I shall endure, again.

Friends and enemies of video games,

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

I've not been to mainland Europe, but thanks to ETS2 I've spent dozens of hours driving the E39 fra Bergen til Kristiansand.
I've not been to mainland Europe, but thanks to ETS2 I've spent dozens of hours driving the E39 fra Bergen til Kristiansand.

(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!

Honestly, I think American Idol's going to go pretty deep here.
Honestly, I think American Idol's going to go pretty deep here.

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?

Nomura-san, you've done it again!
Nomura-san, you've done it again!

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

And if you can't help directly, it would mean the world to us if you could share either that fundraising link or the link for our entire team: https://tiltify.com/+gbcerx-team/giantbombcerx

Let's do this!


I'm playing Unlimited SaGa for the kids!

Pictured: Myself playing Mr. Driller on Hard Mode
Pictured: Myself playing Mr. Driller on Hard Mode

tl;dr Visit my page and Donate to help us raise $10,000 for Pencils of Promise go go go


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! For every $20 I raise in total, I'll be playing another hour of Unlimited Saga! 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!

Imagine this, but with more hurting.
Imagine this, but with more hurting.
  • **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 and 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?

Hope you'll join me for what should be, umm, something, on 12 April 2019 at 10pm PST on my humble Twitch channel.

CURRENT GAME TIME: 24 hours, two spin of the wheel, and 5 Hour Energy shots mid-stream on Friday and Saturday!


* Due to reasonably well documented medical advice against consuming multiple 5 Hour Energy shots, I am limiting this to two (2) times at most and they will be spaced out.


Community Endurance Run: Community Decision Time

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!

I was in a helicopter once. It's true!
I was in a helicopter once. It's true!

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.

  1. 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...
  2. 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.
  3. 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!


NamCompendium 14: Xevious


December 1982 (Arcade, Japan)

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.

Original arcade flyer
Original arcade flyer

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 in 2014. Credits to Shmupulations.com
Endou in 2014. Credits to Shmupulations.com

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.

Credit to Kotaku.com
Credit to Kotaku.com

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.

Right up there with the best Namco ports Atari/GCC ever produced.
Right up there with the best Namco ports Atari/GCC ever produced.

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.

I love this Namco trade dress so much, with the big bespoke serial numbers and all. Made these games feel special.
I love this Namco trade dress so much, with the big bespoke serial numbers and all. Made these games feel special.

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.

Behold, maybe the second best way to play Xevious on a GameCube?
Behold, maybe the second best way to play Xevious on a GameCube?

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.

*sobs uncontrollably*

Xevious was included in Namco Museum Battle Collection, and in Namco Museum Volume 2, for the PSP.

*continues sobbing*

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.

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NamCompendium 13: Namco’s First Pack of Pac-Man Sequels

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.

An original Puckman cabinet, housed in the lobby of present day Bandai Namco HQ.
An original Puckman cabinet, housed in the lobby of present day Bandai Namco HQ.

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.

Super Pac-Man

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.

Super Pac-Man (1982)
Super Pac-Man (1982)

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.

Small complaint in the grand scheme of things, but reducing your company mascot to a locksmith who eats shoes might have been ill advised.
Small complaint in the grand scheme of things, but reducing your company mascot to a locksmith who eats shoes might have been ill advised.

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.

Hats off to Keino, whose work we shall be covering for a while yet.
Hats off to Keino, whose work we shall be covering for a while yet.

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.

Pour one out for Miru, the dastardly fruit thief who was erased by a Hanna Barbara dog.
Pour one out for Miru, the dastardly fruit thief who was erased by a Hanna Barbara dog.

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.

Practically speaking, Pac-Man & Chomp Chomp didn’t really exist. But it would have look something like this if it had. (Credit to Brendon Parker)
Practically speaking, Pac-Man & Chomp Chomp didn’t really exist. But it would have look something like this if it had. (Credit to Brendon Parker)

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.

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NamCompendium 12: Pole Position

Pole Position

July 1982 (ARC, Japan)

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.

Behold, the best possible way to experience Pole Position.
Behold, the best possible way to experience Pole Position.

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.

Yeah, Sega had a deluxe version of their contemporary racer, but Pole Position blows it out of the water.
Yeah, Sega had a deluxe version of their contemporary racer, but Pole Position blows it out of the water.

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.

This whole flyer, easily available on the World Wide Web, has some fantastic aesthetics.
This whole flyer, easily available on the World Wide Web, has some fantastic aesthetics.

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.

Behold, the best possible way to experience Pole Position on a home console. Hell, the best way to experience ALL games.
Behold, the best possible way to experience Pole Position on a home console. Hell, the best way to experience ALL games.

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.

Namco released four games on the Dreamcast, and this somehow manages to be in the bottom third in spite of Galaxian's presence (and yeah, Pole Position's here too)
Namco released four games on the Dreamcast, and this somehow manages to be in the bottom third in spite of Galaxian's presence (and yeah, Pole Position's here too)

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.

<- Take me back to the NamCompendium


NamCompendium Gaiden I: Pac-Man's Estranged Relatives

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.

Pac-Man Plus

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.

Behold, a crucial piece of the bootleg arcade machine kit that was Pac-Man Plus.
Behold, a crucial piece of the bootleg arcade machine kit that was Pac-Man Plus.

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.

Baby Pac-Man

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’ve seen a lot of terrible things over the years, but this ranks fairly high on the list?
I’ve seen a lot of terrible things over the years, but this ranks fairly high on the list?

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.

Even the color scheme here is fartacular.
Even the color scheme here is fartacular.

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.

Professor Pac-Man

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.

Feels bad, man.
Feels bad, man.

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.

Jr. Pac-Man

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.

No Caption Provided

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?

<- Take me back to the NamCompendium


NamCompendium 11: Ms. Pac-Man, Pt. 2

Let us continue our long, NamCompendium nightmare that is the documentation of Ms. Pac-Man's ports. This "not really a Namco game but they sorta repatriated it kinda into canon" game started its life as (probably) a joint Namco-General Computer Corporation-Midway joint before being licensed to Atari, Incorporated, who then dragged GCC into developing versions of Ms. Pac-Man for Atari platforms while Atari was divided into two separate companies, both of which would continue to do things with Ms. Pac-Man and one of which would eventually feature a former Namco VP as its President. Got all that? Good. It gets better from here.

Alright so, there's two motherfucking versions of Ms. Pac-Man on the NES.

Let's just rip this bandaid right the hell off. The first of these two misfit releases comes to us courtesy of everybody's favorite Atari Games subsidiary, Tengen. We have previously encountered Tengen in our Pac-Man coverage, wherein they had entered into a protracted legal dispute with Nintendo over their unlicensed cartridges and unsanctioned Tetris release. Atari Games had a standing arrangement to act as the publisher of Namco titles for the NES in North America prior to the opening of a Namco office on the continent. Thus, at some indeterminate point in 1990, a subsidiary of a third party publisher developed and released an unlicensed version of a separate third party's game. Hooray!

Behold, my current pick for the best non-licensed game on the NES.
Behold, my current pick for the best non-licensed game on the NES.

And here's the kicker: it's really good! It nails the fundamentals of the arcade game by replicating the maze layouts, colors, and even the behaviors of the ghosts (insofar as I can tell, I'm no Pac-Man ghost AI expert) on NES hardware. Ms. Pac-Man moves nice and fast with the default settings, leading to the same breakneck gameplay clip that GCC managed to release in 1982. The sounds are not arcade accurate, but are close facsimiles and manage to at least be on key with the original item. The worst thing that may be said about the core gameplay is there is a scrolling solution implemented here, which enabled the programmers at Tengen to preserve the integrity of the original maze designs. Yet even here I can't complain, as you are able to see about 60 percent of the maze at any given time and the ghosts are generally in the same half as you. It's not ideal, but compared to the tiny postage stamp scrolling windows of other Pac-Man ports this is a dream.

Not content to simply make a great port of the base game, Tengen went several extra miles here. Also included are three different options for two players: simultaneous cooperative and competitive modes, plus an asynchronous mode. You also get a Turbo mode option, which you can set to be either toggle-able or on at all times, plus the ability to select your starting maze, PLUS a selection of three more varieties of mazes. It's a really impressive amount of gameplay they manage to get out of a nearly decade old arcade title, and likely makes this one of the best non-licensed NES games available. Full kudos to the team of Franz Lanzinger (programming), Dave O'Riva (audio), and Jeff Yonan (special thanks), a team also responsible for perennial Giant Bomb favorite Toobin' on the NES.

Atari Games proceeded to license out the development of the next few releases of Ms. Pac-Man, which landed on Sega's home consoles.

The first of these was the July 1991 release of Ms. Pac-Man for the Genesis in North America. It begins with one of the single worst splash screens I have had the displeasure of viewing:

No Caption Provided

I mean, even one of the ghosts depicted here is about to vomit all over this thing. It gives off an overpowering vibe of cheapness, with its dithered shading and off-brand depiction of established "characters" in the game's universe. Even the game title font looks garish and wrong here. Abysmal stuff.

Then you start playing, and things get quite a bit better. This is basically a 16-bit touch up job on Tengen's NES iteration of Ms. Pac-Man, handled by Maryland-based Innerprise Software. Innerprise were big Motorola X68000 fans, with the bulk of their output being Amiga games. This was one of three games developed by Innerprise for the Genesis, with another having recently been covered by Giant Bomb's own @mento right over here. Once you excise the splash screen, the backgrounds added to the attract mode, and some brash color choices in the mazes, this is in fact an a slavish recreation of the NES game. The ghosts and maze walls now have an odd candy apple sheen to them, an aesthetic decision I don't enjoy. But if you've ever wanted to play what amounts to a 16-bit remaster of an 8-bit game that doesn't include "Mario" in the title, this has all of the bells and whistles the progenitor had. Just bust out an arcade stick.

Next up on deck was the Europe-exclusive release of Ms. Pac-Man for the Master System in December 1991. This port is yet again a recreation of the Tengen game for a new platform. All of the features of the NES game are here, which is great, but this is otherwise a rough game. The Master System has a larger color palette than the Famicom/NES, which gives some of the titles in its library a bit of a visual edge over their 8-bit console contemporaries. This is a case of a bad use of that additional color depth. Ms. Pac-Man now boasts a gross looking lipstick ring around her wedge mouth (I will accept my Pulitzer Prize for this sentence now, thank you) and the developers have really done a number on the ghosts. Gone are the simple upside down "U" shapes, replaced with some sort of bell as a silhouette and a waxy looking attempt at shading applied to each of them. The sound of this port also suffers quite a bit, even held against the likes of the 5200 release. It was an inauspicious beginning for "Namco" games on the Master System/Mark III; we've had a glance at this system previously for the unsanctioned (and apparently Korean) King & Balloon port it received. This was one of only two official Namco games for the system, and the final one won't be covered for a while.

(Fun aside: There's a developer note left in the game code. Unlike Super Monkey Daibouken's lewd personal ad note, this one's a much humbler request: "Tel da' DJ ta put da BRASS DISC ON!!!" The Cutting Room Floor suggests this is the opening line to some wonderfully trashy house music.)

For two years the Ms. Pac-Man guns fell silent. In the interim, several things had happened on a very exciting business level. The Atari-Nintendo lawsuit had ended, and Namco had established a North American publishing arm with Namco Hometek in California. It was only at this point that Namco as a company decided, as I would frame it, to repatriate Ms. Pac-Man from its decidedly third party origins into the Namco portfolio.

The first fruits of this repatriation were Namco-developed ports of Ms. Pac-Man for the Game Gear and Game Boy. The former can only be narrowed down as far as a 1993 release year. While it wouldn't surprise me to learn that this shares some DNA with Namco's 1991 Pac-Man port to the Game Gear, there are a few changes here. The ghost sprites have been redrawn, replacing Pac-Man GG's squat outlines with silhouettes that more closely conform with the arcade original antagonists. The sound effects have been tweaked here, but in my humble opinion they have less of a "hectic arcade" palette and more of a "this just sounds gross" flavor to them. The strangest touch is the maze walls, which have been redrawn to given them bizarre drop shadows to simulate some sort of off-screen light source that affects no other elements of the game. It doesn't look great. Namco also took the liberty of adding some new mazes, tweeking the order in which mazes rotate, and adding a new cutscene of another Junior Pac-Man. These changes aren't particularly welcome, in my estimation. Stick with OG Pac-Man on the Game Gear, and also don't buy a Game Gear in 2018.

The latter, released in October 1993, features the same no good, very bad hamartia of Namco's Game Boy port of Pac-Man: a Damoclesian choice between playing Ms. Pac-Man in a one inch tall maze with ants for sprites, or with maybe 40% of the play field visible at any time with horizontal and vertical scrolling. Both are desperate solutions, especially considering Namco had already utilized Tengen's more thoughtful alternative on the Game Gear ports. The game play is also notably slower here, and the loss of color makes any sort of quick reading of ghost AI all but impossible. These solutions to porting arcade Pac-Man to a monochrome handheld were drastic enough on that simpler game, but here they sting that much more.

Then, as alluded to above, we arrive at the second and entirely new version of Ms. Pac-Man for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This time, the game was a fully sanctioned and licensed release on the platform with the Seal of Quality and development duties handled by Now Production, of Adventure Island IV (and Game Boy Dig Dug) fame. And... it isn't great.

If we travel back in time to Namco's own 1984 port of Pac-Man for the Famicom (subsequently released three times for the NES) you'll find what was at the time the closest thing to an arcade accurate conversion of the game. Subtract a few dots, down pitch the music, but retain the arcade's portrait maze orientation and most of the speed. That release is very much the template for this port, which came exclusively to North American shelves in November 1993. Namco added some features to the base game; borrowing from their Game Gear port, they built new mazes and the fiddled with the order in which they appear. There's even an additional cutscene with yet another Junior Pac-Man. Yet these added features cannot salvage this port.

Even if this game didn't have some notable mechanical drawbacks, it would still be one of the ugliest lat NES games by a mile.
Even if this game didn't have some notable mechanical drawbacks, it would still be one of the ugliest lat NES games by a mile.

By this point Namco had been developing games for the Super Famicom/SNES for two years, and this may play into why this release feels so fobbed off. It is an absolutely bare bones rendition of Ms. Pac-Man. No attract screen. No simultaneous two player modes. Just the same basic layout as a nine year old game from the earliest years of the Famicom, given a frankly hideous color palette and some mazes of dubious merit. But what really does this in is how damn difficult it feels. The Famicom port of Pac-Man takes its time, waiting about half a minute for all of the ghosts to enter the maze. Here all of the ghosts have jumped into the pool in about eight seconds, and even quicker on the optional "Hard" difficulty (the only option you have outside asynchronous multiplayer). When you couple in the more aggressive ghosts and their rapid deployment with a smaller maze and a movement speed that feels on par with that of NES Pac-Man, versus the brisk pace of the arcade original, you wind up with some very short times to death. Taken as a whole, it's a little nuts that Namco did not simply secure an official license to distribute the Tengen game with Nintendo's blessing. This would be their swan song outing on the NES, and it feels like an absolute whimper.*

So where's our next stop on this endless nightmare train? Surely another 16-bit console? Maybe we'll step into the PlayStation timeline? Nope. Our next port of call, if you can believe it, is with Philips. The mother lovin' CD-i. Strap yourselves in for this shit.

I've talked a lot about the Namco Museum franchise on here, and with good reason. They were a very early instance of a video game company becoming very self reflexive and celebrating their back catalog by putting them into mass market circulation. Arcade Classics, released only in Europe at some point in 1995, feels like a pilot release for this ongoing series of compilations. Here we have remakes of Galaxian, Galaga, and Ms. Pac-Man on a single disk. Like the PlayStation series of Namco Museum titles, the games here are actually ports as opposed to dumps of games. Unlike the Museum releases, however, these are all a bit unique. Galaxian looks and feels like a slightly touched up conversion of the Famicom conversion, which at this point was over a decade old. Galaga, as best I can tell, is the Famicom conversion running in a window, with score data to the right, and with a nearly arcade perfect rip of the original audio layered over it. And then there's the Ms. Pac-Man conversion, which is just really fucking weird.

Nintendo wasn't the only Japanese publisher to get roped into having their properties slopped onto this abominable machine.
Nintendo wasn't the only Japanese publisher to get roped into having their properties slopped onto this abominable machine.

This iteration of Ms. Pac-Man very clearly takes the Tengen game as its starting point, which means what we have here is a vertical scrolling solution for the maze. The maze color selections and sprites are different from other 16-bit versions of the game, however, and the look and feel of this port makes it clear this wasn't just a ROM dump. That may be for the worse though, as based on what I can find about the title online (I won't pretend to have played any PAL exclusive CD-i games) this version of Ms. Pac-Man suffers from a bad scrolling implementation that lags behind the player's position in the maze. I've also found a few sources (including the one above) which cite input delay as an issue in this conversion. Suffice to say, aside from already being on the CD-i, this conversion specifically is well worth avoiding.

Stepping back into the safe harbor of non-Philips video game hardware, Ms. Pac-Man's next home console release was on the Super Nintendo in September 1996. This one represents a sort of last huzzah for the Tengen template of the game, but this time with Digital Eclipse handling development and Williams handling the publishing in North America. It uses the same awful splash screen as the Mega Drive port, only redrawn for the SNES resolution and color space, and also features that version's distinctive candy coated sheen across maze walls and sprites. Otherwise, it's the same feature set as the Tengen NES port but on faster hardware and with music that is practically identical to the arcade. Every time I have to confess a SNES game sounds better than the Genesis counterpart my soul cries out in anguish, but the difference in audio really pushes this conversion up to the top of the list. It may have been more impressive on the NES, but this is so far the best Ms. Pac-Man covered in the NamCompendium.

The final standalone release on a cartridge for this was Ms. Pac-Man: Special Color Edition for the Game Boy Color. If you've seen my Pac-Man coverage, you know precisely what this is: the Game Boy version of Ms. Pac-Man, but remade with color. Same scrolling solutions, same game speed, basically everything that weighs down the monochrome ports of these games, but now with glorious color for your non-backlit displays. The funny thing about this cartridge specifically is that it was in fact a compilation which also included Super Pac-Man, Namco's own internally developed sequel to Pac-Man which simultaneously feels like a response to, and is thunderously worse than, the externally developed Ms. Pac-Man. Bundled together out of spite, or perhaps as a sort of "Hey, we also made a sequel to one of the most important video games of all time"? Hard to say.

Before we enter into the long, long list of Ms. Pac-Man compilation games that followed on from the Namco Museum's launch in late 1995, there was one more release I'd like to mention. Like the CD-i port, it's a real freak that only appeared in one territory and one I also have not played. Did you know, dear readers, that Ms. Pac-Man was the launch game for a service called Xbox Live?

The original Xbox Live kit came with a bundled disk featuring some truly amazing mid-2000s gamer speak tutorials on how to set up your Xbox for online play, some links (now forever broken with the closure of original Xbox Live being offline for about eight years at time of writing), and what looks to be a dump of the PlayStation port of Ms. Pac-Man included in Namco Museum Volume 3. The tell is the damn borders. You would have been able to upload scores to online leaderboards with this version, and it would be interesting to see what sort of score battles were happening on this now defunct online platform prior to its closure. Still, if you can get your hands on the Xbox Live Arcade disk from this crusty old starter pack, you've got a way to play a standalone Ms. Pac-Man and damn it, that's the sort of trivia NamCompendium is all about.

Finally, a long list of compilations. This is already a lengthy little piece of writing, so I'm going to really fly through these unless there's anything worth noting.

  • Namco Museum Volume 3 (21 Jun 1996, PS1)
    • Given most of the ports covered so far have been North American and European releases, this might have been the first readily playable version of Ms. Pac-Man widely available in Japan.
  • Namco Museum 64 (N64, 1999)
  • Namco Museum (DC, 20005; GBA 2001, PS2 2001, XBOX and GCN 2002)
  • Namco Museum (PSP, 2005 [JP]])
  • Namco Museum Battle Collection (PSP, 2005 [NA])
  • Namco Museum 50th Anniversary (PS2, XBOX, GCN, GBA, 2005)

Ms. Pac-Man has also made appearances on Sony and Microsoft digital store fronts. It first arrived on Xbox Live on 9 January 2007, and on PSN it was a free add-on for Pac-Man Museum until late 2014, at which point it became $4.99 piece of DLC. Ms. Pac-Man was simultaneously released on 20 April 2016 for the PS4 and XBO as a digital download for $3.99.

Curiously absent from the above list are Nintendo platforms from after 2001. Ms. Pac-Man made no appearances on the DS, 3DS, Wii, or Wii U, and has yet to show up on the Switch.

Finally, there is the matter of arcade compilations. A far more straightforward release was Pac-Man's Arcade Party, a 2010 arcade release that compiled 13 Namco titles into a single cabinet with an LCD display. If you like your arcade games lacking the glow of a CRT, I'm sure this is fine.

Behold, the fantastic arcade cabinet that spawned seven years of legal wrangling.
Behold, the fantastic arcade cabinet that spawned seven years of legal wrangling.

It is the arcade compilation prior to Pac-Man's Arcade Party that is of particular note for the NamCompendium. The fantastic "Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga - Class of 1981" arcade cabinet, released in December 2000, included a slightly modified release of the original Ms. Pac-Man. As it turns out, the licensing terms that had eventually been arrived at by the three concerned parties in the early 1980s (GCC, Midway, and Namco) had not allowed for this sort of release. So, Doug Macrae and the co-developers of Ms. Pac-Man went to Namco's American offices and it was determined that, insofar as Namco was concerned, Namco had internally developed Ms. Pac-Man in the first place. The entire sordid history had been forgotten. And so seven years of arbitration began, during which time Ms. Pac-Man entered into the messy world of digital distribution and the rights situation became increasingly complicated. Eventually a settlement was reached between Namco and GCC to cover future distribution, the terms of which are not public. If any of this interests you in the slightest, I would strongly encourage you to read Fast Company's article from last year which includes interviews with GCC staff and goes into great detail over the rights to this fantastic game.

Ms. Pac-Man's origins and release history are an absolute mess. This is surely, surely the most into the weeds the NamCompendium will ever be, hunting down the Namco-sanctioned publication of a third-party developed port of a third-party developed sequel developed with only a vague nod to the original work it ultimately surpassed. It would be nice to transition back into actual Namco titles without all of this baggage. However, as we've already dived thirty feet into the deep end of this pool, I figure we might as well touch the bottom of it. The next entry into the NamCompendium will be the first (and perhaps final?) NamCompendium Gaiden entry, wherein we shall briefly examine the rest of Midway's Pac-Man spinoffs. You know, the ones that were decidedly not improvements on the original.

* As mentioned, Ms. Pac-Man was a North America exclusive. The Famicom never received a Ms. Pac-Man port, but it did receive its final Namco game one month later in December 1993. It may surprise you to learn that the final Namco game on Nintendo's first home console was yet another Famista title.

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NamCompendium 10: Ms. Pac-Man, Pt. 1

(Editor's note: There's not a lot of excuses that can cover for as long a gap as the one there has been in this project, but death in the family is probably one of them. I have been helping my partner process the emotional and legal fallout of her father's passing, and this entry took a backseat for a while. It is now live on NamCompendium.com, and I decided that I might as well put out something a little shorter if it meant finishing it in the first place. Hopefully we'll be back to a normal pace soon enough.)

Ms. Pac-Man

3 February 1982 (Arcade, United States)

Well, here it is. The most bonkers NamCompendium entry yet, and one a long time coming. The looming presence of Ms. Pac-Man has cast a shadow on several prior entries in this project. We’ve seen many of the key players in this long and sordid players named already, and there are several thousand words available here and elsewhere on the impact of Pac-Man. That title was a true watershed release, one which has informed Namco (and now Bandai Namco) from that point forward. It was only natural that Namco saw the potential for sequels to follow on the success of Pac-Man, and we’ll be covering those down the line as well. But, as we shall see, they were beaten to the punch.

GCC: The printer company responsible for some of the best games of the 1980s.
GCC: The printer company responsible for some of the best games of the 1980s.

General Computer Corporation has already received high marks in the NamCompendium for their contract work under Atari. We first encountered them with their conversion of Namco’s Galaxian for the VCS, work that stemmed from the settlement between GCC and Atari over their development of unsanctioned Missile Attack clones. GCC did not develop every Namco conversion on Atari platforms, but when you consider that one of the major outliers was the Tod Frye developed 2600 port of Pac-Man, perhaps they should have just taken on each of these jobs. They also designed the Atari 5200 from the ground up amidst the division of Atari into Atari Games (now dead) and Atari Corporation (now Atari SA, TAFKA Infogrames, currently shilling a microconsole that seems not entirely above board). In so many words, Atari kept the upstart designers at GCC busy.

But then, they had been busy for many years prior to the 5200 debacle. There had been the Super Missile Attack project which drew the ire of Atari in the first place. There had also been another project by the name of Crazy Otto.

To frame Crazy Otto correctly, I must reiterate that the original arcade release of Pac-Man was famously bootlegged and remixed several times in the 1980s. Arcade operators accepted modified boards that would change the gameplay in subtle ways, with the aim of drawing more players into their doors. By far the most common of these was to increase the general speed of the game, but other changes altered ghost patterns and behaviors. Crazy Otto was born of this milieu, originally pitched by GCC to the officially sanctioned distributor of Namco’s Pac-Man for North America, Midway Games.

Depending on which source you are reading, any number of relationship permutations thereby occurred between GCC, Midway, and Namco. Doug Macrae of GCC has gone so far as to say that Nakamura Masaya himself approved of assets used in the final commercial release of Ms. Pac-Man. On the other hand, it seems that the game set a precedent whereby Midway felt more than happy to leverage the Namco licensed likeness of Pac-Man for a number of unsanctioned sequels to the original game. This would lead ultimately to the end of Namco’s distribution deal with Midway in the mid 1980s.

The specifics are murky, and tied up in a great deal of “he said, she said” that dates back to 1981. What is clear is that between the ingenious base designs of Iwatani Toru, the upstart programming moxie of Doug Macrae, and the marketing and distribution capabilities of Midway, there was potential for Ms. Pac-Man to be a special game even its most nucleic state.

No Caption Provided

Benj Edwards has helpfully fixed the original arcade release date of Ms. Pac-Man as 3 February, 1982. That date heralded the coming of one of the absolute greatest games of all time. Ms. Pac-Man surpasses the original Pac-Man in numerous ways, by my own estimation. The first thing the player may notice is the more complex maze layouts, now including two sets of warp tunnels per side. There are in fact four new mazes in Ms. Pac-Man (including one with single warp tunnel) that rotate every three or four levels. The fruits that spawned mid-level in Pac-Man OG now bounce through the mazes, forcing the player to make choices about whether or not they were worth pursuing. The look and sound of the game has been altered, with the maze walls drawn as solids rather than hollow barriers and new sound effects at every turn.

Most notably, the primary antagonists of the game have been overhauled. Whereas Pac-Man’s ghosts were governed by fixed AI-esque routines, Ms. Pac-Man now must content with pseudo-random behavior from the ghosts. True experts at the original game would no longer be able to rely on proven tactics to achieve their high scores, thereby (at least on paper) forcing then to pop in more quarters into this new machine.

There is also the matter of the game’s central figure. She may not fit a current working definition of the phrase, but Ms. Pac-Man is de facto gaming’s first Strong Female Character. She was capable of everything her male counterpart could do, and more. When you consider that she accomplished more or less the same work load as her husband (claim territory in a variety of mazes by eating all of the dots) faster and with a stronger opposition, you could fairly make the case that Ms. Pac-Man was in fact a stronger lead than her predecessor. And while it is difficult to cite actual numbers to support the notion that Ms. Pac-Man has the knock-on effect of attracting women into arcades, it is certainly the Ur instance of a game marketing directly towards a segment of the population not already targeted by existing products. Iwatani’s problematic “make a game about eating to attract women” concept for Pac-Man is set aside for a simpler one: “Why not let people play as a girl for once?” It doesn’t improve the game directly, but as an intangible “it” factor it has certainly helped to keep Ms. Pac-Man relevant.

And remain relevant it has. Ms. Pac-Man has a singular distribution history after its arcade release, with a freakishly long list of developers and publishers. At one point I had optimistically hoped that OG Pac-Man would be the most complicated installment in this series. Jeff makes plans, and Ms. Pac-Man laughs at them.

After the February 1982 release into American arcades (which mentions Nakamura Masaya by name in a “Hello” callout), there was a year’s wait before the Atari-contracted General Computer Corporation put forth their conversion of the game they developed for the venerable VCS. This was a three man job, as opposed to the solo effort on 2600 Pac-Man, and there is a marked improvement here. There is the stupid, slavish adherence to the “black backgrounds for space games” internal design principle within Atari, and the pervasive flickering on ghost sprites makes its unwelcome return. On closer examination, however, this is a superior conversion. There is an effort to recreate the Ms. Pac-Man maze layout here, including the double warp tunnels on either side. the player is now harried along by four ghosts as well. Bonus fruits bounce along as expected, with a decent little thud sound effect. The entire aural palette of the game is in fact vastly improved here, including a noble and not entirely unsuccessful rendition of the Ms. Pac-Man jingle. Both this and Pac-Man the First were outgunned by Alien, in my opinion, but this is a good start for Ms. Pac-Man on Atari platforms.

I say a good start, because we’re going to go for a hat trick and more here; Ms. Pac-Man’s first four home conversions (non-microcomputer division) landed on Atari platforms. The second of these, the 5200 conversion that arrived on store shelves in September 1983. The Pac-Man that was available at launch for this lame duck of a system was quite good, and this is just ever so slightly better on the strength of being a slightly better game on the whole. There’s also a little more detail here on the ghost sprites when compared to OG Pac-Man, which is precisely the sort of hair splitting this project was built to document. We even get rudimentary recreations of the “cutscenes” from the arcade game here! A fine conversion, one that hangs among the best arcade conversions on the 5200 platform.

Ms. Pac-Man turns up again during the June 1984 test launch of the Atari 7800, alongside the four other Namco titles developed by GCC for the console’s release. Like the rest of that ill-fated set, these wouldn’t see a full retail launch until mid-1986 after the Atari split (documented here). This is honestly a fantastic port. The aspect ratio of the mazes is preserved from the arcade original, the ghosts now leave behind score numbers when eaten, you get four mazes in rotation, and the cutscenes are touched up from the 5200 version. The whole thing also moves at a nice, frantic clip.

Of course, that’s not the only Ms. Pac-Man released on the system. Pac-Man Collection, released by Opcode Games in the late 2000s, also includes a conversion of Ms. Pac-Man for the system alongside the previously covered port of Pac-Man. Not bad at all by homebrew standards, the collection uses the more advanced POKEY sound hardware that the 7800 could utilize in lieu of its onboard 2600 sound. The Pac-Man conversion in this collection is solid, but the Ms. Pac-Man doesn’t quite hang compared to the official port. It’s just a bit choppy, and moves slower than the sanctioned release. Again, for a hobbyist piece it is hardly bad, and the plus of having both games and a slew of extras on one cartridge is a pretty big bonus. But if you want the best, get the original version.

We shall close this long overdue entry into the NamCompendium with a smoldering hot first: our inaugural coverage of the Atari Lynx. Much like how Commodore basically bought a new computer line when it licensed the Amiga, Atari Corporation partnered with (and eventually purchased outright in bankruptcy proceedings) Epyx. Their handheld hardware featured an ambidextrous design, a full color display, and a revision that included a compact fluorescent bulb as a backlight because what in the hell was wrong with these people are you kidding me.

Behold, the only version of Ms. Pac-Man playable with a CFL backlighting it.
Behold, the only version of Ms. Pac-Man playable with a CFL backlighting it.

Exact release dates for Lynx games are virtually non-existent, but thankfully the two titles we’ll cover on the Lynx were released in different calendar years and are therefore easily arranged chronologically. Ms. Pac-Man came to the Lynx in 1990. This port helpfully includes credits at the title screen, which allowed me to credit the developers in the Giant Bomb Wiki. As far as the game goes, it’s an incredibly shrill sounding port that feels like Ms. Pac-Man was squeezed onto a postage stamp. None of the scrolling maze nonsense from Game Boy Pac-Man here, you get the full maze on screen at all times. You also get the different maze layouts, cutscenes, and cores popping out of enemies and fruits. The ghost sprites are not as detailed as prior versions, but when you consider this ran on a 160×102 pixel screen it becomes understandable. This first portable version of Ms. Pac-Man would be unopposed for about three years, at which point it could be measured against Game Boy and Game Gear ports. Until then, just for not bothering with the awful scrolling viewport feature, this is fine.

We’ll be having a look at both of the aforementioned conversions next time. Stick around as well for about half a dozen developers having a crack at Ms. Pac-Man, including both versions released for the NES (hooray for Tengen!), our first fleeting glimpse of the CD-i, Ms. Pac-Man as the launch game for Xbox Live, and more! Ms. Pac-Man Part 2 is forthcoming, probably around 2048.

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NamCompendium 9: Dig Dug

Dig Dug

19 April 1982 (Arcade, JP)

Taizo Hori, aka Dig Douglas, is the canonical father of Mr. Driller. Give the choice between Mr. Driller’s adventures and his father’s first outing, I’m team Driller every day of the week. I’ve never quite gotten the flow of Dig Dug down to a point where I can get much past the first four or so levels. The game nevertheless represents the boldest stylistic step to date by Namco, who at this point were nearing the second anniversary of their landmark Pac-Man. Those two years saw exploration of themes such as driving in terrible mazes, shooting at aliens as a man, shooting at balloons as two men, shooting at aliens, and even the famous “shooting at ships as a ship” subgenre of games. With Dig Dug, we get a foray into new territory: a game where everything is cute.

Seriously, I look at this Taizo Hori key art and cannot help but think of Speed Racer.
Seriously, I look at this Taizo Hori key art and cannot help but think of Speed Racer.

Certainly Namco had dabbled with oppressively cute design over the years. From the walking bonus target in Cutie Q to the simple designs of Pac-Man, and even the aliens in the obscure Warp & Warp, Namco’s in-house designers had conjured a few adorable character designs. But where these games would insert charming elements into otherwise standard arcade fare, Dig Dug is positively larded with cuteness. Taizo Hori himself is represented by a properly chibi sprite (never mind his dollar store Speed Racer getup on cabinet art), and programmers Fukatani Shouichi and Sakai Toshio pulled off a masterstroke by linking Keino Yuriko’s score to Hori’s movement. This playful music serves to make navigating subterranean tunnels feel far more lighthearted than the grim reality of the game.

I say grim, as this is a game about crushing cute little ball people to death with rocks or, in a truly grisly twist, forcefully pumping them full of air until they violent rupture and pain the walls of their dark cavernous homes with blood. Alright, so I’ve exaggerated the blood, but that’s an apt description of the game flow. Score points by digging terrain and killing monsters, all the while they pursue you via insubstantiating themselves and phasing through the ground in your direction. The Pookas, with their outsized goggles and armless Kirby silhouettes, make for adorable but persistent opponents. The Fygars are generally fewer in number, but come with the added ability to breath fire (through, as it turns out, the narrow slice of compacted earth between two tunnels). Slaughter the entire level’s assembly of baddies and move on to the next. Even here, a cute touch is added: rather than use the epaulettes and badges of Galaga to demarcate your progress, Dig Dug adds flowers to the top of the playfield (again, fertilized by the blood splattered about by the ruthless Taizo Hori).

Dig Dug is a very good arcade game, but as I mentioned above I remain fairly rubbish at it. I tend to go hard on trying to drop boulders on enemies for points, but often wind up getting cornered or hoisting myself on my own petard in a self-crushing accident. I do feel it says a lot for the game that, even in throwing myself at the same few levels in vain, it still manages to be a pleasurable experience. It has that difficult to quantify “game feel” that Namco had demonstrated an almost preternatural capacity to imbue into its finest works. Programming work for this title is credited in part to Fukatani Shouichi, whose work we have seen in prior titles like Cutie Q, King & Balloon, and Warp & Warp. Sadly, this was one of his last works. Fukatani passed away in mid-1985, in the midst of working on a few of Namco’s Famicom titles. He received posthumous credits for programming work on Warpman, and was still special thanks credits two years after his passing. These credits referred to him as a great programmer and went so far as to call him a master. Clearly Fukatani was beloved by his compatriots at Namco, and Dig Dug was arguably his finest hour.

Taken from the credits of Dragon Spirit (ARC).
Taken from the credits of Dragon Spirit (ARC).

With that, let us turn to the the ports. No microcomputers this time around, though Dig Dug made the rounds on those platforms. In fact, this was a fairly well documented game on the Giant Bomb Wiki before I showed up. I’m mostly filling in some holes and providing more solid dates where needed.

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Dig Dug went three for three on numbered Atari home consoles, having been bundled into the same licensing agreement as Pac-Man, Galaga, and other existing Namco titles in 1982. The first port of call was the VCS, which by October 1983 had already entered Video Game Crash mode. It had also entered obsolescence when held against the standards of the ColecoVision in North America (and the Famicom overseas), but that didn’t stop Atari Corporation from supporting the platform with first party titles until 19-holy-shit-are-you-kidding-me-90. Dig Dug for the 2600 is so far the best conversion to that platform that I’ve seen in this project. The arcade graphics are redrawn to meet the limited hardware spec of the system, but everything is communicated in a simple enough visual language that the screen “reads” about as well as one could hope. The playfield is squished vertically fit a television screen, the instrumentation is stripped down to the barest essentials, and the Fygars look a bit like poop emojis with snake emoji faces. But what’s left is undeniably Dig Dug.

After a bit of digging, it turns out that Dig Dug on the 2600 was programmed by Doug Macrae. Who was Doug Macrae? Well, he was a developer at General Computer Corporation who helped sire a little game called Ms. Pac-Man. GCC had been essentially forced into slave labor by Atari as the result of a lawsuit over them distributing conversion kits for Atari arcade titles, Missile Attack being the main focus. We’ll be speaking more about GCC, Macrae, and Ms. Pac-Man in the near future.

Up next we have the ill-fated Atari 5200 conversion of Dig Dug, released in the same month as the 2600 version on the year old and floundering 5200 platform. I’m mixed on this port. The art certainly adheres more closely to the arcade original, but it enters maybe the first instance of “uncanny valley” quality in the NamCompendium. The 2600 version felt like art from adversity (technical adversity), whereas this just looks and sounds like a bad simulacrum of the genuine article. Even the more capable sound hardware of the 5200 is wasted here, rendering the original background music on what sounds like gross carnival music. General Computer Corporation were responsible for this port, and while they did manage to get things right on paper (right down to the flowers at the top of the screen), I’d take the 2600 conversion over this.

The next close near to solid date is the June 1984 test market release of the 7800 port, plagued by the same sordid release history as Galaga which I covered two issues prior. That is to say, this game had a second “official” release in late 1986 after Tremeil’s Atari Corporation deigned to release their stock of mothballed 7800 consoles. This was another General Computer Corporation port, and the first thing that leaps out is the nearly identical music to the 2600 port. This is owed to both systems sharing fundamentally the same sound hardware, because the hell if mid-80s Atari were going to spend one more penny than absolutely necessary. Otherwise we’ve taken strides here in becoming much closer to the arcade original’s color palette and sprites. The game feels a little cramped, moreso than the versions already covered, perhaps due to hewing ever closer to Namco’s original aesthetics while retaining the same squashed aspect ratio. This is hardly a bad version, certainly better than Galaga on the same platform in terms of “game feel” and faithfulness to the source, but I’d still go with the 2600 version if you must play one of these Atari ports. Making Dig Dug run on a mid-80s console is simply not as impressive as having it run well on hardware as old as Star Wars.

In the same year, AtariSoft had sought to release a port of Dig Dug for the competing ColecoVision. It exists on the Internet in a mostly playable form, and it’s grisly. This is somehow the first version that couldn’t pull off syncing the music to Hori’s movement, features a muted color palette, and some baffling sprite flickering business. It also moves slower than other versions covered herein. Wise move to have shitcanned this version.

About two years after the release of the Famicom in Japan, Namco graced that platform with its first in-house developed port of Dig Dug. This June 1985 number continues the trend of Namco’s in-house conversions for the Famicom entering the market as the best versions available. Namco continued their line of bespoke numbered games here, giving this release the designation “06” on the box art and cartridge.This version suffers from the same aspect ratio constraint of the other 8-bit ports, features the same concession of moving score and HUD-esque information to one vertical column on the right as Famicom Pac-Man and Galaga, and the platform’s bespoke not-really-RBG color space leads to a more muted color selection. There’s also the strange decision go use a black sky instead of the arcade’s blue, perhaps making this the only version of Dig Dug that takes place at night? Those alterations excluded, this is arcade-ass Dig Dug presented as best as it could have been in 1985. It was sound enough that this was yet another of these early ports to receive a second release on the Famicom Disk System format, this time on 20 July 1990.

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The mid-1985 release of Dig Dug was a few months out from the North American test launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System. It might have made a nice early release for the system, rounding out a roster of action games with a bit of classic arcade flavor. That did not happen. In fact, Dig Dug never came to the NES. This could be seen as an anomaly, but that would be to omit a larger trend: a lot of Namco’s first party Famicom output never crossed the Pacific. By my best estimation Namco published 86 titles on Nintendo’s home console in Japan between 1984 and 1993. Eight of those were released in the United States, less than one tenth of their output. This could be chalked up to the lack of a Namco office established to handle publishing and distribution of home console games in North America in this period, or their reliance on Atari Games (via Tengen) for distribution, or Namco President Nakamura Masaya’s very public shit talking of Nintendo President Yamauchi Hiroshi in Japan at this period. Likely it was some combination of all three. Regardless, the eight games released in NES gray cartridges (starting with Hudson’s publishing of Sky Kid in late 1987) did not include Dig Dug. This seems fairly odd when one considers the lasting influence Dig Dug has had on people. It remains one of the most popular games in the company’s back catalog, and they’ve certainly managed to keep it circulated since this period. A strange gap nonetheless.

If you thought we were done with Atari here, you might want to sit down. This one’s a bit crazy. AtariSoft, the sub-label founded by Atari Incorporated that handled development of Atari titles for non-Atari platforms (comprised of individuals who were alleged to have taken trade secrets from Mattel along with them when they joined the company) developed a take on Dig Dug for the Intellivision. Then the sale and division of Atari occurred, and in 1984 this game went into deep freeze. Through a process obscured by time, INTV Corporation wound up negotiating a deal with then Atari Corproation which granted them permission to release this title three years later. Mark Kennedy, a former Mattel employee, passed along a build of the game to Dave Warhol of Realtime Associates. Said company polished up the game, and Dig Dug was finally released for Intellivision around Q2 1987.

What did all of this torturous three year handing off of prototype code and repolishing net us, fans of vintage video games from thirty years yon? Basically, the 5200 version of Dig Dug once more. Same off-tune carnival organ rendition of the music, comparable visuals, stretched aspect ratio. It is a playable version of the game, but not one to be recommended over its contemporaries.

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There is, however, the matter of the second entire goddamn game included on the cartridge. As Dave Warhol began to develop tools to build games for the Intellivision, he began to fiddle around with an essentially cracked version of TRON Deadly Discs. His modification to the game was to use the hot dog sprites from Intellivision BurgerTime. He was so fond of this little demo that, upon discovering that the Dig Dug cartridge had enough left over space in memory, he decided to cram his Deadly Discs facsimile alongside it. If you *ahem* definitely place your very real physical copy of Dig Dug into your very real and legitimate Intellivision, press 4 and 7 on both controllers simultaneously and press reset, you’ll be taken to an entirely different game: Deadly Dogs! by Dave Warhol. This is actually an alright little goof of a game, features surprisingly good sound, and its inclusion on the cartridge makes Dig Dug for the Intellivision worth a consideration for your collection just on the novelty factor. It also elevates it well clear of the 5200 version.

The last standalone physical release for consideration is the Game Boy release, which arrived in North America in September 1992. As a sort of cosmic quid pro quo, this standalone port never found its way onto Japanese store shelves despite having been developed there. This is actually the first appearance of developer Now Production in the NamCompendium. The company began working with Namco around 1986, with their first credit being the Famicom conversion of Metro-Cross. Now Productions would wind up developing at least seven Famicom games for Namco, and would eventually send the console into its officially ordained long night with 1994’s Takahashi Meijin no Boku Jima IV

Finally, a box art that captures the gruesome nature of the game within.
Finally, a box art that captures the gruesome nature of the game within.

Not content to simply retreat ground, Now Production pulled a similar trick to the aforementioned Dave Warhol and crammed two games onto this cartridge. There is Dig Dug, and now New Dig Dug. To tackle these in order, let’s start with the original. This is a slower playing version of arcade Dig Dug that feels like it really taxes the Game Boy. The music does not come off particularly well, and obviously the vibrant colors of the CRT original are long gone here. You do get what feels like an attempt to recreate the original portrait aspect of OG Dig Dug, but it comes with a major caveat that impacts both versions on this cartridge: your view is confined to a 10×8 tile window that moves along with Taizo Hori. I’m no expert, but Dig Dug play almost requires a full view of the play field at all times. Perhaps even more so than Pac-Man’s portable ports, this is a severely detrimental accommodation to the format and makes Dig Dug in its arcade mode pretty damn dire.

New Dig Dug manages to make a better show here, but not without its own issues. Here the game switches from a score attack game built around scores, to a sort of explorative digging game with the goal of collecting keys to unlock a door. The subterranean worlds now feature unbreakable black squares of terrain, giant spheres that roll on flat ground and drop down chasms, and bombs that explode upon reaching the bottom of a well. This winds up being much more of an attraction than the base game, but still suffers from the same cramped screen real estate as mentioned above. It would be neat to see this idea fleshed out elsewhere, as a sort of Dig Dug Arrangement even, but this seems to be the only place to get your hands on New Dig Dug.

Behold, the grim spectre of Famista!
Behold, the grim spectre of Famista!

All of this is not to say that there was never a version of Dig Dig released for the Game Boy in Japan. That, too, would undersell the madness of the NamCompendium. Dig Dug appeared amidst the earliest stirrings of Namco’s broad initiative to monetize its back catalog, which began in the mid-90s and shall continue until we are all but dust. Specifically, the TOSE-developed Namco Gallery Volume 2 compilation features what seems like an exact dump of Now Production’s Game Boy port of Dig Dug. Released 29 November 1996, this stealthy re-release of Dig Dug is nestled onto a single cartridge alongside Galaxian (which I really should mention in NamCompendium 1), The Tower of Druaga, and Famista 4*.

1996 wound up being quite the year for Dig Dug, as wound up resurfacing in three places by the time 1997 arrived. The first of these was in Namco Classic Collection Volume 2, a compilation arcade cabinet that launched in March. This series, as a refresher, included both the original arcade iterations of select Namco titles (in this case, Dig Dug was packaged with the excellent Pac-Man and the bag of old turds that is Rally-X) and “Arrangement” versions of said games. Dig Dug’s Arranged mode, like the others in this series, amounts to a slightly tweaked spin on the original with changes including different enemy placement, the occasional larger boulder to drop, garish new music and graphics, and two player simultaneous play. This Dig Dug Arrangement resurfaced on the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube releases of Namco Museum, and is not to be confused with the eponymous Dig Dug Arrangement that was included on Namco Museum Battle Collection (PSP, 2005) or Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade (360, 2008).

Speaking of which, it was Dig Dug’s turn to enter into the Namco Museum label on 21 June 1996, when it was packaged into the Japanese release of Namco Museum Volume 3 for the PlayStation. This was the volume which also included Galaxian and Ms. Pac-Man, fine company for the game.

The compilations did not end after 1996. Dig Dug is one of the true perennials of Namco’s backlog, and has appeared in the following not-previously-mentioned releases as well:

In the intervening years, Dig Dug received digital releases outside of its compilation milieu. First was the North American release of the Famicom Dig Dug, which came to the Wii Virtual Console on 9 June 2008 with the import price of 600 Wii Simoleans. This version came out a month later on the Japanese Virtual Console, and was followed on 20 October 2009 with the arcade version of Dig Dug’s release on Japanese Virtual Console. The Famicom Dig Dug was also added to the 3DS Virtual Console (14 February 2013) and Wii U Virtual Console (5 February 2015). Such is the enduring popularity of Dig Dug that it is one of three classic Namco arcade games available as a standalone digital purchase on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 respectively, both released on 20 April 2016. Surely, Taizo Hori was blazed as hell on that blessed day.

The only two major platforms to not receive some compiled version of the game since the year 2000 were the Nintendo DS, the 3DS, and the PlayStation Vita. The DS makes up for this by being backwards compatible (prior to the DSi) with two GBA titles that feature Dig Dug. The 3DS has the Virtual Console release, and the Vita is digitally backwards compatible with NaMuVo3 through PSN. In other words, if you have a video game console manufactured after 1999, you can play Dig Dug.

Despite my many opportunities to play and improve upon my own meager skills at the title in the process of writing this entry, I remain quite poor at Dig Dug. I have made peace with this reality, as in fact I am not great at a lot of video games. One of my crowing achievements thus far in the NamCompendium was having a modestly high score stay on a nearby Galaga machine for a few weeks (before the machine itself disappeared from the back corner in which it resided). Mine is but to document these things.

Unfortunately, one of the true bastards of this documentary effort is now up at plate and can be set aside no longer. The next entry in the NamCompendium, which may or not also be the first NamCompendium Gaiden, shall cover Ms. Pac-Man. Following that, we will have a look at three more Bally Midway joints that took the Pac-Man likeness and slapped it onto some games that are all but completely forgotten. Until then, keep on brutally murdering spherical monsters with air pumps.

<- Take me back to the NamCompendium


*Not to be confused with the fourth Famista release on any of the billion goddamn systems that series infected. Please do not talk to me about Famista. I will talk about Famista when I am good and goddamn ready to talk about Famista. Do not say the word “Famista” in my presence.

**Next Generation, a now defunct video games press outlet, published that as of 2007, Namco Museum for the GBA was third best selling game on the platform to that point with 2.4 million units sold. They stated it was outsold by only Pokemon Ruby and Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World. I struggle to believe this, and they even poke holes in their own ranked list (they admit to culling multiple other Super Mario Advance titles and state that combined Pokemon as a franchise sold nearly ten million units), but that’s still a pretty wild number.

***I just learned of the existence of this machine. It’s a multi-game cabinet, release information is sketchy, and it includes games already covered in this project. Great stuff.

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