By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
There are plenty of publishers that don’t currently have the same presence that they did in generations past. And in most cases, publisher decline is a frequent topic of conversation among both the gaming press and community. You can throw a metaphorical dart at Reddit or Twitter at any given time and have a good chance at hitting a rant about how Konami, Capcom, Nintendo, Square, and others aren’t what they used to be. But there’s one publisher whose fade from glory has seemed to be much quieter and gone mostly unnoticed and not sympathized with, and that’s Namco.
I tend to lean toward the PlayStation being my all-time favorite console, and one of the biggest reasons for that is Namco’s presence on the system. The Japanese gaming giant was never more prolific on any one console than it was on the PS1, and only their arcade output rivals what they contributed to the legacy of Sony’s first console. Namco had always been one of the most important and successful arcade game makers of all time, but they were absolutely on fire in the 90s, rivaled only by Sega in their dominance of the arcade scene . Arcades in the mid-to-late 90s were dominated by Tekken, Ridge Racer, Time Crisis, and Soulcalibur. And the PS1 is where Namco brought most of its 90s arcade output, also giving the system its first marquee title, the stellar port of Ridge Racer that launched with the console. The Saturn mostly relied on Sega’s own arcade games and many of Capcom’s, and the N64 was never really an arcade port powerhouse, but Namco’s arcade games more or less belonged to PlayStation. Between arcade ports and home originals, listing Namco’s PS1 games reads like a list of many of the system’s most iconic releases: Ridge Racer 1-4, Tekken 1-3, Air/Ace Combat 1-2, Time Crisis, Point Blank 1-3, Tales of Destiny 1-2, Klonoa, Namco Museum Vol. 1-5, and so on. There was also Namco’s incredible GunCon light gun, the best home light guns of all time (save for maybe their PS2 follow-up).
Namco continued to be a major force in gaming at the turn of the millennium and beyond the PS1, most notably with the incredible Dreamcast port of Soulcalibur and its sequels. The company was still one of the more dominant publishers of the sixth generation, arguably more so than some of its peers who had begun to struggle amidst a softening economic market and the growing cost of game development. It even took up one of the generations most ambitious undertakings when it set out to make the five-game Xenosaga epic (but was forced to cut that down to a trilogy due to soft sales). When the transition to the seventh console generation happened, a lot of developers and publishers had trouble keeping up, Namco included. Combined with a major industry-wide decrease in interest in three of the publisher’s bread-and-butter genres–arcade racers, light gun games, and 3D fighters–Namco’s output had slowed considerably. And thus it stands, with the publisher doing much the same that many of its surviving contemporaries have done to stay afloat, relying largely on a few go-to franchises to keep the lights on–and trading largely on nostalgia in retro compilations and digital re-releases of iconic classics.
What sets Namco apart from the Konamis, Square-Enixes, and Segas of the world is that by and large, people don’t seem to really care that Namco isn’t a major force in gaming anymore. People don’t clamor for new installments for on-hiatus Namco properties nearly as much as they do for sequels to other publisher’s games. There is very little eulogizing of former giants like Soulcalibur, Ridge Racer, or Time Crisis. People seem to have completely forgotten that a Tekken-focused counterpart to Street Fighter X Tekken was supposed to follow, or they just don’t care. Klonoa tried yet again to make an impact in the U.S. with the Wii remake of the PS1 original, and yet again sales were underwhelming. Namco’s Tales series of RPGs is about the only major, active franchise the company has kept consistently going in all these years, though it’s likely not due to any special allegiance to the company itself that it continues to have fans.
Not a day goes by that I don’t encounter someone who is just devastated about the decline of Konami, Sega, Square-Enix, SNK, et al, and even smaller publishers like Hudson and Taito have sizable and vocal groups of gamers fervently wishing for their return to glory. Yet Namco’s fall from dominance has seemed to be met with nothing but apathy by the gaming population at large, and I’m not sure why. As far as I can tell, it isn’t even a case of them specifically doing something to deserve such a loss of goodwill. Maybe someone reading this piece can explain it to me, because I just don’t get it. For me, new installments of Klonoa, Time Crisis, Point Blank, and Ridge Racer (in the style of R4) would all make my top 10 most wanted reboots/franchises revivals, so it baffles me that so many people just don’t seem to really notice or care one way or another if Namco is a major AAA presence or not.