The PlayStation Portable was designed to take us away from the limits of past handheld game systems. It is a gaming system capable of giving us all of the cinematic 3D visuals and fully immersive play depth of a modern videogame console. And yet, one of the best buys for the system is a collection of games from the 1980s, with a title list including games that have previously been available on Game Boy, PDA systems, even handheld toys. Namco Museum Battle Collection may hardly tax the system, but it earns its place in a PSP owner's collection with its faithful and full-optioned collection of classic games.
As with any package of games from yesteryear, there's the mix of classics and clunkers. Namco has its reputation of 50 years in the gaming business (the console equivalents of Namco Museum to be released soon celebrates the anniversary), but it didn't get this far without a few missteps. That said, the real classics on this compilation are true greats that hold up.
Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Galaxian, and Dig Dug are the collection's cornerstone games, and you don't get a much better line-up than that from the vaults. The import version of Namco Museum also had Rally-X and New Rally-X, two early Namco racing games (one of which was also featured in the PSP Ridge Racer.) Those seven games made for a slim set in Japan, so for the North America release, Namco has rounded out the package with a ton more titles. There's Dig Dug 2 (something of a nice surprise to me as a fan of the original), the shooters Xevious, Grobda, Bosconian and King & Balloon, the platformer Mappy, the future sport Motos, faux-RPGs Dragon Buster and The Tower of Druaga, and even the fairly modern action game Rolling Thunder.
You have to be the kind of person motivated by the drive for high scores to get more than a few hours of thrills at a time with these games -- even Rolling Thunder, with its "save the world" spy caper, is not enough to fill the desires of an action junkie. Also, some of these games are better remembered than they actually are -- whatever it was about The Tower of Druaga that made it classic enough in Japan for several remakes and even a PS2 successor, I will never understand (we certainly never liked it in America, so it doesn't make much sense why Namco padded the pack with this instead of something like Pole Position.)
Those who are into classic games, however, get a nice assortment here. The emulation is just about spot-on from what we've played, as Pac-Man's ghosts follow the same patterns of the original, and Xevious passed the tests with our old-school arcade expert. Each game features pass-the-rock multiplayer (for challenging each other to beat the high score), and there's an options menu available for every game that lets you configure the virtual dipswitches the same as the arcade machine (you can pump up the number of lives per play, for example, and there are often sound tests and other features to play with.) The options for customizing the use of the widescreen are also very nice, as you can stretch the games across the screen and even rotate the whole thing and play the PSP sideways to simulate the "tall" view of some of the original arcade cabinet. An autosave is also included to keep all of your high scores on a memory stick. Just be sure to switch on the autosave, as it's defaulted to be off in order to make the game play faster.
For a little more depth, Namco has come up with Arrangement versions of four classics in the collection: Pac-Man, New Rally X, Galaga and Dig Dug. These are closer in design to games of this era, with boss enemies at the end of stages, power-ups to collect, and special kinds of traps or obstacles on each new stage. These modes are still limited -- don't go into Galaga expecting something on par with Ikaruga -- and the convenient save feature means you'll reach the end boss in an hour or so. In this case, however, going light works for the games -- they are clever updates that play to the strengths of the originals, and because each stage is designed for continuous play rather than one-time "wow" moments, you can get a lot of replay out of going through them for top scores without getting bored from knowing your way around traps. These Arrangement modes also feature wireless gameplay for multiplayer with up to four gamers, and there are both competitive score competitions as well as simple co-op gameplay challenges to link up for.
If there is anything to be disappointed with in Namco Museum Battle Collection, it's that multiplayer plays a big part in the game's title, but it's likely not to be as big a factor in the game itself. Competitive play for up to four players is obviously a great way to play, but only the Arrangement modes feature linked wireless connectivity. Sharing your scoreboards would have been nice, and even though Pac-Man was always an alternating multiplayer game, you lose some of the fun when you have to wait for your friend's turn. The Arrangement modes are decent in competitive mode -- Pac-Man includes a lot of unexpected variations in the stage layouts and power pellet placement, and there's a cool bonus feature where you turn into a ghost and hunt the opponent player if you lose a life -- but the co-op events don't get as much special treatment.
Game Sharing is also underutilized, which is disappointing since this is the first use of the feature on PSP in North America. Here, you can trade a download to an empty PSP so they can sample the ten of the game's 17 arcade originals (Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Rally-X, New Rally X, Dig Dug, Bosconian, King & Balloon, and Xevious.) The problem with this is that it isn't really Game Sharing, it's Game Teasing. Most games, you only get one stage to play, and that stage doesn't even loop. Pop four enemies in Dig Dug and it's the Game Over screen. The Arrangement modes can't be shared, so your chances of finding another player to play depend on how many people you know who are into old-school games (and would keep a game like this in their pack.) We're not sure if it was a technical issue (and we can't imagine that -- most of these 8-bit games could fit in a calculator watch) or just a choice on Namco's part to protect itself from gamers getting too much for free, but that's just hurting the game's value to cut the feature so short. Even if you're getting the multiplayer for free, we figure that in the long run a gamer might be more likely to buy a copy for himself if he had enjoyed a shared multiplayer game than if he had played just one level of Pac-Man.
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