compilations

Let me begin this with a, I don’t know, a confession: I originally wanted to do a post on Space Invaders, and why I love Space Invaders and why that little game is incredibly important to me. But something happened yesterday that took my attention, and I felt like it was important enough to talk about instead.

Yesterday, I spent $4 on this bundle of games. I mostly got it just so I would have The King of Fighters XIV in my collection, if I ever got the hankering to play it and not have to drop sixty big ones on it. One of the other games in the bundle was the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection. I was a bit curious about it, if only because I had been informed that Ikari Warriors and Guerrilla War had a new control set up to deal with the fact that, because of their unique “twist-joystick” controls, were pretty much impossible to emulate without being a real pain. I’ll spare you a big review and say that, at least on PC, the controls are fucking shit. Characters spin at the lightest touch, sometimes not being able to face certain directions, or straight up stop moving for no reason. Guerrilla War is already hard enough without having to fight the controls, too. Let me Hail The Heros Of The Glorious Revolution, dammit!

But that wasn’t the worst thing about it. Though this complaint is more directed at game compilations in general. Even if the games themselves are ported well, the most you get in terms of extras are usually some concept art and a sound test. Fucking nothing else. For things that are supposed be celebrations of classic games, there’s not much of a party going on. Doesn’t matter if it’s SNK, or all those terrible Sega compilations that have come out over the years (though shout out to M2; their Switch ports are amazing), they fail to fill the hole left by the greatest retro game compilation ever made. Something that nobody, even the company that actually made it, has managed to surpass or even match in twenty years.

I’m talking about the Namco Museum Collection on the Playstation.

What made these five compilations so sick was that you didn’t just get all these classic arcade games on one disc. No, you also got these entire 3D virtual “exhibits” that showed off various aspects of the games in question. Yeah, you got your artwork and advertisements, but you also got scans of rare merchandise that’s no longer available, pictures of the PCB boards, breakdowns of scoring systems or game mechanics. Later entries had Japan-only promo videos. All of these things were shown off in a very cutesy, low-polygon style, rather than a cold menu that felt tacked on.

Now, just as something of a disclaimer: I don’t want to throw around the “L” word. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a “Lazy Developer.” Limited budgets, time constraints, publisher meddling, Konami losing the fucking finished source code for Silent Hill, can all lead to a disappointing or even outright terrible end result. Namco clearly had the time, money, and vision to put these five discs together, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

I won’t do a big breakdown of each of these, as they mostly follow the same format: a handful of old arcade games, each reprogrammed for the Playstation (so these aren’t emulated ports, for better or for worse), and each with their own cute exhibit and personalized “game room” housing the arcade cabinet, all of which are done in that amazing PSX-quality that still holds up today.

Volume 4, though, is my favorite. This is when Namco decided to get weird with it. They had already put various versions of Pac-Man, Galaga, Pole Position, Xevious, and all these other games out there. So with volume 4, you get off-beat and even outright bizarre shit. Ordyne, a relatively obscure shooter that was Namco’s attempt at combining Fantasy Zone with Gradius. Pac-Land, not a bad or even all that strange a game; it served as a direct influence for Super Mario Brothers, but when you think “Pac-Man,” you don’t think “Pac-Man taking a leisurely stroll down the street, putting a fairy in his hat, then running home, now with the power to levitate.” Assault, a top-down shooter where you control both the left and right treads of your tank with the d-pad and face buttons, respectively (continuing with my trend of comparing these games to other games, Assault is like a mechanical predecessor to Katamari Damacy). Assault Plus, which is an updated Assault that’s actually hidden in this compilation. The Return of Ishtar is an action-RPG where you control two characters at once, which is less awkward than Assault, somehow.

Then there is the crown jewel of Namco Museum Volume 4: Genpei Toumaden.

Genpei Toumaden, if I were to describe the game to you, would sound pretty normal. You are a samurai, brought back from the dead, to save Japan from various creatures in Japanese folklore, as well as Japanese historical figures. You move left-to-right, you run, jump, and swing your sword at things. Playing it, though? Genpei Toumaden is a fucking dissociative nightmare in video game form. The music is weird. The graphics are creepy (and surprisingly detailed for the 80s). Level design is haphazard at best, with alternate paths with no real on-screen indication of what you did or where you’re going. Some levels even have Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, the game’s antagonist, appear in the background, larger than the mountains in the level, and try to smash you with a paper fan. I don’t want to sound like one of those “they must have been on drugs when they made this!” assholes, because fuck them, but this is still a strange game, even in English.

Keep in mind, despite me maybe making this game sound appealing, it plays like fucking shit, and it’s hard as balls on top of that. I have never been able to finish it in all the years I’ve tried. At the end of the day, it’s an 80’s arcade game, and it wants your money. So it’s not an overlooked gem, but I’m still endlessly fascinated by the game and its existence.

Plus, the exhibit is really cool, with a couple of hidden things for you to find by looking around carefully.

But I do kind of want to mention the other exhibits. Mostly Ordyne and Pac-Land.

Ordyne’s is cute. It’s made to resemble a fast-food restaurant in the style of Ordyne’s in-game shop. And if you look carefully, you may notice on the menu that smiles are always free!

Pac-Land? It’s just Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man chilling out on a beach with the Pac-Land fairy, a cocktail arcade cabinet, and a boombox playing a really peaceful remix of the Pac-Land theme.

It is the most chill thing. It is, as the kid’s say, aesthetic as fuck. Seeing this one scene in an old issue of Tips & Tricks way back when made me want this game so fucking bad. Kind of a weird tic I have, but I find hub worlds to be the most peaceful, calming in video games. This probably dates all the way back to playing Chrono Trigger and making it to the End of Time. The Playstation really added to that, as my concept of a calming space in a game got really generous, to the point of including the Library from Echo Night, or this one very particular part of the map in Bushido Blade, in addition to normal shit like the town in Mega Man Legends or Brave Fencer Musashi. I was a very weird kid. Either way, Namco Museum, especially the later entries, are like crack for my weird brain. I can walk around these miniature dioramas of a video game, looking at things, even interacting with them in some cases. The games themselves are almost secondary, even though most of them are absolute classics worthy of the price on their own.

It’s just too fucking bad that Namco Museum Encore lacked pretty all of this cool stuff, which is even worse when you consider that that compilation included goddamn Rolling Thunder. Or that subsequent Namco Museums on other consoles, even the Switch, don’t have the virtual museum. The Switch one includes, again, Rolling Fucking Thunder The Best Arcade Game Namco Has Ever Made, and Splatterhouse. Splatterhouse! I’m not even a big fan of that game, but a digital exhibit for it would be amazing! You could even have it be less of a museum piece and more of a haunted house! But no. Unfortunately, we are no longer allowed to have nice things.

Honorable mention for the second best classics compilation goes to Sonic Jam on the Sega Saturn. It’s second best because the ports/emulation/whatever fucking suck, and the games sound and run worse than the original Genesis games. But at least it has those really cool animated movies, commercials, the Sonic timeline, and Sonic World.

You could run around, picking up rings, launching off of springs, hitching a ride on Tails, doing small time trials (pick up X number of rings in this amount of time, etc), and finding codes and secrets for the actual Sonic games on the collection. It’s really cool, but I wish it wasn’t this excellent accoutrement for what is ultimately a big let down of a compilation.

In any case, Namco Museum. It is bar none the best compilation of games you could possibly play, so long as you stick to the initial five volumes.

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