Thursday, December 30, 2010

At Random: Namco Museum Volume 3

Unlike some other surviving videogame companies from the early days, Namco has never been shy about recognizing the value of its classic coin-op arcade games - official versions of Pac-Man, Galaga, Dig-Dug and others have been made available for platforms ranging from PCs to mobile phones over the years.  Most of these releases have been fairly bare-bones; for a reasonable price, generally, one gets the classic game, either stand-alone or in a compilation with other titles, with, perhaps, added online leaderboards and achievements.

But back in the mid-1990s, when this concept was still fairly new, Namco went all-out with a five-disc (six in Japan) Namco Museum series for the Sony Playstation.  Each disc contained a handful of emulated or ported games, ranging from the well-known (Pac-Man) to the obscure (Phozon), wrapped up in a slick 3-D museum environment.  Only two of these discs, each sold separately, sold very well in North America, based on the included games; this was one of them, and here I'm taking a look at the Greatest Hits re-release of Volume 3:

The set includes 6 games, most of which won't need much introduction to retro gaming fans:  Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Pole Position II, and Dig-Dug.  The Tower of Druaga was a simple coin-op RPG that was huge in Japan, but never released in the US, and the similarly unreleased-here Phozon is a kinetic puzzle game. 

The disc opens with a crudely-animated, pre-rendered montage of characters from the various games -- we see the monstrous Druaga, racing cars revving up, and Pookas popping out of the ground, before Pac-Man is reunited with Ms. Pac-Man and they set out together to visit the Namco Museum.

Once inside the museum, we can navigate -- rather crudely, using the D-pad, as these titles were released before the PSX controller had analog sticks -- to explore a simple 3-D museum environment, hosted by a silent robot receptionist.

Much of the value of this package, beyond the games themselves, is the historical content.  The library contains vintage Japanese magazine covers and development artwork, with a heavy emphasis on The Tower of Druaga, clearly the big draw in Japan.

There's also a movie theatre, populated with Namco characters, like the dolls from Toypop:

Here, we can look at sprites and listen to music and sound effects from each of the featured games, as well as the museum itself:

Each game is given its own specific environment -- we first enter an anteroom, where various game-related artifacts are on display, including instruction cards, promotional brochures, and vintage gewgaws.

After perusing the items on display, we can go into the game chamber, where we find a model of the original coin-op cabinet, often dwarfed by its themed decor.  Pole Position II shows off the car's "design specs," with an attractive polygonal attendant in the background:

The actual Tower of Druaga features prominently in the game's world, with the monster's huge feet dangling nearby:

For the molecular-assembly game Phozon, we find ourselves in a lab, where white-coated scientists look on from a window:

The Galaxian machine sits in the futuristic launch bay, where the player's ship prepares for takeoff:

And Ms. Pac-Man dances with Pac-Pup in the Pac-House, while a charming Japanese tune plays and female vocalists repeatedly exclaim, "Ms. Paku Man!"

I don't quite get the Dig-Dug environment -- it features stony arches, with Pookas bouncing up and down nearby, and no sign of the game's underground environment.

You may notice that I haven't spent much time discussing the actual games here -- they're well-handled and fairly accurately emulated, though the limited display resolution of the PSX causes a few problems.  Having the coin-op bezel art is nice, but the game becomes visibly chunky-looking, with insufficient detail to render the original coin-op visuals:

There is a neat feature, though, that allows for flipping your TV on its side to get the actual arcade screen layout in full resolution (rotated here for your viewing convenience):

The games have survived, of course, and in more accurate form as consoles have become more capable.  But what I miss in most recent vintage coin-op compilations is the interactive Namco Museum environment -- I'm a geek, I know, but it's just cool to wander around a virtual world unabashedly celebrating a handful of old arcade games.  I will admit that this kind of 3-D navigation was novel at the time, and seems inefficient today.  But I would love to see a higher-resolution environment with more, and more detailed versions, of the historical Namco artifacts featured here.

This one's readily available for the US Playstation, and it's not expensive:

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