This review is by Casey A. Malik. It was late because of Yakuza 7.
The best games (Tetris, Pacman, Super Mario Bros.) are simple, but Taito's Space Invaders was perhaps too simple. There's a certain lack of dynamism to the concept, and though the game theoretically loops and gets harder every time, its main draw is as a one-and-done challenge. Learn how to shoot that last alien, and you're done. Additionally, it is entirely possible no games have struggled harder against hardware constraints, despite Space Invaders having custom hardware: creating a proper space shooter in 1978 was simply impossible. Space Invaders was a game that was massively successful despite the fact that anyone playing it even a few years later could see the potential for an alternate faster-paced shooting game. Namco came out with a series of three games all serving as follow-ups to Space Invaders, as well as each other: Galaxian, Galaga, and Gaplus. All three were unqualified successes in their time, but only one remains in arcades: Galaga. I'd like to investigate why Galaga has endured so well, even compared to games with similar concepts.
All three games in what's called the Galaxian series are incredibly similar. They follow the same basic formula: Space Invaders but the enemy swoops down and attacks you. Galaxian establishes this formula in the most minimal way possible: the enemies start in formation. They swoop down at you relentlessly, with only the ones swooping down shooting at you. Because of a hardware limitation, you can only have one bullet on screen at the time, meaning its to your advantage to only shoot the enemies swooping down (as the bullet travels less distance before it hits an enemy, increasing your fire rate). While there is a thrill to this battle, levels are somewhat slow to clear. Playing casually, they can take about two minutes. Even the twin galaxies high score record takes about 45 seconds to clear stage 2.
The record for Galaga, meanwhile, gets rid of every alien in stage 2 within 10 seconds. Galaga seems designed to let skilled players express that skill, while also making the game much more inviting casually. The main improvement over Galaxian is that there can be two bullets onscreen at once: it cannot be overstated how much this allows for faster and snappier-feeling play. There were three other improvements, however, that are harder to dissect.
The first is that enemies swoop into formation instead of just appearing there, meaning you can get rid of a lot of them before they enter the formation proper. Skilled players can clear whole levels while the enemies are entering formation, while unskilled players can take a couple potshots and see how much room they have to grow, which is motivating. The second is that the enemies move around in more complex and fluid ways, instead of the simple side to side of Galaxian and Space Invaders. Personally, I think the main purpose this serves is engaging your brain more, and making it more worthwhile to clear out enemies as they swoop down, since they're still easier to hit that way despite the loss of the one shot system. The third is probably the most important.
In Galaga, you can famously get captured by a tractor beam, which loses you a life. However, if you take the captured ship back, you get double shots, at least until you get hit again. What that simple description fails to capture is that the process of getting the double shots requires care and attention, because its too easy to accidentally hit all the ships that can capture you. Even a skilled player must lose time and focus to get the double shot: it must be a conscious choice. (The tractor beams are easy enough to avoid that you can't get sucked into one accidentally.)
There are other additions (like the challenging stages, which are mostly unobtrusive and keep the gameplay from getting repetitive), but the double shot is this game's true stroke of genius. In getting the double shot, you give up a lot (some time, a life) to (only potentially, if a player can shoot down the tractor beam ship probably) gain immeasurable power. This is, I think, a winning formula for risk reward interactions in video games.
In Gaplus, you occasionally gain your own tractor beam. How do you do this? I don't know, just from playing the game. I could look it up, sure, but I think its a demerit against the game that I don't know how. Still, I always manage to get it in the first stage. With this tractor beam, you can suck up quite a few enemies: you don't lose a life for doing so. This gives you something like a quintuple shot, after which the game is too easy until you get hit, sending you back down to one. Galaga's double shot was half the point of the game: this feels more like a random powerup. It's iteration that actually makes the game worse.
I could talk more about Gaplus, but this is pretty emblematic of the whole game. Granted, I do have a vendetta against Gaplus, because the stages where the enemies don't get into formation but instead swoop down at you, while maybe not poorly designed per se, are a huge difficulty spike: I never got past stage 4 because of them. The existence of Gaplus (play it yourself sometime!) throws into sharp relief why Galaga got so popular. There are arcade games that are tightly designed, where every mechanic plays into a whole, and then there are arcade games that throw in mechanics for the heck of it.
As a kid, the NAMCO 50th anniversary machines, with both Galaga and Pac-man, were everywhere. I've never been a fan of stealth games, a genre Pac-man kinda falls into, so I played a lot of Galaga. If you asked me at age 7, I'd say it was my favorite arcade game. A recent piece on this site written by a horrible, hateful woman claimed that simple games, like those on the NES, are only beloved because they're childhood favorites of the person playing them. One could say, then, though I won't put words in my girlfriend's mouth, that these games have less inherent worth than equally tightly designed but more complex and emotionally gripping games: Zero Ranger is better than DonPachi is better than Galaga. I think, meanwhile, this means we have to examine why these games become childhood favorites in the first place. It's Galaga's simplicity and easy to understand mechanics that make it approachable, and it's its approachability for children, primarily, that makes it loved by adults. Meanwhile, a flashy seizure-inducing bullet hell game like Donpachi (not Gaplus, Gaplus is just bad) is more engaging for an adult, but would probably kill a child if they played it. This means that despite the fact that they're both great games, Galaga gets to take advantage of the nostalgic connection. That's why early arcade games still stand tall today.Return home, or see all reviews.