Initially released in 1984, The Tower of Druaga is one of Namco's earliest titles, and probably the least-known title to make this Top 10 List. Like many Namco games (as we'll see soon), The Tower of Druaga opened as an arcade game, but its genre represented a distinct departure from most other arcade games of the time. The game is credited by many as being one of the first Action RPGs, a genre that clearly never caught on very much in the arcade setting but has set fire to the console race. After many years of the RPG genre being dominated by JRPGs and Western RPGs, Action RPGs have been the dominant force of late, and in many ways they can trace their origins to The Tower of Druaga.
Of course, that's only when viewed through several layers of historical interpretation. The gameplay of The Tower of Druaga more closely resembles Pac-Man with swords and chests than it does any kind of modern Action RPG. The game's position on this list, though, isn't solely based on some perceived historical significance, but rather is also due to the game's popularity and influence over the industry at the time. The length of the game, determined non-formulaically (unlike its predecessor Pac-Man), made it one of the longest games ever created, and the variety of enemies and dynamics present throughout the game made it particularly unique. The Tower of Druaga was not far removed from Pac-Man's original release, yet featured over a dozen enemy types, several unique environmental doo-dads, and a variety of weapons.
The Rider Racer series as a whole debuted back in 1993 in arcades. Its first several releases were among the most influential early racing games, with the 1994 Ridge Racer Full Scale being particularly notable for including a full car as the game's controller. Further releases introduced other up-to-date features, including multiplayer support and a rear-view mirror. Coming from a computer graphics background, the rear-view mirror was actually a notable technical achievement for the hardware of the day. Still, among the earliest Ridge Racer games, I would personally maintain that the original Ridge Racer for arcades remains the series' most influential game and one of Namco's crowning achievements. Ridge Racer was not, of course, the first racing video game ever created; dozens of others preceded it, including Namco's own Rally-X and Pole Position, both considered for this spot on this list. However, Ridge Racer went on to become the most durable racing series for the company, initiating a new arms race in the genre using polygon-modeled cars.
With the relative lack of strong releases in the series in recent years, though, Ridge Racer has perhaps been more commonly associated in the current collective psyche with a humorous press conference given by Kazuo Hirai at E3 2006. In that press conference, while announcing the Ridge Racer PSP launch title, Hirai apparently forgot that Ridge Racer hadn't been a big-name franchise for almost a decade, despite several releases. Despite that, Ridge Racer for PSP went on to become one of the franchise's best games, and one of the best demonstrators of the PSP's processing power.
The Ace Combat series got its start in 1992 as, of course, an Arcade game. It made the jump to consoles quicker than many Namco series, however, with the original game earning a PlayStation port early on, and nearly every subsequent game being released as a console exclusive. Most early games were on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 before the series branched out to portable consoles in the mid-2000s and Microsoft consoles in the latter part of the decade. The franchise has several notable elements. For me, it's unique in that it is one of the few aerial combat simulators that also come with a significant plot focus. It's also interesting for its setting in an alternate reality version of earth, complete with different continents, cultures, and countries, but an otherwise decidedly human and modern feel to it.
The game has several gems, and many critics would consider the franchise's fourth installment Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies, to be the series' high point. It, arguably, was the most revolutionary game in the series, and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War lacks the multiplayer component that was one of the game's highlights. Despite this, though, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War also stands out as arguably the series' best release. The short-play arcade-style mode helped bring the franchise to a broader audience, helping the game retain its strengths while also appealing to audiences that marginalize the importance of a game's narrative. The cooperative mode between wingmen was particularly notable as well, and the controls remain the benchmark for combat flight simulators.
In keeping with Namco's reputation as a top developer of arcade games, Time Crisis is the #7 game on this list. Time Crisis is arguably Namco's most famous modern arcade game (although a few of its other arcade games, discussed later in this list, trump it in popularity and recognizability by a couple orders of magnitude). To this date, the light gun shooter is a fixture in many arcades, too popular to take down even as it has become more and more outdated. The game is by no means the first light gun arcade game; Virtua Cop, The House of the Dead, and Namco's own StarBlade preceded it.
The unique element of Time Crisis, though, was the strategic elements it introduced. Before its release, most light gun shooters were basically on-rails shooting games with little to differentiate them from classic carnival games aside from the improved graphics. Time Crisis, on the other hand, introduced some strategic elements through its cover system, recoil function, and checkpoint-style timing system. Between these three things, succeeding in the game began to require strategic planning and management of health, time, and ammunition rather than just open fire on enemies. The game was also among the first (and perhaps still only, I've never heard of another game simulating this) light gun shooters to base the course the player takes through the levels on the player's performance; better time on one level will lead to a different level coming up next, either rewarding the player for good performance or adapting the challenge to more experienced players.
In the annals of video game history, the Klonoa franchise is likely one of the most forgotten series among one of the industry's most popular genres. To date, the series has eight games, although only two are considered part of the franchise's main series: the rest are spin-offs (such as Klonoa Beach Volleyball, a sports-themed game that apparently misses the point of most beach volleyball games) or lower-budget handheld releases. The main franchise is comprised of the original Klonoa: Door to Phantomile and its sequel, Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil.
The original game, though, is where the franchise really shines. I would go so far as to call Klonoa: Door to Phantomile one of the most underrated platformer games ever released. It debuted to very strong reviews, mostly focusing on its non-repetitive level design and colorful, unique graphical flavor. Although the game did have some of the hallmarks of a company's first foray into a genre, it had more than enough to make up for any significant weak points. Perhaps one of the most notable elements of the game as well was its success despite the trends at the time; released in late 1997, the game came as the genre as a whole was turning toward 3D platformers, yet still found a strong niche audience. Its graphics had a 3D twist to them, but the gameplay itself remained in 2D. Its sequel was praised as well, perhaps even more notable since it came when the 3D platformer genre was far more established and expected.
Katamari Damacy appears quite often on GameFAQs Top 10 lists, usually themed around games with bizarre concepts, strangely addicting music, or interesting mechanics. A quick search of the Top 10 list database reveals that the game appears on such lists as "Funniest Games Of All Time", "Most Original Games", "Strangest Games Ever Made", "Unique Games", "Strangest Video Game Premises", "Games That Make You Say 'WTF?!'", and "Weirdest Games And Moments". Lost somewhere in the popular (and accurate) perception of Katamari Damacy was exceedingly weird, however, is the similar truth that the game is still weirdly fun, addictive, and engaging.
Part of the game's quality appeal, of course, really is how downright bizarre the game concept is. In a gaming age of well-defined categories, cookie-cutter copycats, and entire genres of games defined as "[game]-clones", it is exceedingly rare to find a game that so fully and fundamentally bucks any kind of genre convention. Even games that are often praised as being unique or bizarre, like Elite Beat Agents, still can be described as strange premises within an otherwise-established genre. But on top of the uniqueness, the game also game with a flawless implementation of its bizarre core mechanic, one of the most interesting (in a good way) soundtracks ever released, and an artistic and narrative style that perfectly fit the game's quirky appeal. The graphics, characters, dialog, and actual gameplay all fit rather seamlessly together to form a game whose appeal, while bizarre, is still much greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
The top four on this list return to Namco's core appeal and long-term area of dominance: arcade games. All four are franchises that trace their origins to successful arcade games, starting with arguably one of the four most famous fighting franchises of all time, SoulCalibur; I, personally, would rank the series behind only Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and the #3 entry on this list in terms of all-time popularity. The series traces its origins to 1996's Soul Edge, while the franchise's second installment marked the origin of the name SoulCalibur (whose capitalization I'm convinced remains unstandardized to this day). Like SNK at the time, Namco decided to develop multiple fighting game series due to the genre's popularity; in this case SoulCalibur would run parallel to Namco's own Tekken.
Although many of the games in the franchise are praised, two stand out above the pack as the series' greatest installments. One of them is the original SoulCalibur, the killer app for the Dreamcast and arguably the console's only real console-seller. The latter, recognized by a larger audience due to its broader multiplatform console release, is the direct sequel SoulCalibur II, released four years later. The game scored exceedingly high marks on all three consoles on which it appeared, drawing particular praise for its role in giving the Nintendo GameCube an otherwise-missing representative in the fighting genre. That GameCube release was also particularly notable for featuring Link from The Legend of Zelda, one of the only times Nintendo has let a third-party developer utilize one of its first-party properties.
#3: Tekken 3 (ARC)
In many ways, the SoulCalibur franchise's success could be seen as the capitalization the success of Namco's earlier and even more popular fighting game franchise, Tekken. The Tekken franchise originated in 1994 on arcade machines, but the franchise as a whole would find a tendency to arrive on home consoles fairly quickly after the arcade releases. The franchise as a whole has gone on to a great deal of recognition, leading to its inclusion in a number of the recent crossover games existing between companies and franchises. The game has already received a crossover game with Capcom's Street Fighter (Street Fighter X Tekken), as well as a strong representation in Namco X Capcom (bizarrely, developed not by Namco or Capcom but by long-term Namco partner Monolith Soft). A third game, Tekken X Street Fighter, is currently in development by the recently-retitled Namco Bandai Games (although the game is in danger of taking up Duke Nukem Forever's mantle as most famous vaporware game).
There are many competing opinions regarding the best Tekken game, but one of the more common ones is the series' third installment, Tekken 3. The game built on more advanced hardware than its predecessors, leading to the arcade game's success, while the console version possessed a polish that came from several years of PlayStation development. The game remains not only one of the greatest Tekken, Namco, or fighting games of all time, but also one of the greatest games of all time by any developer in any genre.
#2: Galaga (ARC)
From Namco's most recently-popular franchises, we jump back all the way to the company's earliest history with our top two games. The first of these two, Galaga, was released in 1981, just before the video game bust of 1983 and at the height of the so-called Golden Age of video gaming. The game was actually a sequel to the earlier Galaxian, another arcade vertical fixed shooter released two years earlier. Although popular, it is Galaga that has received the most historical and critical acclaim and attention.
Watching a game of Galaga, it becomes immediately clear why the game was able to achieve such acclaim and praise at the time of its release. The video game industry had never seen anything quite like it. Its predecessor, Galaxian, represented little more than a predictable iterative step forward from the earlier Space Invaders, but Galaga was a proverbial giant leap. The game supplied an incredibly variety of enemies for its age, along with movement that took the very nature of the gameplay to a new level. In terms of gameplay mechanics, really the only thing preventing it from being considered a vertically-scrolling shooter is the absence of a moving background; the enemy movements themselves are enough to make the game functionally indistinguishable from the more advanced genre that would soon follow. The recognizability of Galaga, thanks in large part to the large generation that made it popular, has led to the game achieving significant popular culture penetration, most recently involving a humorous cameo in The Avengers.
#1: Pac-Man (ARC)
Released in 1980, Pac-Man is arguably the most popular and significant video game of all time. Some would argue against that label, of course, but there is certainly a case to be made; it has the highest brand recognition of any video game character (which includes Mario, Sonic, Pikachu, and basically every other game you can think of), which also gives it higher brand recognition than basically any celebrity, politician, or public figure in the United States (all of the above according to the 2009 Davie Brown Celebrity Index). Pac-Man revolutionized the gaming industry in a way that is only rivaled by Pong and Super Mario Bros.
There's not nearly enough room here to discuss the full extent of Pac-Man's influence and popularity, but suffice to say the game came along at the perfect time. At the time of its release, the gaming industry was becoming a tiny bit stale; even though all-time greats like the aforementioned Galaga were yet to come, the industry was at significant risk of becoming overly dominated by two genres: shooters and sports games. Nearly every game out in arcades was either a Space Invaders clone (not unlike Galaxian) or a Pong clone. Pac-Man, a game without any real genre, changed everything. The game was an instant success and essentially put both Namco and Midway on the map. Interestingly, it also set up one of the earliest legal cases involving video games, as Midway and Namco both claimed ownership of the character and franchise. Midway created several unauthorized sequels, leading to legal action by Namco. Pac-Man never successfully made the jump to the modern era (or even the pre-modern era, stalling out in the earliest console days), but its impact on the industry as a whole cannot be overstated.
Honorable Mentions: Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, Venus & Braves, SoulCalibur, Soul Edge, Ace Combat 0, Ridge Racer Revolution, SoulCalibur 4, Galaxian, Tekken, Tekken 2, Klonoa 2, Dragon Valor, Gee Bee, Tank Battalion, Rally-X, Bosconian, Pole Position, Super Pac-Man, Xevious, Dragon Buster, Ridge Racer, Tekken Tag Tournament, Ridge Racer 5, SoulCalibur II, Tekken 5, SoulCalibur 5, Bad Dudes vs. DragonNinja, I-Ninja.
One of the interesting things about Namco is that in the mid-1990s, it found itself in the same place as a company we've discussed before, SNK. Both were primarily arcade game manufacturers, and both dabbled in hardware production. Namco, however, had foresight (or luck) that SNK lacked, making moves to transition more seamlessly into the console game industry. Thus, while SNK was bought out in the early 2000s, Namco was the one doing the buying: in 2005, it merged with Bandai in a move whose structure more closely resembled a buy-out. For video game development, Namco absorbed Bandai's relatively limited resources, forming the new label Namco Bandai Games. None of the games mentioned on this list have been produced by the merged label, however, thus why I've chosen to dedicate this list to Namco itself. In many ways as well, Namco Bandai has taken on more of a publishing role with the structural change; several popular recent games, like Xenosaga Episode III, Eternal Sonata, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and RollerCoaster Tycoon 3D, have been published by Namco Bandai while being developed by someone else. Interestingly as well, the company remains one of the only independent developers entrusted with developing games featuring Nintendo's first party characters, such as Mario Super Sluggers and the upcoming Super Smash Bros. 4. Between its roles in publishing several truly great third-party projects and developing new releases in established franchises, Namco Bandai's future is safe for a very long time.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJ (09/13/2012)
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