What’s in a name? The first six Namco releases on Nintendo’s Famicom were at the time startlingly accurate home versions of their arcade work, released anywhere from a little over a year (Mappy) to as many as five years (Galaxian) on from the original works. These conversions represented the first ten months of the company’s commercial output on the system. They were developed internally, and stuck with easily recognizable names that were already know to arcade goers in Japan. By mid-1985, the company would begin to fiddle around with this easy formula for success. We would begin to Namco as a publisher-of-record for works originally developed by Data East (to be covered in a Gaiden episode), of licensed property tie-ins, and even a brave conversion of a home computer game. We also have, for our current consideration, the following two titles which are functionally just conversions of early Namco arcade games. The names have changed, which would seemingly disqualify them as “ports”, yet the gameplay changes are scant enough to make “sequel” also seem inappropriate. Let’s just agree that they are Famicom games which share some overall design features, and show Namco’s willingness to dig deep into its back catalog even this early in its home console publishing life..
And hey, let’s cram Motos in this entry as well as it doesn’t really make a great double billing elsewhere!
July 12, 1985 (FC, Japan)
Warp & Warp was a July 1981 arcade release, the final game developed by Namco on their first arcade board. Yes, the same board which ran the venerable Gee Bee in October 1978 had been dragged out one last time to play host to this strange little arcade shooter. Gameplay oscillates uncomfortably between a sort of Great Value Sheriff, of Nintendo fame, and prototypical Bomberman. Impressive when you consider the vintage of the hardware the game utilizes, but there’s a reason Namco promotes other 1981 games over it. Perhaps you are more familiar with Galaga? Its two gameplay modes are uncomfortably melded, and I actively avoid the bombing maze portion as my brain is to used to Hudson’s more famous take on this formula and that skill set does not necessarily map to Warp & Warp.
Anyway, why not have another crack at this one? Warpman was released four years to the month after the its arcade iteration, and unlike other games we’ve focused on thus far there has been a name change. Yet here’s a copyright message which lists 1981 (the year of Warp & Warp’s release) alongside 1985, the release year of this particular title. Two different games? Eh, sorta?
The changes make the comparison a bit of a push. Compared to the arcade machine’s manic pace, already built to strip you of your hard earned change, the Famicom version feels a little frantic. The player and monsters all move a bit faster. Also whereas the arcade had enemy spawn counters in each corner, Warpman only keeps track of total enemies left in a level without regard to where they will spawn. You wind up less able to plan movement to deal with enemy spawns as a result. On the other hand you get more colorful sprites, different level layouts in the bombing phases, and the addition of debris in space which act as barriers in the shooting phase. There’s also the addition of simultaneous multiplayer, so if you and a friend both have an interest in mediocre arcade ports from the early years of the Famicom’s life you can both enjoy some Warpman.
While this is certainly not great, I would still prefer Warpman to Namco’s own in-house conversion of Pac-Land on the Famicom. The changes made cannot hide a very dated game, one which felt old and out of place even upon its release. It is at least adapted well enough to the technology. Pac-Land felt more like the game was too big for the system, and the default control scheme using the face buttons for movement and directional pad for jumping was a very dark thing.
I’d also like to note that video games have people behind them, and those people are often made to do the best they can with scandalously little in terms of resources. They also have lives that extend well beyond the games they have left for us to ponder and scrutinize years late. Warpman is no exception, and here we come to a sad note. There is text in the code, written by programmer Oomorita Fukashi, which credits the game in part to Fukatani Shouichi. “THIS PROGRAM WAS THE POSTHUMOUS WORK OF SHOICHI FUKATANI. HE WAS ONE OF THE BEST PRO”. Fukatani-san passed at some point mid-1985, succumbing to a ruptured liver. He was 31 years old at the time of his death. He was clearly well liked by his peers, who went to far as to refer to him as “God” insofar as his programming capabilities were concerned. The Video Game Music Preservation Foundation credits Fukatani with Warpman’s sound design as well.
As the individuals who struggled countless hours decades ago to bring us these games continue to grow old and depart this mortal coil, I do hope that in my own small way this project can serve, as Oomorita puts it, as a “trace of a tombstone inscription” for a few of these names.
September 9, 1985 (FC, Japan)
We continue the trend of noting departed developers with Battle City, a gentle retread of 1980’s Tank Battalion. The germane point here is a hidden message embedded in the game which reads “THIS PROGRAM WAS WRITTEN BY OPEN-REACH WHO LOVES NORIKO . . . . .” The Open-Reach in question here was Ohkuba Ryoichi, who developed this title alongside Hyoda Takefumi and the erstwhile sound designer Ozawa Junko. In digging around for this post, I learned that Ohkuba-san would go on to be employed at Tomcat System, they of Gekisha Boy and Simple 1500 Series fame. He would later President of Tomcat. I also discovered that Ohkuba-san is no longer with us, having passed in December 2016.
Hopefully his surviving family and friends have taken heart over the years in knowing that his work on Battle City has been seen by millions of people. This game, released in the same weak as Super Mario Bros. in Japan, is one of those simple, tiny Famicom ROM files that has been absolutely hacked to death and larded into every single Famiclone and multicart device for over a quarter century.
At its heart the game is absolutely more Tank Battalion, a game which I did not love. It’s a simplistic tank shooter and ran a little choppy in the arcade iteration. Its Japanese home computer conversions on the Sord M5 and MSX were not hot ticket items either. In fact, Hardcore Gaming 101 cites an (entirely Japanese) 4gamer article which alleges no less a figure than Masaya Nakamura aka Mr. Namco himself saw the poor sales of Tank Battalion on computer platforms as reason to pursue a licensing arrangement with Nintendo in the first place. When you consider the incredibly long grey market tail on Battle City, it’s safe to say Nakamura accomplished his goal of “get Tank Battalion in front of more eyeballs”.
As to the game itself, it shares an overall similar design language as Warpman above. Strange fullscreen border, check. Rudimentary gameplay even by mid-1985 standards? Check. There are notable improvements on the way though. The gone does run more smoothly overall. There are added pickups for things like screen-clearing bombs, extra lives, and a handy repair of the destructible walls around your little eagle flag base totem icon gimmick. There’s even a little tease of early Namco Museum rumblings with the addition of level layouts based upon other Namco properties. If the idea of rolling a tank around the curves of a Pooka gets your heart aflutter, this game is for you.
There’s also the addition of simultaneous multiplayer, and even the nice forward looking inclusion of a stage builder to add to the 35 level layouts included in this cartridge, all of which are selectable from the jump. No mechanism to save your levels, mind, but a neat value add.
It’s hard to feel too bad about Battle City. It’s not a world beater, but has the edge on Warpman for certain by being so dang simple. You are a tank. You shoot other tanks, they shoot back. The walls blow up. No fiddling around with multiple dimensions, blast radii, teleporters, all that jazz.
And again, due to the simplicity and size of this ROM, this game has been a historical darling of the Famiclone/romhack gray market space. Even a cursory YouTube search pulls up dozens of examples of bespoke hacks for this game, modifying everything from the number of players to the entire sprite sheet. Want a World War II eastern front tank warfare experience? Done. Want a bizarre take on Star Wars,even more than Namco’s own spin on the series? It’s out there.
I would hazard a guess that the underlying, very 20th century concept of tank warfare had enough legs to see Battle City receive not one, but two additional releases on Nintendo’s Game Boy. The first of these was developed by Nova, whom we’ve already seen make their Namcompendium debut with their Game Gear port of Mappy. Their spin on Battle City released three months later on August 9, 1991.
This is functionally Battle City for the Famicom. There are an additional 15 levels, one again selectable from the jump, and there is the unfortunate Game Boy sin of sprite size priority requiring the game to scroll rather than showing the entire field of play. This is mitigated, fairly well frankly, by the addition of a basic minimap in the HUD. We’re talking a 12×12 pixel matrix minimap given the size constraints, but it works.
This game also has one of the more wild hidden developer notes in the code. Quoted in full:
NAMCO TAKEYASAN NOVA DRUMMING K.ODA”WEIRD” AL YANKOVIC. MONEY FOR NOTHING
Belongs in a museum, I say! I guess the folks at Nova were big fans of UHF. While not quite as tightly bound up to Namco as Now Production, Nova would go on to produce titles across several platforms for Namco in the early 1990s. We’ll be seeing them again.
Now here’s the wild part: this game was reissued five years later on Namco Gallery Vol. 1 for the Game Boy, and it’s a different version entirely! Developed internally by Namco, this take on Battle City clings more closely to its Famicom forebear than to Nova’s work. A key feature here is the choice between two different display modes: “Normal”, which scrolls like the Nova game, and “Fix”, which displays the entire playfield with smaller sprites. Both modes have the HUD shoved into a column on the right, making the overall visual treatment feel more like the Famicom title. The Normal mode still uses a minimap however, making this a serviceable title.
It has taken me this long in the Namcompendium series to hit upon this idea: when you factor in the surprisingly robust Super Game Boy support for the Namco Gallery games, which provided full color and unique borders for the twelve titles compiled therein, these were the de facto Super Famicom releases of these games. As it happens these releases were very late coming, the first of them arriving two months after the launch of the Nintendo 64. Still, Namco was providing a means for players to get in a game of Galaxian or Sky Kid on their Super Nintendos even as they released far more lavish compilations of the same titles, in some instances, on the PlayStation.
Most recently, the Famicom version of Battle City was included in Namco Museum Archives Vol. 2. That’s the one with Famicom Galaga and Legacy of the Wizard, which means you should just go buy it.
Battle City is alright! It wasn’t even the last title in its small series. Look forward to Tank Force coverage in 2074!
20 September 1985 (ARC, Japan)
Motos is an arcade game about ramming a massive bulk into other objects until they fall off a platform. By an absolutely astonishing yet true coincidence, in the time between the last entry and this one I’ve gotten deeply into following Japanese sumo wrestling. This is robot sumo! (it is not)
Playing within a broad science fiction framework, Motos is basically bumper cars by way of Virtua Fighter. Or, at least the part of sumo that Virtua Fighter borrowed. The player is handed a small, futuristic hover craft and thrown onto tile-based arenas hovering, as far as I can tell, in the loveless vacuum of space. Therein the player must clear each arena of all opponents. Simple enough. The rub is, this must be done by knocking them over the edge of the de facto ring. The rub to that, is your opponents would prefer that you went over in their stead. The operative word being opponents, as you’ll be competing in handicap matches throughout your time with Motos.
Your foes are surprisingly varied and have a strange insectoid theme to them, given how “1980 vision of 2080” future tech the entire veneer of the game is. They start out as simple orbs, each with a different weight class which require a certain amount of force to propel into the void. These give way to robotic bees, ladybugs and flies, until the final enemy classes consist of massive robotic spheres. Some levels also include enemy spawners which, while not removable by otherwise conventional means, can be bashed with your little car repeatedly until they explode for massive bonus points. Harder said than done when you are harried endlessly by a steady stream of bloodthirsty blue spheres.
Things are kept a little lively by the addition of powerups. There are pellets which increase the force of your little cart’s impacts, perhaps by simply adding mass and enough power to compensate for the loss of speed. Or they’re just space magic. Who cares. There are also powerups which allow the player’s cart jump at the press of a button. Each mechanical leap will fracture the tiles beneath the jumping point, creating a trap which will send the next unlucky soul who traverses said tile plummeting to their doom.
This game has 62 levels and you must bump into so many bugs and balls in order to see all of those. That is more Motos than I would prefer to have. But taken as an arcade experience, a three minute digital bumper car romp for a quarter, Motos is an alright time. The conceit is easy to grasp, and they executed on the premise well. It is a fine parting shot for the old Super Pac-Man board, dragged out here one last time to put its great music and sound on full display.
On the sound design front it is notable that Noriko Nakagata, making his debut here, provided music for Motos. Overall his work is in the spirit of Ohbunogi and Ozawa arcade work, of pleasant fanfares and era-appropriate beep boop background noises. While the rest of the development staff of Motos did not go onto thunderous careers, Nakagata-san remains active in the industry. He provided music for over half a dozen upcoming Namco arcade titles, as well as work on Famicom/NES titles like Low G Man and Max Warrior. His most recent work was on Caravan Boomer, a new independent release for the goddamn MSX2 computer platform in Japan. You can check out the soundtrack here.
As far as its reissue history, Motos is more in line with your Photos and King & Balloon fare than your A-list stuff like Galaga. It did receive ports to European microcomputers (which seem fine) and the Sharp X68000 (which is nearly perfect) but did not appear on a console until it was larded into Namco Museum Encore for the PlayStation. Recall that Encore came well after the first five releases in that series, which by the end had really started to dig deep to fill out each release. It next saw life on Namco Museum Battle Collection for the PSP in North America and Europe, followed by the parted out compilation that was Namco Museum Volume 2 for the PSP in northeast Asia.
NaMuVo2 PSP had an additional feature that is worth noting: a new game, Motos Arrangement. A re-imagining of the original Motos with chunky, toy-like graphics and gently remixed tunes, Motos Arrangement is a surprisingly deep experience for what could easily have been a fobbed off compilation filler. Dozens of levels, different types of terrain which may or may not break after being used for jumps, levels that wobble like those horrible marble puzzles, and a host of new bosses all wait in store. It’s quite the value add!
This idea would be explored again a few years later on Namco Museum Remix for the Nintendo Wii, which included yet another arrangement title: Pac-Motos. Well, explored is being a bit generous. Pac-Motos shares most of the same overall level and boss design as Motos Arrangement. The chief difference here is that all of the Motos DNA has been stripped away for a very late 2000s Pac-Man skin. The environments are loosely Pac-Land themed with lots of bright primary colors, and the music is a pleasant but forgetful set of background tracks. Having the famously round Pac-Man bounce other round opponents off a colorful board seems like a thing that would have wound up existing eventually by sheer creative inertia, particularly in an environment where a mobile game using these mechanics would take a few weeks at most to produce. That said, it is still a little surprising to see Motos have this sort of half life. This very same game, along with the original Motos, were both included in the later Namco Museum Megamix on the same Wii.
Motos was also included as an achievement-less, disc-only game in Namco Museum Virtual Arcade for the Xbox 360.
I will speak (write) plainly here for a bit: this sat largely finished for months before I actually put the finishing touches on it. I am of two minds. On the one hand, I think it makes a lot of sense to treat some of these games as pairs or trios as they are of such a kindred spirit, and breaking out little shits like Battle City and Warpman into individual articles seems a little silly when you consider just how small the games are at this point in Namco history. I would also like to at least attempt to do a little digging on each of these, to provide something of value beyond a two paragraph review of thirty year old Famicom releases. On the side of the coin, a glib two paragraph review sounds pretty fun. Ultimately, that sort of thing feels more appropriate for me to continue doing over at Giant Bomb.
The format for this project is probably not going to change. Probably not. I would love to update this with more regularity. Something I am considering is doing a few more Gaiden-esque entries, and indeed there are a few planned already. I have also thought about breaking strict chronological order in favor just doing what sounds interesting in the moment. Lots of things on the table.
In the meantime, you can enjoy my meager contributions to the video games media universe over at the Deep Listens podcast — where I host and edit the Off the Deep End series and appear on Final Fantasy-related episodes — and via the HG101 podcast feed, where my icy editorial hand is more felt than heard. You can subscribe to both! You can even give both money through their respective Patreons! It’s easy!