THIRTIETH TIME LUCKY
Namco 50th Anniversary (PS2/Xbox/GC/PC, currently US/Jap only)
It's time for another... Good Thing, Bad Thing!
GOOD THING: Namco have released yet another compilation of their early arcade hits, featuring Pac-Man and Dig-Dug and Galaxian and Pole Position etc. You have to admire their gall in still milking the same cow, 11 years after the first Namco Museum.
BAD THING: As usual, what they give with one hand, they take away with the other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this still isn't the definitive Namco retro collection, or anywhere remotely near it. Read on.
Rolling Thunder, still one of the most elegant-looking arcade games of ever.
GOOD THING: This new compilation offers 16 different games (two of them requiring extremely cursory "unlocking"), the highest number of any Namco retro pack so far. You get Pac-Man, Ms Pac-Man, Pac-Mania, Galaxian, Galaga, Galaga 88, Pole Position, Pole Position 2, Dig Dug, Mappy, Bosconian, Xevious, Dragon Spirit, Rally-X, Sky Kid and Rolling Thunder, some of which haven't appeared on collections since the original six-volume Playstation series.
BAD THING: Sadly, none of the excellent updated "Arrangement" versions (of Pac-Man, Galaga and Dig Dug) which appeared on the last collection for Xbox and PS2 show up this time round, and nor do the other three games which got "Arrangement" coin-op releases in 1995 (Xevious, Rally-X and Mappy). It's strictly old-school all the way, and gamers such as your reporter, with a hankering to finally get to play Xevious Arrangement and Rally-X Arrangement in the comfort of their own homes, are still plum out of luck. (Neither game yet running in a satisfactory manner in MAME.)
Pictured: the absence of attractive "bezel" artwork at the sides.
GOOD THING: Finally, at about the 12th time of asking, they've done a halfway-proper version of Pac-Man. Every Namco retro compilation since Museum Vol. 1 on the PS1 has featured the exact same abysmal port, with choppy movement, bad animation, and wrong colours and sound. At last that's been sorted with a nice, smooth version that sounds right.
BAD THING: The dots are still the wrong colour. Tch.
GOOD THING: As with all the games in Anniversary, and unlike in previous collections, Pac-Man's display can now be properly resized to occupy the full height of the screen, putting paid to some of the hideous borders encountered on earlier versions. (Oh, and your settings, along with your high scores, get saved automatically.)
BAD THING: The option from the PS1 Museums to fill the empty areas at the side of the screen on "vertical" games with nice artwork from the coin-op cabinets is gone, as is the (non-optional) "bezel" artwork present on the old version of Pac-Man.
There's going to be a horrible incident in a moment.
GOOD THING: You get Sky Kid, a splendid little 1985 coin-op which only appeared previously in the rare "Encore" pack for the PS1.
BAD THING: But not Sky Kid Deluxe, the follow-up from a year later that ran on the same hardware and would have been no effort at all to include. Similarly, you get Rally-X but not New Rally-X, the hastily-tweaked arcade "sequel" that came out almost immediately after the original failed to attract the success Namco were hoping for. New is a far better game, and appeared alongside normal Rally-X on Museum Volume 1, but is missing here.
Remember, viewers - it's "Galaxian", not "Galaxians" plural. Never "Galaxians".
GOOD THING: As with Pac-Man, Namco have finally taken the opportunity to improve the long-standing bad port of Galaxian. No longer do you have to play it all shunted off to the left of the screen with a fat grey score bar down the right - the display is properly centred with the score at the top where it should be. They've also fixed the background sound, which used to play much too fast.
BAD THING: ...at the expense of the famous and evocative opening fanfare, which now sounds tinny and cheap, as if they'd copied it across from the NES version. And as with Pac-Man, both the "bezel" graphic from the Super Game Boy version and the various optional pieces of side-area artwork from the PS1 version are gone, leaving great empty swathes of black screen.
The third wave of Galactic Dancin' is still one of the loveliest bits of any videogame.
GOOD THING: Along with Galaxian and Galaga you get (via unlocking) Galaga 88, the fourth game in the Galaxian line, which makes its any-format debut in a retro pack.
BAD THING: But no Gaplus, the excellent third Galaxian game. For some reason. The arbitrary exclusion of certain games has always been a baffling aspect of the Namco collections - why Xevious but not the tweaked, identical-hardware Super Xevious? Why Pac-Man, Ms Pac-Man and Pac-Mania, but no Jr Pac-Man?
(Many gamers also bemoan the absence of the likes of Pac-Land and Pac-Attack, which have appeared in previous collections, but those are at least very different games that just happen to have the Pac name attached to them. Jr Pac-Man belongs very much alongside the other three maze-chasing dot-munchers, as does Super Pac-Man, which has also featured on previous Namco releases. It's been suggested that this is because the likes of Jr Pac-Man and Gaplus were only actually released under the Bally/Midway banner in arcades, but that didn't stop Gaplus showing up on the PS1's Museum Volume 2, so it clearly can't be the reason.)
Must play very weirdly if you have a steering wheel (see below).
GOOD THING: Pole Position and Pole Position 2 both still use the clever control method pioneered in the PS1 series, whereby pressing a direction on the digital pad effectively moves the steering wheel a step further in that direction and holds it there until you press the pad the other way, enabling a flexible and practical simulation of analogue control (at a time when there were no analogue controllers on the console).
BAD THING: Bizarrely, however, the analogue thumbsticks operate in exactly the same way as the d-pad, rather than offering an actual analogue control option. The result of this is that it's all but impossible to use the analogue sticks, as they're so sensitive that the merest touch will flick you instantly into a full steering lock and almost invariably send you crashing straight into a billboard. (And incidentally, what lunatic decided to put lethal obstacles at the side of a racetrack anyway? This is supposed to be Formula 1, not Death Race 2000.)
A quiet moment in Bosconians.
GOOD THING: You access the games via a simple menu featuring lots of nice-looking, authentically-modelled and animated arcade cabinets mounted on a rotating pedestal, to the accompaniment of period tunes including "She Drives Me Crazy" and "Come On Eileen".
BAD THING: But there's a ridiculously long loading pause whenever you quit out of a game, and you don't get the wonderful presentation of the PS1 series, where you could just jump straight from game to game via a menu if you wanted, but also had the option of wandering through an actual 3D museum full of exhibits of historical materials like flyers, adverts, manuals and memorabilia. It's distressingly in keeping with World Of Stuart's recent observations on the games industry's growing tendency to give gamers less and less content for their money, and is particularly jarring in the field of retro collections, where such extras are usually de rigeur.
"Hey, look - another one of those stray 'S'es!"
GOOD THING: Slowly but surely, Namco appear to be improving the standard of their retro collections again. Within another five or six releases we'll hopefully be back up to the standard of the PS1 Museum series, and by the time of their 60th Anniversary compilation, we might just have a definitive set, containing all that's good and done properly from the titles they've released up until now, including all the games, artwork, peripheral material and options in one lovely gigantic 3D virtual arcade.
BAD THING: By then, we'll have spent about £900 on about 30 old games in total, which still won't be quite as good as the MAME versions.
See you again next year, Namco.