Masaya Nakamura Tribute: Namco arcade classics (that are just as important as Pac-Man)

With the passing of Masaya Nakamura, founder of Nakamura Amusement Machine Manufacturing Company — better known to everyone as Namco — we’ve lost a man who was a pioneer of the game industry in many ways. When Nakamura bought out Atari Japan’s flagging division back in the 70s (offering far more money than rival Sega), he was spurred to add video game development to the company’s core business of kiddie rides, prize games, and other electromechanical amusements. From there, Namco went on to become one of the Japanese game industry’s arcade powerhouses during the game center boom of the 80s. Their competition with the other heavyweights in the arcade arena at the time — Sega, Taito, and Konami — spurred an incredible era of arcade innovation that helped advance game hardware and game genres to amazing new heights.

But here’s the problem: A lot of people don’t know much about that beyond Pac-Man.

While Namco had a US branch during the 80s, it was mostly a licensing arm until quite late in the decade.1. Games that looked like they’d have strong global appeal were quickly snatched up by the likes of Bally/Midway and Atari, while many others languished as Japanese exclusives, never to be seen outside of the country until MAME and the Namco Museums came about.

As a result, we have plenty of memorials dedicated to Nakamura speaking of him as “The Father of Pac-Man” (a title that really should go to creator Toru Iwatani), treating his legacy as if Pac-Man was the only thing that really mattered. Even without taking into account more modern Namco hits like Tekken, Ridge Racer, and the Tales series, this reductive titling ignores numerous games he helped spearhead into existence that had a tremendous impact on the industry. Sadly, because these games didn’t see much attention in the West, many players don’t know how important they really are. I’ve decided to highlight three very important Namco arcade games here to show just how important Nakamura’s legacy is — there are plenty more examples, but these three titles embody what Namco meant to a generation of Japanese arcadegoers and game creators alike.

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  1. One of my biggest frustrations in studying arcade history is how poorly-documented a lot of dealing between US and Japanese companies during the 80s and early 90s are. Details like when Namco US started to sell their own cabinets are scarce. And furthermore, how did companies like Taito USA decide which games to sell themselves and which to sell out to Romstar?! ARGH

Arcade Road Trip: Grinkers Grand Palace (Eagle, Idaho)

I’ve mentioned Game Center CX more than a few times in my writing, and for good reason – it’s a fantastic show that everyone who enjoys older games will appreciate. But while the most popular segment of the program among most fans is the Arino’s Challenge portions, I personally enjoy the “Tama-ge” bits a lot more. In these parts of the show, Arino travels to visit various arcades, large and small, across Japan. It’s a wonderful combination of travelogue and nostalgia, showcasing the (sometimes very odd) places where arcades turn up, the games and atmosphere that make that particular arcade experience interesting, and the people who maintain these game centers. It’s both inspiring and a bit depressing, as the number of mom-and-pop arcades in Japan has been plummeting over the last decade. Oftentimes, it feels like Arino’s travels are an attempt to encourage people to help preserve a dying cultural institution (the segment’s title means “You should visit this game center sometime”).

When I was a teenager, I used to love doing what Arino did during my family’s trips across the country – looking up arcades in the area, visiting them, and seeing what they had to offer. (I was especially devoted to this when Virtua Fighter 3 was really, really hard to find in North America outside certain urban areas – my hunts were often targeted towards finding that particular game.) Nowadays, this is hard to do, because the state of Western arcades is utterly miserable. Most arcades these days – the ones that are still around, anyway – are parts of massive “entertainment centers” that make far more off of redemption games than dedicated video cabinets, and what they do have for games is often old and suffering from disrepair. But there are enthusiasts out there trying to find ways to preserve the more traditional, video-game-focused arcade experience: one of the more popular modern concepts is the “barcade,” a combination of pub/eatery and retrogaming arcade catering to an older clientele.

Generally, most of my experiences with said “barcades”1 have been kinda blah – the alcohol part doesn’t do much for me since I’m one of those irritating teetotalers, and the game selection is generally pretty similar across many of these establishments: Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, a bunch of Donkey Kongs, some Space Invaders, probably a Tapper or two to fit the bar theme, Robotron 2064, and a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat to get some 90s kid cred. These are good and all, but they’re also pretty easy to find. What I’m interested in are titles that you don’t see everyday, particularly Japanese games from the mid-late 80s – stuff that came out after the crash-correction of the Western video game market in the earlier part of the decade and is considerably less common as a result.

I discovered one such arcade on a recent trip. While I spent most of my life in Iowa, my parents retired to the Boise area in Idaho a couple years ago, so I went to visit my parents there over Mother’s Day weekend. My dad suggested stopping by a few arcades while I was there, and one of them was a place called the Grinkers Grand Palace in the Boise suburb of Eagle. It’s nestled into a corner of a strip-shopping center that doesn’t look like the kind of place that would host a bar-arcade. When I stepped inside, however, I knew I had found someplace very special. So today, I’m going to imitate our beloved Kacho Arino and tell you: you should go to Grinkers sometime!

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  1. Note that I’m referring to the “barcade” as a concept – there is an actual chain of these sorts of places called Barcade in the NYC area, which I hear are pretty awesome. Don’t confuse the two!

Book review: Shigeki Toyama Works Artworks Volume by Zekuu/circle Game Area 51

First off, I apologize for this review taking so long – I haven’t been in the best of physical health this week, and that combined with the craziness of family obligations over the holiday weekend meant that I couldn’t update the site as I wanted to. I’d intended to have this up around last Monday or so, but those plans came crashing down fairly quickly. I don’t want to disappoint gaming.moe supporters with a lack of site content, but alas, sometimes real life foils even the best-laid plans. I’m working on a manner of contingency plan for the next time such a thing happens. Anyhow, on to the main piece!

A while back I wrote a piece for WIRED about the subsection of the Japanese doujinshi subculture that caters to gaming devotees. Part of the reason why doujin fascinates me so much is because of the sheer variety of stuff people create under the term, and the fact that there are other extremely passionate nerds self-publishing books about all manner of delightful gaming minutae makes me very happy indeed. I interviewed a publisher under the name Zekuu for the piece, as his circle, Game Area 51, does some of the most impressive and in-depth doujin publications on retrogames and important people involved with their creation. Thanks to his work, I’ve become more aware of the contributions of many creators to games and companies that have notable places in gaming history.

Such is the case with Zekuu’s books about Shigeki Toyama, who has a lengthy history at Namco. I was mostly unfamiliar with Toyama’s contributions to gaming, but the two volumes of doujin Zekuu published – two interview books and an artbook – have taught me a great deal about the man who designed Mappy, the iconic graphical imagery of Xevious, and several arcade cabinets and logos. He was also a robotics designer, helping create everything from small animatronics to massive amusement attractions (such as the gigantic¬†Galaxian¬≥ setup at the Osaka Expo in 1990). Later, he’d also be a key contributor to the design of Sony’s AIBO robot dog. After learning so much about everything Toyama had helped create, I found myself filled with a profound respect for his incredible talent. (And, to be honest, I felt a little bit embarassed that I hadn’t properly recognized it sooner.)

Out of the three books, I chose this one for review because it’s largely art-based – and since I’m writing for a primarily English-speaking audience, it doesn’t really do folks much good to recommend an interview book in Japanese. It’s 242 pages long, B&W, and contains a truly astounding amount of design material for some of the coolest, most ambitious stuff that Namco ever produced. Without further ado, let’s look over….

00_art_hyoushiShigeki Toyama Works: Artworks Volume (Toyama Shigeki Sakuhinshuu: Artworks Hen)

Cover image: A sampling of titles Toyama’s talent has touched

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