A Brief History Of Everything
A Brief History of: Namco
The golden age of Japanese arcades wouldn’t be the same without one big name: Namco. Specifically, it wouldn’t be the same without an IP dreamt up by Namco’s staff, and that is Pac Man.
Aside from Pac Man, however, Namco is one of the pillars of the early Japanese arcades, contributing no less than Galaxian, Xevious, and Dig Dug, among others. Founded in 1955 as Nakamura Seisakusho, what we now call Namco Bandai has had stakes in businesses ranging from theme parks and gaming centers to arcade games and home console titles.
Namco’s Dig Dug
The company became Namco in 1977 when it began to focus more heavily on electronic games, their first such product debuting in 1970 under the name “Racer.” Before this, Nakamura Manufacturing Company mainly produced electronic rides for the rooftops of Japanese department stores. There, children would ride on electronic horses and the like in coin-op amusements that are still common today.
As luck would have it, Namco was able to get into the video game industry due to the collapse and subsequent firesale of Atari Japan. Due to money issues back in the States, founder and CEO of Atari Nolan Bushnell expedited the sale of Atari Japan which, despite heavy losses, attracted some bids, one of which was from a major pinball maker called Sega.
Sega lost the bid, reportedly, because they underbid when compared with Namco’s offer which secured the deal for them and changed the course of the company forever.
What Namco got out of this deal was an exclusive license in Japan for all of Atari’s games for the next ten years. In addition to that, Namco began to open up branded arcades across Japan that featured Atari’s games prominently.
Launched in 1978, Gee Bee was Namco’s first stab at original IP under its own steam. Prior to this, the company also launched Namco America to license its games to US publishers. Yet it was the release of Pac Man in 1980 that would change everything for the company. A worldwide sensation, Pac Man went on to become the mascot and trademark game for the company. They would follow this with successive hits year after year through 1982.
The video game crash would impact the company just as it did the wider industry but Namco would go on to become a pillar of support for the then-unproven Famicom/NES from Nintendo. This would reveal itself to be a wise move as the NES went on to dominate the 8-bit hardware generation.
A renewed renaissance began in 1993 with the release of Ridge Racer and then the 3D fighting game Tekken. Following Sony into the 32-bit era, Namco became a major pillar of the PSX’s early strategy to make headway in the home console market.
One of the biggest changes in corporate history came in 2005 when the company merged with Japanese toy conglomerate Bandai to form Bandai Namco, as the company is called today.
Still a major power in the home console business, Bandai Namco retains a close relationship with electronics giant Sony. The company is also involved in pushing its games, such as the Tekken series, into the eSports arena. Outside of this, their merger with Bandai has provided the company with access to tons of original IP and new ways of bringing it to market, including toys, amusement parks, animation, and more.
A Brief History of: Capcom
The house that brought us Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Resident Evil, among others, Capcom is a relatively young company in the grand scheme of things but has had an outsized impact in its 39 years in the video game industry.
Founded on May 30, 1979 in Osaka, Japan, Capcom started life as I.R.M. Corporation of which, a subsidiary called the Japan Capsule Computers Co., Ltd, would give inspiration behind the company’s name change in June 1983 to Capcom. This subsidiary, responsible for manufacturing and distributing electronic game machines, gave Capcom its foothold in the nascent industry and started its long legacy in arcade games. Those who know their history will note that 1983 was a tough time to enter the video game industry due to crash of the home console market that occurred that same year.
But, sometimes, in times of great change there are great opportunities, and in this chaos Nintendo would rise to re-establish the home console market and Capcom (along with a slew of licensed titles bearing the Disney name) would help power the Nintendo Entertainment System’s dominance in the West. Whether it is one of the many ports of Ghouls ‘N Ghosts or one of the installments in the Mega Man series, Capcom went from unknown to console stalwart within one generation. The company began its life as an arcade concern but ended up being one of the pillars of Nintendo’s home console efforts.
Yet Capcom wouldn’t forget the arcades – nor would it stop profiting from them.
Capcom’s Street FIghter II
With Nintendo’s console dominance secured, Capcom entered the early 1990s in a unique position in the United States. Known for its home titles, Capcom branched out into new genres and even pioneered some as well. Two great examples of Capcom’s last great contributions to the arcade scene are found in Final Fight and, later, Street Fighter II. Popularizing the beat ‘em up and fighting game genres, respectively, Capcom would iterate on these two formulas for a barrage of titles that starred everyone from the X-Men to Tatsunoko’s universe of iconic Japanese characters.
Capcom milked its success in the arcades and translated it to the home consoles with more ports and translations of Street Fighter II than can be recounted here. It is hard to exaggerate how big of a sensation Street Fighter II was when it hit arcades. Similarly difficult is overestimating that game’s impact on the industry in general. Both home and console markets were hugely impacted by SFII’s release. Even though the formula was becoming tired by the end of the decade, the 1990s were, in many ways, Capcom’s time to shine.
The rise of the PlayStation in the mid-1990s presented unique opportunities for Capcom. Sony’s powerful hardware allowed them to explore concepts first introduced in their title Sweet Home in a game called Resident Evil (known as Biohazard in Japan). Once again, Capcom popularized a genre seemingly overnight and started a craze that still hasn’t slowed down.
An innovative and dynamic company, Capcom is a pillar of the modern console market as well as a former titan of the arcades.
A Brief History Of: The Nintendo DS
The empire built upon portables and home consoles, Nintendo today is combining both wings of its house into one gigantic behemoth of a system called the Switch. But, before that, Nintendo was very much devoted to the idea of separate experiences for different environments.
Almost single-handedly resurrecting the home console market with its release of the Famicom in Japan in 1983, Nintendo went from milestone to milestone with the release of the Game Boy and then, later, the Super Nintendo. But it was the Game Boy, far from being the first portable system, that truly popularized the niche – and gave Nintendo one of its most lucrative fiefdoms in the process.
Many have challenged Nintendo’s dominance in handhelds, but none have prospered in that contest. And now that Nintendo has combined both, who knows what the future holds? We can see the beginnings of the Switch with a quirky system that came out in 2004 called the Nintendo DS.
Initially planned as a successor the uber-successful Game Boy Advance, the DS had two screens, a stylus, a microphone, and a slew of games that took advantage of these hardware features. It did take a while for the concept to take off, but once it did, the rest is history. In fact, in the beginning, the DS was marketed alongside the Game Boy Advance because Nintendo was so unsure of the concept’s success.
Probably the DS’s biggest selling point as a new, modern console was its use of WiFi to connect players together for multiplayer gaming. Previously gamers had to rely upon link cables local networks to play multiplayer on handhelds, but the DS made it so much easier by giving the system WiFi right out of the box. Compared graphically to the Nintendo 64, the DS received many ports of popular titles from that system but was also backwards compatible with the Game Boy Advance through the addition of a cartridge slot on the bottom of the system. This expanded the DS’s library to immense levels on day 1 and encouraged a lot of Game Boy Advance players to take the plunge. And why not? Since they wouldn’t lose access to their favorite games, the DS was a natural upgrade.
Boy, did they ever upgrade: While the sales for the Nintendo DS were initially slow, it has now racked up a total tally of 154 million units sold, making it the best-selling handheld of all time and the second best-selling console of all time. As Matt Damon says in Good Will Hunting, how about them apples?
In many ways the Nintendo DS kicked off what we now know as modern Nintendo. The Nintendo 64 was an amazing console with a library of excellent games but was held back by a storage format that was behind the times. It seemed to many that Nintendo would never regain their mojo after their vaunted turn to discs, the GameCube, failed to set the world on fire. The DS showed everyone that not only was Nintendo back in the game but that the company would rely upon their innovation and know how to reclaim the throne. The arrival of the Wii sometime later would cement this strategy as a successful one.
A Brief History of: SNK
The video game console landscape is often dominated by dichotomies of one set or another: Nintendo versus Sega, Nintendo versus Sony, Sony versus Microsoft, or even console versus PC. But what of the other console manufacturers out there? Those who are often left out of the yin and yang description of the industry?
If you’re a child of the 1990s, or a huge fan of fighting games, one name that you might recall is SNK, makers of the arcade games and the Neo Geo home console. A mish mash of Nintendo and Capcom, SNK didn’t begin life as a console manufacturer and its life did not end there.
SNK Neo Geo Multi Video System
Starting out as a purveyor of high quality but, nonetheless, knock-off arcade games, Shin Nihon Kikaku’s humble origins in 1978 did not indicate its later association with high-end graphics and the Rolls-Royce console of gaming.
The path to creating the Neo Geo began in 1988 when SNK began looking at other ways to bring its popular arcade games to consumers. Aracade cabinets were big, bulky devices that required a huge sunk cost of initial investment to get out there. This made them expensive to make and to sell, with many arcades selectively purchasing big hits rather than taking a gamble on lesser-known titles. This led to the creation of the SNK Neo Geo MVS (Multi-Video System). Basically a console inside of a cabinet, operators could purchase cartridges that could be loaded into the unit for play rather than buy a whole new arcade cabinet.
This was a novel way of bringing games to the arcade but fixed SNK to the MVS platform graphically. That wasn’t a huge deal since the company could pack in all sorts of chips and RAM into the cartridges for the games. And, since each MVS could hold five games, SNK could really fill an arcade quickly with its wares. In short, the MVS was a genius idea. While it failed to change arcades, it did allow SNK to cash in big time on the fighting game craze that swept them years later.
Out of the MVS concept came the Advanced Entertainment System, also known as the Neo Geo. This console was hugely expensive, costing $599 in 1990 and had games that cost several hundred dollars each. This made the Neo Geo unobtainable to the vast majority of the gaming audience back then and relegated an amazing machine to a niche audience.
The SNK NEO GEO
That by itself is a particular tragedy, especially when you look at the strength of SNK’s fighting games library. The company would later try to change this by introducing a much cheaper CD-based system with games on CD-ROM format but, by then, the die was cast.
An amazing machine in its day, the Neo Geo is SNK’s biggest legacy in gaming. Sure, the company also released the Neo Geo Pocket (a portable system) and has continued pumping out games despite bankruptcies and restructuring, but nothing has recaptured those glory years of the Neo Geo’s presence in the arcades. If there is anything to be gleaned from the SNK saga, it is that quality does not always guarantee success.
A Brief History Of: The Atari Jaguar
Imagine being on top of the world and absolutely dominating your industry. In fact, you not only dominate that segment but it is one that you largely invented yourself.
Of course, we’re talking about former video game giant Atari and its fall from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ravine over the course of its twenty something year history as a video games console manufacturer.
Largely creating the concept of home consoles, Atari’s vaunted 2600 is a cultural touchstone for most children of the 1980s and birthed a ton of classic franchises that gamers embraced and still remember fondly today. Though archaic by today’s standards, like the NES that came after it, the 2600’s graphics and sound are some of the most iconic out there and are immediately associated with video games even now.
The Iconic Atari 2600 Console
So how do you go from this to where Atari is today, existing largely as a publisher of random classic games and the occasional title here and there?
Well, a series of missteps that culminated in the Jaguar and Jaguar CD led this company down the path of destruction and it never recovered, particularly in the face of tough competition from Nintendo then, later, Sega.
This is where the story of the Atari Jaguar begins. Initially conceived as a response to the overwhelming popularity of Nintendo’s SNES and Sega’s Genesis, the Jaguar was aimed squarely at the home console market those two companies dominated. But Atari positioned themselves as a more advanced system, so much so that the company would later try to position the console as a competitor to the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation though it was woefully under equipped for this task. This would be the ultimate nail in the coffin for Atari’s home efforts as the Jaguar was neither a competent SNES nor PSX competitor and thus occupied a kind of twilight space prior to its demise.
Atari Jaguar Controller
Without delving too deeply into the Jaguar’s hardware, a lot of the problem stemmed from its inability to anticipate the importance of the CD for console gaming as well as how key it would be to push marquee titles and experiences. To be sure, Alien versus Predator demonstrates the system was capable of delivering blockbuster titles, but the pack-in title Cybermorph does little to inspire confidence in the system, largely setting the tone for many of the titles consumers would find on store shelves.
Alien vs Predator on the Atari Jaguar
To rectify their oversight in the CD media department, Atari would release a CD add on for the console in 1995 but the console was well on its way out by that point in time. Boasting a largely uneven library of games, the Jaguar is largely remembered today for being the company’s last console and, maybe, as the home of Alien versus Predator, a game that has not made an appearance on any console since.
Existing almost as a living embodiment of the industry as it was and what it later became, the Atari Jaguar is a vision of gaming that Nintendo and squad ruined. That’s not to say that Atari’s vision was better, it was simply different from what we eventually got in the marketplace. From its whacky controller to its old-school emphasis on shallow, arcade-light titles, the Atari Jaguar is not a missed opportunity or a glorious swan song but rather the sum of everything that went wrong with Atari’s console dreams.
A Brief History Of: The Nokia N-GAGE
Though today the company name is often used as a synonym for extremely durable phones, Nokia also dominated large swaths of the consumer mobile phone market back during its heyday and the company often explored other ways to capitalize on its position.
One of those ways was to introduce a convoluted yet somewhat revolutionary video game system in the form of the Nokia N-Gage, a hybrid mobile phone and portable console that was set to change the way people gamed forever. It didn’t, of course, but not for a lack of trying.
Though the concept may seem somewhat basic today, back in 2005 when the Nokia N-Gage was released the idea that you could play portable games on par with those found on the Nintendo DS outside of a dedicated portable console was a pretty far out idea.
Now, in the world of ubiquitous smartphones with app stores filled to the brim with games, this concept is not so revolutionary. And before anyone starts crying for Nokia’s lost opportunities, one need only review the hardware, available software, and the brief market implementation of both.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on Nokia N-GAGE
Known for its quality headsets even then, Nokia’s N-Gage system was going to leverage the company’s prowess in making solid tech with the video game world’s ability to make compelling software.
Initially positioned as a console then phone, the N-Gage never quite worked seamlessly between the two worlds and the awkward manoeuvring consumers would have to go through to change out a cart was not only maddening but soul crushing as well. With at least three or four minutes needed to change out a game, the Nokia N-Gage was anything but convenient.
Yet none of that would have mattered if the console had wings and the Nokia N-Gage seemed more like it was gliding than flying, particularly when it came time to show up at market. Like any console, the Nokia N-Gage was not doomed by design, manufacturer, or even awkward usability features. Instead the Nokia N-Gage was condemned to the scrap heap of history by a lack of software support that makes the Atari Jaguar look like a blockbuster console by comparison. This doesn’t mean that the the N-Gage wasn’t capable of making quality games.
Indeed, an attempt at cashing in on the Tony Hawk craze is one example of a solid title that can be found on the Nokia N-Gage but, overall, the concept fell flat due to lack of support from third parties and Nokia’s generally confused approach to gaming anyway.
In what can only be seen as a spray and pray strategy, Nokia carpet bombed stores with the product but then failed to support it with regular software or even software that was compelling at that. The result, as expected, was a failure of Gizmondo proportions and a truly missed opportunity for a company that was once the dominant force in mobile handsets in many markets around the world.