Another NamCompendium entry, and two more games up for consideration. And by god, hopefully the turnaround time on these won’t be as long as the last piece.
The two games up for consideration here today represent two different schools of sequel thought. The first up adheres closely to the original: stick with what works, but provide additional opportunities or contexts for the same set of verbs. More of the same, if you will. The latter takes a more divergent approach: keep the trappings of the source material, but drastically alter the verbs and/or the contexts for said. By the very nature of being sequels neither of the titles below have the same sort of world moving feel to them as something like Pac-Man. But, alas, we’ve just had three examples (with mixed returns) of the sort of work Namco were doing when given the space for original ideas. Some familiar territory sounds nice about now.
Pole Position II
December 1983 (ARC, Japan)
Hey, did you like Pole Position? You know, Toru Iwatani’s barn burner arcade racer that blew Sega’s Turbo out of the water, required three CPUs to operate, and has proved so finicky over the years to replicate or emulate due to its intrinsic dependence upon an analog wheel? That one? Well you might want to sit down, my friend. Likely sensing that not quite all of the money had been shaken off of the arcade racing tree, Namco developed and released a direct sequel less than 18 months later in Japan and North America (distribution handled by Atari).
Since the start of this project, I have not had a chance to play the first Pole Position in its arcade format. I did get the chance, however, to play a full deluxe Pole Position II cabinet last year. It was in that time that I discovered the essential truth of PPII: it’s a lot more Pole Position. Whereas the first has the player competing for points, not necessarily times, on a facsimile of the very real Fuji Circuit course in Japan, Pole Position II features a luxurious four tracks. There’s the Fuji Circuit clone, yes, but three new tracks in addition: Suzuka, immediately recognizable for its distinct criss-cross layout and chicane section; Seaside, which is based on the Long Beach Grand Prix layout (the large easy bend being the most prominent feature); and finally Test, which is the spitting image of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
(I only had to look one of those up! I like racing?)
The 300% increase in tracks was the big selling point, but there are a few smaller tweaks as well. Explosions have some additional particles, there are some new signs and track accoutrements which fly past with surprisingly nice scaling, and the cars are now different colors as well. I originally thought the stripes down the center of the road were a new addition as well, though in fact these were also present in Pole Position the Original. Nevertheless, their scaling along with the roadside signs create a sensation of speed which was untouchable until Sega used similar techniques at scale to create a line of arcade masterpieces in the not distant future. This “speed by scaling” technique lived long enough to also be put to great use in many sprite-based console racers until the same effect could be done to scale and at speed with textured polygons.
The author is generally of the mind that ceteris paribus the second time something is done is less impressive than the first, no matter how herculean a task. Perhaps this is why no nation has put another man on the moon since the early 1970s, or indeed why the United States general public became decidedly less interested in the later Apollo missions. In any case, there are exceptions to this rule of thumb. I think Pole Position II ought to be regarded as superior to its source material. There’s more content here, not one single element has regressed (with the possible exception of the voice clips, which may have been recorded by an actual sentient sock), and the actual gameplay has been notably improved. You really, really do owe it to yourself to seek out Pole Position II in an arcade.
Naturally the brain trust at General Computer Corporation, bought out by Atari in a rare good decision for the company, saw something in the game as well. Recall that GCC was responsible for developing most of the Namco home conversions for Atari systems, and those ports have been largely good to great. I went so far as the say that their 2600 conversion of Pole Position was their best work on the platform, for having the sheer gall to even try and cram a game so huge and complicated onto a machine built to play Pong. How nice it must have been, then, for GCC to have been given the license to not only port Namco’s next great driving game, but to port it to a console that you yourself had designed? Knowing the ins and outs to this upcoming 7800 system, right down to the metal, surely put GCC in the position to develop a stormer.
Of course, we all know now how this went down. Atari splits in half, Tremiel shitcans the 7800 after a June 1984 test market launch, everything sits in mothballs until the NES demonstrates the home console market was still viable, and the 7800 is pitifully thrown in the ring to compete against a juggernaut. All five Namco games on the system had been developed and released in mid-1984, which means this port spent the first two years of its commercial life as a ghost.
What I did not know, however, was that Pole Position II was selected to be the pack-in title with the 7800 in North America. Atari decided that this title, of the dozen or so already available, should compete in the contemporary pack-in wars against Super Mario Bros. and the combination Hang-On/Safari Hunt bundled with the Master System (which, yes, also included Snail). How does 7800’s Pole Position II fare against these?
Well, it ain’t no Mario. Unfortunately, this has more in common with the 5200 conversion than the 7800 conversion. I’d even say it’s some of the worst of both. You have the 5200’s relatively choppy scrolling, and thanks to the decisions made at the platform level you also have the 2600’s limited sound capability. The sprites on display are little more detailed, sure, but you’d have like to see this game running a little bit better given the aforementioned circumstances.
It’s a bit of sad note to end on for the 7800, a doomed system developed by some clearly very talented people who knew how to make fun games. GCC truly squeezed blood from a stone with their 2600 Pole Position conversion and nobody can ever take that way from them, but this does not fare so well. It lands below Dig Dug on my own 7800 Namco list, which is now complete. And with that, we are all but finished with discussing Atari’s home consoles entirely. There are but two Lynx items left on the itinerary, and then we shall finally say farewell and so long to the litigious and hydra-headed monster called Atari.
Pole Position II took quite a long break after the 7800 conversion. I suppose it is worth mentioning in the space between these original 8-bit ports and their arrivals on the seemingly endless compilations around the turn of the millennium, Namco was pounding the damn pavement with new games in many genres covered. Why bother fiddling around with old Galaxian when you’ve got StarBlade and Galaxian3 in the arcades? Who needs fuddy duddy Pole Position when you can make something as mind-boggling as Driver’s Eyes or Ridge Racer? It certainly tracks that the company had other priorities than flogging its back catalog. One could even make the case that they were healthier for it, as it prevented them from becoming something of a nostalgia act.
In any case, the first time Pole Position II would be pulled out of the big Namco vault was for the release of Namco Museum Volume 3, a June ’96 joint in Japan. Those looking for the perfect arcade experience would again be confronted with the lack of analog steering (bar those who ponied up for Namco’s awesome looking neGcon controller). But upon closer examination there had been some additional work done the Pole Position II. Gone are Fuji and Suzuka, replaced with two new tracks: Namco and Wonder, which would later become simply Blue and Orange. These courses are similar enough in general shape that you might not notice, once held up next to the unaltered silhouettes of Test and Seaside, that they are in fact wildly different from the originals. This is down to the loss of license to use the names of likenesses of Fuji and Suzuka, two of the most famous raceways in the world. Do these changes sunder the arcade experience? Perhaps not, beyond fiddling with your timing of turns in the WR Pole Position II community. But they are not what was in the original item, and like later ports of Pole Position the First this does separate all subsequent Namco Museum iterations of Pole Position II meaningfully from its source material.
This baulderized Pole Position II would emerge again over the next twelve years on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube (Namco Museum, Namco Museum 50th Anniversary), and the Xbox 360 (Namco Museum Virtual Arcade, without Achievement support). It is playable on the PSP, PS3, and Vita through the PlayStation Network version of NaMuVo3. I will again caution that the best possible way to play this or its predecessor are in original arcade form, as there really is nothing like playing this with its bespoke, non-self-centering wheel. It was a fantastic sendoff to a strange year for Namco. The company wouldn’t go back to the concept of open-wheel racing for four years, but Pole Position and its superior sequel had an outsized impact on arcade racers for years to come.
April 1984 (ARC, Japan)
If Pole Position II is the apple that did not fall far from the proverbial tree, Gaplus is the apple that rolled down the mountain, where it was carried by the nearby river a few hundred miles before washing upon the shore of some distant island. Okay, maybe not that far out, but it certainly represents a great departure in design from its forebears. The author is not convinced these changes were good or necessary.
Galaga is a basically perfect iteration on themes and ideas found in the earlier Galaxian. The double ship/tractor beam gambit is a novel additional player consideration, the overall design is a phenomenal example “easy to learn, hard to master”, and few arcade games have ever had as evocative of music. The creators of Gaplus took the masterful as its starting point and took a few basic, iterative steps. Wouldn’t it be nifty if you could pilot more than two spacecraft at a time? What if the enemy fighters had even more patterns? How nuts would it be if some of the levels scrolled backwards? These changes, while “neat”, would alone have lead to a game that was more similar to Pac-Man Plus than, say, Super Pac-Man. And like the latter, it’s the more drastic changes that go less appreciated.
Of the big ideas that Gaplus presents, by far the most attractive is the retooling of the Boss Galagas. Whereas Galaga’s upper rank of foes were limited to a tractor beam ability, Gaplus revamps this cast of lead villains entirely with a new concept: the Blaster Heads, each of which a different beneficial effect to the player. Tired of having your fighters hoovered up by the enemy. Turn the tables on them! Capture a red head to gain a tractor beam which converts enemy sprites to your side, adding their firepower to your own. The blue Blaster Head increases the sizes of your shots, the green Head captures enemies in a tractor beam which makes them trivial to destroy, and the list goes on. There’s a head that renders all enemy shots as stars. There’s a head that allows you to control the direction of your own shots. The craziest part of this? These all stack! That’s wild, and left at this point you’d have a pretty cool game in my own estimation.
Game planners Shinichirou Okamoto and Hajime Nakatani did not stop here, however, and things become a bit more dubious henceforth. The second “big” idea is actually one you will be familiar with if you got far into the masterful Retro Game Challenge on the Nintendo DS: some cryptic bullshit involving shooting at a special star that appears under specific circumstances, which can yield a more powerful ship. Now, I will tell you all plainly that I was not able to make this happen during my time with Gaplus (largely due to, spoilers, this game is hard as hell), but I would like to quote directly from a recent post on the AtariAge forums by the wonderfully named Butt_Rogers to give you an idea of what we’re working with here:
“At the start of the first stage, the player must move the ship up the screen until it stops and just let it sit there without shooting anything until all forty-three of the aliens have taken their place in the formation. After the shooting star appears, the player must shoot the second Zako from the left in the bottom row of the formation without hitting any other enemies. A Rally-X Special Flag will then appear, and when the King flies down, the player must crash into him (but not the “blaster head” that he is yielding) and your regular ship will turn into a “Hypership” that can fire three shots on the screen at a time instead of just two. However, if you fail to do this correctly, you will not have any other chances to do this in the game. Firing enough shots on the shooting star that appears if you don’t shoot any enemies on the first stage is rumored to also grant the hypership.”
Now, I like fun secret knowledge stuff. I’ve not actually played any Souls games, but the idea of a world filled with secrets to be explored through play is a captivating one. Stuff like the Mortal Kombat fatalities being traded around on Usenet speaks to my soul. Hell, the next entry in this series will be covering the mother and father of cryptic arcade game shenanigans. But I do not know what this sort of junk adds to the design of Galaga, a game characterized by basically perfect information. “Getting good” at Galaga is possible through practice. Achieving the same level of success in Gaplus has this now unwelcome added component of “hidden knowledge” that I personally find disagreeable.
You’ll also note that the first line of the above quote references moving the ship “up the screen”. This, to me, is the actual cardinal sin of Gaplus. Whereas its predecessors were in the “fixed shooter” school of game design, Gaplus adds an additional axis of movement. This would seemingly make Gaplus a proper “shmup”, excepting for none of the other game’s design elements play into that. You still have ranks of enemies in the top half of the play field, firing and diving down at you to make those cursed loops up from the bottom of the screen. But now, instead of having only a simple range of left to right positions where you might be, there’s an entire two dimensional plane which you may maneuver across. The freedom this allows elevates the skill ceiling, particularly when you add in the aforementioned variety in ship attachments, but I think the floor is raised to high as a result. I constantly feel out of position playing Gaplus. It’s even worse in the “parsecs” levels, where the field scrolls backwards-to-front or sideways while enemies swarm in formations from all directions. It’s just too much.
Less egregious, and certainly on a more petty note, I think the bonus levels here fall flat on their ass. Rather than a test of your ability to shoot incoming enemy patters with precision, they are instead a test of your ability to juggle enemies. Once first shot, your foes bounce through space. Keeping then “up” for extended periods of time increases your bonus. I, uhh, hate this juggling shit.
Gaplus was released in April 1984 in Japan, and arrived in North America six months later. Bally-Midway distributed the game as Galaga 3. Recall, however, that by this point in the timeline Bally-Midway had already dragged Pac-Man’s good name through the muck with some middling to abominable unsanctioned sequels. This would mark the end of their Namco distribution deal, and the above-quoted AtariAge post has it that, given the cool reception of the game, most Gaplus machines would be swapped out for the old Galaga ones on North American arcade floors.
Namco seemed happy enough to move on from Gaplus at the time. In April 1984, the company was five months removed from their first internally developed console game: the fantastic port of Galaxian to the Famicom, a console whose design was in part inspired by Galaxian itself. It also did not hurt that the company’s next arcade title would become a genuine force of nature in its home country. Combined, these circumstances and the game’s muted public reception probably have informed its relatively inauspicious positioning in Namco’s ongoing back catalog efforts.
Gaplus was chummed into Namco Museum Volume 2 for the PSOne, which via PSN and backwards comparability makes it playable on every Sony platform bar the PlayStation 4. It also made three separate appearances on the Nintendo Wii: Namco Museum Remix (2007), Namco Museum Megamix (2010), and as a Wii Virtual Arcade release. The latter is particularly interesting to me. It was available as one of the launch titles of the then-new section of Nintendo’s recently departed digital storefront. Four of the six titles were Namco games. For those of you who are new here, Namco has one of the richest back catalogs of arcade games ever. What did they decide merited being reissued in perfect arcade form? Gaplus, Emeraldia, Ishtar no Fukkatsu, and Solvalou. Not Pac-Man. Not Galaga. Emeraldia. What the fuck. The best part? Sega brought Space Harrier to the platform on the same day. That’s an ethering.
Before we close this article, I would like to take a brief detour into the world of microcomputers once again. Recall back in the Bosconian article where I mentioned a certain Mastertronic, publisher of budget software for assorted home computers in European territories in the mid-1980s. It turns out that Gaplus was also on the short list of titles licensed form Namco. This time around, development duties were handled by Digital Design instead of Binary Design, and the conversion would be limited exclusively to the Commodore 64 (Bosconian found its way to the Speccy and Amstrad CPC as well). How did the two man crew of Ash and Dave, plus the audio engineers at Maniacs of Noise (all of whom are named in the pre-game credits) manage in this conversion? Pretty well, actually.
Given the limited resolution of the C64 there is a little real estate problem here. But when you consider the scorching SID chip tunes added in, and the smoothness of overall play, this absolutely flattens the miserable Bosconian ’87. Holy shit, was that a bad game.
So, two more games down. One a stunner, the other a bit of a clunker. My relative distaste for Gaplus did slow the pace of this piece down, to be sure, but there’s also been quite a bit of change happening in my life as of late. I’m also out on vacation a week after this is posted, and the last thing I want to be doing whilst out is trying to really get my head around The Tower of Druaga.
Therefore, the next NamCompendium will be a bit of a detour. I plan to have a gander at the first two Namco licensed cartoons, Pac-Man and Pole Position, for as long as they may be stomached. The former, as far as I can tell, was the first real animated series based solely on a video game character. The latter, which was first released in autumn 1984, puts us a little ahead of the current reference point in time of the blog but should serve to help hammer home just how beloved Pole Position was in the United States. I am not really looking forward to a bunch of insipid children’s television from 35 years ago, but that’s just the sort of commitment I have to this project.