[Editorial Tuesday] The History of Namco

With origins dating back to the 1950s and an incredible, continuing legacy in video games spanning from the early arcade days to the modern era, Namco has cemented itself as one of the superstar names in gaming. In this piece we’ll be covering the major milestones of the company’s history from founding to present, highlighting important people and titles based on their impact at the time. For our purposes, we recognize Bandai Namco as a continuation of the company but will be primarily focused on Namco’s history before the merger. Press start, let’s go!

Origins - Masaya Nakamura’s Wild Ride

While known primarily for arcade and home video games, Namco got its start running and manufacturing coin-operated “kiddie rides” on the rooftops of department stores in Yokohama, later expanding into the greater Tokyo area. First called Nakamura Seisakusho Co., Ltd., the company was founded by Masaya Nakamura, a recent graduate of Yokohama Institute of Technology who had studied shipbuilding. Putting his engineering skills to use in creating fun and innovative rides, his company would continue to grow thanks to partnerships with major retailers like Mitsukoshi who commissioned new rides for all of their stores in the late 50s and 60s. Many of these rides were much more substantial than typical coin-operated affairs such as the Roadway Ride which featured multiple “cars” running on miniature train tracks similar to kiddie coasters found at amusement parks and fairs. In 1959 the company would change its name to Nakamura Manufacturing Co, Ltd. (which is the basis of the future name Namco).

Having already established themselves with kiddie rides, Nakamura’s company would continue to expand into other “amusement” businesses. Starting around the mid-1960s, various types of electro-mechanical games started to emerge into what would later become the arcade industry. One of the most notable of these games was Periscope, a submarine-themed action game with a unique interface developed by Namco (and released worldwide by Sega). The game was a worldwide hit that revitalized the industry, helped pave the way for more Japanese arcade games in America and Europe, and popularized the quarter-per-play business model.

New Frontiers - Atari Japan to Galaxian

In the early 1970s arcade video games became established with Atari’s Computer Space and Pong, starting a wave a growth that would culminate at the beginning of the “Golden Age” of arcades started by Taito’s blockbuster hit Space Invaders in 1978. During the leadup to that, Namco would famously purchase Atari’s Japanese branch from Nolan Bushnell for $500,000 (shockingly high compared to Sega’s offer of $50,000) in 1974 which allowed Namco to distribute Atari’s games in Japan for 10 years in their own arcades. This proved a wise decision and allowed Namco to gain an early foothold in the emerging video arcade business. The Namco brand name, an acronym for Nakamura Manufacturing Company, was first used in 1971 and would become the official name for the company in 1977.

As business grew, Namco started hiring engineers and designers to create their own original video games. Their first release was Gee Bee in 1978, a sort of hybrid between pinball, Breakout, and Pong designed by Toru Iwatani. The same formula would be expanded on in two sequels the following year, Bomb Bee and Cutie Q.

The company’s first hit, however, was Galaxian, a spaceship shooting game designed to compete with and improve on mega-hit Space Invaders. Notable for its advanced RGB graphics with multi-colored animated sprites, explosions, and a scrolling background, Galaxian was an artistic and technical breakthrough that would influence the development of the shooter genre and the hardware architecture of future arcade systems and home consoles like the Famicom and NES.

High Score - Pac-Mania!

One cannot talk about Namco without Pac-Man, a game recognized as one of the most influential and popular of all time, the best-selling arcade game to date, and a cultural phenomenon of the 80s. Designer Toru Iwatani, programmer Shigeo Funaki, and composer Toshio Kai, started work on Pac-Man with a small team at Namco in 1979 and the game was originally released the next year in Japan under the English name "Puckman" which was likely a bad translation from the actual name Pakkuman (パックマン), a play on "paku-paku taberu" (パクパク食べる) a Japanese onomatopoeia for eating. The name was changed to Pac-Man for the U.S. release by Midway Games (who distributed the arcade game in the U.S.) to avoid provoking vandalism (changing the P for an F) and later releases in Japan and elsewhere adopted Pac-Man as the official spelling of the name afterward.

Pac-Man’s popularity and success can be attributed to a variety of things but most notable is its innovative maze-chase gameplay and accessible theming and style that made it stand out against its competition and appealed to many outside the core gaming demographics of the time. Iwatani has said that he specifically was trying to design for women with Pac-Man’s (relatively) non-violent gameplay centered around eating, colorful graphics, and cute character designs which stood in stark contrasts to the many shooters which had previously dominated the arcades. Pac-Man’s maze-chase gameplay also proved very influential, spawning many imitators of varying degrees of originality and success, and introduced several hugely important video game concepts like power-ups and cutscenes to the medium.

Namco Goes Big, Goes Home - Further Arcade Brilliance and Famicom

Namco was showing no signs of stopping into the 80s. Riding high on the coattails of Pac-Man, the company would produce a slew of arcade masterpieces such as Dig Dug, Xevious, Mappy, and Galaga, the latter a sequel to Galaxian that eclipsed the original as one of the best-remembered classics. Toru Iwatani would return for another extremely influential title with Pole Position in 1982, arguably the most important game in establishing the racing genre as we know it. Pole Position received several sequels, most notably with 1987’s Final Lap which was the first multi-player, multi-cabinet competitive game.

Along with its arcade business, Namco would also be the second third-party developer (after Hudson Soft) for Nintendo’s Famicom home console which would become a larger and larger part of the company’s business as time went on. Almost all of Namco’s early console games were based on their arcade hits, with their first Famicom release being Galaxian in 1984. The following year they released Battle City, their first console original, an action game similar to their earlier arcade title Tank Battalion. As Namco was one of Nintendo’s first developers for Famicom, their contract gave them extra privileges including the right to manufacture their own cartridges, which bore a signature angular, black style with their large logo molded into the plastic.

Outside of Famicom, Namco would have many releases on MSX computers in the mid to late 1980s as well as the Nintendo VS. System arcade machines (which were very similar to Famicom architecture). It’s also worth mentioning that during this time Namco’s home games were usually released under the brand Namcot (which continued into the 16-bit era), and that some of the games that Namco published for home consoles were actually developed by other studios like legendary “ghost developer” Tose and Game Freak (before their Pokémon days).

Hardware Upgrades - Namco in the 16-bit Era

The previously mentioned perks for being an early developer on Famicom soon became a point of contention between the companies after Nintendo revoked Namco’s special privileges when they renewed their license agreement in 1989, prompting Nakamura to publicly criticize Nintendo for their monopolistic behaviors and pledge to support Sega’s new Mega Drive/Genesis console.

True to his word, the Mega Drive would receive a good deal of releases from Namco such as the Greek mythology-based shoot ‘em up Phelios, horror beat ’em ups Splatterhouse 2 and 3, and a Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water adventure game based on the classic Gainax anime of the same name. During this period Namco would also publish games on PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 like Wonder Momo and Yokai Dochuki, among many others as well as the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Game Gear. Another game of note was Wolf Team’s Tales of Phantasia, the first entry in the longrunning Tales of series, which was published by Namco for Super Famicom in 1995.

Like before, much of Namco’s focus was still in arcade games and the majority of their console and PC releases were ports, sequels, or spin-offs of their most successful arcade hits, titles like Galaga ‘88 and the unusual Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures. While not really a low point perse, this period of Namco’s history arguably had less marked gameplay innovation compared to its early days and no smash hits like Pac-Man.

New Dimensions - Namco Jumps into 3D

The rise of practical 3D graphics was set to revolutionize gaming as we know it, and Namco would find renewed success in both the arcades and consoles during this era spawning some of their most iconic series. Sony’s PlayStation was instrumental in this and was the system of choice for Namco’s home releases of the time. Most famously, Namco’s Sytem 22 and System 11 arcade boards (and later System 12 and others) were based on PlayStation hardware allowing for many high-quality arcade ports like Ridge Racer which became an early system seller for the PlayStation. Popular arcade lightgun games like Time Crisis and Point Blank would also see their start in this period and would receive PlayStation versions shortly after.

Namco rise to superstardom in 3D fighting games would start in 1994 after the company brought in Seiichi Ishii from Sega, who had previously worked as the designer for the groundbreaking Virtua Fighter. At Namco, he would direct and design Tekken and it’s sequel Tekken 2 which were both blockbuster hits that launched the Tekken franchise, which would see even greater success from other teams at Namco with Tekken 3 and beyond and become the best selling fighting game series of all time. Another standout 3D fighting game from Namco coming out in the mid-90s was weapons-based fighter Soul Edge, the first game in the Soul series that would receive numerous sequels under the Soul Calibur name.

Some other important titles from Namco of the “PlayStation era” include 2.5D platformer masterwork Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, the first 3 Ace Combat combat flight simulation games, and the return of Pac-Man in 3D platformer Pac-Man World.

The New Millenium and Bandai Merger

Moving into the next generation of gaming hardware, Namco continued excellent arcade and console releases, many of them sequels to their hits of the early 3D era with games like the visually stunning Dreamcast launch title Soulcalibur, Tekken Tag Tournament, Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies, Ridge Racer V, etc. Namco would see more cross-console support across major console platforms than in the previous generation, as well as greater output on portable systems like the Game Boy Advance and Bandai WonderSwan.

Outside of sequels, Namco would continue to expand with new franchises like Mr. Driller, a spinoff/spiritual successor to Dig Dug, Keita Takahashi’s eccentric masterpiece Katamari Damacy (and sequels), and continue support for RPGs as a publisher with games like Monolith Soft’s Xenosaga series, the GameCube-exclusive Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, and more Tales of games like Tales of Symphonia.

On September 29, 2005, Namco merged with toy and media giant Bandai to form Namco Bandai Holdings, making it one of the largest game and media companies in Japan. As Bandai Namco, the successor company has continued to produce an amazing array of games both as a developer and a publisher with titles like Dark Souls, God Eater, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and more, and is still very active in the arcade business as well.

Final Thoughts

In closing, we would like to pay respects to Masaya Nakamura, founder and longtime CEO of Namco who passed away on January 22, 2017, at the age of 91. His impact and legacy continue to this day in the industry he helped create. Thank you Mr. Nakamura and the many developers of Namco for making many great memories through the years!

We hope you enjoyed this article about gaming history! Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below and stick around Honey’s for more of all things gaming and otherwise. Until next time!

Namco-Galaxian-Wallpaper-500x500 [Editorial Tuesday] The History of Namco


Author: Oskar O.K. Strom

Call me Oskar or OkiOkiPanic or other things depending on how whimsical you're feeling. I'm an artist and game designer currently working in the indie scene. In true otaku fashion I'm also interested in anime/manga, collecting figures, building robot models, idols, denpa music, retro games and electronics, etc. Judging by the company I keep I figure it's only a matter of time until I'm obsessed with wrestling and mahjong.

Previous Articles

Top 5 Anime by Oskar O.K. Strom