a mixed package of rail shooting and third person action...stuff...that will be covered around 2045 on this website. Why bring up Star Fox Assault? Included in this package is an unlockable Famicom Xevious, awarded for obtaining all silver medals in the game's campaign mode. What's even more buck wild is that this isn't the only one of Namco's Famicom titles playable off native Gamecube hardware, but we'll come back to that topic in a few entries.
But wait, there's more! Famicom Xevious had the distinct honor of being part of the first wave of Virtual Console games in Japan! Being the only (then) Bandai Namco title included in this inaugural push, Xevious joined Gradius and Solomon's Key as one of three third party Famicom to help kick off Nintendo's first digital console store front on 2 December 2006. It was also the first Namco game on the North American and European Virtual Consoles, arriving 12 and 15 January 2007. This same port then came to the 3DS VC, exclusively in Japan, on 7 June 2011. Most recently it was made available on the Japanese and NA/EU Wii U Virtual Console shops respectively on 27 April and 9 May 2013.
So across platforms and regions, Famicom Xevious has had 14 separate releases on five different hardware platforms (six if you count the Famicom Disk System as its own thing). That, dear readers, is some goddamn legs.
I will here briefly touch upon a fun edge case that I almost included in this article but have ultimately decided to treat as its own thing—Xevious: Fardraut Saga. Released in two similar but slightly different packages for the MSX2 (1988), and PC Engine (1990), Xevious: Fardraut Saga contains two separate games, one of which is a pretty faithful recreation of arcade Xevious. The other, titled Fardraut on the PC Engine in-game menu, is a sort of retelling/sequel thing to Xevious proper. One which, for the record, should not be conflated with the sort of kind of basically sequel that is Super Xevious. These titles will be treated with their own pieces later, but suffice it to say that you could play Xevious on the PC Engine and it's pretty good.
We now come to the archival stage of Xevious, which has survived to the present day through the wonders of digital distribution. The title was rolled up into Namco Museum Volume 2 for Sony PlayStation in 1996, joining Mappy and Cutie Q (or Super Pac-Man for those stuck with the NTSC/PAL release). While it would have been more of an honorific to include it in the first volume alongside Pac-Man and Galaga, Namco were attempting to stretch this series out over six releases and had to load each issue with one or two crowd pleasers. Xevious was absent from the first wave of titles simply released as "Namco Museum" across the Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, and GBA. In fact, the next place you could find original Xevious was on the PlayStation Portable.
To work over this clusterfuck of release dates once again:
First came a compilation titled "Namco Museum" in Japan on 24 February 2005 (released in Korea three months later without Ms. Pac-Man)
Then came "Namco Museum Battle Collection", in North America (23 August) and the EU (9 December). Battle Collection included every game that was in the original Japanese release, plus ten additional titles and some unique remixed arrangement versions of select titles.
Finally came "Namco Museum Volume 2", which was released on 23 February 2006 in Japan and included the games from Battle Collection which were not already included in Namco Museum from the previous year, plus Dragon Spirit. This would also be released in Korea on 8 November 2007.
At least we're nearly through. Xevious next cropped up on the M2-produced Namco Museum DS, alongside sequel Super Xevious. Arcade Xevious appeared on both Namco Museum titles on the Wii, Remix (2007) and Megamix (2010), and in that time it also appeared as a standalone Xbox Live Arcade title (2008) as well as was included in the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade collection for the 360. It is included in Namco Museum Essentials for the PS3 (2009), both as a standalone selectable game from the menu as well as in a bespoke arcade cabinet form for use in the now defunct PlayStation Home service. What a profoundly dumb thing that was.
(Just to make this whole project more of a shitshow, Namco Museum Essentials also includes an entirely new entry in the Xevious series, Xevious Resurrection. It was only available in this collection, which was delisted from PSN in the last calendar year. Hurray for the ephemeral nature of digital licensed media!)
Xevious appeared in its original arcade iteration on the Japanese Wii Virtual Console in late 2009. Since then, its most recent appearance is the wild 3D Classics: Xevious for the Nintendo 3DS. This was a short-lived series of ports that took advantage of the system's gimmick to add features of dubious value to a range of games. Xevious is the sole Namco entry in on this list of games, and actually was the first of the series to be released. Developers at Arika and Nintendo added some clouds as vertical columns with parallax scrolling layers to add to the simulated depth of the image and provide an artful pillarboxing of the original arcade aspect ratio. It's fine, and (spoilers) up to that point might have been the best Namco game on the 3DS.
Since 2011, we've been decidedly Xevious-less. It was not rolled into Namco Museum for the Switch, and has not been released in any form on current-generation digital storefronts.
And that's Xevious, the series that capped off 1982 for Namco in impressive style. It helped launch the career of Endou, who would go on to become one of the first true rock stars of Japanese video game development. It caught the attention of Hosono, spawned one of the best selling Famicom games of all time, and sired a lineage of sequels and spinoff games that lasted until fairly recently. Furthermore, it more or less codified aspects and tropes of the vertical shmup genre that are certainly alive and well in the present.
How would Namco followup this landmark game that closed up a banner year for the company? As it turned out, they'd make a bunch of really weird shit. Even better, most of it doesn't have a long list of ports to cover! That sounds wonderful right now, and I can't wait to cover it.
We’ve been on a roll recently here in the NamCompendium, covering some positively mythical games released by Namco in wild hot streak that lasted from 1980 to the end of 1982. Pac-Man, Galaga, Dig Dug, Bosconian, Pole Position, Ms. Pac-Man (if you’re counting games Namco didn’t actually make), and the Rally-X series (if you like crap) all emerged in this period. We’re not even necessarily done with the hits yet, amazingly.
There were some signs, however, that the company was entering a cool down phase. And who could blame them? The actual list of names of people who build and programmed these games is strikingly short, scarcely more than a dozen people, and they had basically spent the last four years forging an electromechanical amusement company into one of the most respected names of a cutting edge industry. There had even been some instances of defying the old “sophomore slump” adage: Toru Iwatani followed Pac-Man with the smash hit Pole Position, and Shigeru Yokoyama (with whom Iwatani had collaborated on Cutie Q) designed Galaga as a perfect followup to Galaxian. That he was then tasked with salvaging Rally-X, with mixed results, might have been the first real sign of things slowing down.
The real key log that would end what could be called the Golden Age of Namco Arcade Games was what to do with Pac-Man. It probably didn’t help that a couple of gaijin who started as bootleggers developed an absolutely sublime sequel to the game. Ms. Pac-Man seemed to come from a place of deep, subliminal understanding of why Pac-Man had succeeded: it drew new demographics of people into arcades with its easy to read iconography and low entry/high skill ceiling design. How better to improve upon it, then, than to simultaneously make it even more appealing to underserved audiences while also increasing the skill ceiling? It was basically all that could be done with the formula to improve it. Midway demonstrated this point by releasing four bastardized Pac-Man would-be sequels over the next two years, and Namco was also about to step in it. Twice, in fact.
August 1982 (ARC, Japan)
I would like to coin a new sort of rule, a NamCompendium Law if you will: the Iwatani Constant. It goes something like this: Neither add nor subtract from Pac-Man’s verbs. Ms. Pac-Man understood this: the titular partner of Pac-Man eats pellets and navigates mazes much like her counterpart, consuming power pellets to harry ghosts and bonus items for extra points. Midway’s less egregious sequels, Pac-Man Plus and Jr. Pac-Man, were also stronger games for adhering more closely to the original design of Namco’s defining work. When they made Pac-Man engage in pinball or administer crappy bar trivia, things got dicey.
I cite the Iwatani Constant here because Super Pac-Man, Namco’s first internal sequel to Pac-Man and arguably their answer to the challenge of Ms. Pac-Man, fiddles with the range of actions allowed by the player and is a worse game as a result.
Things start alright, sure. Pac-Man navigates a maze, uses warp tunnels on the sides as an evasion tactic, eats items in the maze to progress, and uses powerups to assume an alternate form that can lay the smack down on four bloodthirsty ghosts who chase him throughout the aforementioned activities. The essentials are there. It’s what was added that mucks things up. For instance, Pac-Man has gained the ability/verb “eats objects random parts of the maze”. Said unlocks stem from masticating upon keys in the maze, which allow the player access to gated areas full of fruits worth set amount of points. These areas also contain the finite supply of power pellets and a particularly unwelcome addition to the Pac-Man mythos to be discussed shortly.
The other verb is given up on the North American cabinet of this game at the outset: Pac-Man has a button to do a specific action. This should be be a war crime. On both sides of the joystick is a button labelled “Super Speed”. This button does nothing during normal play, but should the player consume one of the Super Pellets made available by opening gates, the player becomes the titular Super Pac-Man. This allows the player to pass through unlocked gates without issue, including the permanent gate to the ghost pen. Players can also pass through ghosts, and eating power pellets in this state extends your time as a giant yellow circle man as well as allowing you to eat the dang ghosts. Finally, that Super Speed button will increase your speed for as long as you are your larger self.
I don’t like this stuff. There’s a host of new game mechanics which must be considered now outside of what Pac-Man does, which is eat things in a maze with a hunter/hunted dynamic between player and ghosts. Now we’re literally fumbling through keys to unlock barriers, unless you’ve unlocked a barrier to a Super Pellet in which case the gates don’t matter and the ghosts don’t really matter, unless you want points, in which case you must also chain a power pellet on top of this and holy shit I don’t care.
On top of this Super gimmick, the ghosts also occasionally pause for a moment for no perceivable reason. There’s also a slot machine, activated by eating one of the objects in the maze, which can yield points. So I guess you also get to scramble to the middle of the field to attempt to hit the jackpot on this thing on top of the actual game? Beyond the fact that the Galaxian ship makes some cameo appearances amidst these objects, most of this just bummed me out.
Oh yes, there are also timed bonus stages every two levels. Take the normal game play, subtract ghosts, jobs a good one. Generously, this sort of solitary Pac-Man experience could be seen as forward looking to games in the Pac-Man Championship Edition lineage, where the ghosts are basically fodder and your main aim is to compete for points against a clock. The CE games have the considerable advantages of not relying on shitty gates and keys, however, and ultimately these levels only increase your score (thereby potentially your life total, and thereby your potential time playing Super Pac-Man).
Arcade-History credits the planning and design of Super Pac-Man to Toru Iwatani, which I find somewhat hard to believe. MobyGames, which tends to provide more comprehensive lists of developers if nothing else, credits Yasunori Yamashita with planning this title. Looking for information on this individual has been one of those great NamCompendium Fruitless Searches that I love so very much. His name is tied to exactly three games on the same source. Individuals who share this name are named as former Presidents of an overseas University of Texas alumni association in Tokyo, and as an auditor for GameOn Co Ltd, an online games company based out of Shibuya, in 2008. The latter Yamashita is also listed as a former Asahi Shinbum employee, which makes his association with the creation of this game (and others, as we shall see) fairly dubious. That, or Yamashita’s singular life path took him from Austin, Texas to one of the finest video game developers of all time, to corporate stooge. A man of mystery.
Fortunately the rest of the names tied to Super Pac-Man are more cut and dry. Toru Ogawa designed the hardware upon which the game was made to run, which was the first Namco board to be based around a Motorola processor (two M6809s) instead of Intel or Zilog parts. A NamCompendium first! Shouichi Fukatani is the listed programmer, and Yuriko Keino composed the music.
I should probably have noted by this point that Keino is the first female Namco employee we have encountered, one who is thankfully still with us today. Her first compositions showed up on the arcade version of Dig Dug, and she would go on to provide music for roughly a decade of Namco titles in the arcades and on the Famicom/NES. Keino blazed a trail within the company that would eventually pave the way for Junko Ozawa (Klonoa, Katamari Damacy) and Kanako Kakino (Ace Combat 3, Taiko no Tatsujin, THE IDOLM@STER), and puts her amongst the ranks of dozens of women in Japan who, while not as ubiquitous as Nobuo Uematsu, have been creating memorable music for decades.
Having said that, this is not her finest hour. The music and soundscape of Super Pac-Man amount to a lightly augmented spin on the original Pac-Man’s ouvre, with the added capabilities an eight-channel custom sound chip over the original’s three channels. I find the atmospheric whooshing noises of the game to be fairly gross, if I’m honest. There’s nothing here remotely as charming as Dig Dug, though we’ll get closer to those heights in the next title.
Release dates range from 11 August (Wikipedia) to sometime in October (Arcade-History, MobyGames), with Namco’s own Dragon Spirit listing September 1982 as the month that Super Pac-Man landed in Japanese arcades. Bally-Midway handled distribution in North America, with December 1982 being a commonly attested release date. It spread out across the United States far enough to make a cameo in the March 1983 film “Joysticks”, which might be my only opportunity to tell you all that Joe Don Baker rules.
The porting history for Super Pac-Man is incredibly sparse. I may not get another shot at mentioning the Sord M5, microcomputer rules be damned, so I’ll take the time to acknowledge the sole official Super Pac-Man port on said platform.
It turns out one way to improve the mediocre experience of playing Super Pac-Man (or Power Pac, as named here) is to make the whole game a bit faster. I know I would certainly rather have somebody beat me with iron rods for four minutes instead of five, given those options. I find the somewhat frantic pacing of this port to marry well with the sort of pointless, random-ish feel of the game itself. I don’t know what keys open which gates, but I find myself worrying less about such things when my aim is fly through this ever-so-slightly condensed maze eating every last bobble in sight. The redrawn sprites are noble efforts (though the colorblind will lament at the pinkish-red and slightly darker pinkish-red ghosts), and the sound design trades in the richer Galaga font for a more blips-and-bloops micro sound. Not bad. Still Super Pac-Man though.
The only other thing to come of Super Pac-Man’s legacy ports-wise was a cancelled Atari 5200 conversion. Noted as cartridge serial number CX5252, this is a fair conversion and I imagine its lack of release had as much to do with the ill fortunes of the 5200 and the North American home console market, as it did my own conviction that the best Super Pac-Man experience is still based on the same dubious game.
From there, we enter the Namco Museum era well on a decade later before Super Pac-Man was seen again. Even then, we’re a bit thin on the ground. Super Pac was set alongside Mappy and Xevious (the latter of which shall, spoilers, be covered in the next post) on Namco Museum Volume 2, but only the North American version. The Japanese release featured Cutie Q in its stead, with Bomb Bee as an obtuse hidden title as a bonus. This makes the Japanese version of NaMuVo2 about a thousand times more interesting, as it is the only time Bomb Bee has ever been distributed digitally in any form. You can pick it up on Japanese PSN for about 600 yen today, once you’ve chosen the Lawson you’d like to use as your Japanese home address anyway.
Super Pac-Man then showed up again with second billing to another vastly superior game, this time on Ms. Pac-Man: Special Color Edition in November 1999. If you must play a portable version of this mediocre game with inferior visuals and sound, here’s one way to do it (the preferred method would be on a Vita or PSP via the PSN version of NaMuVo2).
There followed eight years of probably not one living soul asking for the next great port of this particular title. It would return, however, in the form of Namco Museum Remix (2007) and its North American exclusive followup, Namco Museum Megamix (2010). Between the two, it was packaged as one of the achievement-less on-disk titles included with Namco Museum Virtual Arcade (360, 2008). Most recently, it was slopped in the not-so-great Pac-Man Museum (PS3, 360, Steam; 2014).
Regardless of the format you choose, you’re still guaranteed the same feeling of concern over whether Namco had any good ideas to follow up on OG Pac-Man. Speaking of which…
Pac & Pal
June 1983 (Arcade, Japan)
Namco continued to not follow up on the brilliance of OG Pac-Man in the summer of 1983, whereupon they did release Pac & Pal. I do feel that this is ultimately a better game than Super Pac, but at the same time it contains some design decisions that frustrate me more than anything the former did.
Once again, we fundamentally fuck things up from the jump by showing off an attract screen where Pac-Man is now able to “shoot” ghosts by picking up certain sprites in the environment. These range from the Galaxian ship, which produces a Galaga beam-esuqe effect, to the Rally-X car, which emits a smoke beam and also reminds me that Namco has made worse games than this This incapacitates the ghosts, but does not remove them from the field of play. Again: do not change Pac-Man’s verbs.
Pac-Man also contends with the same “fun” gate-opening gameplay found in Super Pac-Man, but here things are mixed up by having the gates opened by passing over cards on the field. I suppose as an attempt to make there feel like some sort of semblance of legible game logic, the object revealed on the flipped cards corresponds to an object on the field whose gates are opened by the act of flipping the cards. In practice, it just feels pedantic because Pac-Man should not be flipping cards or opening gates in the first place. I hate it.
These unwelcome features are dwarfed in comparison to Pac & Pal’s one true Big Idea: an antagonist on the board competing against you. Sure, the ghosts are still here, but they are more of a background irritant compared to Miru, a new character whose sole motivation is to make your life hell. Upon revealing new fruits or objects via the stupid cards, this new character will immediately charge in the direction of said bonus objects and pick them up herself. She will then carry them into the ghost silo in the middle of the screen, whereupon they will be removed from play entirely and thereby robbing you of bonus points. To add to the tension between the player and Miru, there are bonuses associated with ensuring that none of the objects are trashed in this manner during a round. You are thus incentivized to decisively move from activating cards to crossing the maze and picking up fruits, or at worst pursuing Miru and eating the objects out from her grasp as she races to the ghost spawn point.
Miru is a welcome addition to the game, but I feel that the presence of this secondary antagonist would work better in base Pac-Man. That probably comes down to just how much I dislike this whole gate-and-key paradigm, but I think the case is pretty solid. Myriad game guides existed for Pac-Man, which is basically a solved game now nearly four decades hence. Take that formula, with its basically predetermined outcome (expert play notwithstanding) and add an element of random antagonism. What if the player was forced to exit a “perfect” pattern to pursue a fruit? What if Miru stole the dang power pellets right from under your nose? This would be a shift in the “why” component of Pac-Man’s actions, but would not mess with the underlying concepts of eating things and maintaining a back-and-forth with some ghosts. Alas, this hypothetical game does not exist. In its stead, Miru was grafted onto an inferior game and can only elevate it so far as a result.
Pac & Pal runs on the same hardware as Super Pac-Man, with credits to Ogawa and Keino once again. In a fairly soft NamCompendium First, this was the first Pac-Man title developed by Namco to feature full background music throughout. This was also a Keino Yuriko piece. I don’t know if it necessarily matches the action or feels as essential as the Dig Dug music to that game, but the music here is a catchy little fanfare. There’s a nice round bass line beneath it, and if you squint (your ear?) you can almost hear a sort of major key rendition of Bowser’s castle music from Super Mario Bros.
Released in either June (Dragon Spirit credit role) or July (other online sources) 1983, Pac & Pal was intended to be distributed in North America as a tie-in to the contemporary Pac-Man cartoon on ABC. This version, titled Pac-Man & Chomp Chomp, replaced the Miru character with Pac-Man’s in-fiction pet dog as the opportunistic jerk in the maze.
(I would like to give full credit to Brendon Parker, whose research and efforts at PacificArcades.com are the best source of information I have found in English for this title).
PM&CC existed as a handful of conversion kit boards that made it to Europe, and a full cabinet was given a location test by Bally-Midway sometime in late 1983 (MobyGames lists October). However, a confluence of circumstances prevented the game from obtaining wide distribution. Firstly was the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Namco and Bally-Midway, who had been merrily using their newfound company mascot to sell some truly terrible shit. Secondly, by this point in history the much-ballyhooed Great North American Video Games Crash of 1983 was very much in effect. Though video games were by no means dead, the home console market in the United States dried, which did have a knock-on effect in arcades. Thirdly, and this is my own conjecture, PM&CC just isn’t that great.
There’s pretty good evidence to suggest that Namco agreed. Pac & Pal is the first title covered herein since Warp & Warp (July 1981) that didn’t find billing in the Namco Museum series on the PlayStation. It did make a one-off appearance on the Namco History Volume 3 collection for Windows 95 (1998), but otherwise was entirely out of circulation from 1983 to October 2007. It was then bundled onto Namco Museum Remix for the Wii, as well as its NA-exclusive followup Namco Museum Megamix (2010). It was also cast achievement-less upon the physical disk of Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade, and bulks up the incredibly late 360/PS3 digital release of Pac-Man Museum (2014).
Ultimately, I found each of these games to be mediocre titles at best. Super Pac-Man is an evolutionary backwater for the franchise and Pac & Pal is the only thing it sired. The latter is a better game, perhaps, but I find some of the changes more distasteful than anything present in the former. Pac-Man, dear readers, needs to eat ghosts. He should also be spending exactly zero time opening gates with keys, or cards that function like keys. And he shouldn't be touching any Rally-X cars, damn it!
Next time, let’s go ahead and invent the shoot-em-up.
Confession time: Up to this point, I've been content to consider the later reissued versions of the games considered in the NamCompendium to be sufficient for review purposes. I have in fact played games like Galaga, Pac-Man, and Dig Dug in their original arcade format, worn out joysticks and all, but up to this point we have been strictly dealing with games that relied on the sort of inputs that a face button or two and a halfway decent directional pad could replicate.
I mention this up top because Pole Position is a game that is absolutely dependent on experiencing the pure arcade version. It isn't just a matter of the CRT glow or the the tactile feel of sitting in a deluxe version of the cabinet: the game demands a mode of analog input that all but requires the original steering wheel to "get" what this game was doing. I have yet to do this, and actively hunting for this (as will be discussed) complicated three decade old arcade cabinet has proved fruitless so far. I will update this at some point with actual arcade impressions, but for now please accept this caveat emptor.
Pole Position was not even Namco's first attempt to replicate the experience of driving a car. Disallowing Rally-X and its sequel as they were more like aneurysm dispensers than racers, Namco had produced two electromechanical games that explored this space: 1970's Racer, and 1976's F-1 (with Atari). Pole Position may thus be positioned (ahem) as a spiritual successor to these titles.
It also marks the return, and arguably the last huzzah, of Toru Iwatani to the game planning role. Iwatani has gone on the record stating that Pac-Man did not enrich him personally, and that his role within Namco as a games designer barely changed in light of the success of his seminal creation. While I cannot speak to his actual pay stubs in the early 1980s, I can work with dates and establish that Nakayama Masaya saw fit to give Iwatani two years to develop his next work. Working alongside hardware designer and programmer Kouichi Tashiro (credited on Galaxian and the Rally-X series) and sound engineer Ohnogi Nobuyuki (Galaga and New Rally-X), Iwatani designed a game that represented a huge departure from his previous works.
It was such a departure, in fact, that it required what may have been the first 16-bit arcade game ever made. It was certainly a NamCompendium First as a game that required 16-bit microprocessors to function. Pole Position operates on three discrete processors: a Zilog Z80 8-bit, and two Zilog Z8002 16-bit processors all working in tandem. These processors were required to handle the game's sprite scaling, stereo audio, and write operations to non-volatile RAM that allowed for high scores to be stored after the machine was powered off, all of which are NamCompendium firsts in themselves.
What did all of this tech combine to produce? A game that feels like it came from the future. A racer that shares more DNA with games like OutRun or Ridge Racer than any of its predecessors.
A meaningful point of comparison here would be another contemporary arcade racing game: 1981's Turbo, a Sega joint. Lauded for its graphics at the time, Turbo tasked the player with passing and avoiding opponent vehicles to reach the front of a pack on an ever scrolling belt of road. But whereas Turbo is essentially a game about avoiding traffic, Pole Position is a game about actual driving. Smartly changing gears, maneuvering through turns, and avoiding traffic are essential to making it through the qualifying stage and participating in the actual race portion of the game. This is is why the arcade experience is so essential to Pole Position, as attempting to play this without the non-centering wheel strips away a great deal of the original experience.
The feeling of racing was so important, in fact, that at some point in the development of Pole Position it was decided that not even death by immolation should prevent the player from experiencing. Much like King & Balloon, destroying the player avatar by hitting anything on the track does not end the game. Instead, the player is penalized by waiting for a car to respawn, eating away at the finite amount of time allotted to the player. This design choice informs racing games to the present day, with games like the Mario Kart series substituting player death by bottomless pits for a slow Lakitu-assisted reentry to the race that incentivizes careful and skilled driving without being overly harsh. Needless to say, Sega cribbed this idea as well in the OutRun series.
There's also the matter of in-game advertisements. Midway had dabbled with some unlicensed product placements in their forgotten Pac-Man sequels, but here Namco went the distance. Fuji Circuit is modeled directly on Fuji Speedway, a celebrated course which has gone on to be featured in numerous Gran Turismo games (but not Forza). You also get a steady rotation of large scaling billboards that subtly encourage you to smoke up some Marlboros, wash them down with Pepsi and Martini, and photograph it all with quality Canon products. Needless to say these ads would be modified or removed from future versions of the game, but in its arcade incarnation they certainly added to the sense of verisimilitude sought by Iwatani.
Namco seems to think well of Pole Position, which was released in July 1982 in Japan, but it found even greater success in the United States. Namco shopped Pole Position and Mappy around in late 1982 to both Midway and Atari; Midway elected to be the distributor for the latter, while Atari released the former into North American arcades in 1983. It would go on to become the top grossing machine in America that year, spawning a Saturday morning cartoon of all things. There was demonstrably a lot of money to be made on the back of Pole Position, and Atari were in a great spot to do that via porting the game to as many home consoles as possible.
Before we cover Atari ports, however, I would like to address our first and last stop on the Vectrex. This strange little console was released in 1982 by General Consumer Electronics, a company that would be bought out in full by Milton Bradley in 1983. That wound up being a fairly terrible year to buy a console manufacturer, what with it being the year of the fabled North American Video Game Crash and all, and after losing a great deal of money Milton Bradley was itself bought out by Hasbro. Hasbro would go on to purchase MB's arch rival Parker Brothers in the early 1990s, merging both companies into Hasbro games in 1998. Hasbro does not own the Vectrex family, however; rights reverted to Jay Smith, the system's creator, and Mr. Smith has been very generous with his creation. He has allowed for development of new software for the Vectrex on a royalty free basis, as well as duplication of original Vectrex software. This puts the Vectrex much more in line with European microcomputers than contemporary consoles in terms of licensing and current availability of software.
That's all very neat, but there's also fact that the Vectrex received one Namco port during its brief commercial lifespan, and that was a damn good conversion of Pole Position. Developed in-house by General Consumer Electronics and released at some nebulous point in 1983, this Pole Position conversion is the only port that had the wonderful glowy vector aesthetic that was the hallmark of the platform. The pace of the game, while not as brisk as the arcade original, still moves at a nice enough clip to give the feel of a race. The main drawback here is the digital input, though GCE has also taken a few liberties with the music here that I don't personally appreciate. All told, if you want to play a Namco game on a thirty five year old CRT that relies on an overlay for color, this is pretty decent.
As good as the Vectrex port is, my money is with the 2600 conversion. The wizards at General Computer Corporation were once again at the helm on this one, which hit store shelves in North America in August 1983. They made Pole Position run on a system that was intended to play Pong, and they manage to do so with shockingly few cuts.
The VCS has a paucity of input options by default. The CX10 and CX40 controllers featured a simple four-directional joystick and a single button. How to graft these inputs onto something like Pole Position? GCC arrived at a novel solution: seeing as the game was primarily about driving forward, the default state of the vehicle is to accelerate. Depressing the face button functions as the breaks. Steering is handled by pushing the stick left or right, and shifting is handled by pushing up or down. This control scheme was so economical that it would survive for decades, appearing with a few tweaks even in Sega's Super Monaco GP series on the Mega Drive.
Thus marks the end of our 2600 coverage here, at least insofar as completed and official releases are concerned. We will see one more prototype and perhaps some homebrew down the line, but Pole Position is the official end for us. Between March 1982 and October 1983, the VCS received ports of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, the game in question, and Dig Dug. Jr. Pac-Man (not a real Namco game) stumbled out of the gate sometime in 1986, a side effect of Atari's division. I've helpfully ranked these games for you on Giant Bomb dot com, and I can say with some certainty that Pole Position is the best Namco title on the platform.
The 5200 port, which arrived one month later, doesn't impress me as much. The background parallax layer scrolls in a much choppier manner than the simpler 2600 landscape, and the entire game feels a bit slower. It is bolstered by utilizing the analog input on the 5200 controller, though that does come with the sizable of using a 5200 controller with its non-self-centering stick and crummy overall design.
Pole Position also marks the end of our commercial 5200 coverage. I'd say it lands right in the middle of the pack, with its jittery visuals being the main thing holding it back from truly surpassing Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man on this ill-fated platform. That said, even the slightly dodgy sounding Dig Dug conversion for this console is not exactly bad, and I'd go so far as to say that the Namco games on the 5200 represent some of the best the system ever received in its natural life. I've also ranked them for you, right here.
We leave these classic ports of Pole Position with another misfit toy: Pole Position on the Mattel Intellivision. Recall the tale of Dig Dug's late arrival on the console? Pole Position shares the same story, and in fact it arrived so late that the engineers at INTV took the liberty of turning the game into something that, strictly speaking, was no longer Pole Position. Right at the jump the player is presented with a selection of four tracks, a feature only introduced in Pole Position II. A bit of a misnomer then.
Regardless, what you find here is a hideous looking version of Pole Position with surprisingly good sound. There's some desperate attempts at simulating effects like sprite scaling and rotation, but the best thing that I could say is that the objects on screen are at least legible enough to be easily avoided by your oncoming car. I have not played this on an actual Intellivision, but the system's controller supported a 16-directional digital input device and utilizing all of those defined points on the wheel/disk hybrid input thing would have given this something of a control edge over the digital inputs of the 2600 version, at least.
This does mark the end of Namco's Intellivision presence, and Pole Position gets the edge over Pac-Man on that platform to be the best of the three titles we've covered there. Here's my list to prove it.
Why no Famicom port? Recall that the first year of the Famicom's life featured a library of games developed solely by Nintendo, with Hudson entering the fray in July 1984 (though they had collaborated with Nintendo and Sharp on the June '84 release of Family BASIC). Namco was the second third party publisher on the platform, kicking things off with the September 1984 release of Galaxian. That was followed by Pac-Man, Xevious, and Mappy in November. What was Nintendo up to that November? Well, they released F-1 Race on the Famicom.
Look at this and tell me it was not directly inspired by Pole Position and its sequel, I goddamn dare you. I know nothing about any Namco developed conversion of Pole Position for the Famicom, but it's hard to not look at this and wonder if Nintendo basically took Namco's lunch money with this game (which, with some drastic changes, eventually arrived in the United States as Mach Rider). I'd go so far as to say that F-1 Race might have been the first rumbling of the eventual blood vendetta between Nintendo's Yamauchi and Namco's Nakayama, a war of personalities that led to accusations in the Japanese press, Namco going all in on NEC's PC Engine, and a series of black unlicensed cartridges in the United States.
Position's history in the Namco Museum is surprisingly short, and this is again likely due to issues in grafting its controls onto home console input device schemes. It landed alongside Pac-Man and Galaga on Namco Museum Volume 1 in 1995, about as high a billing as could be given one of these classic games by Namco. Pole Position supported the neGcon, a freak of nature controller that supported analog steering via physically torquing halves of the controller on an axis. I have not been able to try this input mode, and in fact it would not be available to me in any case as it requires playing NaMuVo1 on a system with a PlayStation controller bus, and I only have the PSN version of the compilation. That version is playable on three systems (PS3, PSP, and Vita) with analog inputs via sticks, but Pole Position does not register these as analog. So, you are forced to play this version of Pole Position in most cases with digital steering, and that should mean nothing but badness.
I would like to give the programmers at Namco some credit, however. While the digital input on this version of Pole Position is not going to satisfy everybody, it is a very earnest attempt to simulate actual steering. The length of your press on the left or right sides of the directional pad determine how hard you steer in either direction, and the car does not attempt to revert to driving straight immediately after letting off a direction. If you are trying to dial in a turn at a specific angle, you can coach yourself to pull off that angle and then release the pad. As it turns out this game moves at a brisk pace and you will often find yourself feathering the pad just to avoid driving into puddles, signs, other cars, or grass regardless. It is not perfect, but damned if Namco didn't try their hardest to make this work.
Next comes the helpfully named Namco Museum, released in basically two waves across multiple platforms. The first wave crashed onto the Dreamcast and Nintendo 64. Regretfully, I cannot find copies of either of these at local (well stocked) shops, and the N64 version's instruction manual does not specify whether or not the analog stick is used for steering in Pole Position. Wave two came to the Game Boy Advance, PS2, Xbox, and GameCube. The former of these four obviously operates on a d-pad and with some serious crunch to fit the GBA screen, while the home console versions supported analog and digital inputs. This scheme hold true for Namco Museum 50th Anniversary (2005 on PS2, Xbox and GCN), which was released on the GBA without Pole Position (it was replaced with Rally-X, because dot dot dot question mark).
Pole Position's most recent port of call was as part of Namco Museum Virtual Arcade for the Xbox 360. As one of the games that ran off the physical disc (opposed to being available on XBLA), Pole Position has no achievement support. It does feature analog input, making this a pretty good option, but no better the prior PS2/Xbox/GCN collections mentioned above.
If you were looking for a way to play Pole Position on a Nintendo console manufactured after 2001, you're shit out of luck. It is playable on a PSP or Vita, courtesy of NaMuVo1 being a PSOne Classic, but without the ability to experience the game with analog controls it is a compromised experience.
So, that's Pole Position. It's a wildly influential racing game, a technological arcade showpiece, and the home ports all range from good to great when you allow for some differences in control devices. Where's this Namco wagon train headed next? Back to kicking it with our favorite yellow pizza-shaped friend, who was about to receive his first Namco-developed sequel.
The brilliant Ms. Pac-Man was the offspring of what amounted to stretching the terms of a licensing agreement between Namco and Midway. The latter wanted to leverage the former’s intellectual property for more arcade profits, and brought in General Computer Corporation’s bootleg expertise to create a game that sublimely iterates on an already incredible blueprint.
While the details remain murky, due in part to an agreement reached around 2007 between Ms. Pac-Man’s creators and Bandai Namco, it is evident that Namco in the early 1980s had an understanding with Midway (and to a lesser extent the developers they contracted) insofar as the rights to Ms. Pac-Man and the Pac-Man name were concerned. It is easy to imagine that Namco saw this as a straightforward licensing deal, with explicit approval given to Midway to handle distribution of Namco’s smash hit in North America. However, Midway clearly saw things differently. Ms. Pac-Man was not an aberration; in fact, Midway would develop and release four more arcade titles under the Pac-Man umbrella by the end of 1983.
13 March 1982 (ARC, North America)
The first of these four games might actually have warranted coverage in a full NamCompendium Prime article, as it has been “repatriated” by Bandai Namco over time and has been published by them on various platforms. It pairs better with the other games to be covered here, however, as it represents Midway’s continued interest in "utilizing" the Pac-Man brand. It also is something of an edge case as Pac-Man Plus was not a new game, per se, but rather a conversion kit for existing Pac-Man cabinets.
Pac-Man Plus was a few ROM chips and a Z80 with cabling, designed to seat into Namco’s Pac-Man boards to create a new game. This game is recognizably the same game cooked up by Iwatani Toru, but with changes designed to increase the amount of frankly random bullshit in the game. Specifically, the Power Pellets now trigger one of five game states: default Pac-Man blue ghosts, invisible blue ghosts, invisible walls, invisible walls and pellets, or a particularly shitty one where only three ghosts become vulnerable. The bonus item sprites have also been resequenced with a few more added in, including a shockingly bootlegged Coca Cola can. These bonus items, in addition to points, now trigger yet more weird hacky junk: now picking them up turns all of the ghosts invisible, but also triggers their “blue” state. It also doubles their points value, meaning capturing all four of them nets you a total of 6000 points versus the usual 3000.
As these things go, this is certainly not the earth shattering goodness of something like Ms. Pac-Man. It would have given arcade operators the ability to advertise a “new” game on the floor, and broken some proven strategies for high scores (and by extension, lengthy play sessions on a single quarter). I find the changes ultimately sully what is a nearly perfect game, and knowing it was all done just to extend the life of some arcade cabinets to make a buck doesn’t increase my love for it one iota.
But what was that about repatriation? It seems that Namco came to some sort of arrangement with Midway over Pac-Man plus. The game received a mobile port by Bandai Namco in the late 20-aughts, according to this archived website. Pac-Man Plus has also been included in at least one licensed Jakks Pacific TV Game unit, alongside the stellar Galaxian and the dirt worst Rally-X. Why Namco personnel would choose to highlight this kinda dodgy hack thing over, say, Ms. Pac-Man, is one of the deep philosophical questions that only the NamCompendium could incite.
The game has also made it to vintage consoles over the years thanks to the homebrew community. Opcode Games’ Pac-Man Collection for the ColecoVision includes Pac-Man Plus as a bonus, and the AtariAge community has produced versions for the 2600, 5200, and 7800.
11 October 1982 (ARC, North America)
Despite handshake agreements that took place to cover Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man Plus, Midway continued to abuse the goodwill of Namco with three more releases. The first of this fully unsanctioned trio is an absolute freak of nature. Baby Pac-Man is a combination arcade cabinet and pinball unit, with gameplay alternating between Pac-Man adjacent gameplay on a CRT and a miniaturized pinball table beneath it. The relationship between the two is the main “attraction” of this machine, and also the reason I found it to be chocked full of anti-fun.
I once heard it said that one of the reasons the International Space Station exists at all was to justify the continued existence of the American space shuttle program, by giving the shuttles someplace to go. I bring this up because Baby Pac-Man uses the pinball component of the game to make the Pac-Man component actively worse. You begin as a Baby Pac-Man in a maze with no power pellets and two tunnels leading out of the bottom of the screen. The only way to obtain power pellets or bonus items (or increase your somnambulatory speed in the maze) is drop down these tunnels, which begins a game of pinball. A game of pinball that takes place on a table about a third the length of your usual silver bill and plunger affair, with drop targets and bumpers for you to take down before inevitably dropping a ball because playing on table this short feels like a crime. Depending on your performance, you just might have spawned a power pellet in the maze (which now has no downward exits, as they close upon your return to Pac-Man mode). Grab the pellet, eat ghosts, repeat until you lose your quarter.
I had the opportunity to play one of these things in the flesh a few weeks ago at Quarterworld in east Portland, Oregon. I did not find the experience pleasurable. In addition to featuring the ugliest arcade Pac-Man visuals so far, I found the marriage of maze gameplay and farty pinball to be tenuous at best, and never gained a firm grasp of how my pinball play influenced the game above. It wound up being a very fast 50 cents for each three lives. When you add in the increased maintenance costs of maintaining both a pinball table and arcade cabinet into one unit, it should not surprise you that Baby Pac-Man was about as much of a dud with arcade operators as it was with gamers.
Namco seems to have no love lost on this one either, as it has never been re-released in any form. Due to its dual game nature, emulating this one is also a bastard.
12 August 1983 (ARC, North America)
So, this little ass disaster, right?
Professor Pac-Man takes the Pac-Man license abuse to the absolute stratosphere by taking the likeness of Iwatani’s little pizza-shaped protagonist and reducing him to a means of measuring the passage of time. Rather than feature any sort of gameplay with the loosest of ties to the source material, here a round yellow man with a mortarboard cap plays matching games with you. Players are tasked with answering “trivia” questions, though the trivia is less of the pop culture knowledge variety and more of the “how many of i in picture j had trait k” variety. Provide the wrong answers to three questions and wham, game over. The game steadily increases in speed over time, providing less and less time to scan an increasing amount of similar, janky looking sprite art for minute differences. It’s the sort of thing that the cheapest and least didactically meritorious edutainment software continues to peddle to this day, but with a more or less pilfered third party license slapped onto it for extra stank.
This was apparently build on Bally Midway’s Astrocade arcade hardware, the same sort of hardware which was consolized in the 1970s and played host to a few earlyunlicensed ports of Namco games. Even crazier, this game switched between two discrete banks of 512 kilobytes of ROM (for reference, the original Pac-Man fit into 16 kilobytes). Even crazier than that, Bally Midway had enough faith in this thing that there were plans for versions of Professor Pac-Man targeted towards younger audiences and casinos in addition to the regular arcade and bar crowds.
Perhaps craziest of all, while Namco has never touched this game with a thousand foot poll and neither should you, they’ve actually gone on to feature a character who sure looks like Professor Pac-Man in their games. The Pac-Man World series features a recurring character, Professor Pac, whose only real distinguishing feature from this assy bootleg-ass unlicensed turd is the inclusion of a white moustache. How’s that for trivia? Hey, I made a joke!
Professor Pac-Man is terrible garbage, and only escapes the very bottom of my ranked NamCompendium list by not being an official part of Namco history.
13 August 1983 (ARC, North America)
Those who have followed the progress of the NamCompendium will know that I am the record as a scrolling maze hater. Though scrolling mazes had been tastefully implemented in Tengen’s Ms. Pac-Man, I generally find them to be a hinderance to Pac-Man gameplay in their penchant for failing to display all ghosts on screen at a given time. As if to piss me off specifically, Bally Midway went ahead and released an unlicensed Pac-Man sequel into arcades that relies on a scrolling view of the play field.
Jr. Pac-Man, released as a standalone cabinet and also in upgrade kit form, doesn’t let you see part of the game you are playing. It’s actually not the worst implementation of this scrolling solution, honestly, and has more in common with Tengen’s implementation than Namco’s implementation used in the Game Boy ports of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. You have a full vertical view of the maze at all times, and the scroll reveals just over half of the maze at a given time. I don’t know which AI the ghosts here are keyed on, but they seem fairly tenacious and that generally serves to keep them on the same half of the maze as the player. The end result is a Pac-Man clone that manages to keep most fundamental parts of the base game in tact.
Huge mazes aside, there are other small changes here. There are no longer warp tunnels on the outer edges of the maze, meaning this game is all about evading ghosts via navigating the mazes themselves. Bonus items also receive a little tweak; here, bouncing across regular pellets change them into little hollow circles that net the player 50 points instead of the usual 10. As a risk-reward trade off, these pellets slow Jr. Pac-Man’s movement and thereby make the player more vulnerable to ghost murder. Also, allowing the bonus items to make contact with the power pellets will remove them from the field, forcing the player to make chase lest they lose out on the possible bonus points. These are nifty ideas, ones that I find more agreeable than the chicanery employed by Pac-Man Plus.
These little changes belie my main complaint with Jr. Pac-Man: the mazes are just too damn big. I don’t think having to spend at least twice as long trying to clear a single level improves the experience at all, and in fact detracts from it. It turns playing Pac-Man into more of a chore, and few things are more damning to leisure activities than making them feel like work.
This sense of extra work is exaggerated in the Atari 2600 conversion of this game. Yes, this unlicensed sequel to Namco’s most celebrated creation received a licensed console courtesy of Atari Corporation. Advertised as early as 1984, prior to the division of Atari Prime into two entities, it was finally released by Atari Corporation sometime in 1986. Here the mazes are modified to scroll vertically instead of horizontally, revealing something like a third of the play field a given time. It’s a lot for the 2600 to display and hold in memory at once, and there is persistent flicker on the ghost sprites throughout (though to its credit there are four of them here). In fairness, this is also the solution reached by the good folks at Tengen years later when they sought to bring the Ms. Pac-Man experience to the NES, but here the vertical scrolling obscures too much of the map at a given time.
There was also an unreleased Atari 5200 port, developed in house by Atari in the same time frame as the 2600 port. Unlike the former, this was never officially released. Also unlike the former, this port did what it could to stick with the original game’s horizontal scrolling design. The overall visual design is on par with the 5200 versions of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, only now the game is measurably less good. This one slipped through the cracks amidst the general failure of the 5200 and Atari’s mitosis.
But wait, there’s more! Just when you thought it was time to end this special Gaiden entry of the NamCompendium, another damn homebrew conversion appears. Jr. Pac-Man landed on the Atari 7800 in 2009, courtesy of Bob DeCrescenzo. Featuring more refined sprites, better sound, and recreations of the arcade attract mode and interstitial cutscenes, I suppose you could say this is the best version of Jr. Pac-Man released for home consoles.
It was around the time of Jr. Pac-Man’s arcade publication that Namco had enough of Midway’s bullshit and altered the terms of their licensing agreement with the company. Rightly so; Pac-Man is a fantastic game, and dragging his name through the mud with dreck like Professor Pac-Man could have killed the golden goose for all parties involved if left unabated. These four misfit games, plus Ms. Pac-Man, constitute a strange little pocket universe comprised of what was possible when companies shared licenses across language barriers and time zones almost forty years ago. Each of these is worth giving a shot if you spot them in an arcade (except for the abominably bad Professor Pac-Man) just for the novelty factor alone.
Welp, I’m really sick of talking about yellow, loosely anthropomorphic ball people. Maybe next time we’ll talk about some cars?