[6 December 2007]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
It’s nice to think that the advent of downloadable classic games (legal ones, anyway) might be heralding a newfound appreciation for the origins of video games in young gamers. By playing a round of Dig-Dug or Pac-Man a gamer can gain a newfound respect for the evolution of game design, from the 2-D maze to the 3-D chapel, the power pellet to the BFG.
But there’s a bit of bullshit to that concept as well. Quite frankly, old games are tedious and their design objective, spending quarters, is often no longer compelling outside of nostalgia. They rely on a lot of conventions, rules, and expectations that were chucked a long time ago in favor of the Console Enlightenment’s goals of fun and fulfillment. For lack of a better metaphor, playing classic titles is often like reading a dense Victorian novel.
Enter Namco’s half-baked Namco Museum Remix, which delivers not only a collection of games you mostly never played, it actually tries to modernize a few of them into Wii mini-games. It’s impressive to not only see the entire genre of Wii mini-games be born in a year, but actually become formulaic in that time as well, and Remix maintains this ignoble Wii tradition. The designers have created yet another generic festive and merry environment that Pac-Man rolls around to enter the ‘rides’ of various games. I use the verb ‘roll’, because for some reason Pac-Man’s modernization involved taking away his legs. I’m as big a fan of blowing up traditions as the next guy, but every depiction of Pac-Man from the original game art, 80’s cartoons, and even the Namco Museum Remix box art, depicts the yellow guy with legs. The fact that all of the mini-games now involve you playing as a grinning bowling ball is not necessarily the problem, it’s that I don’t associate grinning bowling balls with Pac-Man. In fact, I refuse to call him Pac-Man for the duration of this review. I will call him Pac-Ball.
Wii mini-games are a lot like a box of sugar-free chocolate; whatever you get is probably not going to be that good anyway. The problem comes from the fact that for some reason developers have gotten the crazy idea that having a good multi-player experience will excuse the suck of their single-player mode (I’m looking at you, Halo). If you’re a multi-million dollar franchise with an established online community of batshit fans, then that’s relatively true. If your game got popular for having awesome multi-player, then you can start releasing stuff like Quake III all you want. But if you’re a virgin game with no frame of reference for a player, they’re never going to bother mastering the skills of your game without a decent single-player experience to get them started.
My Galaga! What have you done with my Galaga?!
It should be noted that this rant is only applicable to two of the mini-games present on the game, though all four do provide multi-player. One involves rolling Pac-Ball into other balls until they fall off a giant platform. You can collect power-ups that are bought with in-game items and ration out your upgrades as a board demands it. It’s not bad game design but there’s barely enough going on to engage one player, much less two. The other decent mini-game features Pac-Ball driving a go-kart in a giant maze collecting flags while other go-karts chase you. If that sounds a lot like Pac-Man except that you’re a ball in a go-kart and the other players are the ghosts, then you’d be right! Neither of these games are particularly terrible, but it’s difficult to imagine wanting to be good enough at them that beating your friends would provide much satisfaction. Becoming a ghost and killing your friend who happens to be Pac-Ball seems like the equivalent of winning a round of ‘Who has the shittiest life?’
The other two remixes consist of turning Galaga into a rail shooter and another game that has Pac-Ball rolling around a 3-D castle. Basic Ludology (the academic study of video games) outlines that a game is composed of a series of smaller sub-games that create the whole game. Knowing when to cast ‘Heal’ is just a type of sub-game, knowing when to use a bigger gun, knowing when to run away, and so on. Galaga, glorious founding game that is, consists of two sub-games: dodging alien attacks on a horizontal rail and knowing when to press ‘shoot’. Aliens speed up as needed. Since there’s no ammo and no penalty for shooting, the latter sub-game doesn’t tend to involve much skill unless you’re counting points. But if you ask Namco Museum Remix, you’ll be informed that apparently the tricky part of Galaga was figuring out how to hit the giant impossible-to-miss insect swarm in front of you.
In the “remix”, Pac-Ball jumps on a giant roller coaster and you have to aim with the Wiimote at swarms of insects while Pac-Ball takes a roller coaster ride. There’s no dodging bugs as you try to gun them down before they shoot Pac-Ball or even slowing him down. Call me crazy, but a remix is supposed to bring something new to the table, not take away the most interesting part. I’d go into the fourth game but I frankly don’t even have a frame of reference for it. It’s terrible for all the right reasons: control, lack of variation, and you’re still an obnoxious anthropomorphized bowling ball. I’m assuming it was based on some variation of Pac-Man in 3-D but…why the hell was Pac-Man ever in 3-D?
...because everything is better when go-karts are involved.
Enter the classic arcade portion of the game. I’ll go ahead and shoot down the one reason you were probably thinking of getting this game: there is no Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga. Instead, there are a few rip-offs (Galaga on a bigger rail and with a new name), a few playables like Dig-Dug, and a ridiculous number of Pac-Man variations. It’s almost as bad as the days when Pong had first come out and games were adding an extra paddle to stand out. There’s Pac-Man with doors. Pac-Man without power pellets. Pac-Man with bigger power pellets. Pac-Man on an isometric grid. This particular version seems particularly dumb because you can’t even see the whole map or where the ghosts are, opting for a Diablo isometric perspective that makes about as much sense as Wes Anderson remaking all of his films in CGI. The one thing all these versions have in common is that you probably never played them. The presence of Dig-Dug doesn’t redeem the $39.99 price tag of the game.
The earlier reference to Victorian Literature is relevant to this game because, like old books, the tedium of these classic games should not necessarily be a deterrent to young players. Reading classic literature is like playing one of these titles because both genres were tailored for another era. The things that seemed fun and amusing a century ago quickly age despite the quality of design or message. Anyone who has slogged through a book like Wuthering Heights or Middlemarch will attest to how stunningly boring portions of those books are and yet how incredibly moving the ultimate outcomes can be. The same can be said for old games like Pac-Man and the joys of experiencing what made people like them so long ago. This is why this game’s bleak new content and unconvincing classic line-up is so incredibly disappointing. Namco Museum Remix doesn’t just fail to offer anything worthwhile to older fans, it fails to entice younger players to see why there was so much fuss for a yellow ball with legs in the first place.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/namco-museum-remix/