Arcade-era Namco was good at sequels. Not from a story perspective, mind — the sequel to “shoot the aliens” tended to be “shoot more aliens” — but definitely from a mechanical perspective.
One of the best things about arcade-era Namco’s handling of sequels was that they remained recognisably true to their source material while innovating in their own right. Galaga ’88 (also known as Galaga ’90, Galaga ’91 and Galaga 2 depending on where and how you played it back in the day) is one of the best examples of this, as the fourth installment in the Galaxian series.
Galaxian built on the basic premise of Taito’s Space Invaders by featuring a more dynamic arrangement of enemies. Galaga built further on this format with more dramatic enemy formations and movements. Gaplus — one of the few games in the series to not get many home ports, particularly back in the day — added powerups and vertical movement. And Galaga ’88… well, read on.
Galaga ’88 came out in 1987, naturally, and features significantly more advanced graphics and sound than its predecessors. The visuals feature a much broader range of colours, a number of pleasantly beefy sampled sounds are included and the whole thing is presented with a very attractive coat of paint. In simple terms, the difference in presentation between Galaga and Galaga ’88 is the difference between the 8- and 16-bit eras. It’s a big jump, for sure — but still recognisable.
Galaga ’88 kicks off much like its predecessors — albeit lacking the limited vertical movement of Gaplus. Enemies gradually create a formation on screen by swooping in from various angles, and it’s your job to blast them — ideally while they’re still flying in, as that will net you more points. Clear out all the enemies and you win that stage; get hit, either by a bullet or a kamikaze enemy breaking formation and… well, you don’t need me to tell you, surely.
Everything is immediately, comfortably familiar for the grizzled Galaga veteran. You can even do the classic “dual ship” trick by allowing boss Galagas to capture your current ship, then rescuing it with your next life — although this time around, you can repeat the process, getting your double ship captured and rescuing it with a third life to form a super-ship. Risky, but very helpful if you can pull it off.
In an interesting twist, you can also actually choose to start the game with a dual ship, though this does also mean you start the game with one fewer life than you would do otherwise. It’s worth doing so, though, as having the increased firepower the dual ship offers from the outset makes racking up high scores much easier — especially in the “Challenging Stages”, which make a return from the previous games — so long as you can avoid the increasingly intense barrage of enemy fire.
As you progress through Galaga ’88, things start to get more interesting and strange. In some levels, you’ll come across obstacles that can be destroyed, sometimes revealing blue capsules. Collect two of these capsules and make it to the next Challenging Stage, and you’ll find yourself warping to the next “dimension”, increasing the difficulty but providing you with a nice injection of bonus points. Each dimension features new enemies, formations, Challenging Stages and even endings if you can make it through all the stages.
The game even mixes things up with some vertically scrolling segments as well as the more traditional enemy formations, and as you progress through the game the backgrounds change rather than just being a simple starfield as in the original; this provides a good feeling of you being on a “journey” as you make your way through the game, and is an excellent visual indicator of your progress, as well as incentive to try again and again!
There’s a wider variety of enemies to deal with, too. Besides the standard enemies of the original, there are more feisty, agile foes that try to avoid your shots, enemies that explode into smaller pieces, large foes that take multiple hits and even armoured foes that can’t be damaged while they’re in formation. As you play through the game and see each of these new foes for the first time, you feel like you’re constantly learning something new — but at the same time, the basic mechanics remain simple enough to never be overwhelming.
As for those Challenging Stages… well, they’re a real highlight of the experience here. Affectionately referred to by some as “Cha Cha Stages” thanks to their distinctly Latin-inspired musical accompaniments and corresponding music-synced enemy choreography, they take the memorisation aspect of the original Galaga’s bonus stages to the next level by making timing even more important. The music is there to help with that, and part of learning how to best handle these encounters involves recognising audible cues as well as visual ones. The tagline that appears at the start of these stages — “THAT’S GALACTIC DANCIN'” — is eminently appropriate!
Galaga ’88’s Challenging Stages even put in a guest appearance in a couple of later Namco games — one appeared while Ridge Racer Revolution on PlayStation was loading, while the same stage appeared in the Nintendo 64 title Ridge Racer 64 as a secret bonus, albeit accompanied by Ridge Racer music rather than its original soundtrack.
Galaga ’88 is a great sequel to one of the most fondly regarded arcade games of all time — but oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to get nearly as much recognition as its illustrious predecessor. Perhaps this is due to the fact that its arcade cabinet was less widespread than the original Galaga, or perhaps it’s down to the fact that its only home ports were on less popular systems such as the Turbografx 16 and Game Gear — hard to say at this point. Regardless, it’s a real hidden gem in Namco’s back catalogue, and definitely worth checking out for anyone with even a passing interest in the roots of the shoot ’em up genre, and how it has evolved over time.
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