Namco Museum Encore

Format: PlayStation (import)
Published by: Namco
Based on: Pure cupidity

Genre: anthology
Media: CD-ROM
Date: 1996

Casting both pearls and manure before swine in a single, sweeping motion

It probably seems demeaning for me to use as a headline a metaphor which compares gamers to swine. Especially when the game under review was made available only in Japan - the potential for accusations of racism and bigotry are unparalleled, although considering how America's uglier half has been acting lately it would probably slip between the cracks of shamefully pervasive anti-Arab sentiments. Nevertheless, allow me to extoll the finer virtues of swine: they're highly intelligent, fastidiously hygenic, make excellent pets, and are vital for cooking tonkatsu. So really, being compared to a pig is quite flattering and any gamer should be proud to be held aloft alongside such a noble beast.

Besides, the meat of the metaphor is the bit about "casting pearls and manure." Because Namco Museum Encore, like so many other anthologies of games (especially those in an extended series), suffers from trying to preserve for posterity a couple of excellent titles and an unfortunate plethora of, well, crap. Mixed together, the two are less peanut-butter-and-chocolate and more mustard-and-cheesecake.

Encore is the sixth volume of the Namco Museum series - volumes 1 through 5 came to America and sold quite well (particularly the volumes with Galaga and Ms. Pac Man on them), but shrewd gamers noted that only about one in five of the games presented on the discs was actually worth remembering. And when it came time for Namco to squeeze a little more cash out of the series, they really had to dig through the company compost pile to find enough content to justify it. There are just enough gems here to justify a completist's purchase, but a good hard look should reveal plenty of reasons why the title never came to America, and good job of it.

Rolling Thunder

The crown jewel of this collection - in fact, the crown jewel of Namco's dark era between the release of Ms. Pac Man and Ridge Racer 4 - is indubitably Rolling Thunder, a game so sexy it came to arcades wrapped in brown paper. Why Rolling Thunder wasn't included in one of the earlier Museum volumes is a mystery - presumably it was held back specifically in the event that Namco wanted to mine an extra release out of a series that was already stretched entirely too thin. It certainly suckered me into a purchase.

Rolling Thunder is a member of the Shinobi school of gaming: a lanky avatar jumps and shoots at all manner of relentless yet rather idiotic enemies in an effort to reach the end of a stage, where awaits... another stage. But Rolling Thunder had something lacking in Sega's seminal ninja warrior un-simulator: pure, smouldering style. Albatross, the hero of the game, manages to embody a very classic early '80s anime look-and-feel (a la Lupin III) that perfectly fits the spy-guy action. Combined with the incredibly cool music - think Mission Impossible's incidental tunes performed by a complete FM-sound chip ensemble - Rolling Thunder simply screams, "I am cool." It's the look and feel that Vic Tokai's Golgo-13 games aspired to but missed by a distance that would make the real Duke Togo blush with shame through his steely, impervious demeanor.

The oddest quirk in the game is that the enemies are bizarre to an impressive extreme. An army of Ku Klux Klansmen bedecked in neon garb patrol a series of increasingly cavernous bases, obeying the whim of the evil Geldra, a pudgy green goblin man who has kidnapped Albatross' female counterpart, Leila. There's no real reason for Leila's abduction besides the fact that she's female and at the time being kidnapped was what women in video games did. Further into the adventure, the enemies become even more unusual, shifting from gaudy fascists to angry animals and supernatural fiends. There could be even more unexpected monstrosities in the later levels, but frankly once you get to the fire pits the game - which allows no continues - becomes so close to impossible as to make no difference.

In fact, difficulty is the only real negative spot in Rolling Thunder. Albatross is a bit stiff in his movements, and a significant degree of precognizance is required to evade the surprisingly canny enemies. Sometimes the level layouts are your friends, and sometimes they betray you cruelly. There's definitely no shame in using an infinite lives GameShark code if you're serious about seeing the entire game.

Reportedly, Rolling Thunder was based on an anime; I've never been able to confirm this, but it would explain its anime-esque stylings. But who cares about the source material? The resulting game is good enough to stand alone atop a small hillock and give the boot to all potential comers. The sign of a true classic.

Dragon Saber

The game Dragon Spirit is a forgotten, classic shoot-em-up. And by "classic" I mean in the sense that "some guy who was trying to sell me a used copy for an inflated price called it classic." So you know it's gotta be good.

And it turns out the sequel, Dragon Saber, is even better. Featuring some nice (for the time) graphics and frenetic (for the time) gameplay, Dragon Saber stands astride an almost perfect middle ground between the old-fashioned precision of Xevious and the frenetic stupidity of a modern shooter like Dodonpachi. Enemies are everywhere - thick as thieves both in the air and on the ground - but since they don't fill the air with cheap, unavoidable streams of bullets there's no need to use contemporary "cheats" like shields or bullet absorption gimmicks. Simply shooting and bombing and dodging like mad will suffice, more or less... but in keeping with classic arcade tradition (specifically, vendors screaming "GIVE ME ALL YOUR QUARTERS NOW" by stacking their dip switches against you), this shooter starts tough and doesn't waste much time ramping up the difficulty.

True traditionalists will balk at Dragon Saber, because it doesn't allow you to control a wee little space ship bristling with plasma-powered death. Instead, the controllable "craft" is in fact a man who stepped out of Record of Lodoss War during the opening cinema and transformed into a giant dragon, which just happens to bristle with plasma-powered death from its mouth. Or rather "mouths," as powering up here involves causing your dragon to sprout extra heads with which to annihilate the foe... doubtlessly at the cost of considerable personal discomfort. But some gamers figure that no matter how deadly your on-screen avatar, you might as well give it all up if it doesn't look like a space ship, because in stepping outside the craft you've automatically descended to the wacky slapstick level of Parodius.

But they're a strange minority; most gamers just want to blow stuff up real good. And good for them, because that's precisely what Dragon Saber allows for. Assuming, obviously, that you can survive long enough to actually drop bombs and stuff on the enemy and - more importantly - collect enough power-ups to turn your lonely dragon into a source of pure screen-filling chaos. And of course manage not to bite the dust after getting your upgrades; otherwise, in fine shmup tradition, you may as well call it a day right then and start over from level 1. It's an old and rather creaky approach to game design, but Dragon Saber is a fine specimen of the type - and since the whole point of anthologies is to preserve fine specimens for future generations to be able to say "Where's the tri-linear mip-mapping? There's no anti-aliasing on these raster sprites, this games suuuucks," the game's inclusion on Namco Encore is quite welcome.

Rompers

I wasn't entirely certain what to expect from the game Rompers when I booted it up. Would it be a bad platform adventure? A horrible puzzle game? An archaic, dusty creaker of a shoot-em-up? Shockingly, the answer is "none of the above." Instead, Nei from Phantasy Star has decided to dress up as Battletoads' Black Queen, kidnapped a little girl and forced a six year old boy to escape from a terrible maze full of giant armadillos and spiders the size of elephants. His only defense? To crush the life out of the monsters by pushing entire walls onto them. It's just lucky for the lad that he has the strength of ten men, or at least a small bulldozer.

There are some terribly disturbing aspects to this game. Aside from the obviously distressing idea that someone would force a toddler into a life-or-death situation, of course. Perhaps most unpleasant of all is the way in which the game teaches children to crush animals to get ahead in life. I mean, look at how Goldeneye taught schoolkids to become mass murderers - Rompers is just as irresponsible, and if Liebermann ever heard about it he'd probably call for a military strike against Japan for once again corrupting America's innocent, angelic children. And Romper-boy isn't even remorseful about his heinous deeds; he happily shouts onomatopoeic exclamations such as "Dodon!" with unbridled delight whenever he squishes a living, feeling beast. It's all so shameful.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the horrible violence on display, Rompers is strangely addictive. Although wreaking havoc with infants is hardly an unusual phenomenon in video games, it's rare that the child in question is so cheerful about it without resorting to scatological humor. Or that he goes about it while wearing such a jaunty straw hat. There's not a lot of depth to Rompers, alas; but as far as Pac Man knock-offs go it's one of the most unique you'll ever play. Yeah, Super Pac Man let you fly over mazes, but it would have been way cooler if you could have shoved walls of the maze onto the monsters. If Pac Man had been wearing snazzy overall shorts, all the better. But no luck, so if you want a maze chase with style, your only choice is Rompers. Dodon!

King & Balloon

Namco's efforts to steal the Space Invaders meme from Taito culminated in the game Galaga, a great and truly timeless arcade classic. But perfecting the formula involved a tortuous process, and the rockiest cobblestone on the road to arcade perfection was undoubtedly King & Balloon.

The premise? A phalanx consisting of dozens of enemy hot air balloons has decided to invade your castle by floating overhead in formation and occasionally dropping down to abduct your king, who runs like a ninny behind the kingdom's castle walls. The only line of defense is a pair of archers who protect the parapets by running back and forth with an enormous - and unpleasantly phallic - siege crossbow which can burst the enemy vessels. The game ends not when the crossbow is destroyed, nor when the king is captured, but rather when the king is carried offscreen by an enemy balloon. It's a bit reminiscent of Yoshi's Island and the importance of keeping track of baby Mario, except that instead of listening a whiny infant you're treated to some of the absolute best voice samples ever. Thrill as the king shouts "Sankyuu!" upon being rescued! Shiver at his chilling cries of "Helpu!" as foes spirit him away! Weep with sorrow as the king happily cheers, "Bai bai!" when the game is over. Which makes one wonder exactly what role your bowmen are serving. Are you protecting the king from a foreign invader, or have you taken the king hostage yourself and are battling determinedly to keep him under lock and key? He doesn't seem terribly disappointed to be claimed by the enemy, which makes me wonder.

I find it hard to be loyal about protecting such a twit of a monarch in any case; he's stupid enough to run directly into the arms of attackers and, based on his voice and demeanor, appears to have slightly less testosterone in his body than the average castrato choirboy. Add to that some minimal graphics (to put it kindly; "bland and colorless" would perhaps be more accurate) and the same exciting sense of firepower seen in Space Invaders (i.e., not bloody much) and you have a title worthy of being forgotten. A course of action which I highly recommend.

Sky Kid

Sky Kid is one of those unfortunate games that has aged more poorly than Marlon Brando. It was perfectly enjoyable back when it was released - but as that was approximately 1982, that's not saying much. I mean, Pong was awesome back in its day, but doesn't qualify as much more than a minigame in this era. And these days, Sky Kid barely counts as that.

Sky Kid's primary problem is the fact that the young, eponymous pilot moves rather like an elephant doped up on marijuana - he's slow, unresponsive, and spends a lot of time falling down. The controls seem a little funky, and they're not immediately intuitive. Everyone who has ever played the game has helplessly smashed into the trees at the end of the opening runway in their first time up. It's nice that being hit by an enemy doesn't immediately equal death, but the method for pulling out of a nosedive - hitting the "loop" button until you do a backflip and return to a stable flight path - seems like a good idea until you get to the second level where the air becomes suddenly thick with foes and your escape maneuvers invariably result in smashing into another enemy pilot, heading right back into a tailspin. Repeat until dead.

I also have to question the logic of the game's setup - your pilot leaves the ground at the beginning of each stage and, towards the end of a level, collects a bomb from where's it sitting (right on the ground, in the open) in order to drop it upon a nearby fortress or base. Any nation that leaves destructive bombs laying around a few hundred yards inside its own defensive perimeter for some random invader to pick up and use probably deserves what's coming to it. Even more strangely, your plane always lands a short distance from the enemy base, where three cheerleaders wait to celebrate your victory. You'd expect a little more caution in the midst of an air war, but there you have it - the defending army doesn't seem to mind having invaders set up camp in their backyard.

Sky Kid isn't completely without merit - there's something strangely addictive about the limited and frustrating gameplay. It's not often that you have an opportunity to drop an enemy's own bombs on their bases, let alone turn a trio of cheerleaders into strange, pink, spongecake-like monsters by shooting them with an aircraft gun. Sky Kid is also tremendously difficult and offers your aircraft no power-ups, making for a much more down-to-earth "single pilot takes on an entire air force" experience than something like Giga Wing or Strikers 1945 II - specifically, you die frequently, usually without doing a lot of collateral damage. It's not much fun, but Sky Kid offers the most realistic and addictive simulation of a young child taking on an entire nation's army ever conceived. And that probably counts for something.

Motos

Motos embodies the concept of "yaoi" in video games. And by this I don't mean the common perception of yaoi which involves young males with surplus estrogen commiting brazen acts with one another that in a previous millennium would have led, ultimately, to Lot's wife being turned to a pillar of salt. Rather, this game possesses no climax, no conclusion, no content. The player controls a tiny little device on a metallic grid, attempting to bump other tiny metal balls over the edge of the grid into the chasm below. Due props must be given for the fact that this game foretold Soul Calibur's basic gameplay; but without beautiful graphics and an insane dominatrix to look at it's about 1/4 as fun as the company's best fighting game and should be scored as such.

And finally, there's...

Wonder Momo

Sometimes, it's possible to scrape the bottom of the barrel so hard that you poke through to the other side. And what would an intrepid soul see in the world beyond the dregs, should he muster the courage to look? Quite possibly, it would be Wonder Momo, a game which truly represents Namco's darkest moment. Yes, even darker than Tekken Tag Tournament.

It's not completely surprising that Namco was forced to pander to consumers' basest instincts in a fashion most shameless in the late '80s, when this game came to light. The company had just tried - and failed - to resist Nintendo's monopolistic vice grip over the home gaming market via the Famicom/NES. The aftermath made for tough times and they were forced to eat humble pie while making smoochy noises in the direction of Hiroshi Yamauchi's dessicated derriere as a result of their failed attempt at independence. So perhaps the company can be forgiven for this crime against human dignity... but the game itself shall never, ever be forgiven.

The premise of this embarrassment, apparently, is that you control Momo, a young girl who singlehandedly must fend off countless waves of creepy, skinny men in skintight grey suits as well as terrible monsters and robots. All Momo can do is jump, kick awkwardly, and reveal her panties to the world. Every time Momo takes to the air, her skirt rises like a cardboard tube to flash the world, and all of her actions reveal, at the very least, every inch of her disturbingly young legs. There's even a move that allows Momo to face the player and jump to give an unhindered glimpse of her underwear. This move does not appear to hurt enemies in any way, nor does it seem to accomplish anything useful whatsoever in terms of gameplay. It's simply pedophiliac fanservice on demand.

But wait! In addition to the usual life meter, Momo also possesses a "Wonder Meter," which will allow her to transform into Wonder Momo by hopping into a tornado or else pressing the C button to spin around three times quickly. Wonder Momo is just as weak and difficult to control as plain ol' Momo, but is startlingly different in that her outfit's colors are switched (blue sleeves and peach tunic rather than peach sleeves and blue tunic! Wow!) and she wears a green fishbowl over her head. Also, she gains the use of a magic hoop which can destroy enemies. Apparently its main magic power is its inability to return in a usable fashion once thrown, leaving Wonder Momo just as helpless as her non-sentai self most of the time (or worse; that fishbowl surely must be impossible to see through). The one point of happiness in this game is that Wonder Momo's battle music reminds me of SNK's Psycho Soldier theme, but even that's more a curse than a blessing - it simply puts me in mind of a better game featuring a better Magical Girl. Heck, even Athena's eponymous NES game was better than this.

So much of this game is opaque to me. What's the point? How does the Wonder Meter recharge? Whose horrible idea was this, anyway? In fact, the only thing about this game I don't have trouble seeing is that it's not particularly fun. Oh, and there's no trouble at all seeing Momo's panties. Momo, the exhibitionistic 12-year-old girl. I feel ill.

I don't even have to wonder which audience this game was targeting - they're in the game, as the audience. The action appears to transpire on a school stage with a gaggle of gawking teenaged boys watching the violence - in fact, the more you notice them, the creepier it all becomes. Why does Momo, the only girl in sight, have to stave off these waves of villains all alone? Is her torment some sort of sick entertainment for these disturbing boys?

Not surprisingly, Wonder Momo never came to America, despite the burgeoning popularity at the time of sentai shows such as Power Rangers. Hometek's president must have an allergy to hard jail time or something...

Some good, some tolerable, and one indescribably bad. It all averages out to a sustained mediocrity. Which could be worse - they could have stuck Tower of Druaga in the place of Rolling Thunder, and then only masochists would want to own this collection, rather than masochists who happen to love Rolling Thunder.

Besides, if you think this disc is weak, check out the Namco Anthologies sometime. Guaranteed to make a grown man weep.