After dealing with the whopper history of Namco’s perennial hit Pac-Man, I am grateful that the next few titles in this series will be far less perilous to explore. Indeed, five titles separate Toru Iwatani‘s masterpiece from Galaga’s release in the fall of 1981. We’ll be examining the first two of these herein.
King & Balloon
October 1980 (Arcade, Japan)
King & Balloon is the second and last game produced to run on the same arcade hardware as Galaxian. Based on the same Zilog Z80 processor, the game shares a great deal of DNA with the aforementioned alien shooter. It retains the same broad format (fixed position horizontal shooter), the same star field scrolling in the background that provided inspiration for the Famicom’s design goals, and even features similar enemy attack patterns and sounds. The game does, however, represent a few interesting iterations on the fixed shooter concept.
For one, the game’s life system is kind of insane. The player controls two soldiers holding a cannon-esque gun on a bridge, beneath which is a rotund yellow king. The entire aim of the game is to protect said king, even at the expense of the nameless and unloved soldiers forced to brave enemy attacks from above. Indeed, these soldiers and their artillery piece can die repeatedly only to be immediately respawned at no cost. Allow the enemy balloons to bypass the soldiers, however, and the king will be swept up and dragged to the top of the screen. Every time the enemies succeed in carrying off his magesty, you lose a life.
The other noteworthy feature of this game is far more interesting from a technical standpoint: King & Balloon was a talkie. A very early talkie, as it turns out. Namco engineers added a digital-to-audio converter to the Galaxian board that allowed for the playback of digitized speech samples during play. These speech samples are region specific, but the script was the same in both the Japanese and American arcade releases: “Help!” as the king is pulled into the sky, and “Thanks!” if you succeed in rescuing him. In my opinion, these are shockingly clear digital voice samples for a 1980 arcade release.
King & Balloon was a relative late arrival in Namco’s archival efforts, having first appeared in the Japan-exclusive Namco Museum Encore compilation (available on Japanese PSN) beofre finally coming to the United States as part of the Namco Museum Battle Collection for PSP. It also made an appearance in the strange Namco Musuem: Virtual Arcade release for the 360; a proper shoggoth, somewhat like Rare Replay in function, Virtual Arcade bundled some games onto a disc while requiring others to be installed from Xbox Live Arcade. Good old K&B was a disc-only title, and didn’t even include Achievements. Bummer.
Prior to all of that, however, King & Balloon received one of the stranger ports covered so far in the NamCompendium. The Sega Mark III, later Master System, received a retail release in the Republic of Korea in 1985. There, some tremendous fan of King & Balloon with some free time on their hands ported the MSX version of the game to the Mark III. This uncredited and undated port is available on the World Wide Web for those willing to do a little searching. The Master System K&B runs in the system’s SG-1000 backwards compatibility mode, which would indicate some similarities between the MSX and Sega’s first home console. Besides rotating the aspect ratio and nixing the voice samples, it’s a reasonably well made port for who must be assumed to have been a hobbyist programmer.
October 1980 (Arcade, Japan)
King & Balloon was released in October 1980 in Japan. That same month, Namco released a second title to Japanese arcades. Tank Battalion utilized the same fundamental hardware as Namco’s first six games, covered back in NamCompendium 1. The underpinnings of this hardware, in contrast to Galaxian’s Zilog Z80, was an Intel 8080 central processing unit. Even here, though, there are sources online which state that Tank Battalion utilized a MOS 6502 in place of the 8080. Difficult to say without having the board in front of me, but I would hope they went with whichever option was cheaper as this is, put bluntly, a simple game.
Tank Battalion is an early example of a tower defense game, but with a free roaming player avatar. As the title would indicate, players are given control of a yellow tank and ordered to defend a sort of totemistic eagle thing at the bottom of the screen. Surrounding this totem, and arranged throughout the play field, is brick-textured destructible terrain. The player must weave their way through these prototypical waist high walls and destroy an onslaught of enemy tanks. If they kill you three times or destroy your totem, the game ends.
A few interesting notes here. First, there are two lose conditions. That’s sorta neat, right? No? Okay… well, there’s the strange jittery refresh rate on the movement of tanks to consider. Shots travel faster than the tanks but also appear to flicker across the screen. Perhaps more vexingly, while the player is only able to have a single shot on-screen at a given time, the enemy tanks do not abide by this limitation.
Honestly, the game feels like a very rough draft of Atari’s Combat. It feels particularly ancient when set against Pac-Man, which predates this by five months, and it is outshone even by the aforementioned King & Balloon. Clearly this arcade board architecture was being stretched very thin here. Remarkably, it’s not the last we’ll see of the mighty 6502 games from Namco. Equally as strange, Tank Battalion is the third game covered thus far which sired something of a franchise. The eponymous Tank Battalion series spawned two successor games: Battle City for the Famicom, which was later reworked for the Game Boy; and Tank Force for the arcades. The latter debuted in December of 1991, making the Tank Battalion a loose franchise indeed.
As this is a fairly brief entry into the NamCompendium, I’d like to touch on the unsung hero of every single game so far covered: Ishimura Shigeichi. Ishimura-san did hardware design for every single game I have written up this far with the sole exception of Pac-Man. For that title, he is credited with the game’s sound design alongside Toshio Kai. Not a lot is written about Ishimura-san in English (in fact if you search his name in Google the Giant Bomb Wiki entry I created is one of the top results), but in 2005 he was still at the company. He was named President of Namco during the merger with Bandai, and was 51 at the time. This exhausts the material that may be found about Ishimura on the English-speaking side of the Internet, but I’d welcome any Japanese speakers to add to this information.
Also added to the Giant Bomb Wiki was Hiraoka Kazukuni, a programmer who did sound work on Tank Battalion. I have not delved too far into his career with Namco, but I turned up a few citations for Hiroaka-san in English. First, he was the General Manager of Namco’s Computer Graphics Department as of November 1992. He also seems to have had some interest in Galaxian3, to be covered in 2421 by the author. Although I am unable to confirm it is the same person, a Hiraoka Kazukuni was an employee at SNK in the late 1990s. His name is attached to patent filings for photo booth technology, methods, and voice recording amusement devices. Riveting stuff. I have thus referred to Hiraoka as an employee of both Namco and SNK in our Wiki, and welcome any and all to correct this if necessary.
So ends another NamCompendium entry. We have examined the first ten Namco games thus far, and have nearly closed 1980 for first release dates. Namco managed to cram in one last release in the calendar year in question, however, and it warrants some discussion. We shall examine Rally-X, as well as its immediate update New Rally-X, and the final MOS 6502-based Namco arcade game ever made next time. Stay tuned.