Friday, August 29, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 10...

It was not very hard to separate the designers working at Namco from what they had produced. The games released by the company had a certain aesthetic style associated with them, a Namco “fingerprint” if you will. Gamers sometimes confused the word graphics for aesthetics when they talked about the look of a game. To be clear it was the stylization of the characters, vehicles and environments that made up the aesthetic of the title. It had nothing to do with whether the game was sprite or polygon-based. Some developers earned a following for how aesthetically pleasing their games were. Titles like Katamari Damacy and Jet Set Radio had unmistakable aesthetics. Seasoned players could tell which development team had worked on a particular title just by looking at the game. Through the history of Namco the development teams had used a certain aesthetic to connect the various franchises. In some examples they were obvious, like the Bosconian ships that appeared in Galaga ’88 and Blast Off. In other cases they were very subtle and could have been easily overlooked. The details in the background, the terrain and architecture of certain games had some crossover and this was sometimes missed by players. The longest running string of hits from the company had been rooted in UGSF continuity. The developers working on other games were proud of their contribution and wanted to make sure that the series lived on in one way or another. It was especially important to them once the era of the arcade shooter had died off. The angular buildings and factories used in Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere were reminiscent of the Andor Genesis, the alien mothership featured in Xevious. This was no coincidence. The developers were very slowly shaping the world to fit into the storyline of future releases.

The first game that the developers looked at made the most sense canonically. The Ace Combat series featured military aircraft fighting for supremacy over fictionalized nations. The game always had a forward-thinking tilt to it. Like Tekken and Ridge Racer the game was set a few years in the future and had all the supporting details to reinforce that idea. Whether it was the aircraft, the weapon technology or even the details in the city, everything about the games screamed progress. For audiences it was just a fun dogfighting simulator with dozens of different aircraft types and plenty of memorable missions to keep them engaged. Ace Combat actually made great use of a gameplay technique that the development team had learned from Ridge Racer. Players had to earn their aircraft by completing scenarios. Finishing levels in a timely manner and also side objectives meant that players could earn better aircraft than those that simply finished the main missions. In a similar way the players of Ridge Racer earned superior cars by beating track times and challenges. Simply completing a race was not enough to earn the best cars in the game. This forced serious players to learn the nuances of each car and track. Players learned how to draft and block, how to find a line through a crowd and when to use the nitro boost. As players improved they were able to upgrade their existing cars and earn better rides. 

In Ace Combat players had to learn the complexities of dog fighting in a rather short timeframe. The lessons and complex math equations that they would have been taught in training school would never have worked in a high-paced game setting. So every mission became on the job training. How to lead a target, how to fly defensively and even how to line up targets ahead of time were the nuances that players had to learn. Players that mastered the intricacies of fighting were rewarded with the best possible aircraft in the game. Ridge Racer by comparison had made it easier for players to unlock the best cars in the game. They did not necessarily have to be the best drivers on the track, but rather be the best at drifting and using nitro boosts. In real life and in more realistic racing games, a well-executed drift required finesse and solid driving skills. In Ridge Racer a drift recharged the nitrous tanks. So a player that became good at drifting could keep boosting and pass up opponents more easily. The game engine even adjusted the direction of the car as it slid to compensate for the lack of driving skills from a player. This sort of hands-free driving was most apparent when the car was moving very quickly. In every turn all the player had to do was initiate a drift. The game would take over and pull the car around the corner at the perfect angle. The player did not have to do any sort of steering so long as they were going very quickly. Only at lower speeds were they expected to steer the car. This was not always the case, early Ridge Racer games were demanding on the drivers. Rage Racer forced players to become better drivers and react faster and faster with every class upgrade. There was no sort of automatic steering to help guide players around turns.

Ace Combat by comparison did not try to dumb down the combat experience. In order to achieve the best possible aircraft the player would have to become a better fighter. Objectives were spaced out early on in the game and combat was limited so that audiences could learn the controls. Little by little the difficulty would increase. More targets would be added and more opponents would join in the battle. By the end of the game the player would find themselves reacting at lightning speed and taking on dozens of opponents. Namco and their developers used this learning curve to their advantage so they could create some of the most amazing combat portions in modern gaming. The gut-wrenching Trinity Missile Strike on the White House at the end of Ace Combat Assault Horizon was a perfect example of that. On the other hand Ridge Racer did not introduce new tracks that took advantage of the fastest cars in the game, making the final races in the title feel anti-climactic.

What could never be debated was how amazing the vehicle designs were in either game. I had already highlighted how the cars in Ridge Racer took the best elements in production and concept cars and put them on the track. For the Ace Combat series the developers took cues from the best fighter jets and prototypes and put them all in the sky. Some of the most radical ideas in aviation would become the backbone of the series. From the stealthiest fighter to the most gigantic airborne command cruisers had a place in the Ace Combat universe. The diversity of designs and jet types called out to every spectrum of fan, just as the cars big and small had done for Ridge Racer.

There was an unmistakable science fiction element to the Ace Combat series. It wasn’t enough that the planes were futuristic. They had to fit the vision of aircraft a few generations down the line. The way their aeronautics looked and worked had to be believable. The way weapons were stored and fired, the ability to deflect missiles and defend themselves from enemy fire had to be plausible as well. The people at Namco had to cover all of the angles from a design standpoint and still create a story that was immersive that would help bring players into the experience. Ridge Racer had the fortune of being a racing game and allowed a player to assume the role of a faceless character. The drivers did not necessarily need to be spoken to by a crew chief or even a teammate but when those details were available, as in Ridge Racer Type 4 and R: Racing Evolution then it was appreciated. For the most part the cars chosen by the player spoke for themselves. Ace Combat had a similar gameplay element going for it. Players were faceless pilots and the planes they selected did all the talking for them. The supporting characters, the wingmen and rivals all spoke to the player and didn’t expect a response, this type of writing helped maintain the illusion. The Ace Combat series would actually become a nexus that bridged the canon of Namco’s past to the future. The next blog will highlight these connections.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 9...

The first time that I realized the games in the Namco universe were connected was actually by accident. It was around 1989 and the arcade scene was pretty strong. It would still be a few years until Street Fighter II dropped and forced every company to get into the genre. So there was a lot more diversity for the few years leading up to it and that was a good thing. A new space shooter from Namco had appeared at about that time. The game was titled Blast Off and looked interesting for a number of reasons. The graphics were bright and colorful. Gone were the blocky ships that I remembered while growing up. The new ship had more fidelity than before, the proportions were slightly cartoonish but it was a small oversight. The backgrounds were amazing. There were several graphic layers that the artists had worked with to create an amazing sense of depth. Players would fly through plasma clouds, above twinkling stars and galactic clusters. It felt like a redo of Galaga that was closer to the vision of the designers. The enemy types were more detailed but still flew strafed opponents in dizzying patterns, the larger ships were there to provide a bigger challenge and the end of every level was met with a boss battle. Unlike other SHMUP titles which forced players to stick with one weapon type until they could earn an upgrade Blast Off gave players multiple weapon configurations. Players could switch between the weapon types on the fly. There were variations of a wave, laser and photon cannon that allowed players to shoot forward, diagonal, sideways and even behind the player. This completely changed the strategy when fighting waves of enemies. Sometimes diagonal or sideways lasers could help get through a particularly tough stage better than any forward facing weapon.

Where the game really came together was in the layout of the missions. Every level consisted of three missions. The first mission was set in deep space as the player was en route to a target. They would engage with small reconnaissance craft and a few scattered larger ships at this point. The second stage was much closer to the objective and players had to fight against wave after wave of tougher opponent classes. In the background of each stage players would catch a glimpse of the level boss. It was an enormous base with six spheres connected to a hexagonal hub. When players finished the second mission they would see the ship fly towards the enormous target. The third mission actually took place inside of the base. The camera would zoom in on players and present a more detailed close up of the ship once inside of the base. Players fought through increasingly difficult areas, filled with sentry cannons and tanks as they went into the heart of the station. If players could defeat the mechanical core, which was protected by a complex series of rapidly moving cannons then they would finish the stage. Players would fly out of the base and watch it explode from a distance. They would then continue on deeper into space and fight larger and more challenging stations. The largest of which appeared like a row of Death Stars connected at the hip.

It was the sense of scale that really made Blast Off stick out in my mind. Namco had done a great job at taking a format that I thought couldn't really be improved upon and broke it wide open. Granted, when it came to video games the SHUMP format was the one I was terrible at. By comparison my big brother excelled at those titles but wasn't very good at racing games. I was good in many other genres but didn't quite have the patience or determination to see most SHUMPS through to the end. Blast Off could be considered slow and simplistic to many veterans but for me it felt like a perfect challenge. The idea of being the solitary fighter taking on an entire fleet in deep space was something I couldn't pass up. It was like the best parts of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and every other space adventure rolled into one. Also, unlike earlier space shooters this one had a beginning, middle and end. The game did not just get faster and harder, like the earlier Namco hits. Blast Off started with the fighter leaving a space carrier with an electronic fanfare that sounded an awful lot like the John William's Superman theme. During the end credits the player would revisit the site of every boss station and see its debris floating in the distance. Eventually they would land back at the home base, the biggest hero in the entire galaxy. It was a rare SHUMP that I managed to beat in the arcade and only with a handful of quarters. In my book it was perfection. That was of course until Namco released Starblade.

It wasn't long after I had played Blast Off than the pieces suddenly started to fit together. I was walking by someone going through Galaga '88. I noticed a number of improvements that the company had made to the original shooter. Even though I was still in junior high at that time a wave of nostalgia had washed over me. I remember being very young and playing the original Galaga in the corner market. Galaga '88 had improved in the visual and gameplay department by a wide margin. While the majority of the game still took place on single screen levels the enemy types were much more challenging and diverse. It was the jump from location to location using warp technology that caught my eye. Players could see the final destination getting closer each time they defeated a stage and the ship would disappear into hyperspace. The effect would be revisited in the 3D games like Star Ixiom and Starblade. One of the backgrounds looked eerily familiar to Blast Off. There was an enormous hexagonal space station that was destroyed floating in the distance. There was no way that this game was related to Blast Off was there? As the player went through the stage he got closer to the debris. There was no mistaking it. The Galaga ship was fighting near the remains of the same space stations that I had beaten earlier. When I looked at the title screen I saw that Blast Off was released after Galaga '88. So it was some sort of sequel? I remember seeing ships that were very similar to those in Blast Off and Galaga '88 but much earlier. I just couldn't remember where. I bugged my parents to take me to different arcades every weekend so I could look for the other Namco games that might be related to Blast Off. Finally I came across the game in Cerritos, in an arcade that had some older titles still in circulation.

It turned out that the ancestor to both games was a 1981 gem called Bosconian. It was built on the Galaga engine but featured completely different gameplay. In the title players could fly and shoot in eight directions and they had to destroy enemy bases that were hexagonally shaped. The neat thing about the game was that players could fire lasers from the rear of the ship so they couldn't be caught off guard by opponents. This was clearly the inspiration for the weapon types and villains featured in Blast Off. Bosconian was also notable because it was the first Namco game, possibly the first arcade game ever, to feature a continue screen. When I discovered that there was a lineage to the Namco space shooters it blew my mind. I felt like I was living through some sort of Dan Brown conspiracy that had been kept secret from the world. No other studio seemed to grasp the nuances of keeping true to a legacy. Instead they produced games that had nothing to do with each other. Namco was focused on the evolution of a genre and never forgot where they came from.

A few years later the origins of the word Bosconian were revealed, at least in canon. The alien life forms were very advanced technologically but also very hostile. They sought out planets to conquer and transform. It was up to the brave Galaxians, the people that traveled to the edge of space as members of the UGSF, to protect humanity. The name Bosconian was derived from one of the most brilliant minds in the Namco universe Dr. Geppetto Bosconovitch. The scientist formerly employed by Mishima Zaibatsu was a genius with few peers. Dr. Bosconovitch had appeared as an important figure throughout the Tekken series. In the game history he had created the cybernetic arm and later cybernetic body for Yoshimitsu, the leader of the Manji Ninja Clan. He also created the Prototype Jack (P-Jack) combat cyborg. He was not only good at cybernetic components but also developed the bio-weapons Roger and Alex. Those were creatures that appeared like a velociraptor and kangaroo with boxing gloves. The scientist was not without his rivals however, Dr. Abel was a scientist also working for the Mishima Zaibatsu that became a bitter enemy. Dr. Abel focused his efforts on mind control technology and could command some of the characters in the Tekken series to do his bidding. He also reanimated Brian Fury and destroyed the peaceful Jack cyborg models at every opportunity.

Dr. Bosconovitch developed the "Cold Sleep" program as a form of suspended hibernation. It also seemed to stop the aging process. He tested it out on Nina and Anna Williams, top level assassins that worked for the Mishima Zaibatsu and G Corporation respectively. He intended the Cold Sleep program to preserve the life of his terminally ill daughter Alisa. When Alisa succumbed to her disease Dr. Bosconovitch made an android in her likeness and assigned her to be the bodyguard of Jin Kazama, his new employer. It was the brilliant mind of the doctor that would be remembered centuries after his death. When a new technologically advanced alien species was discovered the UGSF named them Bosconian.

As I got older and was able to travel further and further I managed to play more games in the arcade by Namco and their contemporaries. I was also lucky enough to travel with my brothers and friends to Little Tokyo and see what Super Famicom / Super Nintendo Games were hot and what the real gems were for the Playstation and Saturn consoles. I was very eager to find out where Namco would connect their next game to the Bosconian legacy. It turned out that a little-known PC game from 1994 was another missing link from the company. Star Luster was an amazing remake of an old NES title. It even featured updated versions of the classic chip tunes. In this title an evil alien race called the Battura were causing strife not long after the Bosconian Wars. The game took place in the same continuity of Galaga ’88 and Blast Off but featured a first-person perspective instead of a vertical one. It was the template that Star Ixiom would use for the Playstation a few years later. Seeing Namco stay true to their continuity for as long as I could remember made me fans of the company. I admired their own science fiction IP and had more respect for it than most licensed space games. I was curious to see what else the studio had tied together through canon. As it turned out Tekken was not the only game that had a connection to UGSF continuity. The seeds of the series had been planted in a different title. The next blog will feature this game.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 8...

If you were to ask gamers which science fiction universe they would love to live in they might respond with a variety of choices. Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect and Halo would probably be near the top of the list. Yet if you were to ask me which one was my favorite I wouldn't have to think hard about it. The UGSF continuity from Namco was by far the most interesting to me. It represented various stages in the fictional history of mankind. From the first tentative steps into other solar systems to the first encounters against hostile alien lifeforms. The future of humanity was set in all of the beauty and chaos of the cosmos. There was sometimes a great struggle against monsters and creatures too horrible to imagine but also tremendous strides for human lifeforms across trillions of light years. As a kid that grew up admiring all of the sciences, but especially space science, this was a fascinating series to me.

Namco had been working through dozens of original titles over the past 30 years and tried to connect the dots on most of them. The UGSF series actually stretched out from the middle of this century (2040) all the way to the year 7650. Past that was unknown because Namco had yet to plan for it. To connect all of the dots that Namco had mapped out would include the history of civilization on Earth as well. The earliest adventures in Namco canon took place in ancient Babylon, some 3000+ years ago. The company had published adventures set at various points through the history of the world, including the feudal era in Japan, the dark ages in Europe and even the current era. In all the studio had over 10,000 years of canon that they could work from and jump to. It had taken Namco more than 30 years to amass a library of games that supported their obsession with canon. It was a feat that would have been impossible for any other studio to recreate. That was why I admired the company and their science fiction work more than any other studio.

Everything Namco created came from somewhere, it had a backbone and a heart. It was much more than a facade which was all that most modern game publishers could offer in their games. It was brilliant the way the company retconned the classic games like Dig Dug and Baraduke so that they fell in the same continuity as Galaxian and Galaga. The best part about the publisher was that they kept copious notes and arts on every UGSF title. In other science fiction titles there was a specific timeline that most games focused on. Perhaps there was a generation or two at stake like in Star Trek, or perhaps there was even a few centuries separating the adventures as in Star Wars. For the UGSF there were decades, centuries and even millennia that were points of interest for fans. The company actually knew how mankind managed to stretch from one end of the galaxy to the other. They knew every battle along the way, every technological achievement and every story worth telling. Those high points turned out to be the first generation of arcade, console and even mobile hits from the publisher.

Growing up playing just about every arcade game that Namco published, especially those about space, had preserved that same sense of awe and wonder that I had as a kid. When I worked at JPL and was doing mission support over a few years, including the landing of the Curiosity rover, I felt as it all the quarters I had spent in my youth had finally paid off. From an artist and designer point of view I became enamored with the stylization of the ships from UGSF canon. They were not quite animé nor western sci-fi. The company had found a balance between the two that was awe inspiring. From the stealthy Coleoptera Fighter in Galaga to the massive Dragoon-J2 in Attack of Zolgear, there was a genuine sense of evolution for all of the fighter craft. It was something that not every team of designers could capture in other science fiction titles.

Of course every long-time fan of the UGSF series would ask where the overlap was. Several of the biggest titles happened within a few decades of each other, and some within galactic reach. Namco answered this question in the Kuusou Kagaku-developed Star Ixiom. The title from 1999 was considered the pinnacle space shooter for the original Playstation. It became the benchmark from the publisher just as Ridge Racer Type 4 was for racers. The game blended the heroes and villains from a literal who's-who of UGSF canon, including Starblade, Galaxian, Nebulas Ray, Star Luster and Bosconian. The game was set in a first person perspective. Missions were spread all over the galaxy and what made the game innovative, aside from the free flying 3D dogfights, was the ability to "warp" from location to location. The stars would form a tunnel as players passed light speed and reached objective markers. It was the same classic effect of making the jump to light speed from Star Wars except now players could choose where they would visit with each jump.

The game could be held up to the standards set by Wing Commander and the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series. The downside was that this game never saw the light of day in the USA. It was released in Japan and Europe only. Thankfully emulators helped die-hard fans in the states get a chance to experience it. It was a shame too, the game was beautifully done. It mixed the designs from each of the distinct universes well. It maintained the sense of scale and adventure from Starblade while allowing players to pick up missions on the home bases. The ability to progress through the missions at the leisure of the gamer was something that no Namco arcade game could ever allow. From a design standpoint every cameo made sense. Remember that some of the technology employed by early colonists, the Galaxians, were still in operation several generations later. Players would visit stations that looked obsolete in one sector of space and much more advanced in a different sector. The UGSF made do with the resources of every particular home world and defended it to the best of their abilities. It was a much more realistic approach to science fiction logistics than had been seen in other media. 

Star Ixiom was not the only gem that Namco kept from the west. Most of the decisions to keep a game in one region were business related of course. I often wish that the marketing people and bean counters did not have as much pull at the studio as they do now. Without taking a chance on new ideas the company would have stopped evolving after Galaxian and Pac-Man. Instead they decided to compete against the big boys in multiple genres. They took the battle to Sega and matched the juggernaut game-for game. Sometimes they had a better experience and sometimes they didn't. Unlike Sega however Namco did not seem to give up on their oldest franchises.

In 2007 the company decided to try their hand at a completely different format for the UGSF series. New Space Order was an an arcade/PC real-time strategy (RTS) game. It was the first time the classic universe had been presented in such a format. It seemed to work very well too. Players chose from one of four different human factions as they tried to expand their respective empires throughout the stars. The ability to command entire fleets of classic and new ships from UGSF history was a real treat. Well designed space RTS games were extremely rare. The genre had been used in popular fantasy and science fiction ground combat titles like Warcraft and Starcraft. The format hadn't been seen very much in space shooters. The game was actually set during some of the most formative years of the UGSF. In order to bring audiences into this world Namco produced New Space Order - Link of Life - a web drama from 2007. The series explained how far humanity had come and how factions had grown out of planetary ties. It told the story through the eyes of a select group of young pilots, engineers and officers. Each held a distinct view of their world and told the story of how their nation and planet had to fight in order to keep their history and culture alive. What was great about the series was how much in depth they went into the actual canon established by the game series. Many of the notes and designs that the company had been sitting on were finally brought out.

The web series and game managed to touch on many of the high points of UGSF canon. They brought out the relationships between the classic arcade and consoles hits and gave them entirely new dimensions. They explained the origins and outcomes of the wars against ETI (extra terrestrial intelligence) from Galaga, Bosconian and Battsura. They highlighted how humanity had developed ships that were designed to combat the most highly evolved of alien species, such as the robotic UIMS. Many of these ships were several kilometers in size with the largest mobile platforms being as big as an asteroid. The smaller ships turned out to be very useful in combat because they could bypass the defenses of the more massive targets. Players actually got a chance to set up both offensive and defensive capabilities for their particular factions. They would have to figure out which ships worked best for certain missions and how they would have to adapt to constantly changing threats. Namco dubbed this form of gameplay "Fleet Assault Tactics."

The game was absolutely gorgeous. It had twinkling stars and spiraling galaxies billions of light years in the distance. Players learned to terraform and connect their planets and navigate around asteroid clusters while defending their home worlds. With a much more laid back classical soundtrack to help the player feel more like a military strategist than a space cowboy. The title was taken offline in 2009 much to the disappointment of the fans. I can understand that it was a business decision. Arcade games were a hard sell in the US and western audiences favored action over RTS titles by a wide margin. Of course I would hope that someday soon the company would return to their galactic roots. New Space Order and the other experiences from UGSF canon certainly deserved more chances. Even without a new science fiction title in the works the influence of the space legacy was hard to ignore. The UGSF canon had become ingrained in the culture of Namco. It would pop up in some of the least suspected titles. When it did it gave long-time gamers a chance to reflect and long for the future.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 7...

Namco showed that they were a major player in the arcade industry with the success of Galaxian in 1979 and its follow-up Galaga in 1981. The games were so successful that they helped their US distributor Midway grow by leaps and bounds as well. The success of the Pac-Man, Ridge Racer, Tekken and Ace Combat titles helped cement Namco's position as leaders in entertainment. The space shooters from the company had always done well historically. Each game was an innovator for the genre, whether it introduced a scrolling background, added a bonus stage or chaned formats from sprites to 3D polygons. Namco was willing to experiment with their formula in order to keep the experience fresh but most important to keep audiences engaged. Something that won over fans was consistency with the genre. The most celebrated titles had a familiar feel to them. The fingerprints of the developers were all over the games even when they were in a completely new genre. Why was this? Because the development teams kept copious notes on each and every game they had created. This was nothing new to the industry. The teams working behind every great series could fill volumes with concept designs, notes, background, programming lessons and even blueprints. What separated Namco from their contemporaries however was something more obsessive.

The designers would lose sleep over details never seen by audiences. In order to build a better game the developers had to become intimate with the fictional world they were creating. In the case of the space shooters it would be fleshing out the canon of the UGSF (United Galaxy Space Force). Absolutely no detail was overlooked. The signage on the spaceships, both good and bad had to be planned out. The colors, framework and layout of ships were cataloged. Bases, planets, weapons and technology all had to be meticulously detailed. Even though the company had no plans to create a game where the pilots inside the ships were ever seen the designers still kept notes on them. The layout of the cockpit, seats, displays, the shape of the helmets, the cut of UGSF uniforms for both officer and soldier ranks, what the space suits looked like, if they were strapped with a weapon and even how their rank would be displayed had to be considered. Certainly many modern AAA studios could show how their teams of artists did the same thing during the development of a modern blockbuster. Of the current studios none would have allowed their designers the leeway to focus on things that would not appear in any way shape or form in the finished game.

The insanely detailed notes and volumes of concept art became shared knowledge in the offices of Namco. In many cases these things decorated the walls of the offices. It wasn't an employee working here or there that seemed to know the particulars of the science fiction world Namco was developing it was the collective that knew about it. They all contributed to the development of the UGSF canon over the years. The studio did not seem to forget even the tiniest little detail either. For example, when people think of the ship featured in Galaga they might imagine a tiny white space jet that could be joined at the wing to another. If the fans were asked to draw it from memory they might even be able to sketch out a design that resembled the blocky ship from the arcade hit. Yet the people at Namco had a lot more in mind than audiences could have ever imagined. First off it had a name and class. The star of the game was the Coleoptera Fighter. In other Namco games the ships would become much larger, more defensive and carry different names. The fighters appearing in many of the early Namco hits were limited by the capabilities of the graphics engines and not by the imagination of the developers.

The artists wanted to present a spaceship that would hold up to the greatest designs from film and animé. Fans could identify T.I.E. fighters and X-Wings with just a few pixels, unfortunately for Namco they had to rely on the imagination of gamers to fill in the details missing for their own craft. Something similar could be said of the gameplay of those early UGSF hits. The designers had epic space battles in mind while planning out the adventures. They had grow up on a steady diet of amazing shows and animation, including Captain Harlock, Space Battleship Yamato and Star Wars. They wanted to capture the action featured in those titles but allow the audiences to become the heroes of the story. Of course it was tough to include any sort of story with the limitations of the early arcade hardware. With barely any memory, a few tones from the sound board and a limited color palette the developers at Namco had to focus on making a fun game first and foremost. They would have to pack away their ambitious goals until technology had caught up with their imagination. The people working on the space shooters were not alone with these struggles.

Other groups within Namco worked on different genres. One in particular worked on maze games for the studio. Mappy and Pac-Man had done very well in the genre. Yet even those designers had to explore the boundaries of what was possible. They introduced elements of science fiction into the format. The first of these new experiences was Dig Dug. The hit from 1982 made little to no sense to the western gamer. Try to describe the game to someone, especially a non-gamer. There was a little blue man that would dig tunnels with a jackhammer and then shoot at dragons and orange masked balls with an air hose. He would then inflate them until they exploded and that's how you earned points. It sounded like a bad acid trip rather than a video game. Thirty years later it still did not make any sense. Not that it mattered though because gamers in the west and east could not get enough of the experience. It was a challenging maze game that introduced all sorts of new elements and enemy types. It also created some memorable mascots along the way. Baraduke raised the bar on space exploration. The title from 1986 wasn't a puzzle game but actually allowed the main character to travel through an alien outpost instead, running, flying and shooting everything along the way. The hero of this game was actually a female, a UGSF soldier named Masuyo "Kissy" Toby. It was a fantastic concept that had predated heroines like Samus from the Metroid series. While the mascots featured in those games were blocky little characters the designers always kept in mind some more realistic representations of them for future use.

It was about this time in the '80s that Namco began working in earnest to shape the UGSF continuity. The designers began looking back on their catalog of games and began finding relationships between the various titles. The company decided that Masuyo was actually the estranged wife of Dig Dug himself, a fellow that went by the name of Taizo Hori. The name Taizo Hori was actually a play on words, in Japanese his name sounded like "I like to dig." The two characters had kids which would appear in games that followed many years later. Susumu Hori, Ataru Hori and Taiyo Toby came into their own in a series called Mr. Driller and Star Trigon at the end of the '90s and start of the new millennium respectively. The reasons why Hori and Toby were separated were never revealed by Namco. Some artists speculated why they were an estranged couple but nothing definitive was ever posted.

It would not be the first time that mature themes were explored in science fiction. The origins for Baraduke were rooted in the film Alien. The movie was one of the first to combine horror and science fiction equally well. The film starred Sigourney Weaver as a space explorer named Ellen Ripley. In it her team of miners came across an extinct alien settlement. When one of them became infected with an alien parasite it quickly turned into a life or death struggle for the entire crew. The entire tone of the film was handled very seriously. There was nothing remotely fantastic about the content as was the case with Star Wars, instead the story played out as an earnest drama should. Violence and gore aside it certainly was not meant for children. The 1979 movie forever changed the landscape of cinema and became a cultural touchstone for what space exploration could become. Alien had influenced the designers at several Japanese studios when it debuted. Sega's Alien Syndrome from 1987 and Alien Storm from 1990 were two completely different takes on the genre, one was serious and one was very over-the-top but both had hints of the classic film in it as well. The 1986 hit Metroid for the original Nintendo Entertainment System was also influenced by the film. Through all of the changes in science fiction and gaming over the past 40 years Namco would stay focused on their own continuity, They kept grinding away at the UGSF universe and never lost track of what could become. When the industry began to change its operations to focus on 3D engines Namco was already ahead of the curve. Many of the developers working at the studio had a good idea as to what the next great hits from the company would be.

The advancement of 3D graphics in the arcade and on home consoles turned out to be the biggest gain in company history. The programmers and animators could finally put on screen what they had spent an entire generation only dreaming of. Even the iconic battles in Galaga became more mesmerizing when visualized as actual 3D engagements. Solvalou, Galaxian3 and Starblade were the first chapters in a run that no other studio would be able to match. The next blog will look at the nexus of the UGSF at home.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 6...

When it came to bold arcade cabinet designs no publisher seemed to hold a candle to Sega. The largest of the Japanese arcade developers had the fortune of having multiple teams working on games at any given time and one R&D unit focused on developing hardware and cabinets for those games. The company could be considered as having mastered the limitations of hardware as far back as 1992. Sega had released a fighter jet simulator called G-LOC. It was the spiritual successor to the wildly popular After Burner. The game was sprite based and released in both a stand up and deluxe sit down cabinet. Yet the company also had some new hardware that they wanted arcades to show off. A premium cabinet called the R360 was available for the bigger arcades. Players were strapped into a pod and enclosed into the simulator. The cabinet could actually spin 360 degrees and invert gamers in multiple axis. The R360 featured a CRT display in front of the player. It did not project a picture onto the inside of the cabinet as with the O.R.B.S. cabinet featured in the previous blog. Not that it mattered because players were so focused on the screen and being flipped upside down that they didn’t notice there was nothing in their peripheral vision.

Sega continued the tradition of creating unique cabinets for arcades, especially one-off versions for their company arcades known as Joypolis. In 2009 the studio released another game that inverted players. Storm-G was a futuristic bobsled-type racing game that could spin players upside down. It did not have the free axis of movement of the R360 but it did offer seats for two-players in each cabinet. Interestingly enough this game had nothing to do with Storm Racer G. The car racing game was developed by Chinese studio Wahlap and was published by Sega. For those keeping track of the racing formats Sega had experimented with Storm Racer G had taken a page from the modern Ridge Racer / Burnout school rather than the classic Daytona model. The car designs were nice but nothing that had not been explored in Split/Second or Ridge Racer: Unbounded.

Namco did not have the R&D resources to pull off the inversion cabinets. They did experiment with rumble seats and 4-D attractions (3D + rumble seats) in later years. For the most part Namco challenged Sega with scale and spectacle in their larger cabinets. The theater sized Ridge Racer cabinet from the early ‘90s that featured an actual car that players could sit in was a prototype from the company. The developers were trying to figure out if the processor and LaserDisk that drove the early builds of the game would work with something of that magnitude. The company knew that many arcades could not afford to lose that much space for a game that could only be enjoyed by one player at a time. The very next game featuring the theater setup would hold up to six players, all interacting with the massive screen. It was known as the Theater 6 system. In it two Sony projectors overlapped onto one display and played a seamless picture for gamers. The company found that the space shooter was a format that worked very well for the Theater 6 systems. They went into their library of titles and developed a game that could be considered the pinnacle of their space shooter series. It took elements from every science fiction game they had developed up until that point. It had opponents flying in high speed dizzying patterns from Galaga, the steadily increasing challenge of Xevious, the first person shooting elements and electronic music of Solvalou and the curved display and mission cues from Starblade.

The first title of the new system carried the badge of Namco's first arcade hit Galaxian. The new game was actually a series of adventures that multiple internal teams had been working on for the previous few years. The company did this so that arcade owners that invested in the system would be able to offer the players more than one game each time they visited. Galaxian3 consisted of three distinct adventures, each with its own timeline, story and both good and bad ending. Galaxian3 Project Dragoon had appeared first in 1990, predating Starblade. In it audiences flew into an enemy planet controlled by living robot creatures called UIMS (Unknown Intellectual Mechanized Species). Their objective was to take out an enormous laser called the Cannonseed but in order to reach it players had to get through the UIMS space fleet and ground defenses. That adventure was followed by a shorter "bonus" game called The Rising of Gourb which was a 4-player Playstation exclusive. in which players chased down a titanic flying enemy fortress nicknamed Gourb.

In 1994 the final game, Attack of the Zolgear, debuted. In it players flew to the planet Exia where an enormous creature had emerged from its centuries-long slumber inside the orbiting moon. The backstory was very interesting. For generations the scientists and astronomers on Exia had no idea why their moon Zol had an irregular orbit and constant gravitational fluxes. It turned out that there was a gigantic organism living inside of the planetoid. Once it broke out it made its way to Exia where it intended to destroy the colony. The monster tore through the orbiting defenses easily and survived the entry through the atmosphere. The creature Zolgear was so massive that it could have eaten Godzilla with one bite. Players flew in an enormous ship, the Dragoon-J2, a larger and more powerful version of the original Dragoon, and the gigantic cousin of the GeoBlade right into the heart of the creature. The parasites and defensive organisms within the creature were the size of skyscrapers. It was a perfect blend of science fiction and monster design. Since the first games debuted in 1991 they matched the visual splendor of Stablade.

Audiences enjoyed the experience of fighting alongside their friends and sometimes even strangers and seeing which was the best shot. The game could track the progress of each player and display them to the group between mission updates. Best of all each of the Theater 6 games had multiple branching paths so that players could explore different scenarios each time they played the game. Namco spared no expense in creating the experience. Every detail that went into the Theater 6 systems was planned out. Including the shape of the seats, guns and even cabinet facade. The colors, stickers and labels that decorated the cabinet maintained the same theme that was featured within the game itself. Even though players sat side by side they could appreciate the personal touches that brought them into the experience. Like Silpheed had done for Sega, Galaxian3 developed a cult-like following the world over. One die-hard arcade fan that convinced an arcade owner to sell his Theater 6 system for a private collection. Sure the Theater 6 did not flip players upside down like the R360 cabinet had but it was still an impressive achievement in arcade design. Sega would actually develop racing cabinets that could be linked together to create a display that was almost as massive as the Theater 6 screen. Both companies would tout that they had the superior arcade experience and neither would give an inch during their long running feud. Namco would send out banners for arcade owners to display over the Theater 6 unit that read "The Worlds Largest Video Game." Yet that wasn't the whole story.

The Galaxian3 trilogy and Theater 6 system was actually spawned from an even larger attraction built by Namco. The original Project Dragoon was featured in a 360 degree theater capable of seating up to 28 players at one time including a pilot and co-pilot. The game was actually built on a platform that titled in multiple directions to match the action onscreen. Later revisions of the game scaled it down for 16 players but even then it was still an enormous feat of engineering. Gamers would be introduced to their campaign by a hostess wearing a headset connected to the theater PA. She was dressed like one of the Operators from the UGSF, the United Galaxy Space Force, or basically the good guys in Namco canon. It was a brilliant level of detail and execution that would have made the best Disney Imagineers proud. There was no doubt that the employees at both Sega and Namco would visit the local watering hole and take pot shots at each other over a few beers. Whenever the talk of who made the best arcade game ever somebody at Sega would always bring up the R360. Then someone at Namco would fire back "too bad it couldn't move 28 people at a time." Then they'd all have a laugh at the expense of Sega and then change the topic to other things.

Now imagine that you were a kid living in Japan and had never visited Tokyo Disneyland or any other amusement park in the nation. After playing Project Dragoon, or Attack of Zolgear or even Starblade would you think that you were missing out or would you think that it was the park visitors that were missing out? For that matter imagine that you were a kid in the US, the UK or Europe and you happened to have a really good arcade that you could count on. One that would bring in entirely new experiences every few months and hold onto the gems for years. The best video games had the staying power of the best theme park attractions. The people running things at Disney and Universal had definitely missed out on an evolutionary step in entertainment. It took some decades to catch up and some companies never did. The heavily arcade-influenced Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters and Toy Story Midway Mania attractions featured in several Disney parks was a way for them to reconnect with an entire generation. Of course in the best Sega and Namco shooters actually allowed players to choose different paths whereas the Disney attractions were the same ride from beginning to end. There was something to the staying power of Namco compared to many of their western contemporaries. Atari, Bally, Midway and many former arcade titans slowly fizzled out after the '80s. What was it that Namco had going for them? Was it the spectacle of a 28 person gaming theater or the solitary immersion of Starblade? Perhaps it was the addictive gameplay of classics like Galaga and Pac-Man? The secret to the longevity of the company was written in the stars, both figuratively and literally. Please read the next blog to find out why.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 5...

I had mentioned groundbreaking titles like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Galaga previously. Even the Star Wars and Star Trek arcade games were featured on the blog. The ‘80s were a chance for the developers to experiment with the space shooter genre. Every new release was a chance to rewrite the history books. From the humble sprite up to the very first vector and polygon titles, the space shooter was a pioneering format for the industry. Despite all of the advancements that Atari, Namco, Sega, Taito and a dozen other developers had introduced with space combat there was something missing. Audiences did not know how much more of an impact gaming could have on culture until it crossed paths with Hollywood. Let us set aside the 1982 film Tron for just a moment. The definitive videogame movie for a generation may have been The Last Starfighter. Released in 1984 the film revolved around a fictional arcade game called Starfighter. A young player named Alex Rogan, who felt like he didn’t have anything going for him, became a local hero when he mastered the game. In doing so he ended up being recruited to fight in an intergalactic war. It turned out that the game was actually a training simulator. By beating it Alex had proven he was ready to become a gunner aboard an actual space ship.

Audiences went wild for the film. The premise mixed fantasy and science fiction in equal measure. The adventure did not have to happen “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It happened today and only took a videogame to unlock the journey. You can imagine how much this premise sparked the imagination of millions of kids all around the world. The computer generated effects for the film were amazing. When they were combined with practical effects, sets, models and realistic alien makeup then it was easy for audiences to get swept up in the world. Sadly no videogame looked as good as Starfighter did in the film. The same thing could be said of Space Paranoids in the feature Tron. Games in the ‘80s were very much locked into sprite-based technology and the polygon engines would not take over for another decade. Everything changed in 1991 when Namco released a title called Starblade. The game was as close to a space combat simulator as had ever been created. Unlike Solvalou the studio did not want to retrace the ground that they had covered with any previous title. They looked at the science fiction genre as a whole to see what should be incorporated from a design and storytelling perspective. The developers at Namco were not only aware of domestic films and animation but also every major science fiction movie from the west. They figured out how to assemble a game around those themes.

Starblade incorporated the visuals and ideas from the Last Starfighter with just a hint of contemporary anime and manga influences. The polygon ships and environments featured were as close as anyone had come to recreating the movie effects. The game also included scenarios that were reminiscent of Star Wars, including a raid on a spherical base called the Red Eye, instead of the Death Star. Starblade also preserved the SHMUP tradition of featuring a “boss battle” at the end of the main adventure. To help place players into the moment the game made very minimal use of music cues, reserving them for pivotal moments in the adventure. The majority of the experience featured the sounds of the spaceship, the GeoSword, shooting and the concussive blast of massive opponents exploding accented by moments of dead silence. Sound could not carry in space after all and the designers used the silence as a way to heighten the tension of the game. From time to time headquarters would radio in a mission update. The pilot of the GeoSword was also the only other voice that the player would hear from. For the almost 20 minutes worth of nonstop gameplay there wasn't more than a few lines spoken. By comparison Project Sylpheed had far more dialogue in the opening cinema than Starblade had in the entire 20-minute adventure. It was a stark contrast to the catchy tunes that the Namco Sound Team was known for. It felt like a daunting simulator which Alex Rogan would have been proud to complete. For a long-time arcade visitor the game was nothing short of perfection.

The studio wanted to add a sense of depth to the title, almost a 3D effect but without using glasses. They incorporated that into the layout of the deluxe sit down cabinet. The CRT monitor was actually suspended above the head of the player, hidden in the frame. The picture was reflected off of a shiny, concave black plastic surface. The curved screen added a larger viewable surface than a traditional display. It wasn’t the first time that an arcade developer used a reflection for the game screen. Many of the early arcade cabinets reflected off of mirrors to increase the viewable size of the CRT displays. The curved surface that Namco used however was a first. The studio also used surround sound in the title, hiding speakers around the player. During a heated encounter you could actually hear the sound of enemy ships trying to flank you from the sides, the radio of the pilot from above you and even the rumble of the engines from below as you danced through tight situations. Sitting in the cabinet, holding onto the actual controls and watching the game unfold before you was an experience that no console port could ever capture. That didn't stop Namco from trying however. The title was released for the Playstation as well as the 3DO console.

Sadly the game was rarely seen in the arcade. The game was only available in the sit down format and the cabinet was expensive. Arcade owners were already leery about their budget and the constantly shifting trends of their audience. They had to predict what game would be hot and stay in circulation for a long time, even more so when the consoles began to syphon away players. The owners were also critical about the space they needed for certain games and the maintenance required for larger setups. Despite all of these things fans never forgot the title and neither did the designers at NAMCO. In 2001 the company wanted to unveil some new hardware for the arcade. Gamers would sit a chair and slide into a dome that was projected onto. They would also be encapsulated by an array of speakers. The likes of this immersive cabinet had never been seen before. The system was called O.R.B.S. - Over Reality Booster System.

The studio had only one game in mind that would highlight the revolutionary cabinet. Starblade Operation Blue Planet recreated the sense of scale that the first game presented but with improved visuals and audio. The opening and pacing on the battles was very reminiscent of the original arcade title. Operations was in constant contact with the player and sent them updated mission statements every few moments. There was still a good use of silence to help sell the simulation experience. The ships had evolved somewhat since the original game. Players were now serving as gunners aboard the GeoCalibur, a ship with twice the firepower of the original GeoSword. The opposing ships also looked more powerful, including the heavily shielded "Commander."

Operation Blue Panet saw limited beta testing in several Namco arcades through Japan and never got a full release. The footage that the company posted on YouTube was the only way for the world to get a glimpse as to what might have been. It was a shame really. The studio would develop a variation of O.R.B.S. and use it for the Gundam giant robot series in arcades. It only made sense from a business perspective. The studio had to use a high-profile IP like Gundam to bring gamers in. The deluxe arcade cabinets had to offer something unique in order to command the $5 or more per play. Namco was not the only company that found success with these high tech immersive cabinets. The Steel Chronicle: Ganesh cabinet by Konami debuted in the 2014 Japan Amusement Expo. It was absolutely amazing. Players controlled a robot with joysticks and foot pedals and the cabinet even featured a touch pad with which to select weapons. The Steel Chronicle series could best be described as an Earth Defense Force meets Monster Hunter for the arcade. This cabinet was another evolutionary step for the industry but its inspiration could be traced back to Starblade.

Sega and Namco had actually been trading punches over who made the most immersive arcade experience for over 20 years. Each studio tried to top the other by offering great gameplay wrapped in a wild cabinet. The boldest ideas from each studio would make the O.R.B.S. system seem tame by comparison. Interestingly enough science fiction was the genre that lent itself to these experiences. The next blog will look at these revolutionary titles.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 4...

The arcade industry was going through some changes during the early part of the ‘90s. Consoles from Nintendo, Sega and even NEC had grown tremendously over the ‘80s and had syphoned away a large number of arcade fans. In order to stay ahead of the curve the publishers had to really push what arcade games were capable of. They had to have experiences that were superior to anything available at home. By focusing on the development of 3D titles the big publishers like Namco and Sega could guarantee that they would remain at the forefront of gaming and technology. A decade after Namco had released Galaga they had taken their first tentative steps into 3D space shooters. Solvalou was a rarely seen arcade game in the US. It played like a first-person Xevious. The title from 1991 featured many of the similar locations, enemies and music that were in the groundbreaking SHMUP. Part of the reason I enjoyed the arcade title had less to do with the game itself and more with the deluxe sit down cabinet. The Japanese developers used more of a mecha or anime influence on the cabinet design, molding the seat and frame to appear more like a cockpit. To young gamers it was far more immersive than some pressboard covered in vinyl stickers. One of the biggest hurdles that Namco had to overcome was the storage capacity for games. ROMs were expensive to manufacture, CDs did not store much data and DVD technology had not yet caught up with the industry. The company relied on LaserDisks for several of their early 3D entries like Solvalou.

The 3D title was a nice change of pace to the graphics and gameplay that had been featured earlier in the arcade. Granted, there were earlier PC flight simulators that were ported over to the arcade during the 3D gold rush, but they weren’t games. Or to be more correct they didn’t play like games. Solvalou was the first genuine attempt at moving the SHMUP into 3D. Its diversity of locations, from flying over an alien stronghold to battling them in the farthest reaches of space was a different experience in 3D. The enemy types and high pace gameplay did a good job at capturing the essence of Xevious. Moreover it made the sensation of piloting a space ship somewhat believable.

At the same time Solvalou was in the arcades Sega was also cutting their teeth on 3D technology. They had yet to release their revolutionary 3D racing games. Namco had already begun pushing the industry in that direction in the late ‘80s thanks to Winning Run. The early 3D Namco racing game failed to make a big splash in the arcade but Solvalou got gamers genuinely excited in the space shooter genre all over again. Sega figured out a way to bring the 3D experience home using their Sega CD addition to the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive. The storage capacity that the CD offered over the cartridge was tremendous. Yet the console was not powerful enough to render massive environments on the fly as well as opponents to shoot down. Developer Game Arts found a happy medium. They created limited scale ships and opponents and superimposed them over video playback of polygon environments. It was seamless and looked absolutely stunning for that generation of games. Silpheed was the name of the Game Arts 1993 sleeper-hit. Sega could genuinely claim to have brought the arcade experience home with that shooter. The company had introduced players to a world that looked as robust as the best AAA arcade SHMUP to date. The ship designs were amazing, the levels memorable and the gameplay challenging but balanced. Even small details like the layout of the scoreboard, ship energy meter all looked futuristic. The game integrated cut scenes and full audio in with a soundtrack that helped pull the gamer into the experience. This was the secret to all great games. Players could get lost in the best titles and feel connected to the worlds that the developers had spent months if not years crafting.

There was a downside to being on the cutting edge of technology. The Sega Genesis was a popular console but not every owner was willing to purchase the Sega CD attachment. It doubled the price of the console and with that money gamers could instead buy a Super Nintendo. The rival publisher had a game out called Star Fox at the same time. It was considered one of the finest science fiction shooters ever created. The engineers at Nintendo managed to squeeze every ounce of processing power out of the console and cram the SNES cartridge with a memorable team of characters, environments and bosses. Of course the small percentage of gamers that had both consoles could testify as to how much more robust Silpheed was. Unfortunately for them Nintendo had the fortune of selling far more units and influencing a generation of players into thinking that StarFox was the definitive next generation console shooter.

Sega managed to keep a cult-like following from gamers the world over. They never let the publisher forget that there was still an audience very much in love with the world that they had seen previously. This was thanks in part to the release that Silpheed got for the PC and the sequel that Game Arts developed for the Playstation 2. Heavyweight SHMUP developer Treasure helped co-develop the sequel Silpheed: The Lost Planet. Released in 2000 the game took advantage of everything the newest console offered. The polygons were now textured and all sorts of lighting and environmental effects could be rendered on the fly. Sadly little else was seen on the series after the title was released. Sega had “lost” the console wars and cancelled all future console developments after the Dreamcast. Veteran gamers had lost all hope that the company would ever revisit the IP.

In 2006 Square Enix released a game called Project Sylpheed: Arc of Deception. The game played more like a flight simulator than a SHMUP. This was not necessarily a bad thing. The change in formats helped add a whole new way to appreciate the franchise. It turned out that Sega had partnered with the studio that was best known for their Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts releases. The fingerprints of Square Enix were all over the title. Project Sylpheed focused tremendously on over-the-top character designs and their interpersonal relationships, adding lengthy cut scenes and tons of dialogue where once before there was only action. The studio had done similar things to the fighting, role playing and brawler genres. The Xbox 360 exclusive was well received despite the focus on decidedly Japanese characters and convoluted game plots. Sadly little else followed the title.

To be fair however there was another notable 3D SHMUP released before Solvalou. Raiden by Taito was a title from 1990. It was also built with a polygon engine instead of a sprite-based one. Raiden was based on the familiar top-down, vertical view rather than in Solvalou’s first person perspective. The diversity of locations, from flying over an alien stronghold to battling them in the farthest reaches of space was a completely different experience when presented from the pilot’s perspective. The enemy types and high pace gameplay of Solvalou did a good job at capturing the essence of Xevious. Moreover it made the sensation of piloting a space ship somewhat believable. Namco made a version of a traditional shooter built on polygon technology as well. Nebulas Ray from 1994 was the sorely under-appreciated arcade gem that was the "missing link" from the studio.

The shifting perspective helped add an additional layer of depth especially when combined with the new polygon ship models. Sharp-eyed players could actually see the enemy types were pulled from Galaxian, Xevious and Starblade continuity. In many instances these were some of the first 3D models of the classic sprite-based ships. The game actually introduced an entirely new threat to humanity. An evil alien menace known as the "Master Force" was threatening to invade the planet of Austral. Despite the bump in the graphics department the fans of the classic UGSF SHMUPS did not enjoy Nebulas Ray as much as its predecessors. It played differently than any other Namco gem. The play area actually spread out further than one screen on either side. When players reached the edge of the screen it would scroll sideways and allow players to enjoy another third screen's worth of playable area. This was not bad planning per-say but audiences didn't know if they were missing secrets or areas that were potentially worth more points just outside of the standard viewable area. Because of this reason very few SHMUP and even Bullet Hell games never followed that school of design. Instead they tried to fit all of the action and playable area on one screen. The designers learned from their mistakes and didn't try to repeat any of the things they tried out in Nebulas Ray. It was the following release from Namco that caught the attention of gamers.

Xevious 3D/G+ was released in the Arcade in 1995 and ported to the Playstation in 1996. The game had a similar perspective to Raiden, in that it was not exactly top-down but set just a few degrees behind the player so that gamers could see more of the foreground in the distance. The game started very much like the classic Xevious, featuring updated remixes of the classic songs as well. The enemy types and locations were exactly as audiences had remembered from the ‘80s hit. Yet very quickly things began to change as entirely new types of enemies began to run and fly all over the screen in full 3D. Players were taken to all sorts of new locations in the shooter, broadening the experience that they thought they knew from the previous games. The adherence to the classic gameplay with improved graphics helped make the game a bigger hit when compared to Nebular Ray.

Namco had a favorable reputation in gaming community because they remained true to their roots. They managed to create classic arcade experiences while incorporating newer technology but little by little it slipped away. Sega had also lost the presence that they had once carried. They let their internal teams fall into disarray or leave the company. The publisher did not allow their developers to experiment with new gaming experiences and instead focused their resources on half-hearted sequels. The majority of the Sega games seemed to be handled by outside developers now. They lacked the quality of the original titles and as such many fans were dismayed with every new announcement. After turning Zaxxon into a Temple Run clone in honor of its 30th anniversary it was for the best that Sega did nothing for the 20th anniversary of Silpheed. The same observations could be made of Namco and their biggest titles. Many had also hit the 20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries in recent years but little was done to show for that except for the occasional mobile release. The studio had a difficult time making their classic games relevant again. Both studios had earned their followings in the ‘80s and ‘90s and then seemed to lose the connection with them at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps the problem for the studios was that they peaked too soon. The companies had shown an entire generation that video games were the most important form of entertainment in the past century. They had a hard time maintaining that momentum on home consoles. The best experiences however could never be recreated at home. One of the greatest space shooters ever released was missed by a large majority of game players because of the consoles. The next blog looks at this title.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 3...

Much earlier in this series I mentioned that Sega and Namco had been trading punches through most of their tenure in the arcade. Like an ongoing rap battle between two heavyweights (that didn’t end in gunfire) there was no definitive victor. Of course the fans would be happy to see the action as the years went on. Sega would be credited for better racing games but Namco would counter with longevity. In the space shooter arena Galaga had stomped the best work from Sega. That was of course until Sega reconsidered their approach. The studio released Space Harrier in 1985. The game had a similar graphics approach to Buck Rogers: The Planet of Zoom but instead of piloting a ship the player was controlling a futuristic soldier and his rocket powered gun. The character could run along the ground or fly into the air while shooting down alien life forms. It was a bold new idea for the genre and completely shook up audiences. Space Invaders and Asteroids had taught them that there was only one way to go alien hunting. All of a sudden players could become a super soldier and take on gigantic monsters single handedly.

Namco countered with Burning Force in 1989. The title had the same basic gameplay as Space Harrier, except in the Namco version players could get “power-ups” to increase their firepower. Players also rode atop a rocket bike that would be transformed in latter levels into a mini spaceship. The game wasn’t as well received in the US as it had been abroad but Namco was still demonstrating that they could match Sega beat-for-beat. When it came to space adventures Namco seemed to hold a slight advantage.

Both studios realized that gaming could be limited only by the imagination of the designers. They began experimenting with genres and to make things more interesting began taking audiences to alien worlds. Of course for the sake of action they had to be extremely hostile planets. This was the case in the 1986 game Quartet by Sega. It was a rare 4-player title that could be played on a single free standing cabinet. In it audiences had to fight their way from the surface of an alien planet into the core of a base. The opponents in the game were highly-evolved robots of different shapes and sizes. The players were equipped with high tech weapons and rocket backpacks to move through the stages.

Namco had released a game called Baraduke in 1986. It was better known as Alien Sector in the US and closely mirrored Sega’s game. Of course this was all coincidence because development on both titles took place at about the same time. In the single-player game audiences took on the role of a space soldier named Masuyo "Kissy" Toby. She had to infiltrate an alien complex and destroy the monsters trying to invade a nearby planet. Instead of robots she had to fight biological creatures that look like mutated bats and slugs. She also had use of a rocket backpack and advanced weaponry. While neither title became enormous blockbusters they still developed a following, the Namco game more so than the Sega title.

Gamers in Japan and the US became enamored with alien planets being the backdrop to different genres. From adventure to racing, action and even role playing games there was something unique about having humans and aliens interact in a title. Sega developed a unique game set on an alien world but that had the look and feel of classic RPG. It was a mix of fantasy and science fiction that went over well with audiences. Phantasy Star debuted for the Sega Master system in 1987. I remember very vividly playing through the title at my friend’s house. My family had an NES and his had the Master System. We would split our time playing the best of both consoles. In the early versions of Phantasy Star there was a lot more swords and sorcery but as the series continued it began to have a science fiction tilt to it. Aliens replaced monsters in dungeons and laser weapons replaced swords and arrows.

Sega would expand the scope of Phantasy Star over the years and refine the look of the character classes and their abilities. Like many genres there were some growing pains. First Sega had to wean audiences off of sprite based graphics and get them to accept the polygon models. Then they added action RPG elements to make it more appealing to mainstream gamers than the old turn-based combat system. The canon of the game was explored throughout the series adding all sorts of character classes and monsters in the process. It turned out that what looked like magic in earlier games was simply technology that had advanced to the point of being controlled by conscious thought. The publisher would keep the franchise going in one format or another for over two decades. They had most recently debuted Phantasy Star Online 2 for the PC in 2013. It looked stunning compared to the version I remember as a kid.

Namco had also spent several years exploring different space adventures. In 2006 the studio released a space quest called Bounty Hounds for the PSP. The portable game was very much in the vein of Phantasy Star Online, except it emphasized the combat portions even more. It was like a science fiction version of the popular Capcom fantasy game Monster Hunter. The characters visiting the various alien planets were more like mercenaries or bounty hunters instead of soldiers. This lent them a bit more leeway for the carnage audiences could inflict onto their opponents.

In 2012 and 2013 Namco looked at turning the game into an MMO. The Taiwanese developers XPEC created both the portable and PC games. They had experience with the MMO format, and more important, with Chinese trends which was important because China and Korea were booming economies that loved MMO experiences. Over the generations audiences enjoyed the idea of leaving the Earth behind and starring in an adventure on the furthest reaches of the galaxy. John Carter, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were early pulp heroes that set the foundation for the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Science fiction film and television helped inspire a generation of game designers. A string of science fiction shooters from the west, including Halo, Gears of War and Mass Effect have only emphasized that understanding. Namco and Sega had pioneered the earliest off-planet adventures. They constantly provided inspiration for the young gamers and future designers, developers, artists and animators that had grown up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Taking the battle to the homeworld of an alien planet was fun however there was a certain level of cool associated with piloting a spaceship. There was a transitional period between spite based and polygon based engines for the space shooter just as there had been for the racing genre. Would you care to guess who was leading the charge? We’ll look at a few games that set the bar in the next blog.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 2...

The decade of the 1980's was always compared to the wild west for the video game industry. It was a period where a tremendous fortune could be made by a single hit or lost on a terrible gamble. The smallest companies, like Microsoft and Apple, would come out of nowhere and become giants. Companies that had always been invested in the electronic entertainment business, like Sega, Williams and Midway had moved their operations away from mechanical and electro mechanical pinball and arcade boxes into all-electronic video cabinets. Atari was a relatively young upstart but was one of the companies that was poised to become a giant by the end of the '70s. Their operations were bolstered when they began distributing Namco games in the USA. A string of hits, not the least of which was Pac-Man, insured that the company would be able to to push their R&D department as far as they could.

I gave Namco a lot of credit for setting the foundations of the SHMUP in the previous blog. To be fair the US had contributed a tremendous amount to the genre as well. The 1979 Atari game Lunar Lander was special to me and would set the precedence for simulation-style experiences from the company. Yet that was not the vector-graphics based game I was referring to. In 1980 the Williams Electronics company released a game called Defender. It was a frenetic race to save humans from the clutches of alien abductors. Gamers could pilot a space jet and shoot down UFOs and carry humans to safety. The vector graphics were in full-color and appeared even better rendered than those from Missile Command. The game was notable for its lightning quick gameplay, use of a map at the top of the screen and brilliant special effects. The side-to-side scrolling display was different than the top-down scrolling that had been featured in Space Invaders and Galaxian. Many of the longest-running SHMUPS, like Darius, Gradius and R-Type had gone from left to right rather than top down. This game predated them all by at least half a decade.

Sega was getting hammered by their rivals in the science fiction shooter category. The studio wanted to show that they were serious contenders so they secured a very popular license from the west. The Star Trek: Strategic Space Simulator appeared in 1983. I remember seeing the deluxe sit down cabinet in the arcade one weekend. It looked as futuristic as the sets featured in the live-action film. I was a kid when the film came out so I didn't really understand it but thought it looked impressive. The graphics were minimal on the clean-white pressboard cabinet. It was supposed to look and feel like the captain's chair. It had a tinted window the player and even canopy which added a sense of privacy and a bit of designer appeal.. The controls were on the armrests rather than under the screen. Players used buttons and a rotary knob to control the ship, its weapons and acceleration.

The audio clips from Spock and other Starfleet Characters were very futuristic for the time. The game looked and played like an advanced version of Asteroids. Granted it was nice being able to try out the Phasers, Photon Torpedoes and Warp in a video game but the experience felt flat. Possibly because the game was set on a two-dimensional plane and you had a better chance of staying alive if you used the smaller map (the one that looked like Asteroids) on the top right corner to track your ship rather than the large portion of the screen which was reserved for 3D vector models of enemy space ships. It got limited play at my local arcade possibly because it focused too much on the simulator experience and less on the gameplay experience. It was difficult to control and the different weapons systems weren't intuitive. The secret to great arcade experiences was something that a player could pick up quickly yet take a long time to master. I don't remember seeing the Star Trek game in many arcades, at least not a working copy, so I was lucky to have gotten a chance to play it while it was out.

The same year that Sega had released an expensive flop Atari had put themselves back on the map. The US company had secured the only license that was even more high profile than Star Trek. Any kid that grew up in an arcade during the '80s could tell you where they were when the Star Wars game came out. Atari had grown by leaps and bounds in the vector graphics department. Three-dimensional shapes were now possible to draw on the fly. Although they were hollow vectors the framework for what would eventually become the polygon had been established. The game came out in both a stand up and deluxe sit-down configuration but if you were like me you waited to play the sit down one. The cabinet was a work of art. Enormous vinyl stickers depicting battles between X-Wing and TIE Fighters decorated the cabinet. It was much nicer to look at than the sterile Star Trek cabinet even if it was a bit reminiscent of the same art featured on the curtains in my bedroom. The controls were also covered in stickers, designed to make the front panel look like the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter. Imagine how impressive this assembly of plastic and plywood looked like to a kid. If our imagination could be set afire by a cardboard box and some colored markers then an arcade cabinet of this caliber was as good as sitting inside of an actual spacecraft.

The Empire Strikes back had been released just a few years prior so Star Wars was very much on our mind. In fact to get audiences ready for the sequel most theaters were running the original release again. It was the second showing or Star Wars that I remember slightly more clearly than the original. The screams of the TIE fighters. the enormous Death Star and the pivotal moment in the trench were all recreated by Atari. Using sound clips and digital versions of the John Williams score helped connect the movie experience to the game. Players assumed the role of Luke Skywalker and could actually fight through the battles again and again. The X-Wing was equipped with a set of shields which allowed you to survive several hits from an opponent, which was something that was much more forgiving than the Japanese games. It seemed like if you got hit once in those games you were dead. Every destruction of the Death Star made the game just a bit harder and more frenetic but even then audiences kept coming back to try and beat their own high score.

In 1985 Atari released the Empire Strikes Back in the arcade. The game was only marginally better than the original Star Wars and failed to draw in the numbers that they had achieved previously. What was odd however was that Atari had released the Return of the Jedi in 1984. The film ROTJ had appeared in 1983 so Atari needed to get a title out right away. In the process they seemed to cut a lot of corners and defaulted back to sprite based graphics. The game was very simplistic, almost kiddy-ish in its approach to the genre. It was an isometric game that lacked the charm of the previous vector entry. Not only that but Atari was selling both the Empire Strikes Back and the Return of the Jedi as upgrade kits to their existing cabinet. Arcade operators only needed to change a few components and a marquee and let the audiences use the same yoke setup to get through the games. I played the sequels a few times but nowhere as much as I had the original version. It would take a decade for Atari's version of Star Wars to be topped. Sega capitalized on the decline of Atari in the arcade and snatched up the license. They created an impeccable experience in 1993. This time it featured actual polygons instead of hollow vector frames. Many of the film characters had digitized appearances and sound clips in the game. The title was also a two-player experience with one person acting as the pilot and the second as a gunner. The game still played out on a path, or a track, but the pilot still had a little bit of leeway while flying around. Sadly very few people in the US got a chance to play the game. Even in all of the arcades that I visited in the southland I was only able to find one copy of it. Making it an extremely rare treat when I did play it.

A few years later Sega released what could be considered the definitive Star Wars experience, that was not called Star Tours. The Star Wars Trilogy Arcade game was sublime. It captured the spirit of every film in relatively short stages. The cabinet and joystick were inspired designs. The controller was a joystick that also served as a gun for the first-person shooting portions of the game, a yoke for the flying portions of the game and even as the handle of a lightsaber during the hand-to-hand combat portions. It featured more digitized audio from the films including the most accurate recreations of the blaster sounds and various film effects ever committed to a game. Sadly by 1998 the arcade industry was in decline and even the most stunning Star Wars experience was not enough to get people out of their homes. PC titles such as Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Wing Commander provided an immersive space combat experience as well.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Namco Chronicles, part 1...

This blog has spent a lot of time talking about cars and racing games, Sorry if I lost you along the way. I was just trying to chronicle my gaming interests, especially the titles that I had the fortune of seeing debut in my lifetime. I will actually use the next few blogs as a buffer for a different genre but once we go back to my original topic I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. One of the earliest memories that I had of the arcade were of little alien ships in a row dripping down over a city. The animation was crude by todays standards, the colors lacking and the gameplay very rudimentary yet for some reason I couldn't look away. Space Invaders by Taito was a groundbreaking experience and became a smash hit in the USA as distributed by Midway, and in Japan as distributed by Namco. It was not the first video game set in space. That distinction actually went to Spacewar, a computer simulation game from 1962. In 1977 the company Cinematronics released an arcade version called Space Wars. The game was fairly popular because the first Star Wars film was released that year. Yet space-themed arcade games were barely getting started. The demand for an actual Star Wars video game wouldn't hit a fever pitch for a few more years.

An upstart called Namco took a chance at entering the arcade industry. This company had found moderate success with their first two games, breakout-style games named Gee Bee and Bomb Bee. Yet they knew they needed to have a hit in order to survive. They looked at what was hot and where they could improve upon it. The company had the audacity to replicate the Space Invaders formula almost verbatim. Galaxian debuted in 1979 and introduced the world to full color space combat. It had more detailed graphics than Space Invaders and added enemies that flew in patterns and attacked the player. There was no cover and the opponents were relentless in their assault rather than slowly descending from the top of the screen. The addition of a simple "soundtrack" and stars that scrolled in the background gave it a sense of weight and dimension. The arcade game had the potential to become the new source of entertainment. Galaxian gave audiences just a hint at the elements that would become important down the road. I was barely five when the game came out but could tell that it was very good. For years I thought that it was a sequel to Space Invaders, both games were distributed in the US by Midway. Only later on did I learn that Midway and Atari had been distributing games that should have been labeled Namco.

Galaxian was considered the godfather of the shoot-em-up or SHMUP genre but it was not alone. The US had been leaning towards cutting-edge vector engines which provided sharper graphics and even more realistic physics. Atari was leading the charge and had two completely different takes on the science fiction genre. Asteroids was one of the biggest hits for the company. For the first time audiences could fly all over the screen, rather than be stuck going left and right. All the while shooting at angular blocks, which were supposed to be asteroids as they floated across the screen. The occasional flying saucer would appear as well offering a combat element. The game had captured the sense of endless momentum that space was supposed to have. Based on the razor sharp graphics and realistic control scheme I assumed that this was some sort of training simulator. There were games in color that were set in space, yet they were cartoonish and unrealistic by comparison. Asteroids was in black and white and I assumed it was a decision that Atari made to make it play like a military simulator. In my young mind I assumed that the astronauts orbiting the Earth were shooting asteroids out of the sky. This was clearly the way that they got ready for their missions. year later a new experience from Atari had debuted. Missile Command was in color and the vector graphics technology seemed much better than before. The game controlled completely different than other titles, this one relied on a track ball and a button. This time around the simulator was training me to defend the major cities of the US (and sometimes the moon) from a Russian nuclear strike. To be honest I was never any good at it. I enjoyed watching the explosions go off and never tried to learn a strategy to help me protect the targets. As I saw the older arcade players go through the stages I could appreciate how much concentration and reaction skills were required. The best players at the local arcade seemed to be psychic. They could predict where the next missile was coming from and could actually send out countermeasures before the nukes had even appeared on screen. I couldn't wait to get older and become better at the games, or at the very least develop some of those psychic abilities myself.

My fascination with the realistic games that Atari had put out was short lived. The successor to Galaxian arrived in 1981. Galaga was the pinnacle of science fiction graphics and gameplay as far as I was concerned. The third Space Invaders-type game was the best yet and I was not the only person that thought that. It became the biggest selling SHMUP of all-time. It caused a shortage of ¥100 coins in Japan. Arcade owners could not put the coins back into circulation fast enough for the market. And there are people that think that Angry Birds or Flappy Birds is a phenomenon! There was a Galaga machine at every mall and arcade that I visited. They could even be found at the pizza parlor and corner market. Players could not get enough of the game. The constant battle against waves of swiftly moving "space bugs" required genuine skill to get through. The patterns that the alien ships used to create their formations were dizzying. Again the older players used their second sense to predict where the enemies were coming from. They would start firing and destroy the opponents before they even came on screen. There was even a challenging bonus round stage for players to really put their psychic powers to the test. The game had a catchy jingle that would play after the player put in a quarter. In fact the game had several songs that played through the course of the levels. As I got older the senior visitors to the arcade accepted me as a regular. They began to clue me in to their tricks, it was like being welcomed into a private club. Except instead of secret handshakes players traded secret codes under their breath in the corners of the arcade. Many knew each other by their scoreboard initials alone. I was one of the few that could fit their entire name with the three letters provided on the game over screen. To get better at Galaga they advised that I could line up my shots ahead of time by using the high score counter at the top of the screen and the player counter at the bottom of the screen. Even though the stars were constantly flying by the counters never budged.

Sega was aware that the industry was incorporating more science fiction titles into their portfolio. As one of the bigger publishers they wanted to show the world that they could create superior experiences. Zaxxon debuted the year after Galaga yet it was not as well remembered. The isometric shooter gave a sense of 3D not yet seen in any other game. Instead of playing in the depths of space with nothing but the stars to keep players company Zaxxon featured a series of enemy bases for players to raid. It offered audiences a taste of the trench run at the end of the first Star Wars film without having to pay George Lucas for the license. The highly detailed backgrounds included missile strikes, laser turrets, electrified barriers and oncoming spaceships. There was a tremendous amount of color and fidelity, which was something that the games of the early '80s were often lacking. Yet there was also the difficulty with the gameplay which ended up hurting the overall experience. Even with an altitude meter it was difficult to gage the position of enemy ships and missiles. Players had to rely on the shadow cast by the ship to determine their height, as well as where shots hit when approaching narrow passages. Sometimes shots would fly by opponents yet their return fire would hit players. It could be maddening how arbitrary the combat felt. Isometric games were few and far between for these reasons. To complicate matters the game had a fuel meter at the bottom of the screen and players had to constantly shoot at fuel containers in order to keep going. Zaxxon received a few sequels in the arcade and on several of the consoles that the company produced. To celebrate its 30th anniversary Sega released a Temple Run-style game called Zaxxon Escape. The webpage and trailer showed how different it is was compared to the classic arcade game. The use of the name and sudden shift in gameplay raised the ire of the fan community. The mobile title was a fun game, but it certainly was no Zaxxon.

Sega learned their lessons early on and tried again to beat their competition and establish their dominance in the genre. Buck Rogers: The Planet of Zoom used the scaling sprite technology that the company had featured in Turbo and would improve upon in OutRun and Space Harrier. The game was a different attempt at making a 3D experience out of two-dimensional sprites and it worked fairly well. Buck Rogers was a hero from pulp comics and radio programs. He was quite possibly the first science fiction hero to get featured in the arcade medium. In the game players flew Buck's spaceship through various dimensions and shot down UFO's and enemy carriers. I remember the game being very frenetic, not to the scale of modern SHMUP "Bullet Hell" shooters, but in the sense that the bright colors and flashing lights were a distraction. They hurt the sense of awe that flying in three dimensions was supposed to provide. I saw very little of the game outside of a few local arcades. I would say that it was lost in time even faster than Zaxxon.

Namco on the other hand was enjoying their position. Their game engines lacked the processing power and graphics technology that Sega was promoting. Namco made up for it by offering great gameplay. In 1982, the same year that Sega had Buck Rogers in the arcade, Namco released Xevious, it was another of the most successful shooters of all-time. Xevious was the first Namco game to feature a scrolling background. It was even an more of a direct ancestor to the SHMUP than Galaga. It set the precedence that would be copied by the entire industry from Capcom's 1942 to Tecmo's Raiden and everything in between. From a player persecutive Xevious offered a much more rewarding experience than Galaga. Players felt like they were making progress as the game went on, rather than simply surviving wave after wave of enemy squadrons. Every assault on an enemy compound was a rewarding challenge, rather than a frustrating battle as was the problem with Zaxxon. 1982 turned out to be a very good year for Namco. The studio had Pole Position and Dig Dug out in arcades and were still making a hefty return on Pac-Man from a few years prior. The unofficial sequel Ms. Pac-Man and Super Pac-Man were also adding to the Namco coiffeurs. That revenue would have to be funneled into R&D because Sega and Atari were ready to revolutionize the space shooter. The next blog will feature these titles, I hope to see you back for another chapter in the series.