Monday, July 1, 2019

Game 78: Galaga

Buy Galaga, Pac-Man, and Dig Dug on Steam:

A follow-up of sorts to Galaxian, Galaga invites comparisons but plays in a markedly different way. Apart from the expected improvements in graphics and sound, it also plays quite a bit faster, albeit not nearly at the frantic pace we saw in Defender. In fact, the biggest factor in its faster pace is that you can now fire two bullets at a time instead of just one, and four if you go for double ships. The enemy ships aren’t much faster or more aggressive than in Galaxian, and they don’t bombard you with overwhelming firepower to the same extent as in Galaxian. With double the firepower, you don’t need to fire so precisely all of the time.

But with its faster pace, there seems to be less strategic depth. The first phase of each stage involves blasting the aliens as they move into formation, and it’s always best to prioritize the aliens moving into formation over the aliens that are already in it. Once this phase is over, then you have to mop up the aliens left over, and their positions sort of already dictate where you need to be firing at when they aren’t swarming you. Time spent thinking about strategy is time that could be better spent just shooting the aliens.

The most significant tactical decision is also Galaga’s most famous feature; whether or not to let your ship get captured and then rescue it to gain double fighters. This doubles your firing capacity and is absolutely necessary for getting good scores on the “challenging” stages, but also double your chances of getting hit. Single fighters are probably ideal if you’re trying to clear stages, or if you’re trying to maximize your points in normal stages by sniping bosses when they dive-bomb you with escorts. Double are more fun, so I went for the double fighters whenever possible.

I lasted until stage 17, where I lost a double ship, and then all of my remaining lives in a rapid succession. Almost poetically, the final alien crashed itself into my last fighter, ending the game. The final shot accuracy tally at the end is a neat touch, one that isn't complicated to implement from a programming perspective, but still a pleasantly unexpected feature.

It's funny, Galaga is a more complex game than Galaxian, and most people seem to like it better, but I can't think of much to say about it on its own merits. The game's fine, and it's certainly more accessible than Galaxian, but supplements it rather than replaces it, and I think that's for the better that both games still have something unique to offer.

Galaga also, surprisingly, seems like an evolutionary dead-end for the genre. We've already seen multiple games that were informed by Space Invaders and/or Galaxian, and there will be more to come as we delve into more company's early histories. But what games, apart from Namco's own sequels, are informed by the innovations of Galaga? Galaga came out in late 1981, a year that saw multiple horizontally scrolling shmups. By 1982, we had vertically scrolling, multidirectional, and pseudo-3D shmups, making the Space Invaders-like genre obsolete.

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