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August 17, 2006

REVIEW: Namco Museum (GBA)

Namco Museum for the Gameboy Advance includes:

  • Galaxian (1979)
  • Galaga (1981)
  • Ms. Pac-Man (1981)
  • Dig Dug (1982)
  • Pole Position (1982)

Smell is one of the most evocative of senses. For example, when I open the trunk in my basement and take a whiff (as I am wont to do), I am suddenly transported back to summer camp in rural Wisconsin in the early 1980's. I can almost taste the bug juice and adolescent angst.

That's not to say that my old trunk is the only time machine around these parts. There's nothing like the smell of day-old hot dogs on the countertop grill, brain freeze-inducing cola Slurpees, and a freshly-opened pouch of Big League Chew, to bring me back to my local 7-Eleven, also in the early '80's. More specifically, these smells transport me to my favorite spot in front of their Galaga machine. Ahh, Galaga. Such fun. Such excitement. Such double-shippy goodness.

Galaga was one of my favorite classic arcade games ever, which is saying something, given the large mushy area that classic arcade games occupy in my heart. Which is why I was pretty happy when I got to play Namco Museum for the GBA, on the flight to and from GDC and E3 (moment of silence) this year.

My kids were also happy to play Namco Museum on a recent plane trip, but instead of the relatively difficult Galaga, their faves were Dig Dug, Ms. Pac-Man, and Pole Position.

Dig Dug is such a happy little game, from the delightfully cheerful music to the bright backgrounds. My kids sometimes have to ask for help on the more advanced levels, but at least early on in the game, it's not too hard, and lots of fun. They both love blowing the crap out of Pooka and Fygar with Dig Dug's little bicycle pump... of death. As an aside, as I mentioned in my GameTap review, Dig Dug's "Joey" is one of the funnier (though not the most kid-friendly) A Day in the Extra Life animated shorts.

Ms. Pac-Man suffers from being a portrait game in a landscape world. So your choices are; 1) the tiny, cornea-straining full-screen mode, where the playable area shares the screen with an equal amount of black nothingness, or 2) scroll mode, where at any given time, you can see the entire width of the screen, but only half of the length. So although you may not be able to see Blinky and Clyde plotting their evil deeds somewhere offscreen, scroll mode is the better bet, because the entire GBA screen is playable. And once you start playing, it's the genuine article.

My kids enjoyed Pole Position, even though, like all driving games, it's tough to control the car with a digital pad. The result is that without the ability to make smooth analog changes in the car's heading, you end up driving all herky-jerky-like. One of the things my kids like to do as they drive around the track is to find the Dig Dug billboards along the side of the road.

Galaxian may be a slower, uniship version of its sequel, Galaga, but it will always be a special game for me, because of the role it played in arcade history. Before its 1979 release, the only color we got to see in games was when arcade companies would project the monotone game image onto a painted background, a la Space Invaders or Boot Hill. And just like the effect the big orange splot had on Mr. Plumbean's neat street, when Galaxian burst gloriously onto the scene, it was like a rainbow. It was like an explosion.

For the older kids, Galaga plays pretty well, though if you have to move the GBA up and down in the course of trying to hit the fire button fast enough, it can be tough to concentrate on a single spot on the screen.

In general, given the technological advancements made in the gaming industry in the last quarter century, the Gameboy Advance is just about the perfect vehicle for classic arcade games. These 3-minute, easy-to-learn, hard-to-master adventures are perfect for portable gaming, but not sophisticated enough to feel at home on the DS or PSP. And other than Ms. Pac-Man's pesky aspect ratio issues, the games are faithfully ported over with their sights and sounds as authentic as I remember them.

The only area that takes a significant hit is the controls. Even if we take Pole Position's steering wheel out of the equation, a teeny-tiny d-pad simply can't measure up to a robust, full-size arcade joystick, especially for North/South/East/West games like Ms. Pac-Man and Dig Dug.

As someone who lived through the golden age of arcade gaming in the late '70s and early '80s, I really get a kick out of seeing my kids enjoy playing the games I loved as a kid. Namco Museum for the Gameboy Advance is a terrific game for all ages, and will come in mighty handy on your next trip in the Family Truckster. And if the game isn't enough to satisfy little Rusty and Audrey, you can always stop off for a Slurpee break along the way.


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