Inspiration for what I’m going to write about here sometimes comes from the strangest places, although in this case the only thing that’s strange is how I never noticed it before! But there I was on an early Spring Saturday morning, with most of a packet of shortbread biscuits already dunked into a double-sized mug of black coffee, listening to my ancient copy of Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss on the record player and idly flicking through the wonderful Bitmap Books’ equally oversized beast of a book, Game Boy: The Box Art Collection, and this thing just jumped out at me as though I’d never seen it before!

It’s not surprising – “in your face” would be an understatement! The book itself describes the box art in question as disjointed with unorthodox elements and tonal inconsistencies, but despite all of that, somehow it comes across as reasonably attractive. And it really does! We’re talking, of course, about Namco Gallery Vol.2 on the Nintendo Game Boy, and once my eyes had got over the shock of Dig Dug clashing with Galaxian in The Tower of Druaga’s vibrant (another understatement!) fantasy world while some cocky baseball dude out of Famista 4 looks on, I suddenly realised what was behind it was actually a pretty interesting prospect!

We can hang around in the book a bit longer to find out more about that prospect because the first in the series is on the other side of this double-page spread to tell us all about where it came from! The original Namco Gallery Vol. 1 was a four game compilation from 1996, released exclusively in Japan. The idea was to collect ports of classic titles from the company’s past, as it would go on to do across a total of three volumes, some of which, such as Mappy, were specially created for the purpose but some, such as Galaga, were also already available as standalone Game Boy titles. However, after the massive surge in hardware sales after something called Pocket Monsters came along, these compilations provided fantastic value for money for new Game Boy owners regardless. The first of the three featured said Mappy, Galaga, Battle City and the golf game, Namco Classic. I’ve already mentioned the second one, also released in 1996, and we’ll come back to that again shortly. The third one arrived in 1997 and included Sky Kid, Tower of Babel, Family Tennis and mahjong game Jantaku Boy. All of them also offered Super Game Boy support, which was a peripheral for the SNES or Super Famicom that let you plug in Game Boy cartridges and get a bit of visual enhancement if it had been built in; in this case, stuff like colourful graphics and special border designs. And I believe they were the first titles to ever do such a thing!

While I might come back to Vol. 1 at some point in the future, I’m not really keen on Battle City or Mappy, and although I know nothing about baseball, I know even less about mahjong, so immediately ruled out talking about Vol. 3 here on that basis! Vol. 2 it is then, which followed hot on the heels of the first volume after it did very well for Namco by all accounts. Of the four games included, I think this version of Galaxian had been previously available on the Game Boy as part of an Arcade Classics compilation in 1995, together with the aforementioned port of Galaga. I think both Dig Dug and The Tower of Druaga had been available standalone previously in the early nineties, but it looks like Famista 4, part of the huge Pro Baseball: Family Stadium series, only ever appeared on this compilation. Apart from password saving and ranking there’s not a lot here outside of the games themselves so I’ll just mention that Super Game Boy thing again because it’s superb! The special screen borders are full-on and full of love for the subject matter, but the addition of pretty much full colour (as much as any of these were full colour) is a real bonus and almost means you’re getting close to SNES ports, to all intents and purposes, for nothing if you can get them! The only exception is Famista 4, which sticks to the original colour palette for the game itself but still gets a nice border.

With that, I reckon it’s about time we jumped into each of the four games here, starting with Galaxian! This is the strangely familiar tale of a spaceship at the bottom of the screen defending the Earth against wave after wave of aliens, released in the arcades in 1979 and obviously Namco’s attempt to cash in on the Space Invaders phenomenon. It was still pretty groundbreaking in its own right though, being one of the first games to use RGB colour and the very first to use tile-based hardware, which translates to being able to display animated colour sprites over a scrolling background – a simple but pretty star-field in this case. Diving aliens too, which, combined with its primitive but iconic sound effects, were a whole new level of arcade terror at the time! Did alright for Namco too, even out-grossing Pac-Man for a while!

Where’s my score??? When a game’s whole raison d’être is chasing high scores, not putting a simple set of numbers across the top of the screen is pretty unforgivable! You’ll get them during breaks in play but the whole thrill of that chase, especially when you’re getting close to something big, and even more so when pass it, is sadly missing here. Such an oversight and a real shame because, apart from that, this is a superb game of Galaxian! Okay, it’s missing the original shimmering star-field and some depth to the sound, but the multi-shaded aliens look great and full of character in the absence of multi-colour, and the gameplay itself is just right. Shoutout to the superb explosion when you get hit too! So close to perfect though, but also so far.

Dig-Dug hit the arcades in 1982 and is a kind of underground maze game, or “strategic digging” game according to Namco at the time, meaning it’s you creating the mazes rather than them being pre-defined like you’d get in Pac-Man. I remember the first time I played the arcade game, thinking there must be more to it than just tunnelling towards enemies and inflating them until they explode, or luring them under a falling rock. There is, of course, way more to it, even if in reality that is all you need to do to get to the next level! Strategic digging is exactly right though, especially when you get to the last enemy on the screen as they decide to run away instead of hunt you down! There’s also big score bonuses for crushing enemies under a rock or dropping several rocks in a single stage, and different densities (colours) of soil are going to affect motion through them too. Insanely simple and equally addictive, and one of the all-time great arcade games.

If I’m being harsh it was close but no cigar for Galaxian but I’m really not sure about this one! It’s certainly Dig-Dug, and the transition to the Game Boy’s monochrome screen works perfectly here too, including the necessity for a bit of scrolling, but something doesn’t feel right – there seems to be a slight lag in changing direction that’s not necessarily consistent, meaning you can’t even learn to anticipate it. I’ve had some fun with it all the same but this isn’t the place to get good in extended sessions unfortunately. And I’ve been back a few times just to make sure it’s not me, or it’s not just the different soil densities, but I don’t think it is, and I think that’s proven by the second mode offered where I didn’t experience any problems… As well as the original Dig-Dug, you,also get New Dig-Dug, which kind of follows the same rules but there’s more to it, such as bombs and Road Runner-style huge weights, giving it an even more (and sometimes less) strategic feel, often as much like a Boulder Dash or a Bomberman as a Dig-Dug. Rather than killing all the enemies on the stage though, you’re seeking out three keys to open a door to the next. Very good it is too, but I’d still rather just have a perfect version of the original!

We’ve mentioned Pac-Man when discussing the first two games, and while I’m not sure it will get a look-in for the next one, we can make up for that here because it definitely will if we’re talking The Tower of Druaga! I’ve dabbled with the NES version of “Fantasy Pac-Man” on Namco Museum Archives Vol. 1 on Switch in the past but actually had no idea it was originally a 1984 arcade game (built on Super Pac-Man hardware) by the guy who also made seminal vertical shooter Xevious! The idea is your gallant knight, Gilgamesh, needs to get to the top of a sixty-story tower and rescue his fair maiden from an eight-armed and four-legged demon by the name of Druaga, who’s also up to no good with his Blue Crystal Rod that he plans to enslave the world with! To do that, you need to find the key hidden in the randomised mazes that make up each floor while fending off wizards, ghosts, dragons and the like with your sword and shield, as well as keeping an eye on the countdown. It’s got action, role-playing, puzzle-solving and a load of (very!) secret items that all contributed to its overwhelming success in the arcades, as well as its influence on the likes of The Legend of Zelda.

After annoying niggles with the last couple of games, I’m pleased to report this one is simply excellent! It’s also given me a new-found appreciation of the game that previous dabbles simply didn’t reveal – from memory I think I was playing it like a slower-paced Pac-Man, which might work for a couple of levels but isn’t going to get you far when scary teleporting wizards and bigger-boy knights start turning up! I genuinely have nothing bad to say about this – the detail missing from the backgrounds is barely missed, and more than made up for by a superb soundtrack, a nice difficulty curve, perfectly balanced controls, plenty of depth and loads of challenge. While there might be other places I go when I fancy a game of Dig-Dug or Galaxian, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather play this than here, and now I know that I’ll certainly be back for more! I’m also thinking I might give those Namco Museum collections on Switch the same treatment here as this one, mainly because I’ve enjoyed doing this but I’d also like an excuse to see if I can get a bit more out of that version of Tower of Druaga now I’ve clicked with it so much here.

I know about as much as Famista 4 as I do about the sport it’s based on, which, as I said earlier, equates to nothing! Sounds like I’m in the minority though, because the Famista, or Family Stadium, series it’s part of has sold more than fifteen million copies across its almost forty game roster! I have at least heard of R.B.I. Baseball though, which was the name of the North American NES version of the first game and was attached to many more subsequently. Anyway, today we’re interested in the fourth game, which, unlike the other games here, only ever appeared on this compilation. That said, I think it’s pretty much the same as its Game Boy predecessor, Famista 3, except for updated player rosters. Apart from being licensed, from the very little I can tell it’s a realistic and relatively fully-featured take on baseball, and that’s about all I’ve got as background so let’s just have a go and see what trouble we can get into!

Like most sports (and especially ones that are popular in America), the fundamentals of baseball aren’t exactly rocket science, and while there is enormous depth too, if you’ve got the basics you can enjoy the game. And that’s what I did with this, although there’s no escaping the fact that there’s clearly enormous depth here too, and the main problem is it’s all in Japanese! I’ll come back to that in a sec, but it’s easy enough to get into a game, work out what you’re doing whether you’re batting or fielding (if that’s what either is called here!), and have a load of fun doing so – especially fielding, where you’ve got so much control out of two buttons and four directions! The presentation is brilliant too, with a larger scale third-person view for batting and pitching that gives you everything you need to see, and thereby feel and react to, then it switches to a view of the full pitch with some very Game Boy smaller sprites, which again do their job admirably! It’s full of character, full of energy (in no small part thanks to the sound design) and while it’s hard to take in everything that’s going on in-game because there’s no escaping all the Japanese text, there’d no reason you can’t enjoy what’s here. Unfortunately you are going to miss out on the licensed teams and players, what seems to be various game modes (according to Google Translate), and any element of game management also present in each one. Unless you speak Japanese, of course, in which case I reckon this might be the highlight of the package! I’m really intrigued by this one though, and I might have a look into those early R.B.I. games on the NES to try and get a bit more insight on where this is coming from because on the surface they seem very similar. And if and when I do, you’ll be the first to know what I find out!

And I do I love finding out new stuff even when it’s old stuff, especially when it’s such esteemed old stuff like most of this is! I’d have been a sucker for this at the time too, given the opportunity, but as always, it’s better late than never, and despite a couple of issues I’ve had such a nice time getting to grips with these versions of some very familiar games, some not so familiar ones and also ones that involved learning a whole new sport on top… As well as a new language! The lengths I go to! Anyway, I’m now definitely more inspired to look at Namco Gallery Vol. 1 sometime than when I casually said I might do earlier, and maybe even Vol. 3, although I really don’t fancy that mahjong malarkey. In Japanese! Then there’s those newer Namco compilations on Switch now on my big list too! And, between us, I’ve never really talked about THEC64 Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade here, but I totally ignored a game called Street Sports Baseball on there, and I’m now wondering if I should have… That said, it all might need to wait now because flicking through the Game Boy box art book a bit more also revealed Taito Variety Pack, featuring no less than Chase HQ, Sagaia (or Darius), Bubble Bobble and the mighty Elevator Action, and a bit of that kind of Game Boy action is a tantalising prospect indeed, so do watch this space because whatever is coming next, we’re never going to run out of it!