As a bit of an arcade game enthusiast, I like the Namco Museum games. Not the modern ones that regurgitate the same games like Pac-Man and Dig Dug over and over again, oh no- I'm talking about the Playstation titles.With a steady release schedule spanning between 1996 and 1997 in the UK, the six titles in the original PS1 series are pretty different from their modern-day counterparts in a few ways. For a start, each volume contains a minimum of five games (which seems pretty pathetic compared to the 20+ games you generally see on retro collections today) and rather than just being emulated ROMs, the games are coded specifically for the Playstation. Back when straight emulation was far more difficult, this was a more sensible approach and also allowed Namco to fiddle with the games and allow for different display options and detailed stat-tracking.
The other major difference is the interface. Namco decided to take the 'Museum' part of the title rather literally, and let you wander around a virtual museum, Doom-style. Each game has its own gallery (including hints and tips, artwork and promotional materials) before the game room itself (themed around the game, like a race-track for Rally-X and a Japanese shrine for The Genji & Heike Clans) where the arcade cabinet lies, waiting for a player. As the series went on, Namco added more bells and whistles to the museum part, such as a library section for expanded art galleries, a theatre for listening to music, and even modified the controls to make moving aroudn easier. The early volumes have pretty laughable-looking museums, of course, but the later ones don't look too bad, and it's nice to see the effort put in, rather than a shoddily-coded front-end that some retro collections settle for. If you're not keen on the museum, though, there's a 'direct' menu that loads the games immediately.
So, today, we'll be taking a leisurely stroll through all six volumes. Remember- there's no smoking in the museum, and please don't touch the exhibits!
The Museum Version 1 - Volumes 1 & 2
A pretty standard selection, considering this is the first instalment of the series. A few of the stone-cold classics that worm their way into every single Namco arcade collection are present and correct (Pac-Man, Rally-X/New Rally-X, Galaga and Pole Position) with relative oddities Bosconian (one of my favourites, a free-scrolling shooter that gets quite tough) and Toy Pop (a very strange top-down single-screen shooter with toys) also included. It's a bit cheeky to cite Rally-X and New Rally-X as completely separate games, perhaps, but at least Namco had the foresight to include both versions and keep everyone happy. Not much to say about this one, because you've probably played at least a few of the games here.
Volume 2 is one of the stranger packs in the series as the game selection is different in Japan. Instead of Super Pac-Man, Japanese players got Cutie Q (1979), a stange pinball-like game, as well as Bomb Bee (1979) which is similar but requires a code to unlock- select Cutie Q, and as the game is doing the arcade boot-up procedure, press Circle x 7, Square x 6 and X x 5.. There was even a special paddle controller bundle for use with these two games! Us Western players probably got the better deal, though- Cutie Q and Bomb Bee are nice curiosities, but Super Pac-Man is the more enjoyable game. The best ones on here are probably the ones you haven't heard of- Grobda is a great little arena-based shooter that doesn't skimp on the difficulty, Gaplus is better known as Galaga 3 (confusing, I know) which adds new power-ups and alien formations, and Dragon Buster is an awkward but pretty fun side-scrolling dungeon exploring game.
Moving on to the museum itself, 1 & 2 share almost identical museum layouts, so let's call this Museum Ver. 1. It's a pretty sad start, truth be told- the galleries before each game room are all the same white corridors with just the contents changed, the game rooms are really poorly made (and, in a few cases, even cause the game to slow down!), you can't strafe, and there's very few interactive segments. The interface in-game is also pretty clunky- you can't reset a game, you can only exit back to the museum after getting a Game Over or pressing Triangle while the demo is running. That said, the content itself is very nice- lots of promotional materials to gawp at, a full history of Namco's arcade releases up to that point, even cover scans for their newsletter NG Magazine. The games themselves also benefit from the stat-tracking (especially Pac-Man) but the emulation in these early packs is a bit spotty (mostly Pac-Man and Galaga, with the sound being a bit off in both). As such, you might not be that inclined to pick these ones up, especially since almost all of them (except Toy Pop) have been collected elsewhere. The stat-tracking makes up for most of the problems, though.
The Museum Version 2 - Volumes 3 & 4
Volume 3 is one of the weaker instalments, not necessarily because the games here are bad, but because two of the game slots are wasted- I'm not much a fan of either Pole Position so seeing the sequel here does nothing for me (especially since both games control like a pig with the PS1 controller) and Galaxian would've been better on the first volume. However, we also have Dig Dug, my favourite of the 'classic' Namco games, Ms. Pac-Man, which is my preferred flavour of Pac-Man, the intriguing Phozon, and finally, my arch-nemesis, The Tower of Druaga. Most people think it's garbage, and it pretty much is, but if you want a truly hateful, spiteful video game that wants to crush your spirit and make you cry into your pillow, then play this one. There's a reason the manual gives you a full guide to the game, And even then, you're not finished, as there's two hidden versions of the game exclusive to this collection.
Volume 4 is pretty special in that I promise you no-one had heard of any of these games- with the exception of Pac-Land- before this compilation. I'm not sure what Namco were going for here, but the fact that it was panned by the gaming press at the time means it didn't sell very well, making it the hardest in the series to find, in the UK at least. While Ordyne is easily the best game on here- it's a humourous horzontal shoot-em-up with a shop system and some wonderfully crazy art- I think The Genjo & Heike Clans deserves at least one play because of how completely and utterly insane it is. There's nothing quite like it. Assault is also a nice overhead shooter with dual-stick tank controls (and you can also unlock Assault Plus, a minor upgrade, via a code) and while it's not for everyone, The Return of Ishtar offers a brutal challenge- 128 unique inter-conntected stages and a million magic spells at your disposal where the majority of them don't do anything. GOOD LUCK!
The museum interface was given a kick up the pants for these two instalments, so we'll call this Museum Ver. 2. The major change comes in the museum's layout- the entry hall is a bit more compact, the generic gallery corridors are replaced with galleries tailored to each game (with interactive parts, such as the toilet in Ms. Pac-Man's house) and the library (with game art), theatre (with game music) and Data Note (stat-tracking) are now all separate rooms (the theatre in both versions contains cameos from many other Namco games, including Bravoman and Wonder Momo). You're also given the ability to strafe (which makes browsing through the galleries a little easier), a mid-game menu (accessed by pausing and pressing Triangle) that lets you reset the game, and in Volume 4, quitting a game opens up a 'quick' menu that lets you either load another game instantly or go back to the museum. They're little details, but they make the whole experience much less awkward. Of the two, I'd recommend Volume 4 because of how strange the game selections are...
The Museum Version 3 - Volume 5
Volume 5 is probably my favourite of the series for just one reason- The Legend of Valkyrie. Not only is this game a personal favourite of mine- imagine The Legend of Zelda meets Commando with two-player co-op and some very impressive graphics- but it's also presented in English for the first and only time. There's also Pac-Mania which mixes up the Pac-Man formula with, uh, interesting results (you can now jump, but can't see the whole maze), Baraduke, which is an interesting free-scrolling shooter that eerily predicts the ending of Metroid a few years in advance (think about it) and Metro Cross, a bizarre race against time complete with skateboards and giant Coke cans. The only weak game is Dragon Spirit, but that's just a personal preference (it's a bit dull, if you ask me).
Since this was the final version of Namco Museum to actually have a museum, Namco made a completely new layout. Hence, Museum Ver. 3. The museum is split into four floors- the basement (Baraduke), the ground floor (Pac-Mania and Metro-Cross), the first floor (The Legend of Valkyrie and Dragon Spirit) and the rooftop garden (Theatre, Library and Data Note). There's also a lot more detail across the museum, in particular the walls which are plastered with Namco artwork, and the Library which has little Mappy and Goro/Nyamco robots roaming around on the floor. All the changes from Vols. 3 and 4, such as the quick menu, are also retained, and there's a few more interactive gizmos in the game rooms (such as the working trampoline in the Metro-Cross room). It's not quite as compact as Museum Ver. 2, but it's nice to wander around and look at the excellent art and design materials on display (especially the Valkyrie artwork!) but it also makes you wish they'd made the earlier Museum titles like this...
The Non-Museum - Namco Museum Encore
Now apparently, Namco planned the first five games in advance, and never planned on a sixth. However, near the end of 1997 they decided that one more set was needed, so they released Namco Museum Encore. However, due to the unpopularity of Vols. 3, 4 and 5 in the West, this last one was limited to Japan. The final set of games were...
King & Balloon (1980)
Rolling Thunder (1986)
Wonder Momo (1987)
Dragon Saber (1990)
Encore is six of one, half a dozen of another. You've got one game I can't stand (King & Balloon, an interesting but boring spin on Galaxian), two games that are alright but nothing more- Dragon Saber (still as dull as Dragon Spirit) and Motos (which I can't get excited about) and then there's the remaining four, which make the collection worth hunting down. In approximate descending order of excellence, we have Rolling Thunder, one of the definitive side-scrolling action games of its era; Rompers, a charming and challenging puzzle game where you have to drop walls on enemies; SkyKid, a basic but interesting shoot-em-up where you have to drop a massive bomb on the enemy target for massive bonus points; and finally Wonder Momo, one for people who like their games to be monstrously difficult and don't care how ridiculous the game looks. One thing that may annoy certain players, though, is that Rolling Thunder has no continue feature. You'll have to learn how to beat it in one credit then, won't you?
Now, I said that Vol. 5 was the last game to have a real museum, so Encore has a streamlined interface- a row of arcade cabinets that you select through a menu rather than walking around. It takes away a bit of the charm, perhaps, but it works pretty well. Once you select a game, you can either start it up immediately or use Pac-Man to have a look around the cabinet and interact- select the cupboard at the base of the machine to look at the PCB, or click on the art surrounding the machine to get a closer look. Even better, the loading problems that have been with the series from the beginning are eased a little here- once you've played a game once, the machine will be 'switched on' on the menu, so you can insert a coin and play your chosen game with less loading. As this was never released overseas, it's a bit scarce and when it does show up, it can be a little pricey, slightly more so than the rest of the Museum games. On the plus side, if you can find it, it'll hopefully come with a little sticker set that you can use to Namco-ise your PS1 memory card!
Thank you for visiting the museum
From here on, the Namco Museum games became a little less unique. As well as Dreamcast and N64 instalments (which both contained Dig Dug, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Galaxian and Pole Position), there was a version for the 128-bit systems which included the games from the DC/N64 versions plus Pole Position II, Pac-Mania, Pac-Attack (a SNES puzzler) and Arrangement versions of Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Galaga, taken from the arcade game Namco Classics Collection Vol. 2. Namco Museum 50th Anniversary came next, and was a massive disappointment for me- atrocious loading times (worse than the PS1 games!), poor presentation and a pretty lame selection of games (Rally-X but no New Rally-X?) were the order of the day. There's been several more (including the fairly decent Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade for the 360 which includes seven of their XBLA titles) but none of them bothered with the 'virtual museum' approach again.
I suppose they're right not to go back to it- it's quite a lot of effort to go to, but it showed that Namco wanted to give these games a bit of respect. Even outside the virtual museum, you can see Namco wanted to get it right with these sets- you're given complete control over the options (you can even go into test mode and disable pausing!), there's very detailed stat-tracking for every game included (if you want to find out which ghost kills you the most in Pac-Man, then this is the version for you) and there's a treasure trove of miscellaneous info and art. The only collections that come close in my eyes are efforts like the first Midway Arcade Treasures and Capcom Classics Collection (both sets let you set most of the options yourself and contain a wealth of bonus features), and it's this extra effort with the options and interface that makes the Namco Museum series noteworthy... And, with regards to the PAL versions, fairly pricey- Gamestation constantly try to flog them for £25 a pop, even when they look like they've been dragged backwards through a hedge, but with the exception of Vol. 4 (which seems to be the hardest to find) they can be had for cheaper. If you're a real Namco nut, they're well worth tracking down, but those who aren't as obssessed with stat-tracking and artwork may be as well to check out Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade... But there won't be any Legend of Valkyrie for you!
And there you have it, folks, we've gone full-circle with this 'retro' thing- even the retro collections are retro now. Oh dear.
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