NamCompendium Prologue: Two Wooden Horses

+++Editor’s Note: This was first posted on my own Giant Bomb user blog back in August 2017. Along with the first seven entries in this series I will be reposting my old work here.+++

NamCompendium is an attempt to survey the output of NAMCO from October 1978 to present. The primary goal of this work is to provide as authoritative of information as possible for Giant Bomb’s Wiki, with the secondary goal of considering the relative merits of individual games. To kick things off, however, it is worth considering NAMCO’s origins.

When you see the name Namco on a product today, you are most likely to see it alongside another name. That is due to the fact that Namco, strictly speaking, stopped existing as a distinct entity in 2005. Late that year, a merger was approved by the shareholders of both Namco and Bandai to create a very large and sprawling amusement conglomerate. Namco Bandai Holdings could be considered a classical zaibatsu, and the Bandai half of this entity carried its own large portfolio of amusement technologies, video games, toys, licenses, and sundry. But my focus in this study is on the other half of the coin, the Namco side.

It turns out Namco is one of the older players in the video game industry. Accepting for the major outlier that is Nintendo, which was founded in 1889, Namco’s founding predates the establishment of most Japanese video game companies. Of the companies that predate it, one of them (Taito, 1953) was purchased by Square Enix in 2005; another (Bandai, 1950) became rolled together with Namco, and the other (Sony, 1946) is now one of the largest companies on the planet. Namco began its life with maybe the most cloying origin story possible. In 1955, a then thirty year old Nakamura Masaya installed two wooden riding horses on the roof of a department store in Yokohoma. It would be the first attraction operated by Nakamura Manufacturing Company, and from what I’ve found in researching this project I think it reflects something of the soul of the company, as well as the man who founded it.

namco-horses
Namco’s humble origins as an arcade and amusement juggernaut.

Nakamura was born in December 1925, and would graduate with an engineering degree in 1948. The timing of this is somewhat important to a slightly hagiographical spin on Nakamura-san; as best I can tell, his age and his university studies align conveniently such that we don’t need to discuss any involvement in the Imperial Japanese military during World War II. Instead, we may consider Nakamura as a young man looking for opportunities to use his engineering mind to meet the needs of a post-war economy on the amend. The opportunity he spotted was in making people happy, and his first venture was aimed specifically at children. No bashfully acknowledged “love hotels”, no gambling devices (though they would come eventually), just rides for children. His interest in amusement installments would last through the rest of his professional life at Namco. The company at various points operated some half a dozen amusement parks, including the fantastically named Namco Wonder Eggs Park in Tokyo. Press releases from the late nineties, while largely comprised of arcade and console game announcements, alway seem to have found time every month or so to highlight the latest goings on at Wonder Eggs or Namco NamjaTown, and indoor theme park. Less romantically, Namco also was a major player in the arcade operation space in this time. The company would purchase the Aladdin’s Castle franchise of arcades from Bally in 1993, and through the nineties would continue to absorb North American arcade operators. It is not hard to envision Nakamura having perhaps more interest in the operation of these spaces for families to enjoy themselves than in the inner workings of, say, how to chain 10-hit combos in Tekken 3.

But, we’re still in the 1950s. From two wooden horses, Nakamura Manufacturing would grow to operate more attractions across the Tokyo Bay area. The company grew steadily, and by 1974 they were looking for ways to expand their portfolio. Happily for Namco, and less so for those seeking to document the specifics, this desire for growth via acquisition gives us cause to talk about Atari.

Formed in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted DabneyAtari, Incorporated is an absolute nightmare to document based on just how diluted the name “Atari” became over the years through various mergers, sales, legal battles, etc. Indeed, one of the earliest rumblings of just how screwy Atari would become is a core part of this story. Bushnell’s Pong, a clone of a game he saw on a Magnavox Odyssey which is for many the canonical “first video game”, was an immensely successful attraction, and he founded a distribution and licensing arm in Japan to plan for future growth. As documented in David Sheff’s Game Over, Atari Japan was a mismanaged nightmare that was actively being robbed by employees throughout its brief and troubled existence. Bushnell wanted an out, and Nakamura wanted an in. Atari Japan would be sold to Nakamura Manufacturing in 1974 for $500,000, ten times the price Sega bid to buy the company. As part of the deal, Namco was given license to solely distribute Atari arcade games in Japan for a decade. This would be their first video game licensing deal, and certainly not their last.

Beyond their first tip toe into gaming, the purchase also came with a very capable individual named Nakajima Hide. Nakajima had done all he could to keep Atari Japan afloat, and demonstrated his worth to Nakamura such that he was made Vice President of NAMCO in 1978. It was on Nakajima’s advice that Namco America was opened that year, across from Atari’s former headquarters in Sunnydale, CA. This office would serve as Namco’s jumping off point for licensing their early arcade output to Atari and Midway for North American distribution.

(On the name: it is an acronym that works slightly better in Japanese, where Nakamura Manufacturing Company collapses nightly into three hiragana, ナムコ.)

Namco’s relationship with Atari only becomes increasingly complicated from here. In 1984, the American home video game market was still in a crater (thanks in part to a port of a Namco game, no less), and Atari was in tatters. Warner Communications, Atari’s parent company since 1976, broke the company into two halves: home consoles and computers, and arcade games. The former was sold to recently ousted former Commodore founder Jack Tremiel, who reconstituted the company as Atari Corporation. The arcade operations, including the game franchises themselves, were then sold in part to Namco in 1985 for $10 million. Nakajima saw value in retaining shared ownership of what became Atari Games (a named devised by the ruthless Tremiel, which was forced to be printed in full on all future products as to differentiate them from Atari Corp.) Nakamura, however, viewed Atari Games as competition and resented this power sharing deal with Warner. A rift formed between the two, which was resolved in 1986 by further muddying the water. Nakamura sold Namco’s stake in Atari Games to Nakajima, then-current Atari Games employees, and to Warner. Nakajima resigned as Vice President, and became head of Atari Games.

The company would go on to produce a multitude of third party cartridges for the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America under the Tengen label, including a host of Namco titles. This would lead to litigation between Atari Games and Nintendo, not to be confused with damn near concurrent litigation between Atari Corp. and Nintendo. To be honest, I’ve grown to hate even the mention of Atari after having done what work I have on this project. What’s worse, Atari played some part in the pre-video game output of Namco! There is no escape!

Namco’s first electromechanical game, as far as I can tell, was 1970’s Racer. It used a projector system to simulate movement along a race track. This was followed by a spiritual sequel in 1976, co-produced with Atari, called F-1. The other truly notable pre-video game installation by Namco was 1977’s Shoot Away. An electromechanical clay pigeon shooting gallery, Shoot Away similar in concept to Nintendo Laser Clay Shooting System but small enough to fit in your average tavern (LCSS having infamously been designed to operate in a bowling alley-sized space). Shoot Away would spawn direct and spiritual successors, recreations of which would be featured as minigames in larger products over the years. Significantly, it was also designed by Sawano Kazunori, an individual who shockingly is not yet included in the Wiki. It was Sawano who would design Galaxian, Namco’s first breakout video game two years later in 1979. Sawano is also credited on Pole PositionStar Wars (yes, the one with Darth Vader as a scorpion), and Time Crisis.

In the same year that Sawano was putting together a vaguely canonical grandfather to the Time Crisis franchise, Namco would make another significant hire. Toru Iwatani joined the company in 1977. His primary interest at the time was doing design work on pinball tables. While this would have been a perfectly acceptable use of his time, Iwatani would elaborate on the notion that video games should cater to people outside of a male demographic and create Pac-Man, one of the most important video games and pop culture touchstones of the twentieth century. He is also credited with Namco’s first ever proper video game ass video game, as well as Pole Position and Pole Position IIPac-Man Championship Edition…and yes, he was also in Pixels as himself. Because we are a fallen creation.

By 1978, Namco had all of the important pieces in place: creative talent, technical prowess, competent management, and the means to distribute and license its output. In October of that year, the first Namco developed game would land in Japanese arcades. Three years later, they would be a Colossus among the Golden Age of arcade games. All of this can be traced back to two wooden horses on a department store roof.

Thanks for sticking around. I don’t intend to write at this length all too frequently. In fact, most of the work in this project will quietly be taking place on Wiki pages for various games. Most posts will likely be roundups of articles with some commentary added by myself, but I reserve the right to wax poetic as I see fit. -J

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