Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What I'm Playing: Namco Museum DS

This week I am playing Namco Museum for the DS - a thoroughly nondescript title that came out recently and hides a very pleasant surprise.

Namco Museum didn't receive much fanfare on its release. Not surprising. It is yet another in the long list of collections of old 8-bit video games redone and repackaged for more recent systems. There must be hundreds of them out by now. (I have another Namco Museum title for the Gameboy SP.)

This time around, the DS incarnation of Namco Museum is a good title. It avoids the pitfalls of many previous 8-bit rehashes. It has a better-than-average selection of games (not just 15 variations on one famous game) including both famous and cult favorites. And, more importantly, the emulation is excellent. I started with Galaga, an old favorite, and the controls, sound, and graphics are spot on. Ditto the other games I've tried so far. They even include a "Library" so you can listen to the soundtracks without the distraction of space aliens shooting at you.

The only drawback to the Museum is the screen size. Most of these games were originally designed for vertical presentation on arcade machines. On the DS, Namco has chosen not to try using both screens (with the resultant issue of what to do with the gap between them) and show the game on the top screen by default. but the DS screens are oriented horizontally.

So at first, the game is stretched across the screen. This makes it visible, but hard to play since the relationship of horizontal to vertical movement is distorted. To make up for this, the game lets you choose a variety of different screen layouts: bottom screen instead of top screen, unstretched graphics, as well as several rotated versions.

I switched to the original aspect ratio, which eliminates the stretching but uses only about half of the screen. The emulation is perfect. The problem now is... its just way too small! Its like watching a video game played on Mars through a telescope. Next, I tried rotating it so the game is shown with the top of the screen to the left. Now, this is definitely the best video setup! It is glorious 8-bit color graphics at their best! Mind you, I have to hold the DS on its side and play with both hands on the left side of the screen. Not as uncomfortable as it sounds, but it is awkward.

The fact is the DS screen is simply too small and in the wrong orientation to play these old games well. Namco has done an admirable job to make it as playable as possible -- great emulation, flexibility on screen layout, but there just isn't any option that provides a completely satisfactory sensation.

What is interesting is that I ended up using different layouts for different games. For games I was familiar with from my youth (Galaga, Pac-man, Galaxian) I put up with the discomfort of holding the DS sideways so I can play it rotated fullscreen. Dig-Dug II, which has a color background (rather than dots on black) I don't mind playing on the small default layout (although I still switch to the correct aspect ratio). And for Xevious, which I never played before, I actually found that rotating the screen but not rotating the DS resulted in a very entertaining side-scrolling shooter that was easier to control (rather than the bottom-up layout it is supposed to have).

Its still fun, but ultimately even with the best emulation, these games play better on a bigger screen.

But the old games aren't why I bought this title. What I bought it for was Pacman Vs.

If you have never played Pacman Vs, which was originally sold as a bonus disc for Pacman World 2 on the Nintendo Gamecube, you have missed out on some serious fun. Pacman Vs was created as a technology demo by Nintendo to show off the connectivity between Gamecube and the GameBoy Advance. In the game, one player plays the character Pac-Man just like in a regular game of Pac-Man (except in 3D). The trick to the game is that the other players play the ghosts! The "Ghosts" only see a small area of the game board near them while "Pac-man" see the entire board (giving him or her a necessary advantage over the three opponents). Pac-man gains points for eating pellets and ghosts; ghosts gain points for catching Pac-man. Once Pac-man is caught, a different player is picked at random to become Pac-man and the game repeats until someone reaches a predetermined score.

A very simple game mechanic (rumor has it the game was created in two weeks), but the result is fast-paced chaos, with plenty of opportunity for strategizing (quickly) or just crazy running around, with lots of yelling and shouting. For all its simplicity, Pac-man Vs is one of the best multiplayer games around.

The reason it did not get attention originally was because you needed 2-4 people, a Gamecube, a GameBoy Advance, and a GBA link cable to play the game. But now with the Namco Museum, all you need is the game and a few friends with DSes. And, believe me, it is well worth it!

Unlike the 8-bit classics, Pac-man Vs was designed for a TV screen -- horizontal orientation -- so on the DS it can fill the upper screen. And since the game narrows the focus (zooming in on the characters) it still looks fantastic on the smaller device. If anything, this incarnation of Pac-man Vs is better than the original because there are no cables to get mixed up when passing the GameBoy Advance back and forth. It is fun with 2 people; it is outstanding with 3 or 4.

At $20, the Namco Museum for DS is a steal for Pac-Man Vs alone, one of the best portable multiplayer games around. if you have 2 or 3 friends with DSes, consider it a must-have. Oh, and you get some nifty old 8-bit games thrown in as a bonus. Frankly, I don't know why Bandai Namco doesn't advertise it that way...

No comments: