Arcade Mania Special – Namco

Icon - Pac-ManThe impact Pac-Man had on videogames in the early ’80s cannot be understated. It penetrated pop culture like no game had before, generating all manner of merchandise, a breakfast cereal, a cartoon series, and even a hit radio song. Needless to say, it was hard to walk into an arcade (or grocery store, or restaurant, or movie theater, or gas station, etc.) and not find a Pac-Man machine of some sort.

But actually, it wasn’t just Pac-Man. Namco games in general were extremely common anywhere you might have found videogames. Arcades were rife with the sounds of Galaga, Dig Dug and Pole Position, and every Atari home console released in the ’80s, from the 2600 to the 7800, carried ports of several Namco classics as part of its featured lineup. Namco games didn’t just set standards, they were standards.

Screenshot - Pac-Man
Pac-Man (image courtesy of vgmuseum.com)

Of course, being so widespread is part of why they were so instantly recognizable, but there was something special about Namco. It’s hard to explain, but for me, Namco games defined the feeling of classic arcade games. Something about the graphics, the sounds, and the style just clicked and stuck with me. They’re like the quintessential classic arcade games.

I would play anything Pac-Man. My favorite was the American-developed follow-up Ms. Pac-Man, but I even like the generally unpopular Pac-Mania. The aforementioned Dig Dug and Pole Position were also go-to games for me, as well as the Galaga series, including the lesser-known Gaplus and Galaga ’88.

Screenshot - Dig Dug
Dig Dug (image courtesy of vgmuseum.com)

Perhaps one of the reasons Namco’s classic arcade legacy has endured over the years was due to its preservation in the the form of Namco Museum. First appearing on the original PlayStation in the later ’90s, Namco Museum was a series of compilations featuring their classic arcade catalog. The games were often actual ports to whatever hardware they were running on, but sometime they were simple emulations of the original arcade games. Sometimes they were also accompanied by updated versions of some of the games. Various incarnations of Namco Museum have appeared on just about every game console of the last couple of decades, although in more recent years, they’ve taken the form of digital downloads.

One of the best things about Namco Museum was that it didn’t just focus on the hits, but they would often include some obscure or even Japan-only titles for good measure. I, myself, enjoyed discovering games like Mappy, Bosconian and Xevious, which I don’t recall ever seeing in arcades back in the day. (Although it’s very likely they were there and I just don’t remember.)

Screenshot - Pole Position
Pole Position (image courtesy of vgmuseum.com)

I wish other companies took as much pride in their classic arcade catalog as Namco. I’m a sucker for classic arcade compilations.

Nonetheless, Namco was pretty much the king of the arcade back in the day, and I’ve got fond memories. But as the success of Namco Museum proves, the games still hold up today. In fact, I could go for some dot-munching action right now. I’ve got the Fever, and the only prescription is more Pac-Man.

Arcade Mania Special – Atari/Atari Games

Atari Games iconGonna take a little break (as if it hasn’t been long enough) from the usual Arcade Mania articles that focus on individual games to talk about some of my favorite arcade game developers. There’s no better place to start than with one of the originals: Atari. Or more specifically, Atari Games, but you can’t really mention one without the other.

Atari, of course, is one of the grandfathers of the videogame industry, and they made their mark with a little game called Pong. That’s a bit before my time, however. I’ve never played the original arcade version of Pong, and a lot of early Atari games I only have vague recollections of. However, I did eventually become a fan of Asteroids, Centipede, Millipede, Tempest and Crystal Castles.

It was around the mid-’80s when Atari was split into two companies: Atari Corp, the home division, and Atari Games, the arcade division. It was Atari Games that consisted of most of the original Atari staff, and thus was a truer successor to the company’s legacy.

Toobin' screenshot
Toobin’ (image courtesy of vgmuseum.com)

By the late ’80s, the Japanese invasion had begun, both in the home market and the arcades. Atari Games was one of the few American videogame companies that still stood out to me during that time, not just because they had a recognizable name, but because they still made really fun, clever games that held up next to their Japanese counterparts. In fact, their games even had a distinctly American feel that made them stand out even more.

Some of my favorites include Paperboy, Toobin’, RoadBlasters and Marble Madness. All of these games, in the classic Atari tradition, take a very simple, even inane, concept, and turn it into a surprisingly fun and addictive game. They also did it with charm and humor that made them memorable to me for years to come. And with the exception of RoadBlasters, the games I mentioned are all generally non-violent and thrived in a time when fighting games and shooting games were becoming increasingly graphic.

Marble Madness screenshot
Marble Madness (image courtesy of vgmuseum.com)

One silly thing I always remembered about Atari Games was the “bell” sound that some of their games made whenever you dropped in a quarter. It’s just one of those charming little details that contributed to the company’s identity.

As the ’90s wore on, I lost interest in a lot of their games for some reason. I’m not exactly sure why, but I never really spent much time with the likes of San Francisco Rush or Gauntlet Legends. Atari Games was eventually bought out by Midway, absorbed into the company, and ultimately disbanded. Their assets are now owned by Warner Bros Entertainment. But for me, Atari Games was a big part of the classic arcade landscape, and certainly a part of my arcade-hopping childhood.

Arcade Mania – Q*bert (1982)

Icon - Q*bertQ*bert was one of my earliest go-to games in the arcade, along with Dig Dug, Pac-man, Ms. Pac-man, and, well, anything Pac-man. It’s a simple enough concept: you play as a round aardvark-like thing named Q*bert, and you jump around on a pyramid of cubes. Landing on a cube changes its color, and ultimately you need to make all of the cubes the same color. All the while you need to avoid an onslaught of several types of enemies, from bouncing balls to the pesky snake Coily. There are flying discs on the sides of the pyramid that Q*bert can use to escape back to the top and sometimes lure Coily off the edge to boot.

Speaking of Pac-man, I used to think of Q*bert as a similar type of game. Although it’s not a maze game like Pac-man, the goal is still to “cover” the play field in every level. In Pac-man, you do this by eating all the dots, and in Q*bert you have to jump on all the squares. What I didn’t realize when I was a younger, less skilled player was how much more complicated the game got in later levels, requiring the player to jump on each cube multiple times, and sometimes the cube’s color would even change back!

Looking back on it, it’s easy to see why Q*bert was such a big hit at the time. It had colorful graphics, memorable characters, catchy music, and most of all, really fun gameplay. It even had humor, as Q*bert would spout “foul language” every time he lost a life, and if you fell off the side of the pyramid, the arcade cabinet made an actual physical “thonk” noise to simulate Q*bert hitting the floor.

Screenshot - Q*bert
Image source: vgmuseum.com

Q*bert was released by Gottlieb, who was more known for their pinball machines, and it was their only major hit videogame. It was followed up with a number of sequels, beginning with the obscure arcade game Q*bert Qubes. Of course, he also got his own pinball game, Q*bert’s Quest, which is one of the more oddball pinball machines you can find. Still, nothing quite matched the popularity of the original game.

Oddly enough, the original arcade version isn’t quit as readily available as most other classic arcade games. Being that it wasn’t created by one of the “major” arcade developers, like Namco or Midway, it was never included in a compilation pack. But it has been ported to several platforms over the years, with varying degrees of quality.

Still, Q*bert is just as much fun now as it ever was, and I think deserves a little more recognition than it generally gets. If you have the means to play the original arcade version, or at least one of the better ports, it’s definitely worth revisiting.

More Info
Hardcore Gaming 101: Q*bert

Arcade Mania – Arkanoid (1986)

Icon - ArkanoidMy very first home game console was the Atari 5200, and one of the games I had for it was Super Breakout. It’s a simple ball-and-paddle game, although slightly upgraded from the original Breakout. Still, I always found it a little too simple, so it didn’t really hold my attention for long.

However, I fell in love with Arkanoid when I played it in the arcade. Taito’s rendition of the ball-and-paddle concept took it too a whole new level, adding all kinds of extra gameplay elements, as well as a strangely epic-feeling sci-fi story.

It begins with the destruction of a mother ship called Arkanoid, and a smaller capsule ship called the Vaus manages to get away. During its escape, it gets trapped in a bizarre space warp filled with colorful blocks by an evil moai called Doh.

All right, it’s not exactly Star Wars, but it sets the stage.

Rather than simply bouncing a ball around, Arkanoid adds several power-ups you can collect, such as a laser, multiplying the ball, being able to “catch” the ball, expanding the Vaus, and so on. Each level in the game features a different formation of blocks, and some blocks take several hits to destroy or are even indestructible. There are also some enemies that float around the play field, and while they don’t cause any harm if they touch the Vaus, they can cause the ball to bounce in unexpected directions. All of these elements add some much needed depth to the gameplay, but it still remains simple enough to be addictive.

Arkanoid was such a leap forward from Breakout that it pretty much created its own sub-genre. Any time a Breakout-style game comes out that has power-ups and other gimmicks, it’s usually referred to as an “Arkanoid clone” rather than a Breakout clone.

Screenshot - Arkanoid

If you manage to beat Doh and escape the space warp, the Vaus is sent back in time to be reunited with the Arkanoid. But as we’re informed by an ending message, “the real voyage of ‘Arkanoid’ in the galaxy has only started……” And thus, there have been several sequels over the years, such as Revenge of Doh, Arkanoid: Doh it Again, Arkanoid Returns and Arkanoid Plus!, among others, although they all pretty much stick to the same formula. The original game was also ported to numerous home platforms, but most people might remember the NES version which came with its own “knob” controller (a valuable collector’s item these days).

In a way, Arkanoid was to Breakout what Galaga was to Space Invaders: a logical enhancement to a solid core concept. And like Galaga, it still holds up great today. It’s definitely worth getting stuck in a space warp filled with colorful blocks in any incarnation you can find it in.

Screenshot - Galaga

Arcade Mania – Galaga (1981)

Galaga iconGalaga is one of those games that I saw in just about every arcade and pizza parlor in the ’80s. It’s iconic music and sound effects were an intrinsic part of the atmosphere. The game seemed about as common as Ms. Pac-Man. It even showed up in the movie WarGames. It was everywhere.

And for good reason. It’s a great game!

It’s also a simple game. Move a ship back and forth and shoot aliens, a la Space Invaders. While its inspirations are noted quite often, it has enough unique aspects to stand on its own. The aliens swooping in and attacking in formation, the capture mechanic, double ships, bonus rounds. But what doesn’t get mentioned as much is how well it all gels together. The game mechanics, as well as the graphics and audio, create something that’s a little more than the sum of its parts. Galaga is a very satisfying game to play.

The game was actually the follow-up to another game called Galaxaian, and it evolved the gameplay quite a bit. It later got a sequel titled Gaplus (aka Galaga 3) that also moved the gameplay logically forward, but Galaga really hits a sweet spot. It’s no wonder that the fourth game in the series, Galaga ’88, moved things back just a tad and followed a new evolutionary line.

Screenshot - Galaga

Galaga is available on numerous platforms, both contemporary and retro. It’s been included on several editions of the Namco Museum compilation series, and is available as a standalone game on PlayStation Store, Nintendo Virtual Console, and Xbox Live Arcade.

Even today, I can still find Galaga in the arcade, usually in one of those combination cabinets with Ms Pac-Man. If you haven’t played it recently, I say it’s time to give it another go. It stands the test of time.