Making the old new: JAKKS Games bring Namco home
“Wakka, wakka, wakka, wakka.”
Like four-fifths of video gamers out there, I’m not a kid anymore. Like most of those, I’d assume, I’ve been playing games since I was a kid. I owned a dozen or so Tiger Electronics handhelds, the obligatory Nintendo Entertainment System, and a home-arcade version of Pac-Man—the godfather of all video games.
One look at the current crop of video games—filled with impressive graphics, gameplay, plot and often a star-studded cast—and it becomes clear they just don’t have the simple elegance so perfectly created in the days of yore. Not to mention the fact that a young child playing a video game for the first time would be hard pressed to understand the 11-button PlayStation controller or be mature enough to play top-sellers like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or Halo 2. So, until Nintendo makes their next next-generation system fully backwards compatible or they come out with an Atari that plugs into the S-video socket on a new television, where are retro-minded gamers to turn?
That’s right, along with a flood of other retro favorites like GI Joe and the Transformers, video games from the early 1980’s are making a come back thanks to the little devices that plug into any modern entertainment device to help older gamers recapture their youth—with the added benefit of bringing these understated but enthralling games to the youngest generation of future joystick addicts.
The biggest push seems to be coming from JAKKS Pacific, with a series of Plug-and-Play games that bring some of the best loved games of yesteryear and provide handy TV-ready packages, complete with authentic 1980’s-style controls.
The Namco TV Games collection, with Galaxian, Dig Dug, Rally-X, Bosconian and the icon himself, Pac-Man, is one of the line’s bigger titles. The five games have previously been collected as part of the Namco Museum series, but this collection doesn’t require another system to play. On the upside, the joystick and mash-button provide an arcade feel, on the downside the joystick feels exactly like the clunky controls of 1981.
Galaxian is the 1979 space ship invader shooting game that would inspire the much more popular Galaga and a thousand others from 1942 to Ikaruga. It’s a fun classic, but the slow button response can be frustrating for those used to playing the sequel on modern systems like the GameBoy Advance. Lovers of Galaga will also miss the classic capture-the-ship technique, but that game can be found on the Ms. Pac-Man collection, also from JAKKS. Of course, that means buying a whole new system with four games for the same price as a classic game collection for a game counsel.
Rally-X, a 1980 destruction derby-esque game, allows players to drive around a haphazard maze, release smoke screens and capture flags before enemy racers can hit you. This is the predecessor to many later armed car games, from Spy Hunter to Mario Kart, and it has aged well. Pac-Man, the 1980 game with the yellow face that eats power pills to prevent multi-colored ghosts from attacking, also transported well. The 1982 mining game Dig Dug featuring a plucky young hero that must pump subterranean monsters full of gas until they explode all over the cave walls works well with the device’s the simple left, right, up, down controls of the Plug-and-Play joystick.
The space station destroying 1982 game Bosconian on the other hand, does not fair as well. Anyone who has played previous editions of this game will be struck by an inability to fly diagonally, a particular disadvantage since the enemy ships are as maneuverable as ever. Bosconian is one of the most underrated titles of the video game golden age, and it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves in this incarnation.
This collection and the many other collections—from Tetris to Atari to Spongebob—available in Plug-and-Play formats are not cutting edge technology. Similar systems have been available, with dozens more games each, at flea markets for years. These games were often of dubious legality, with games that were often altered just enough to avoid copyright infringement. These newer games have a lot more attention put into them, but with exceptions like the Atari collection, often have very few games to offer.
Plug-and-Play games aren’t alone in offering retro-gaming options either. The Xbox has recently launched it’s Xbox Live Arcade (including the same titles that Namco TV Games offers), and Nintendo’s GameBoy Advance now has an entire line of classic games (each for the same price as Namco’s Plug-and-Play collection). Clearly there’s a market for old school games, but the right venue is still being sought by manufacturers.
The antiquated game styles may also be a bit much for today’s hardcore gamers, but these collections have two main audiences—people who want to relive their youth, and youths who want an easy first video game to try before attempting a game counsel with a dozen buttons on each controller. Now if only they could make a new system that would let gamers play their old cartridges on newer televisions.