Some games are utterly timeless, remaining just as fun today as they were back on their original release.
Namco’s Galaga is definitely one of those games, though it’s also a title the company has taken great pains to keep “relevant” over the years with numerous re-releases, the most recent at the time of writing being as part of the Nintendo Switch version of Namco Museum. It even showed up as one of the company’s “loading screen games” in the PS1 era, putting in an appearance during the initial load time for the original Tekken.
It’s had a number of sequels and remakes since it first showed up in 1981, but there’s an endearing purity to the original that is hard to beat, making it a true classic from gaming’s early days.
If you’ve somehow made it to $CURRENT_YEAR without being familiar with Galaga, here’s a quick rundown. It’s the sequel to Namco’s 1979 title Galaxian, which in turn was designed to compete against (and improve upon) Taito’s influential 1978 classic Space Invaders.
Galaxian built upon Space Invaders’ simplistic foundation by adding enemies with distinct “personalities” to the game. This is primarily demonstrated by the fact that many of them have a habit of flinging themselves, kamikaze-style, towards the player rather than politely lining up to be shot like in Taito’s game. Hey, no-one said it was deep characterisation.
Galaxian also added more complex scoring mechanics to the mix, awarding more points for shooting enemies that are charging than those that are in the Space Invaders-style “convoy” they start in. In this way, you’re rewarded for more than just how long you survive; you’re also rewarded for good timing and skilful shooting. There are no screen-filling spread shots or smart bombs here; back in the day we had to aim!
Galaga built further on this formula by the enemies beginning off-screen rather than already in their convoy formation. They approach from all angles in distinct, learnable attack patterns, and once again you receive more points for shooting them in flight than if they pick them off while they’re easy targets. There are also “boss” enemies that require more than one shot to kill — though as we’ll see in a moment, you might not always want to blast these right away.
It’s probably fair to say that this aspect of Galaga is what has proven to be so influential over the years; the heavily pre-scripted nature of modern shooters can be traced pretty much directly back to what Galaga was doing in 1981. Indeed, some modern shmups — Eschatos is a great example — appear to pay direct homage to Galaga with some of their attack patterns and setpieces! Respect your elders and all that.
Galaga also introduced several other ways for players to demonstrate their skill. Firstly, the game tracks your accuracy, comparing the number of shots fired against the number that find their mark and showing a percentage-based “hit rate” at the end of every game. Secondly, there are the game’s famous “Challenging Stages”, in which you’re not in danger, but in which you receive significantly greater amounts of bonus points if you can destroy every enemy that passes through; in these levels, enemies do not form a “convoy” or shoot at you once they’ve made their initial appearance and instead simply fly back off screen.
Galaga also features one of the very best examples of the sort of “risk versus reward” mechanics that tend to make good arcade games. By allowing the “boss” enemies to capture your ship with their tractor beams, then successfully rescuing the captured ship without accidentally destroying it, you can enjoy twice the firepower — though in doing so you effectively sacrifice one of your extra lives and also present a much larger target for your foes. So long as you can avoid either of your two ships getting hit, though, having double shots makes things much easier, particularly in the Challenging Stages!
It’s Galaga’s simplicity and purity that make it such a universally appealing game. It’s not overly complicated, so it’s easy for anyone to pick up and understand, but it rewards those who take the time to understand its intricacies a little more. And we’re not talking obscure, difficult to figure out scoring mechanics like many modern bullet hell shooters here — just good old-fashioned skill and memorisation.
Learning the attack patterns to expect in each level — particularly the Challenging Stages — is the surest route to a high score, though there’s fun to be had simply from blasting away and seeing how long you can survive, too. And the “dual ship” trick is something some people still aren’t familiar with today simply because it goes against how most people naturally expect to play this sort of game — though if you pay attention in the game’s attract mode sequence, it does show you both that it is a possibility and how to achieve it. (I must confess, to my shame, that I didn’t actually know about it until quite recently, though in my defense I played a lot more Galaxian than Galaga back in the day!)
Galaga is a game that is extremely fondly regarded and was a huge commercial success on its original release back in what many regard as the “golden age” of arcade games. It’s not hard to see why; it’s a game that is easy to understand but difficult to master for players of all ages, and one in which you can feel yourself getting better and better each time you challenge it.
The game has been so popular over the years that it’s put in a bunch of appearances in other media, too. It’s been in a number of movies, beginning with probably its most famous sighting in 1983’s WarGames and appearing most recently at the time of writing in 2012’s The Avengers. It also had a cameo in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, with the ship-stealing boss enemies showing up as Assist Trophies, doing what they do best to your unfortunate opponents.
Then, of course, there are the numerous spinoffs, remakes and sequels that it’s had over the years — including the excellent Galaga ’88, which also appears in Namco Museum for Switch and which we’ll be exploring further shortly — but there’s something that will always be incredibly appealing about the original.
It’s instantly recognisable, thanks to a combination of its distinctive visuals and sound effects — as well as composer Noboyuki Ohnogi’s famous musical stings heard upon starting a new game or a fighter being captured, of course. And it still plays just as well today as it did back in 1981.
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