For quite some time — particularly during the crossover from the 8-bit to 16-bit home computer and console eras — shoot ’em ups were regarded as the “dumb” side of gaming; critics often thought we could “do better”.
These days, of course, the more discerning gamers among us will, of course, be able to recognise that 1) there are a wide variety of different types of shoot ’em up out there, many of which are intricately designed works of mechanical artistry, and 2) they’re absolutely not as mindless as some people might like to make them out to be. And, moreover, they haven’t been for a long time.
Not sure about that? Look back on Namco’s Galaxian, originally released to arcades in 1979 and ported to a wide variety of platforms over the following years. The version we’re primarily concerned with today is the Famicom version from 1984, which you can now enjoy worldwide as part of the Namco Museum Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming system.
After the sweeping success of Taito’s Space Invaders in 1978, Namco’s Kazunori Sawano was ordered by senior management to put together the best “post-Invaders” game possible. Over the course of a six-month development period — plus several months of design before active development began — Sawano decided to create a challenging but broadly accessible game, focusing on the idea of simplicity and stripping out more ambitious ideas in favour of something that could loop endlessly while gradually escalating in difficulty.
Sawano also drew inspiration from the 1977 release of the classic Star Wars movie — particularly the large-scale space battles seen throughout. Keen to replicate the feel of a science fiction space war, he considered the sound design to be an especially important part of development, and rejected a number of possible soundscapes before settling on the distinctive, synthesised sound many of us doubtless know so well today. Indeed, this is an effort that paid off; Galaxian is one of those games that is easily identifiable purely by sound.
For the unfamiliar, Galaxian places you in the pilot’s seat of the the “Galaxip”, also known as the GF-02 Galac-Ship (with thanks to Star Ixiom for finally providing the canonical name for this distinctive craft) and challenges you to destroy formations of Galaxians as they go about their business, presumably on their way to make mischief for humanity. According to Namco’s official lore website, the events of Galaxian unfold in the year 2279, when the United Galaxy Space Force decided that the Galaxians were too small and numerous to employ a large-scale war effort, and as such apparently the only other possible solution was to send a lone pilot in a slow and sluggish spacecraft with limited firepower to take them down one at a time.
The fact that you’re not very manoeuvrable and that you can only have a single shot on screen at once in Galaxian is core to its mechanical design. Rather than hammering away at the fire button in the hope of hitting something, in Galaxian you need to take a moment to think before you shoot; you need to aim carefully; you need to consider the movement of your enemies before squeezing that trigger.
That latter part is especially important when you consider Galaxian’s main distinguishing feature over Space Invaders: the fact that the titular aliens enjoy nothing more than breaking formation and swooping down towards your ship. The game is designed in such a way that you can always get out of the way of these charging menaces — or, if you’re feeling bold, attempt to take them down before they reach you.
Like many of Namco’s other early arcade titles, the scoring mechanics are key to Galaxian’s long-term appeal. While you can rack up the points by simply destroying the Galaxians in their formation, Space Invaders-style, you get at least double the points per enemy if you can hit them while they’re charging at you. And, in the case of the Galaxian flagship enemies that sit at the top of the screen and swoop down at you later in each round, firing with enough accuracy to take out the two charging escorts first and then the diving flagship will reward you with a huge amount of points compared to what everything else in the game is worth.
Galaxian is all about that classic arcade principle of risk versus reward, then. Sure, you might be able to survive until later waves by playing it safe and keeping out of the way of swooping enemies, but this becomes less practical as you progress through the game and the diving attacks become more relentless. By the third or fourth round, multiple Galaxians will be hurling themselves at you at once; you’ll need to be able to quickly prioritise targets, accurately pick off some and avoiding others in order to succeed. It’s a lot more intelligent and cerebral than first impressions might suggest; patience is key in Galaxian, as those with itchy trigger fingers will quickly discover!
The Famicom version of Galaxian found on the Evercade cartridge is very true to the arcade original, particularly with regard to its visual presentation. The audio side of things lacks a little of the arcade machine’s overall presence and throbbing bassiness, however — Galaxians returning to their formation sound alarmingly like an ’80s landline phone with an electronic ringer here as opposed to the pleasingly “alien” noises of the original cabinet — but the game as a whole is still immediately recognisable from its distinctive sound effects.
Galaxian is an all-time classic with good reason — it’s a well-designed, well-paced and eminently fair game that challenges players right from the outset without being unreasonably difficult, and it distinguishes itself from many of its contemporaries with its sedate pace and more cerebral, tactical gameplay. While those accustomed to more modern, manic shooters may find the early stages of the game to feel rather slow and sluggish, once you prove your skills to the never-ending hordes, you’ll be grateful for even a second’s respite from the onslaught — and welcome every opportunity you get to line up the perfect shot.
So suit up, pilot; the UGSF is depending on you. Because without your contributions to the Galaxian-Galaga War of 2279, the events of Dig Dug will never unfold 103 years later. And who wants to live in a universe without Dig Dug?
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via any of the services below or the Donate page here on the site! Your contributions help keep the lights on, the ads off and my shelves stocked up with things to write about!