NamCompendium 1: Toru Dreams of Pinball

***Author’s Note: This was originally posted to the author’s blog on Giant Bomb in September 2017. In posting it here, he has taken the liberty of adding some multimedia to the experience.***

In the last few weeks, my Giant Bomb Wiki score has ballooned by over 3000 points. I am nearly to the point where I can (finally!) make unmoderated release history changes, which will be a godsend to this project. Prior to kicking this thing off, my most weighty contributions to the Wiki were edits to the Chris JerichoThe Rock, and Medieval: Viking Invasion pages. I have now created a handful of pages whole cloth, and provided as accurate as possible of release information as my sleuthing could provide to several others…including several non-Namco pages, it turns out.

To frame these contributions, I’m gonna try a format out and see how I feel once it is posted. The card is always subject to change, folks.

As mentioned in NamCompendium Prologue, the first Namco video game came from the same mind that brought us Pac-Man. Between October 1978 and November 1979, Namco would release three video pinball games developed by Toru Iwatani. While incredibly simple by modern standards (or even by the standards of analog pinball machines), it is perhaps most worthwhile to consider this triad of games on an evolutionary arc.

Gee Bee

October 1978 (Arcade)

Gee Bee is a simple two-paddle game that plays like a hybrid of something like Video Olympics and Breakout. 1710658-gee_beeThe top half of the table is surrounded by drop targets or bricks, with two bumpers and a spinner to provide some variety. The most interesting single item on the table is a vertically-arrayed barrier set statically just off center of the table, though this by itself serves only as another barrier off of which to bounce the ball. There is no multiball, and the mostdynamic part of the table are the letters N – A – M – C – O in lights, which provide a bonus if all are activated. It sure is a pinball game.

Bomb Bee

June 1979 (Arcade)

Namco followed up Gee Bee eight months later with Bomb Bee, which demonstrates a few thoughtful improvements over its predecessor. Here, instead of basically having the entire table available for play from the outset, the two bumpers are set behind a barrier of bricks. Players must break through this barrier to achieve the euphoria of getting a ball stuck behind a bumper for a constant stream of arcade-y bleeps and accompanying points. Players are also treated to square shaped drop targets on the left and right hand sides, and a discrete well of bricks at top center. In a period of eight months, we have progressed from “I must break all of the bricks” to “I must accomplish x in order to accomplish y”.

For the purposes of this survey, it is worth noting that Bomb Bee is also as far back as one can go into Namco’s catalog without resorting to, ahem, gaming by more nautical means. Though not included in the North American or European releases, Bomb Bee was a hidden bonus game in the Japanese release of Namco Museum Volume 2. As mentioned in the Wiki article, Volume 2 is available digitally on Japanese PSN, which makes Bomb Bee one of the oldest video game made officially available for play on the PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita.

Cutie Q

Novembe 1979 (Arcade)

This informal and unnamed pinball trilogy was rounded out by Cutie Q, which blows the damn doors off of both of its predecessors. Cutie Q was in fact managed at a project level by Shigeru Yokoyama, who has been credited on titles as recently as 2014. Character designs, however, were handled by Iwatani. The game evolves basic objective chain concepts from Bomb Bee into a classic “risk vs. reward” challenge; contacting the ball with the bottom paddle adds a ghost to a well at the top of the screen, and chaining four ghosts into this well with a sufficiently high multiplier is a great way of hunting down high scores. The drop targets are repurposed as well; instead of hiding yet more bumpers, this time they hide a little yellow man worth a rapidly cycling amount of bonus points as a target. While they certainly are not fully fledged “characters” as would become common soon enough, these ghosts and little yellow dudes serve as unique character sketches and point the way forward for Iwatani’s game development career. Somewhere between November 1979 and May 1980, he would go on an apocryphal date and have the stunning realization that basically everybody on Earth has some passing interest in eating sweets. We’re still dealing with the results.

***

From early Pac-Man progenitorial work, we move into three games which have honestly proven to be the most frustrating part of this project by a significant margin. Based on much digging, including sending some hail mary style emails to Namco Bandai HQ, I am only confident enough to state the following: between Q4 1979 and Q2 1980, Namco released three black and white arcade games on the same hardware as Namco’s pinball trilogy. Each of these games Providing more specific release information has proven impossible at this time. The core dispute here is between Arcade-history.com and what I am assuming is a single author who has edited multiple sources online to indicate that these games were released in either an A – B – C sequence or a C – B – A sequence. Consider the dates provided preliminary at best.

Navarone

February 1980 (Arcade)

A rough plurality of sources online indicate that the first of this triad was Navarone. Based perhaps loosely on the novel The Guns of Navarone (or even the cracking film adaption of same), Navarone is another title attributed to Yokoyama-san. Players are tasked with laying siege to the fictitious Mediterranean island by firing upon targets while avoiding enemy fire from indestructible emplacements. At intervals, a square in the middle of the island will open on one side and allow the player to fire upon a large skull-octopus…thing for bonus points. Once each of the small, static targets are destroyed, the board resets with the gun nests increasing their rate of fire at each reset. Repeat until your lives or 100 yen pieces are expended. Incredibly, Navarone is not the most simplistic of the three games in consideration here.

Kaitei Takara Sagashi

February 1980 (Arcade)

Nor, indeed, is Kaitei Takara Sagashi. Developed at least to prototype state by “K.K. Tokki” (perhaps Tokki K.K., a machine works company based in a neighborhood adjacent to Namco’s Minato stomping grounds), Kaitei plays like a combination of Frogger and the underwater sequences of LJN’s licensed game Jaws. Players dive to pots at the bottom of a playfield, avoiding horizontal streams of sharks, and recover various treasures for points at the bottom of the playfield. Four of these randomly seeded pots contain points, while a fifth triggers an instant death. Let me assure, a random blind box that removes one of your three lives is just as fun as it sounds. Otherwise, it is a perfectly cromulent arcade experience with obscure origins.

SOS

February 1980 (Arcade)

I am not satisfied with with the repeated claims on various online sources that SOS is the final of this triad, if only because it is by far the simplest of the three. Nevertheless, Wikipedia, StrategyWiki and Namco.wikia.com (perhaps edited by the same author in each case) attest that SOS is the capstone of this trio of black and white games. Dates, including from my own gold standard at arcade-history.com, range from October 1979 to “early” 1980, with Namco.wikia providing February 1980. As such, this is the last of three games I would qualify with a real asterisk insofar as release dates are concerned. Several entries in my list have only a year associated with them, but I am at least fairly confident in that year.

In any case, SOS plays like a fossilized antecedent to Capcom’s 1942. Players fight through an endless cascade of oncoming fighters from a fixed position, being penalized for each that passes beyond your ship untouched by decreasing a counter. Players can restore this decreasing counter by responding to flashing SOS calls on the extreme left and right of the field of play, which also provides points. Play continues until the missed fighter count is depleted in full.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that may be said about SOS is its inclusion of some early arcade cheesecake; at 2000 point intervals, players are treated to a bikini clad woman with the message “COFFEE BREAK”. What’s more, through fiddling with dip switches one is able to skip the bikini and go straight to full on hardcore nudity from the Year of Our Lord 1980.

And so, we’ve considered here six of the seven Namco titles that predate Pac-Man. These games had mercifully slight release histories, though it appears a handful of these were given subsequent arcade releases by third parties in Japan and the United States. Even accounting for that, things get exponentially more complex from here. We are about enter into the wild and wacky world of Namco’s dealings with home console publishing and third party hell. Enter Atari, enter Nintendo, and enter a company that today makes hardware for Apple computers. Next time, we will most likely consider the twin titans of Galaxian and Pac-Man.

EDIT: Upon further research, I am now comfortable in saying that Navarone, Kaitei Takara Sagashi, and SOS were all February 1980 titles. In the 1987 arcade game Dragon Spirit, a list of Namco arcade titles is provided and all three games are listed as “1980 2” releases. Whereas before the release dates provided herein where “Between Q4 1979 and Q2 1980”, these dates have now been edited to reflect the company’s official stated dates.

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