Namco was started in Japan back in 1955 by Masaya Nakamura and the company was originally known as Nakamura Manufacturing. A few years later the company was given the new name "Nakamura Amusement machine Manufacturing COmpany" from which Namco comes from.
Like the name suggests, the company's focus was on creating machines which would entertain the populace. It started out as running children's rides on a Yokohama department store roof and would soon expand throughout Tokyo. In the 1970's the company would create mechanical driving simulators, the first being simply titled "Racer" in 1970. Namco also partnered with Atari for a game called F-1 in 1976, click here to see a video which shows how the game mechanically creates the images on the screen.
Around the same time the company would dip its toe into the upcoming video game industry when Nakamura purchased Atari Japan, giving him the exclusive rights to distribute Atari's games in the country for the next decade. Nakamura put these rights to good use and opened up arcades featuring the Atari classics, and soon Namco started developing video games themselves. In 1980 the company released the game that has since been officially recognized as having the most coin-operated arcade machines installed world wide, the game whose main character became a pop-culture icon that still persists today - Pac-Man.
In 1982, only two years after the yellow pellet-popper exploded into the world, his creator Toru Iwatani would go on to design another greatly influential game: Pole Position. It was the first time a real-life racing circuit had been featured in a video game, the circuit being the Fuji Speedway. It was also the first racing game in which the player was required to complete a qualifying lap before being allowed into the actual race, bringing a touch of realism to the race. Like Pac-Man, the game was immensely popular to the point of having a Saturday morning cartoon named after it, though the show's connections to the game are practically non-existent and it has much more in common with Knight Rider that had debuted shortly before. On the video game front Pole Position received ports to many systems, clones from other companies and an official sequel a year later in 1983. The two Pole Position games can be said to have reached immortal status as they have been re-released many times over the years for various systems, most recently in 2008 for Xbox 360 as part of the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade compilation disc as well as to iOS devices as Pole Position Remix.
There was never an official Pole Position III, but developer Tatsumi created a very similar game in 1983 called TX-1, which Namco licensed for distribution, and it's often considered a successor to the series. Like it's adopted parents, the game would claim several firsts to its name: TX-1 was the first racing game to use force feedback technology and it was also the first one to allow the player to choose from branching paths and choose what course they would race next, leading to one of several final stages. The style would be copied by many in the near future, mostly notably Sega for OutRun three years later.
Namco themselves would not rest on their laurels but continued on making new racing games and in 1987 released Final Lap, the first in a new series. The game continued the company's trend of marshalling in never-before-seen features to the arcade scene by making it possible for the arcade operators to link together multiple machines, so that up to eight players may race against each other simultaneously on the same track. It's safe to assume this was considered revolutionary at the time. It was also possibly the first racing game to feature rubberbanding.
At the same time Namco started finally experimenting with racing games that weren't of the Formula One variety that had dominated their racing game output so far. 1989's Dirt Fox is an off-road, top-down title and Four Trax, released in the same year, features ATVs on an off-road course. But their main focus was still clearly on the Formula circuit as Namco started another series in 1988 with Winning Run. It was the first released racing game to feature 3D polygon graphics, giving Namco yet another notch on their belt and setting the technological stage for the future. Both Winning Run and Final Lap received three sequels each until they ended in 1991 and 1993 respectively. But '93 would see the beginning of the company's next great racing game series, one that's name still carries on today: Ridge Racer.
Though originating in the arcades, the new series would find its home on Sony's new Playstation console, for which Namco even decided to create a special controller to provide the player with smooth analogue controls that were suitable for racing games. The neGcon has been presented at length here. Soon the game series left its arcade roots with sequels appearing for home systems only, though Ridge Racer V also saw an arcade version.
The series is undoubtedly the company's most persisting racing franchise, having appeared on 15 systems with 26 games. The games became known for their fast, drift-based gameplay, colourful graphics and energetic music. They have been present as launch titles for many new consoles and many were disappointed that a new entry wasn't released alongside the PS4. But the series has recently undergone some changes that have not been received with glee. The 2012 release Ridge Racer Unbounded, developed by Bugbear and not Namco themselves, was a drastic departure from the series' usual theme and feel. The latest games in the series, like the most recent Ridge Racer Slipstream, look like Ridge Racer titles but are mobile games that unfortunately feature microtransactions in a large capacity. The Vita release of 2011 was similarly panned, using mostly content from previous games that is locked away in DLC packs.
Even with the success of Ridge Racer on the consoles Namco continued on in the arcades with other racing titles, including the long-running Wangan Midnight series, based on the highway racing manga of the same name. They have also partnered with Nintendo to create arcade versions of the Mario Kart games.
The company's merger with Bandai in 2005 hasn't stopped the newly-christened Bandai-Namco from developing new racing games, though the output isn't as big as it was in the late 80's and 90's. But with over 30 years of racing game development and ~80 titles in that genre alone under their belt, the company's contribution to video game racing is enormous. Hopefully, Namco will find a way to return to form with fun, engaging gameplay unhampered by ill-thought-out business models and continue their good legacy on the home systems as well.
Here are listed all the Namco-developed racing games. Namco has also published several racing games from other companies.
Developer Showcase: Namco (by Ghegs, published on 18th of July, 2014.)