Galaxy Force II has something of a bad reputation with many players, purely because the domestic ports of the game which followed the arcade release way back in 1988 were, by and large, abysmal. Many fans base their opinion of this on-rails space shooter on the Mega Drive / Genesis version, which was downright unplayable. However, few realise that the reason for the poor quality of the home editions is because the hardware of the time simply couldn't hope to replicate the coin-op original faithfully; simply put, Galaxy Force II represented the cutting-edge of video game graphics at the time of its arcade release.
Like After Burner and After Burner II, Galaxy Force and its sequel are in fact the same game, with the second release being an updated version with gameplay tweaks and additional levels. Built around Sega's Super Scaler board, the arcade version was nestled inside an incredible rotating cabinet which moved in practically every direction imaginable, well and truly placing the player "in the game". Those lucky enough to have encountered this machine in its natural habitat will attest that it's the ultimate Sega coin-op experience, with only the R-360 providing a more immersive ride.
Astonishingly, the magicians at M2 have managed to cram this incredible coin-guzzling epic into the humble 3DS, complete with visual modes which do a surprisingly effective job at conveying what it feels like to step into this monster of an arcade machine. In purely technical terms, Galaxy Force II is M2's finest work to date on Nintendo's handheld; the game runs at 60 fps and features all the graphically trickery that was present in the original. If you want an indication of how well flat, 2D sprites can be used to portray a sense of three dimensional space, look no further — Galaxy Force II doesn't contain a single polygon, yet the impression of rushing through space, avoiding collisions with asteroids and dodging incoming enemy fire is so intense that it puts many modern 3D titles to shame.
Galaxy Force II is a game that was designed expressly to dazzle and amaze with its aesthetics. Each of its six levels is a visual tour de force, effortlessly surpassing what Sega had achieved in both After Burner and Space Harrier. The screen is often packed with detail and there are numerous stand-out moments which are certain to elicit a gasp of astonishment the first time you witness them. From level one's sweeping space battle-cruiser — which drifts ominously into view at the top of the screen — to the amazing interior base sections that are showcased in each stage, Galaxy Force II looks as impressive today as it did a quarter of a century ago. The 3DS-exclusive auto-stereoscopic effect only adds to the spectacle, making it easier to spot incoming threats and navigate the game's tight, twisting passageways.
It's also worth mentioning the game's fantastic, bass line-heavy soundtrack. Like so many Sega titles of the era, Galaxy Force II is blessed with funky music which simultaneously seems at odds with the Sci-Fi setting, yet perfectly matched to the on-screen action. The audio package is, overall, very impressive, as long as you are mindful of the limitations of the period. Speech is crackly and low-quality, but it's impossible to not smile when you hear your pilot performing an impressively thorough list of routine system checks during the stage select screen.
One of the criticisms levelled at Sega's Super Scaler games is that they put looks first and gameplay second. Space Harrier is gloriously playable, but it's also incredibly shallow — the same thing could be said about After Burner, but perhaps to a lesser extent. Although Galaxy Force II does indeed push the envelope when it comes to graphical finery, it actually has a lot more to offer than its predecessors in terms of pure entertainment.
Armed with a rapid-fire cannon and lock-on missiles, the player's ship can been seen as an early relative of the flying beasts in Panzer Dragoon and the numerous craft which would populate Taito's much-loved Ray series. The cannon is handy for taking out close-range targets, but you'll rely almost solely on missiles for your kills. By sweeping your targeting reticule over distant foes you can tag them and unleash a volley of projectiles with a single tap of the B button. This mechanic was also present in After Burner, but the fact that your stock of ammo is unlimited in Galaxy Force II means you'll use it more often. There are no power-up items to speak of, aside from a pod which is dropped onto your ship near the start of each level which boosts the number of targets your missiles can lock onto in a single burst.
Another big advantage the game has over previous Super Scaler shooters is the freedom of movement. You're still being funnelled down a set path, Star Fox-style, but you can explore this area to a surprising extent. This manoeuvrability means you're better equipped to avoid enemy ships and bullets, as well as being able to duck under the fire dragons on the flame planet Ashutar and skim the raging waterfalls of the lush plant world Malkland. You can enhance this experience even further by enabling the game's "moving cabinet" mode, which is as close as most people are ever going to get to actually sitting in a Galaxy Force II machine.
The DX and Super DX versions of the original cabinet are both supported, with the latter being the one which boasted full rotational movement. In some respects it actually makes the game harder to play, as the visuals are shrunk down to fit within the confines of the (virtual) arcade screen, but it's still quite a ride — something which is accentuated by the fact that there's a real arcade in the background, complete with a Thunder Blade sit-down unit.
The control options on offer are robust, as well. The 3DS Circle Pad is the ideal way to deliver the original game's analogue movement, and you can even bolt on the Circle Pad or Circle Pad Pro to fully replicate the arcade configuration — a stick for directional movement and throttle to command your speed. The touchscreen option offers another choice; movement is mapped to the Circle Pad, while the throttle is influenced by the screen. You can also swap this arrangement if you wish, but you'll also the tinker with the button mappings as it's impossible to move using touch control and fire your weapons using the face buttons at the same time.
Galaxy Force II is a jaw-dropping feat and shows just how much M2 cares for Sega's past, but ironically its devotion to matching the original experience as closely as possible proves to be its biggest weakness. The arcade version — like so many coin-op titles of the period — was designed to gobble coinage at an alarming rate. As a result, Sega enforced an energy system which gradually depletes as you play. Losing your shield and taking damage reduces your energy further, and to restore this vital commodity you must "combo" as many enemies as possible with your lock-on attack — the larger the number of foes you take out in a single volley, the more "energy bonus" you earn, and this is added to your energy stock upon the successful completion of a stage. Some of the longer levels also grant you an energy restock mid-way through.
Because your energy level carries over to the next level, many new players will find that they run out during the second stage, and there's no option to continue. Skilled players will relish having to memorise enemy patterns and use the craft's booster and brake system to ensure they take out the maximum number of foes before dashing to the end of the level with as much energy in reserve as possible, but it's an incredibly demanding challenge and one that you feel you're never really supposed to master — after all, Sega wanted people off the arcade unit as quickly as possible so that the next player in the queue could have a go. M2 has offered a few concessions to the handheld gamer by allowing you to slow down the rate of energy depletion and bolster your shields so they can absorb more punishment before breaking, but even with these aids in play, Galaxy Force II remains a difficult and borderline unfair game.
Galaxy Force II is arguably the culmination of M2's 3D Classics range. Taking one of the most technically advanced coin-ops of its period and transferring it to Nintendo's handheld console — at 60 fps and in 3D, no less — is an achievement which warrants massive praise. Despite the years that have passed and the rapid advancement of video game graphics, this game never feels like a relic from the past; instead, it's a tantalising glimpse into what interactive entertainment could have looked like had polygons never happened.
However, despite the brilliant visuals and engaging gameplay, Galaxy Force II's coin-eating parentage actually works against it. The difficulty balance is totally skewed for an arcade environment, which is to be expected given that M2 has sought to produce as authentic a facsimile of the original as possible. Unless you're willing to really knuckle down and master each level to its fullest, chances are you'll never complete the game. In that respect, Galaxy Force II could be seen as the ultimate test for shooter fans — or a title which, in its original form, was shameless in its quest to consume your spare change. Either way, finding out which side of the fence you're on is all part of the fun, and we should be eternally thankful to Sega and M2 for giving us the opportunity to experience this remarkable title in arcade-perfect form at such a reasonable price.