"Namco truly was at the top of its game when the selections here were originally produced. The result for today's retro gamer is a backlog that includes familiar classics such as Mappy, Pac-Mania, Xevious and Pole Position. Many of those have been offered numerous times in past compilations, so some extra treasures have been added to the mix. Rally-X, King & Balloon, Dragon Buster and The Tower of Druaga are all examples of quality games that you may have heard of but never tried for yourself. Now you can."
The idea behind Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade practically sells itself: take a bunch of old Namco games that millions of retro gamers remember from the days when arcades were king of the hill, throw them into a collection alongside a handful of recent releases that were optimized for the Xbox 360 console as downloadable content, then give them a fancy name and ship them off to stores with a $30 price tag. What's not to like?
Well... the interface, for starters. When you boot up the game, you're be greeted with two main selections from the first menu. The top one pertains to the premium content. Namco Bandai has packed the disc with the likes of Galaga Legions, Mr. Driller Online and Pac-Man Championship Edition. Separately, each of these have in the past retailed for the equivalent of $10 apiece on Xbox Live Arcade. What's more, they've been worth it. Their inclusion here essentially means that everything else included in the package is basically free (assuming you haven't already purchased any of the above, naturally).
There's a problem, though: you can't access any of those star attractions from within the game. Instead, choosing the 'Live Arcade' simply results in a message informing you that you have to head to the Xbox Live dashboard to play any of the main content. As if to confuse you, the menu then lists the games available and even lets you choose one, only to take you through a copyright notice and deposit you on the mode selection screen again. People who perhaps aren't familiar with how Xbox Live works--or with the English language, or with literacy in general--are bound to be left scratching their heads and wondering where the content is hidden.
The second option on that selection screen works more effectively. It presents you with a list of 25 titles that are only a load screen away. Since there are so many to choose from, you can even press the shoulder buttons to scroll through different categories. That's useful.
Of course, that particular convenience can't cancel out the presence of another problem: load times. With any compilation like this, there are bound to be some titles that fail to keep you engaged for long. Suppose that you decide to have some fun with Dragon Spirit. You start playing it and after being blown out of the sky almost immediately, you decide that this isn't a good day for shooters. A bit of Dig Dug II sounds much more appealing. So you pause the game, choose the option to quit to the menu, then wait around 10 seconds for it to reappear. Next you scroll down to the preferred game and press the button to load. This leads to another delay. Essentially, you'll be waiting 20 seconds to a half-minute every time you change your mind about what you want to play. That's disappointing.
Once you do settle on a game and begin to invest some serious time with it, you'll likely decide that you wish things were presented just a little bit differently. By default, the viewing area of each game is too small. This maintains the aspect ratio, but doesn't even use the entire vertical plane available on standard-definition televisions. To take up all of the space and make things large enough to see properly on a smaller set, you'll have to go into the 'Options' menu and zoom in or out by pressing the shoulder buttons. This must be done each time you load an individual game, which makes everything take even longer.
A final concern is the control setup. The Xbox 360's d-pad simply wasn't made for games that require precision. That's particularly true of stuff like Pac-Man, where in tense moments you may very well find the cheerful mascot mysteriously wandering down the very passage you meant to avoid, simply because you didn't press the button just right. That's bad news, but it's mostly nullified by the fact that the analog stick gets the job done. You still won't have the flawless control that you're used to from previous home conversions on other platforms, but you should be able to adapt.
There's plenty of reason to grow accustomed to the various quirks, too. Namco truly was at the top of its game when the selections here were originally produced. The result for today's retro gamer is a backlog that includes familiar classics such as Mappy, Pac-Mania, Xevious and Pole Position. Many of those have been offered numerous times in past compilations, so some extra treasures have been added to the mix. Rally-X, King & Balloon, Dragon Buster and The Tower of Druaga are all examples of quality games that you may have heard of but never tried for yourself. Now you can.
That's not to suggest that each choice available is distinct or even worth your time. If you're not big on Pole Position, you almost certainly won't care for its barely improved sequel. Similarly, it's nice to see Sky Kid Deluxe available, but it would be a stretch to say that it adds anything significant to the compilation's value that the original doesn't already bring. A cynic might suggest that it exists merely to pad numbers for back-of-the-box copy. There's also a Pac-Man overload. The lesser-known variations included here are interesting and probably will keep you busy for a few hours, but somehow they don't feel quite as polished as the original. They're still interesting, even if you decide that you don't particularly care for them. They make the “Museum” part of the compilation's title feel more legitimate.
In the end, Namco Museum: Virtual Arcade is perhaps the best compilation that Namco Bandai has ever produced. It's not always as convenient as a person might like, but there's no denying the overall value of a collection that legally gathers so many exciting treasures from the arcade glory days and beyond. More recent entries like the stellar Pac-Man: Championship Edition only serve to round out what was already destined to be an excellent package. If you like retro gaming and you can put up with load times and the Xbox 360 controller, consider this one virtual arcade that you can't afford to do without.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 10, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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