I love the cabinets and overall design (concept, art and sound-effects) of space shooters from the late-70’s/early-80’s and Space Invaders is highly-regarded as a classic (appearing on many many consoles and handhelds). I’ve tried approaching the game, not as a modern gaming cynic, but as someone that truly appreciates older arcade games for what they are and wants to be in the mindset of the players they were designed for.
I think that’s something people miss these days when they compare games like Space Invaders to games like Thunder Force V. Yes there’s the argument: “what game would you rather spend your time on?”.. but it’s also kind of fun and worthwhile to experience gaming as it was in an earlier time.
(Thunder Force V is a lot more technically advanced than Space Invaders of course, but so what? Space Invaders is still great!)
However, I find that in the day-to-day retrogaming I do there’s this sweet spot for the retro shooters for me (where I get the most fun from the complexity, skill, and gameplay and the history and atmosphere of gaming from an earlier time period). This really culminates for me in the form of Galaga – really one of my favorite older-style games. So I’d like to discuss the development from Space Invaders to Galaga and my take on the games.
Space Invaders, developed by Taito, came out in arcades in 1978. It was a black and white game with a colored transparent overlay (much like the Vectrex home console had). The elements to take note of are the fact that the ship and the barriers don’t move – just the descending alien ships. If you are hit by enemy fire or if the enemies make it to your ship at the bottom of the screen, you lose.
(A shadow beast from He-Man)
I always found the art on the Space Invaders arcade cabinet to be very strange and thought-provoking. There are monsters coming towards you as silhouettes (or maybe they’re just solid black – like shadow beasts in He-Man). This style of monster would be much more fitting on a game like Altered Beast (like a werewolf) than in an early shooter. I guess we’re supposed to imagine that the monsters (sorry.. Invaders) are attacking while flying down from space (in which case I guess them being solid black is good camouflage and not just a style choice). And, from the gameplay, I presume that they can fly in space like Superman and also fire bullets. I didn’t see any guns in the artwork, so I guess they’re shooting from their eyes (also like Superman?).
But just when I get this all thought out in my mind (and trust me.. it required some suspension of disbelief indeed), there are the damned random UFOs that fly by at the top (which you shoot for bonus points). So if these are aliens that can live out in space and shoot lasers from their eyes, why do they have UFOs? Having thought about it further, I imagine these are other aliens that have teamed up with our flying, laser-shooting, shadow beasts. Then there’s the fact that they zig-zag back and forth like a bunch of ninnies. At this point, I usually switch thoughts out of fear of having an aneurysm.
My favorite version of Space Invaders is split between the Wonderswan (for simple black/white handheld goodness on the go) and, for a TV console version, the awesome combo of Super Game Boy and the Space Invaders regular Game Boy cart. If you play this cart through the Super Game Boy you get a full-screen port of the arcade version (and you can pick black/white or with colored overlay).
Following Space Invaders came Galaxian, by Namco – out in 1979 and heaps better in the visual department over its predecessor. It’s a breath of fresh air makes Space Invaders look like a primitive game on some college’s 1960’s mainframe by comparison – although that colored overlay really helped sell the concept. This time there are no barriers to hide behind and the aliens (this time it’s space bugs, because video-games!) swoop down and kill you kamikaze-style. And they propel themselves in the vacuum of space with wings? (stop thinking about it, brain.. just stop)
Also, as mentioned, this time the game is in glorious technicolor (well Space Invaders had that awesome color overlay, right?). But there are now explosions and a nifty wraparound screen (so that when the bugs fly off the side of the screen, they come back on the other – similar to Asteroids). But your ship is still stuck on it’s linear track at the bottom (makes total sense when we’re in space, right?).
Basically this game was designed for people that had played Space Invaders – to wow them (and woo them over with their shiny, shiny quarters) with more eye-candy, but similar controls to what they’re used to. And I feel this was very successful in that endeavor. It’s an interesting game for the time it came out. But it wasn’t quite there yet in the gameplay department so hasn’t aged very well.
Incidentally, this was the first shoot-em-up I ever played – sitting at a cocktail table at the local Pizza Hut out near the bench where you would wait for your pizza to get ready before heading home with it. Man that’s some nostalgia right there. I believe they had Ikari Warriors over on the other side of the restaurant.
My absolute favorite version of Galaxian has to be the much-much-later 1996 SD Gundam Over Galaxian – a Japan-only PlayStation version that features the Bandai Gundam universe. SD Gundam has been this sort of chibi version of Gundam – usually found as action/platformer style games. It was amazing to me that there was a shooter game featuring the franchise and I was blown away that they chose Galaxian. Sure you can get the 3rd person perspective, but I’d stick with top-down here. If you like Gundam, check this out.
Finally we get to the real star here: Galaga – Namco’s follow-up to Galaxian and my favorite game in the fixed shooter genre. We’re keeping to the theme of bugs/space-insects in this game and you – the player – with your Vic-Viper-looking ship (yeah.. yeah.. I know that was Konami’s Gradius.. but maybe this inspired it).
Unlike Galaxian, this time you get to fire two shots instead of firing one and waiting for the bullet to hit something. This gameplay rule which made sense gameplay wise, but never made sense to me otherwise (and I really need to stop thinking about these things I guess).
Also new to this game is that you can also have your ship stolen in a tractor beam, but later get it back and can have double the firepower (something I felt terribly clever doing when it first happened). You only get your ship back if you manage to kill the controlling ship without destroying your own by a misfired bullet. I can imagine the tiny pilot bailing out of the stolen ship, rocketing down to get another (while the bugs all wait patiently, twiddling their mandibles), then returning back to the action in his nice shiny new ship.
Galaga (in case you haven’t noticed) doesn’t take itself terribly seriously. For example, there are the weird Challenging stages between every so many levels where the bugs just dance around in strange patterns while you shoot at them. You can’t die in these stages since they don’t fire at you or go kamikaze. These are just there to “challenge” your shooting and reflect skills and they’re very fun. I love these stages since they give you a breather in between the waves of impending space-insect death to come.
There are a billion versions of Galaga, but they all follow the same basic principles and they’re all very fun to play. Galaga on Atari 7800 is one of my go-to games on any platform. I don’t know what it is about this simplistic game, but I really love this version apart from others. Maybe it’s the purity of form; it challenges your skill, but in a fair and balanced way.
I will certainly admit that the PC Engine version (which I also cherish) is better-made (and with awesome/goofy challenging levels), but there’s something old-school about that primitive 7800 version that I love.
And now that I reflect on it, I think my preference for the 7800 version of Galaga goes back to me wanting to experience older gaming as it was (which I mentioned at the beginning). And this version just meets the precipice of that old meets new for me. The 7800 is an imperfect home port and is far behind its arcade predecessor as far as graphics and sound. But, if anything, that sort of pushes it back in time technologically to be more comparable to the Space Invaders.
And that’s really what this sort of gaming is all about.. all those examples of my imagination running wild above about the thoughts and concepts behind the game.. that’s the important part. It’s not about graphics or sound for most of these classics. It’s about the raw gameplay and your mind filling in the experience, compared to what you’re actually getting out of the TV.