NamCompendium 15: Mouse Police, Chemicals, and Mushrooms

I had a professor during my undergraduate years who was a great inspiration to me. One of the things this professor hammered home for me was to avoid using the passive voice when possible in writing. Be direct. Write in weighty, punchy prose. I’m not great at this mode of writing, but I aspire to be better.

In that spirit, 1983 is the beginning of Namco’s Silver Age. We are 25 games into this series (five of which were not developed by Namco) and we have already reached a point where the company has begun to settle into a mode more familiar to us in the present: Namco as a license holder that releases new entries into its existing properties, with a few experiments here and there. The next few years of the company’s existence would see their status as the gold standard for arcade titles diminished by the likes of Capcom, Konami, SNK, and (in particular) Sega. The followups to their earlier blockbuster titles would never quite reach the heights of the original objects, as we’ve already seen with Super Pac-Man, and over time the company would mostly settle into a third party publishing groove on competing home console platforms with a few boutique arcade cabinets developed annually.

On the flipside, the prior successes of the company had allowed Namco to accumulate a war chest that provided some space for its developers to create some weird shit. I think of this as a sort of Final Fantasy VIII situation, wherein the game prior did so well and onboarded so many people to the very concept of JRPGs that Squaresoft saw an opportunity to fiddle with the formula while secure in the knowledge that they’d at least be able to fool millions of people once. But while Final Fantasy VIII is a masterpiece (don’t @ me), some of Namco’s more inventive titles of 1983 do not hold up as well. We’ll look at three of those games in this issue, and lead off with the best of them.

Mappy

25 March 1983 (ARC, Japan)

Mappy is a game about an anthropomorphized mouse dressed as a cop, raiding the bandit hideouts of a cat gang and confiscating their pilfered goods with the aid of some strategically placed trampolines.

What I’m suggesting here is that Mappy is an absolute good, friends. This is the strangest thing the company had produced since Dig Dug, or perhaps Warp & Warp, and of the three games under consideration herein it had the most staying power. There are a host of reasons for this, but chief among them is that Mappy is somehow the most straightforward of the three. Mappy is at its core a maze game which shares DNA with Namco’s colossus, Pac-Man. That’s not by accident: Mappy in fact uses the same fundamental arcade hardware as Super Pac-Man, with the addition of new video hardware to handle horizontal scrolling through the cat bandit’s bounce palace. Again, a strange game.

The player navigates the titular Mappy, a mouse cop (or at least a mouse dressed as cop, in which case Mappy is himself also a criminal?) through the hideout of Mewkies, a gang with a penchant for pilfering art and household appliances. The player’s object is to recover all of the aforementioned wares while avoiding the Mewkies and their feline ringleader, Nyamco. The cats in a level will hunt you in a manner not altogether different from a certain ghost gang you might recall from earlier titles in the NamCompendium, but your means of dealing with them are quite different. Firstly, there are the trampolines previously alluded to. While jumping up and down on a trampoline, Mappy essentially enters an invulnerable state and can pass directly though any of the harrying foes who have joined you in the bouncing. There are also doors in the level, which may be used to remove cats from play by cleverly opening them onto the cats, or using a sort of sound wave burst to trap them all across a horizontal plane. It is therefore beneficial to hold off on opening a door until you can maximize the number of opponents slain by doing it. But if you’re cornered, screw the points! It’s a nice risk-reward proposition that adds tension by giving the player the ability to make their own bad choices.

The objects in the level also play into the scoring, as gathering them in the correct order nets you a steadily increasing bonus. This is demarcated by, upon picking up one object in the level, another object beginning to flash. Pick up the flashing object and you receive a hot bonus. Tension is therefore further increased by adding another choice: do I try to maximize my score by running all the way across this house and risk being mauled in the process, or grab what is expedient? It’s good stuff. What’s more, between the main levels are trampoline challenge bonus levels that task you with navigating a maze of slowly deteriorating trampolines to gather all available balloons. These might be my favorite part of the package, if I’m entirely honest, and continue the fine legacy of Namco bonus levels begun in Galaga.

Of the three games under consideration in this issue, Mappy is the only one to have had any sort of legs. Released in March 1983, it came to North America one month after its Japanese release, with distribution handled by Bally Midway. Yet despite being pretty good, Mappy was not the hit that Namco desired. According to Hardcore Gaming 101, there existed a surplus Mappy boards in Namco’s inventory that would eventually be cannibalized into The Tower of Druaga boards when that game caught fire in Japan.

Still, the game was well regarded enough that it became one of the earliest Namco ports to the Famicom, arriving in November 1984. This version of Mappy is squished and squeezed into the 4:3 aspect of FC titles by lopping off one of the six floors from the arcade game, a reasonable adaptation in my own estimation. Namco’s endemic trade dress continued here with the unique internal serial “04” emblazoned on the cartridge and box art.

There are basically two separate streams to track from Famicom Mappy. First, naturally, is its own history of re-releases. Mappy had enough cultural cache to be included in the Famicom Mini series of GBA reissues of old FC games, and landed on the Game Boy Advance exclusively in Japan on Valentine’s Day 2004. You will be shocked to learn that this conversion of a Famicom/NES game bears all of the hallmarks of this line of games, with its cramped horizontal resolution and dodgy value proposition at MRSP. Famicom Mappy also made an appearance on now-defunct Japanese Virtual Console in January 2008. Alas, no stealth appearances in Gamecube games here.

The second, more tenuous stream is the May 1991 Game Gear port of Mappy. Released exclusively in Japan, Game Gear Mappy is the most ambitious conversion of the arcade game. We actually have three separate modes of play here. The first is a simple conversion of the arcade game, though with the same cutbacks as the FC port. I mentioned a shared legacy with the aforementioned as the good folks at The Cutting Room Floor have found unused, leftover sprites from Famicom Mappy on the Game Gear cartridge.

The second mode on offer here required a little extra digging on my part, and sadly I don’t have much more than a shallow grasp of it for my work. This is due to a language barrier; the title is in kanji, and my eight year old Chinese only gets me so far in reading characters. It was something involving war and some amount of honorifics. If you’ll forgive me, I would translate 御先祖様の挑戦 (gosenzosama no chousen) as “The Challenge of the Ancestors”. I don’t rightly understand what this mode has to do with with ancestors, but I can tell you that this alternate play mode is actually pretty neat. It does not stray all that far from the arcade formula, but instead fiddles with the actual maps. Gone are the five level layouts first crafted for the Famicom port, replaced instead with a sort of office building. Floors are separated by trampolines placed in tricky patterns, reminiscent of the arcade’s bonus levels, that require some thoughtful navigation to gather objects in the bonus order. You also have ability to bound to the ceiling of the building, from whence the player can drop objects onto Nyamco and the other enemies below. Between the strange additional Burger Time mechanic and the added presence of what are plainly Sharp X68000 computers as items in the levels, this is certainly the most interesting iteration on arcade Mappy until Mappy Arrangement in 1995, or perhaps ever.

Thirdly, there is a multiplayer mode. Now, I’ve got to make a confession here: I have not been testing multiplayer modes of games so far. I know, go ahead and kill me now with a brick in a sock or something. But it turns out that Mappy for the Game Gear is not even the first portable game by Namco to have some sort of multiplayer. Pac-Man supported simultaneous multiplayer on both the Game Gear and Game Boy via both system’s bespoke link cable solutions, and Game Boy Database lists the American conversion of Game Boy Famista, Bases Loaded, as having had multiplayer as well. Pac-Man is more instructive here, however, as the multiplayer is of a similar bent. Both players have their own field, rather than playing on the same map. The fun comes in defeating enemies, however, which transfers them onto your opponent’s map. Sounds fun, in the sort of garbage slinging mode of something like Tetris Battle Gaiden.

Barring the reissues of Famicom Mappy, we enter back catalog territory after the Game Gear port. Rather than slog through these, I’ll just do this in a nice bullet point list.

  • Namco Museum Volume 2 (PS1, Feb 1996)
  • Namco gallery volume 1 (GB, Aug 1996)
    • Included alongside Galaga, Battle City, and Namco Classic
    • Also uses a multi-directional screen scrolling solution as it suffers from Jeremy Parish’s bugbear: overly large sprites for the GB display
  • Namco Museum Battle Collection (PSP, 2005 in NA)
  • Namco Museum 50th Anniversary (PS2, GCN, Xbox)
  • Namco Museum Volume 2 (PSP, 2006 in Japan and South Korea)
  • Namco Museum DS (2007)
  • Namco Museum Remix (Wii, 2007)
  • Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade (360, 2009)
    • This is one of the on-disk games with no Achievement support
  • Namco Museum Megamix (Wii, 2010)

Additionally, the arcade iteration of Mappy showed up on the Wii Virtual Console in all territories between March and April 2009.

The actual followup to Mappy was Pac & Pal, which has already been covered in a prior issue. Pac & Pal was sort of a logical next step for the Pac-Man series, as unwelcome as some of the additions may have been. What came next after Mappy and Pac & Pal bore no resemblance to either game and is an absolute freak show.

Phozon

August 1983 (ARC, Japan)

Phozon is a game about chemistry. Wait, don’t leave yet!

The player is tasked with moving a small collection of particles around in order to form covalent bonds with other molecules. These must be collected at the correct “hard points” around the player’s central molecule, such that eventually the player will have a shape that corresponds with the one provided in the center of the stage. Making these bonds to your hard points often goes wrong, but there is a recourse: with the click of a button, you can eject the most recently attached molecule. Be ready to do this a lot.

Harrying the player throughout this endeavor is an antagonistic molecule, called the Atomic, which can kill the player via direct contact. It can also graze the outer rings of molecules attached to the player, scraping them off and forcing you to redo your work. You do have limited ability to damage the Atomic during the initial seconds of a given stage, but the real revenge occurs every four stages when the player is briefly turned into a Bosconian-esque weapon of destruction. The main difference is, whereas Bosconian provided a two-way shot, Phozon has you fire simultaneous in the four cardinal directions in an attempt to put that damned Atomic down. Wash, rinse, repeat with faster particles and more dastardly molecular layouts until your 100 yen piece is spent.

Phozon is really, really weird. It may be constructive to think of it as a distant ancestor to the all time classic Katamari Damacy, played out on a two dimensional plane with 90 less joy, and blended with some Qix. This was the second of three games planned by Yasunori Yamashita, at least insofar as MobyGames is concerned. I have found all of Yamashita’s output mediocre, with Pac & Pal being the strongest of the trio. Namco seems to have agreed. Super Pac-Man wasn’t given the Namco Museum treatment in Japan, Pac & Pal was ultimately scrapped as an overseas release after a test launch, and Phozon appears to be the first Namco arcade game since Kaitei Takara Sagashi to not receive an arcade release outside of Japan.

Phozon was also part of another new trend within Namco: developing bespoke hardware with short shelf lives. This actually started in earnest with Pole Position in mid-1982, which ran on what was at the time a wildly complex board built around three Zilog Z80-based processors capable of handling 16 bit instructions. The Pole Position board was ultimately used twice by Namco, the second time being for Pole Position II. Prior to that point, Namco had been diligent in recycling arcade hardware and fitting new games onto existing board designs. For instance, Gee Bee, Tank Battalion, and Warp & Warp all ran on the same fundamental hardware. Pac-Man and both Rally-X games utilized the same boards as well, and all of the Bally-Midway spinoffs (minus Professor Pac-Man) were built on this platform as well. While I don’t have figures in front of me, one assumes this spend-thrift mode of using existing platforms saved the company money over time.

The Namco Phozon board, by contrast, was used twice. We’ll cover its final use case in the next edition. While this constant research and development effort into new arcade hardware may have allow Namco games to keep some sort of technical edge over its arcade competitors, come mid-1985 Sega was going to stick an enormous Hang-On shaped knife into Namco’s heart. It wasn’t until about 1986 that Namco would get out of the business of reinventing the wheel every six months or so, but we are a ways off from that.

In any case, Phozon was ultimately localized for international release when it was included in the NA and EU release of Namco Museum Volume 3. After that…nothing. It has not appeared in any other compilations at any point in two decades. You can play it on every Sony PlayStation system up to the PS4 thanks to various modes of backwards compatibility and digital downloads, so those hankering for a taste of Phozon on the go are in luck if they’ve got a PSP or Vita on hand. Otherwise, this game is an evolutionary backwater.

Libble Rabble

December 1983 (ARC, Japan)

Hey, a familiar face! Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back Toru Iwatani to the NamCompendium! Libble Rabble was Iwatani’s followup project to the earth shatteringly good Pole Position, which itself was the followup to (probably) the most important video game ever made. That’s a hell of a pedigree, and it is natural to build up some anticipation for somebody’s next project after such an established pattern of quality.

The career trajectory of Iwatani is truly bizarre. From designing the company’s first video games as a trilogy of pinball/Breakout clones, to the surreal ghost-filled pill mazes of Pac-Man, to a Formula One simulation, we now enter what could best be described as two handed Qix? Amazing to have two Qix references in the same piece, I know. The player controls two opposite facing arrows, the titular Libble and Rabble. Manipulated by two eight-way digital sticks, the player is tasked with creating enclosed areas of the play field either by joining the arrows after wrapping around various pachinko-like pegs throughout the field, or by touching both to different portions of the outer frame. This is done to capture Mushlins, small fungoid creatures scattered across the field of play. Once a section is circumscribed, a truly sick wicked gradient is applied to said section.

It is during this trippy effect that various hidden items in the world may be revealed. Yes, in addition to Qix we also have a little bit of “hidden object game” vibe here for good measure. Said hidden objects include treasure chests, are merely revealed if captured in too broad a range of enclosed area. To open the chest, the player must capture a fairly tight arrangement of pegs around said chest. Once thereto opened, six Topcups (we are all in on fantasy creature naming here) escape. Capturing all six automatically advances the level and allows the player to partake in a bonus level, which consist of capturing more chests.

Antagonizing the player through these frankly bizarre proceedings are time itself, represented by the border of the game steadily changing from blue to pink, as well as a host of different enemy creatures. These will either attempt to snip the player’s line, which will regenerate, or attack the arrows Libble and Rabble themselves; this as well as running out of time costs the player a life.

Have you kept up with all of this? It’s a lot to think about, and none of this is helped by the two-handed and disparate nature of the proceedings. Games like Robotron 2084 and Smash TV also use a two-handed joystick layout, but those are made easier by having to keep track of a single “character”. Here you are threading two abstract shapes in and around pegs on a board while being harried throughout, all while attempting to complete the most advantageous loops and shapes possible.

Iwatani, responsible for the first Namco arcade hardware capable of handling 16-bit instructions (Pole Position, which was an 8-bit game), also managed to produce the first Namco arcade board built with a 16-bit Motorola 68000 processor. I do not have evidence to support this claim, but it would stand to reason that the R&D and production costs of this new whizbang board were likely not insubstantial. Iwatani could probably get away with these sorts of asks, having produced Pac-Man and Pole Position in succession. Alas, my sense is that Libble Rabble was not a stunning success. It would be the final game designed with Iwatani in a sort of auteur position, and it would be four years before he would receive another credit on any game. The hardware, meanwhile, was recycled exactly once three years later when it was used for the generally unloved Toy Pop. Libble Rabble has net even seen as much love as the latter, as it has never been included in any of the countless Namco Museum collections.

That isn’t to say the game has never seen a port or conversion. There were some Japanese PC conversions, outside of the scope of this project bar the superb Bosconian. And then there was the token console port. Eleven years after it arrived in arcades Libble Rabble was ported onto the Super Famicom for a Japan-exclusive reissue. This is the first in-house developed SFC game we have seen so far in the NamCompendium, and only the second overall (recall that Ms. Pac-Man was developed by Digital Eclipse and published by Williams). For all the nice things I had to say about the SNES port job of Ms. Pac-Man (scrolling notwithstanding), Libble Rabble is an even better conversion. In fact, it’s nearly perfect!

Seriously, compare the two videos here. The music is pitched just ever so slightly different, and you lose the satisfying action of using two 8-way arcade sticks to control the arrows. Libble Rabble employs a similar control scheme to Super Smash TV, another fantastic conversion, wherein the player holds diagonals on the directional pad and simultaneously presses two face buttons to simulate diagonals on the right side of the controller. It’s the only real compromise I have noticed. I’ve thus been forced to place it right at the top of my own Namco SNES/SFC games list on Giant Bomb, despite my relative lack of enthusiasm for the game as a whole. It’s a shame this was never released on a Virtual Console service, though the arcade original did at least achieve that in November 2009 in Japan.

So, three absolute freaks then to help us round out what I would posit was the transformational year for Namco as a company. We will put a final bow on 1983 and step boldly into 1984 in the next issue, wherein we will see the company in a very familiar mold to the one we have today: iterating on established properties to mixed results.

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