NamCompendium 21: A Menagerie of 1985 Misfits

The author finds it fairly easy to look back and pluck out one or two standout games from each year of the company’s existence thus covered. 1984 had The Tower of Druaga and Pac-Land, the year prior had Pole Position II, and so forth. 1985 is where this starts to get dicey. It’s not that the actual quality or care put into the games has diminished. More, perhaps, that none of these games wound up having the staying power of such genre defining hits as Galaga, Pac-Man, Xevious, et cetera. This is a field of interesting curiosities, the games that absolutely larded out various Namco Museum compilations over the years (if, indeed, they were included).

One gets the sense that by mid-1985, the company’s priorities had slowly begun to shift. There was still a thriving arcade business to consider for sure, even as Sega and other competitors began to challenge Namco in that field for technical and critical dominance. But the continuing success of Nintendo’s Famicom in Japan, having sold around 2.5 million units by the summer of 1985, cemented the home market as a second pillar for the company. I intend to explore this subject more in the subsequent entries, but for now let’s cruise through a couple misfit games.

Metro-Cross

17 February 1985 (ARC, Japan)

If I had to put Metro-Cross into a basket, it would fit alongside Wonder Boy and Taito’s earlier Jungle King as a prototypical “runner”. Not to draw a direct line from Metro-Cross to Temple Run, mind; this game veers more closely to Pac-Land (a game with which it shares arcade hardware) than something like a modern infinite runner title. But whereas Pac-Land had a fair amount of explorative platforming baked in, ala Super Mario Bros., Metro-Cross has nothing of the sort. Just get your ass to the end of the level or cough up another coin.

Before really tucking in, I’d like to make a special note here of the incredible English-language copy on the official Japanese arcade flyer for Metro-Cross.

I mean, there’s so much. The pained, abstract animation of the character’s face. Describing the runner as being both aware that Metro-Cross is in fact a game, and that he is literally immortal. Calling the game itself a death sentence. Perhaps that last one bodes ill for myself or anybody else interested in playing the game these days. Perhaps we are doomed to be outlived by Namco’s SURVIVABLE RUNNER from the late Showa period.

In any event, Metro-Cross when played feels quite a bit more down to earth than the ad copy would have you believe. The player must maneuver an avatar, whose name appears to simply be Runner, through the hallways of a future industrial complex in the allegedly manless city of METRO (the high score screen reveals you are actually running through Orthema City, for the record). Stymieing the player’s progress are a steady progression of obstacles. First come the rolling barrels, then green “slippery” pads on the ground which slow Runner’s pace while crossing them. These can be avoided by simple jumping, or by jumping with the assistance of springboards scattered throughout the stages. But lo! there is timing involved with springboard jumping, and mucking it up loses even more time. Over time the game introduces mined tiles, chess pieces (which more or less obey chess move logic), and conventional hurdles to leap. A veritable Elimination Challenge barrage of bullshit to cross, basically.

Working in the player’s favor are soda cans (because even after all the humans emptied out of METRO the garbage remains…) which can be kicked for bonus points and occasional stoppage of the clock running down, as well as a skate board which allows for direct passage over slippery tiles with no impact on speed. A runner-platformer with a skateboard mechanic? What a Wonder Boy ripoff, right? Wrong! Metro-Cross predates Wonder Boy by an entire year, making it extraordinarily plausible that the good people at Westone (then Escape) were at least aware of the exploits of our deathless Runner.

As for Metro-Cross itself, like most of the more recent games in the broad “runner” genre, it’s pretty much empty calories. I couldn’t say I hate playing the game, but there’s nothing here that really sticks with me. Beyond, unfortunately, my inability to reliably hit the springboard jump timing. The challenge of the game is basically to combo kicking empty soda cans for bonus points and finishing levels with as much time left on the clock as possible to…accumulate bonus points. To criticize scores being the sole source of depth in this game is to criticize basically all arcade game design in human history. But even using the games immediately below as examples, I would prefer Dig Dig by way of Qix or exploratory Section Z over the Make Man Go Fast genre.

The soundscape here is more Pac-Land, being on the same board, but for whatever reason compost Ohnogi Nobuyuki decided what a suggested future apocalypse empty city industrial complex racing game needed was a little swing. There is a real paucity of music here: an inter-level jingle, a game over jingle, a high score jingle, and the track that plays over actual gameplay. Thankfully, this main level music is fairly catchy. It’s a shame that you’re stuck with this single track for most of your playtime, but again that’s a criticism that may be leveled at a majority of games seen in the NamCompendium to this point.

If English language references on the subject are to be believed, Metro-Cross marks a significant milestone in Namco’s history. This may well have been the final game designed in part by the celebrated Endou Masanobu as a full-time Namco employee. Japanese Wikipedia states that he left Namco in mid-1985, which aligns with what I can find in English. Endou would soon after found Game Studio, a company which was a sort of second party Namco developer for a period. We will be looking more at Game Studio later, and indeed we’ve already had a look at the company’s loving recreation of The Tower of Druaga on the PC Engine a few issues back.

Speaking of functional second party development, enter Now Production’s conversion of Metro-Cross for the Famicom. Released on 16 December 1986, this is actually the first game the company ever produced. We’ve already seen Now Production once, with their conversion of Dig Dug for the Game Boy that included the addition of a large “New Dig Dug” adventure mode on top of the original arcade hit. This port is not nearly as ambitious, but it should be given full credit for meeting the brief of getting Metro-Cross onto the platform in tact.

All thirty-two levels are present here, with only minimal alterations and/or reductions in the amount of literal garbage between yourself and the end point. Not that I made it this far personally in either iteration, but it seems that the Famicom conversion does feature bonus items in the shape of Xevious’ Solvalou ship, accompanied by the goroawase 7650 which by this point has cropped up a few times in Namco titles. The cutdown in fidelity from the arcade original probably leaves that as the “definitive” version, but you’re not missing anything with this port. As for Now Production, we’ve already seen more of their work on the NES via their own conversion of Ms. Pac-Man, and they were the developer attached to Namco Museum Volumes 1 and 3 for the PlayStation.

Metro-Cross has been done quite dirty when it comes to its reissue history. While it did make the cut for the original PlayStation run of Namco Museum discs, compiled onto the critically unloved Volume 5, it has been vanishingly difficult to get your Metro-Cross fix by legitimate means since that point. At least the Namco Museum PSX titles are still available on the PlayStation Store (yes, the entire PSN Shutdown waffle fiasco happened in the time it took to assemble this entry), so you are able to play Metro-Cross on a PlayStation Vita if that suits you. Beyond that:

  • Included as a museum, Achievement-less entry on Namco Museum Virtual Arcade (360, 2008)
  • The Famicom port is available on the Wii U Virtual Console platform in Japan.

That’s right, they didn’t even roll the FC conversion into either of the recent Namco Museum Archives packages. That’s cold, even if the game is absolutely inessential.

That would be all there is to say, except that there was almost a reboot of goddamn Metro-Cross. In 2010, Namco released the absolutely fucking stellar Pac-Man Championship Edition DX. This was the first of a campaign publicly known as Namco Generations, an attempt to leverage older intellectual properties to make money (and maybe good products along the way). Pac-Man CEDX is one of the best Xbox Live/PSN titles ever released, probably a top five “Namco” game post-merger with Bandai, and honestly just go buy it now. This was followed by Galaga Legions DX, which is also very good.

It turns out the next two titles in this Namco Generations line were going to be a high definition conversion of Dancing Eyes, a puzzle game for perverts that generated a lot of thinking emojis when it was announced, and Aero-Cross. Aero-Cross looked like this.

Now, granted, I don’t love Metro-Cross. But this thing looks pretty alright. I can hear a certain amount of howling about how they did a real Bomberman: Act Zero to the visuals, but I think the tilted camera angle and Kirkland Signature brand techno future music do a lot to make the gameplay seem more dynamic, more exciting. Sadly, this was not to be as the Namco Generations project was disbanded before Aero-Cross or Dancing Eyes would be released.

So, to clarify, instead of going with absolute bangers like Bosconian, Pole Position, Xevious, Mappy, etc., Namco thought an update to Metro-Cross was worth pouring literally any amount of money north of $0 into making around 2011. That is insane.

Dig Dug II

12 March 1985 (ARC, Japan)

A recent Retronauts episode on Famicom Disk System games laid out an argument (one I posited back on the Xevious sequels entry) that sequels of this era often hewed to one of two schemes: functionally a level pack, or entirely new ideas using existing names to draw eye balls. Dig Dug II is a classic example of the latter.

Taizo Hori aka Dig Douglas is back! The famous character who is named for what he does! The player digs around underground. Right? No! Dig Dug II is more like Qix. I think? It’s complicated. Now instead of grizzly scenes of exploding monsters with an air pump or crushing them under falling debris deep within the bowels of the earth, he’s strategically destroying small landmasses and drowning puka pukas to death. Weird series of games.

Upon dropping in your coin in a Dig Dug II cabinet, you are immediately presented with a sort of three quarters perspective of a bold, primary colored island setting. The contrast between the chill Pacific ambience here and the game’s earth tone-y ant farm prequel is pretty jarring, as is the shift in core mechanic. Hori no longer digs through the earth with a bike pump and an appetite for exploding and/or crushing monsters. Instead, he’s taken up a mean stone cutting habit. Each land mass has a few pre-drilled holes scattered throughout, roughly forming a grid pattern. Drilling down while facing a cardinal direction on any of these holes will create a vector of cracked land between it and either the next hole, or the edge of the island. Completing an unbroken line from one side of the island to another will cause the smaller piece to fall into the ocean, drowning whatever happens to be standing on it. Including yourself!

From this, what follows is a game of making decisions about when and where to drill, plus how to create the largest score combos by maximizing the amount of enemy creatures that can fall into the briny deep all at once. Fygars and puka pukas make their way towards you, with the former spewing beams of fire as they did in Dig Dug Prime. Thankfully, Hori-san still has his bike pump taped to his shovel and this remains a way to not just inflate and murder enemies, but also to stun them. The game thus becomes one of kiting enemies together on one chunk of land, perhaps that you have pre-drilled to a point where they may quickly be dropped into the ocean. Or do you pop one to death to avoid dying, at the expense of points? It’s a nice tension. Honestly, I think it’s a better dynamic than the original. I think I like this game more than Dig Dug. Holy shit am I becoming the person who likes Dig Dug II more than Dig Dug. Oh shit oh shit

Yeah, this is pretty good stuff. The worst thing Dig Dug II has going for it is the lack of variety. The visual style remains a hard green-on-blue tropical affair across all 32 stages, and the music (anotherer Yuriko Keino joint) is limited to a brief start of level jingle and a main track that only speeds up. Even so, the latter has the advantage on running on the Super Pac-Man hardware instead of the Pac-Land board with its “creepy out of tune ice cream truck” atonal instrumentation. I just wish there was a little more audio-visual range here, but we are talking about a quarter muncher steadily approaching its 40th birthday.

Alas, critical reception of this title has never even held a damp match against its more celebrated older brother. There are plenty of online post-hoc assessments of the game in English attesting that it was not as well received in arcades as Dig Dug The Original Adventure. Upon the game’s first bundling in a Namco Museum title (we’ll get there), Jeff Gerstmann of Video Games Dot Com and other sites noted that this title was “[not] a whole lot of fun” and that there was “nothing “classic” about Dig Dug II.” That just rubs me wrong, the game is fine! As a specific sort of arcade experience I find the territory severing/control thing more enjoyable than trying to kite enemies under a falling rock. I guess my thoughts on Dig Dug are already recorded elsewhere.

We’ve already entered a space where Namco’s arcade output was not necessarily guaranteed a FamiNes conversion; indeed there are less than a dozen of these direct conversions left already. Nevertheless a little over a year after it came to arcades, Dig Dug II did grace the Famicom on 18 April 1986.

Dig Dug II’s Famicom/NES conversion holds a few minor distinctions. Firstly, it was functionally the last Namco published game on the platform to not use one of the system’s ballyhooed memory mappers. The Famicom/NES hardware was only innately capable of addressing so much cartridge space at one time, and to get around this limitation developers began to utilize various additional chips to allow for bank switching between cartridge memory chunks. While Makaimura/Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins is often held up as the Ur-example of this, and indeed was the first game to do it with a combined 128 kilobytes of memory (versus the typical 32 kilobytes of code plus 8 kilobytes of graphics of “big” early Famicom games), the first game to use such a mapper was Konami’s Hyper Olympic Gentaiban!, a mid-1985 title which used a mapper for additional graphics data. Up to the point of this release, Namco’s Famicom games had been either 24kb or 40kb cartridges. With exactly one exception, everything released after Dig Dug II would include memory mapping magic.

Fun trivia: the token exception? Namco’s in-house conversion of Ms. Pac-Man, released exclusively in North America in 1993. It’s not as good as the Tengen version! But considering it was a 40kb cartridge in a time when their games were regularly closer to half a megabyte, I imagine it was cheap as hell to manufacture.

Despite lacking mapper wizardry, this version of the game is absolutely massive for its 40kb memory footprint. It more than doubles the arcade level count, clocking in at 72 maps to the arcade’s 32. It also mixes up the environmental settings a bit, rotating in night time environments and barren islands devoid of grass. There’s even an extra music track that pops up on a few levels, and I’m reasonably sure the (uncredited) developers snuck in their Romaji initials in a few of the island layouts. Beyond a few simplified sprites, this is one of the least compromised arcade conversions we’ve seen in a while. The FC conversions of Super Pac-Man hardware-based games (Mappy and Druaga as well as Dig Dug II here) managed to survive the journey from arcade to home console relatively unscathed, versus titles based on later boards. Recall the lackluster Pac-Land port.

3Also of note here is that this was the only Dig Dug game that we North Americans ever received. For reasons I can only guess at (the conversion is a little flat, the game would have seem dated, etc.) Dig Dug the First never came over here. We were instead graced with Dig Dug II, coming to us in December 1989 wearing the same Bandai trade dress just as Galaga and Xevious had roughly a year beforehand. This was squarely in the “Namco and Nintendo are in a slap fight” phase of their company relations, and indeed Namco’s home console presence in America through the rest of the NES’ natural life was either in unlicensed Tengen form or on competing platforms. Four years would pass from from Dig Dug II’s release on the platform before Namco would (officially) release another NES game, repackaging Pac-Man and releasing the aforementioned lesser version of Ms. Pac-Man.

Finally, this was the first Famicom release to receive Famitsu coverage! The first issue of the celebrated-until-it-became-a-joke publication came to press on 6 June 1986, featuring sales data and other coverage of the game. What was the review score of Dig Dug II? Nothing! The publication only introduced its now infamous cross review format in issue 10, and combining that with my lack of Japanese reading skills I’m not really able to parse this ‘zine’s opinions about the game. But here’s a hot archive.org link for the curious! Of note is they divulge the game’s infinite lives cheat here, decades before the good folks at The Cutting Room Floor would share the same info with the Internet in English.

Beyond being the last of six early Famicom titles to be released on the Famicom Disk System format in mid-1990, the reissue history of Dig Dug II is brief. Across six entries, Namco did a decent job of strip mining their 80s arcade output to bulk up the Namco Museum series on the original PlayStation. Truly obscure stuff like Phozon and Toy Pop made the cut, as well as absolute dreck like the original Rally-X and, umm, New Rally-X. Dig Dig II, however, did not make the grade for some reason. Neither did it make it to the second wave of early aughts Namco Museum releases across multiple platforms, nor the fairly large Namco Museum 50th Anniversary compilation disk. From the August 1990 release on the FDS to the 2005 release of Namco Museum Volume 2 on the PSP (which was rolled into Battle Collection for North America I am not explaining this again) the game sat untouched and unloved. Even since then it has been relatively lean, particularly compared to the more celebrated original Dig Dug. You can find it in these places now:

  • Namco Museum DS (2007)
  • Namco Museum Virtual Arcade (360, 2008)
  • Arcade and Famicom versions both released on now defunct Wii Virtual Console service in Japan
  • Namco Museum Megamix (Wii, 2010)
  • Wii U Virtual Console release of the FC/NES game in all territories
  • FC/NES version included in Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 across Steam, PSN, Xbox, and Switch

Baraduke/Alien Sector

25 May 1985 (ARC, Japan)

Metro-Cross has, at least on Moby Games, three credited designers. Easily the best known of them was Endou Masanobu. Easily the least well documented (in English) is Okamoto Tatsuo/Tatsuro, who has a handful of other Moby Games credits. The third gentlemen, Takahashi Yukio, was the subject of a recently translated article published by Shmupulations.com, and it just so happens that Takahashi’s second credit at Namco was the entire design of Baraduke.

(Though when you factor in that Takahashi-san states in said interview that he did uncredited monster design work on Dragon Buster, strictly speaking this was his third title with the company. Oh well.)

Baraduke is not a particularly well known title and it is easiest to compare it to contemporaries that touched on similar things. Hell, I did it above with Capcom’s Section Z, which released about six months later at the end of 1985 in Japan. In my view it is at least as appropriate to invoke a much bigger game: Nintendo’s Metroid from 1986. Not least because of a certain Big Twist or the heavy influence of contemporary films on the game’s aesthetic, but also because Baraduke and Section Z don’t have that much in common. Both take place on alien worlds and involve free movement in all directions on a two dimensional plane wherein you shoot the bad guys for points, but things sorta end there. Section Z makes most of its hay with its two button gimmick and, in execution, feels like an arcade shooter more closely related to Gradius than an adventure game. Baraduke, by contrast, is notably more exploratory.

Takahashi, an artist by his own confession in the aforementioned article, was given writ to design a game while under the supervision of Iwatani Toru of pinball and Pac-Man fame. His earliest kernel of an idea was to leverage Namco’s arcade hardware to render “smooth, glistening skin” that would come across even on an arcade display. There was also a desire to create enormous boss sprites, ones even larger than the Andor Genesis boss craft from the Xevious games. Finally, there was the influence of Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, released in 1984. The exotic alien creatures and the female protagonist were strong influences on Takahashi over the year long process of designing his first full game with Namco.

Okay, yes, that’s all nice, but what is Baraduke? It’s an arcade shooter with strong exploratory elements. The player is put in control of a character named Kissy (or Takky for the second player), who must explore small individual stages full of aliens. Your objectives are to find the exit of each enclosed area, defeating enemies along the way to open your escape route, and to rescue small orange creatures called paccets which are trapped in enemy spawn box-monster things. These paccets, influenced in concept if not in design by Nausicaa’s pet fox-squirrel Teto, act as a sort of bonus collectible. Accumulating any number of them through play will have them arrayed, between levels, upon one of the eight spaces of a roulette wheel in a bonus game. Stopping this wheel on a paccet adds another shield pip to your shield meter in the bottom left of the display, which begins with a miserly two pips.

At fixed intervals after progressing through five levels, the player will be confronted with a boss. The first of these is indeed enormous, easily the largest thing I can recall fighting in any of these games to date. Punch through the boss, get a new set of levels. If you can manage to push through eight such floors of levels and bosses, you are presented with a brief cutscene wherein Kissy removes their protective space clothing to reveal they are really actually secretly a lady the whole time. Yes, the trick that Nintendo would pull a year later was done here first. And while I feel a little torn about giving this game a Representation Gold Star for what amounts to Trojan horse-ing a female hero into an arcade shooter, the game could very easily have been built around rescuing some distressed space maiden to be used as a trophy. Hell, the final portrait of Kissy even has her fully clothed in a space suit! No cheeky swim suit or bikini here, just a badass lady who just shot her way through 48 stages of hell.

Alas, I will never see this kill screen naturally. Baraduke is goddamn difficult. Point yields are quite low for accumulating extra lives, your two pips of shield by default are very easy to lose in what become very hostile and enemy projectile-filled stages, and there’s also a lot of fiddly bullshit to contend with along the way. Destroying the enemy spawn box enemies, called Octy, leaves behind enemy capsule… things. These capsules must be physically passed over to be opened. They can contain the aforementioned paccets, crystals for points, weapon power-up icons, or large hateful purple monsters which basically spawn on top of you. You are therefore pushed to be cautious in opening these pods, a challenge before the levels are cleared out of foes. Even after the Octys are removed, there are extra foes that will creep in from off screen to make your life hell.

Opportunities for bonus points are there for the taking if you have the patience. Some of these abominable critters that show up at the end of a level are recurring, and allowing them to spawn without killing them across multiple levels will increase the points they yield. There’s also the matter of the aforementioned paccars, the cute little orange creatures who literally introduce themselves in the first level by stating (with a voice sample courtesy of Yuriko Keino, who also did the creepy low key ambient music here) that THEY ARE YOUR FRIENDS. You can kill them. Stray fire can accidentally kill them, and by killing one all of the paccars you have collected will leave you. Thus you will lose out on your sole means of accumulating more than two shield pips. But, they’re worth points. Big points, in fact. Killing ten paccars in a row yields a 10,000 bonus, which is more than I managed to accumulate across about eight levels of play. In a mode of gaming where high score positioning was more of a reward than some contrived “ending” screen, this is basically a risk v. reward mechanic. Personally, I say fuck them points gimme shields.

Baraduke has impressively creepy atmosphere, and the sprite animations are surprisingly vivid and violent compared to any of Namco’s output to this point. I’d go so far as to say things wouldn’t approach this level of viscera until Splatterhouse, but we’re not quite to that tier of gorehoundery. Still, enemies die in grotesque bursts and Kissy’s death animation is pretty gnarly for a game pushing 40 years old. There’s even a nice sense of physics and weight to the fighting, where shooting pushes the player back ever so slightly to make sure Newton would look fondly on the proceedings. I like most of what Baraduke is doing, honestly, it’s just that playing the damn thing is very punishing.

Baraduke (which ought to be camelcased as BaRaDuKe but I am not typing that a thousand times) was distributed in North America as Alien Sector, with English language reviews indicating it arrived no later than October 1985. As for its reception, we are unfortunately robbed of Jeff Gerstmann’s acerbic whit as GameSpot did not deign to review Namco Museum Volume 5 upon release. IGN did run a review of that collection, however, and Adam Douglas wrote that Baraduke was a highlight of the collection. They praised the game’s surreal and creepy atmosphere, though their innocent misgendering of protagonist Kissy indicates that Adam did not in fact “beat” Baraduke for review purposes. Game journos, eh?

Prior to its appearance in a NaMuVo collection, Baraduke appeared as a very late release for the Sharp X68000 courtesy of Dempa. We last saw their work with the masterful rendition of Bosconion on the X68000, which added redrawn sprites and background music to the proceedings to make perhaps the definitive release of the game. Dempa were more conservative here, but what you get is very close to arcade perfect minus a little horizontal axis. What’s remarkable is just how late this release was. The X68000 platform was discontinued in 1993, and here’s Dempa putting this out two years afterward. And it’s not even the last game for the system.

If not for Sony’s decision to not shitcan decades of its history and leave the PlayStation Store open for PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future, there would be no way to purchase Baraduke in any form at all as of this writing. As it stands, you can still pick up NaMuVo 5 for $6.

  • Also available in Namco Museum Virtual Arcade (360, 2008) as an on-disk game with no achievement support
  • Formerly available in the Japanese Nintendo Wii Virtual Console, originally released in 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close