Review: Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary (GCN)

This is one exhibition that will disappoint many

Namco is a company with one of the most impressive back catalogues in video games and is now one of the biggest names in home entertainment following a successful merger with toy and anime company Bandai five years ago. Released at the end of the Gamecube's life to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Namco (a company whose humble origins in the mid-1950s saw it making department store coin-op kiddie rides), Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary is a pretty big disappointment considering the history of the Namco Museum series as well as the company that it's supposed to celebrate.

When it was originally released on the Sony Playstation, the Namco Museum series joined a few other collections of emulated or ported classic arcade games thanks to the Playstation having enough horsepower to accurately present these titles coupled with the generation of gamers that grew up with them being old and wistful enough to spend money on video game nostalgia. For many outside of Japan, it was the first time the Namco brand was associated with these games. The series of five titles (a sixth was only released in Japan) included games that either had extremely limited release outside of Japan or were originally distributed by companies like Midway or Atari Games with the Namco name being completely absent. It was a good move for a company asserting a more global presence, and Namco is now recognisable worldwide as one of the biggest names in console and arcade gaming.

The original Namco Museum was often criticised for being fairly sparse, with each volume only having 5 or 6 titles; not all of which were considered "must have" games. It made up for that with a detailed presentation featuring a 3D virtual museum in which players could guide corporate mascot Pac-Man through exhibits on the history of the company's games. Not only could you find representations of the original upright and cocktail cabinets, but also history, trivia and play tips for each of the included games. There was a wealth of media assets with promotional flyers, trade magazine ads, concept artwork, cabinet rule cards and even images of the original circuit boards for the games. For those interested in the history of video games, it rivalled the video interviews on the collections from Midway Home Entertainment of the time. In addition, play stats were recorded (and graded), including general information like total time played and high scores, as well as game-specific stats, like the number of times certain enemies were shot or ghosts eaten — practically anything you could think of was recorded to the delight of gaming anoraks everywhere.

It is in large part because the bar was set so high with the first Namco Museum that the 50th Anniversary collection presents such a disappointment. After creating a save file, you're presented with a collection of upright cabinets on a virtual lazy susan that can be rotated left or right. Each has a legible marquee and title screenshot in the virtual cabinet screen...and that's it. There's no extras of any kind, aside from 80s pop music playing in the background. Individual games have customisable settings like number of starting lives or score required to earn an extra life, but that's all — you cannot even view the controls for the games outside the in-game pause menu, much less customise them, and there is no support for 3rd-party peripherals in the Pole Position racing games.

Of course, a collection like this should ultimately be about the games, and despite small issues like slightly slower music and an almost imperceptible fire button response delay in Galaga (no doubt due to a bad PAL conversion), the games have been well-rendered by classic port/emulation veterans Digital Eclipse. The lack of widescreen support unfortunately means that dots in Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man and sprites in Galaga have a slightly smeared look due to differing pixel sizes between modern flat panels and older raster CRT displays. Also annoying is those same games, and others which originally used vertical monitors, appearing window-boxed after reformatting your widescreen set for displaying 4:3 content.

There is a good selection of titles on offer, with 14 of Namco's most famous arcade games included: Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Rally-X, Pole Position, Pole Position II, Xevious, Dragon Spirit, Bosconian, Rolling Thunder, Mappy and Sky Kid are all on offer and anyone who likes classic games will find something to enjoy. Of course this is a collection to celebrate five decades of Namco games, so why is it that the latest releases date from 1987? Surely at a minimum you would expect to see the complete gamut from the original Museum series, but that's not the case and whilst two of these games featured in the Japan-only Namco Museum R on the Playstation, many titles are missing that were released in that original series, not to mention many other games from the late 80s through the 90s that could have been included.

The end result feels like it was either rushed or lacked any budget to do the title justice. Coming from a video game company supposedly celebrating 50 years of arcade entertainment, it feels like the equivalent of a spouse picking up a cheap box of chocolates on the way home from work after completely forgetting their wedding anniversary.

Conclusion

If Namco had released more bare bones compilations of its classic IP in the past, the 50th Anniversary edition of Namco Museum could probably get a pass. Sadly, it fails to live up to its predecessors in the quality of the presentation or the breadth of content. As a consequence, it can only be recommended to Gamecube owners for whom better quality re-packagings are inaccessible; Wii owners are advised to pass on this one and get the superior Namco Museum Remix instead.