Review: Galaga (3DS eShop / NES)

Space: The Original Frontier

There are a few reasons so many early video games took place in space. While the most obvious one is budgetary — a flat black background being quite literally the easiest possible background to render, thereby making "space" a pretty natural choice of setting — there's a psychological reason as well: space is a darned fine metaphor for imagination.

When Galaga made its début in 1981, it was by no means the first game to take place in space. And yet it still captured a cultural longing for exploration and for knowledge. We were far from understanding the intricacies of the universe then, and we may not be all that much closer now. Outer space has driven a large amount of our fictions and fantasies almost as long as we've had fictions and fantasies. And so when video games — interactive, advanced, technological marvels that they were — made their public début, space seemed a a perfect destination. As technology developed and allowed us to learn more about the universe, it also allowed us to take flight ourselves with a joystick and a red button...provided we were willing to pony up the fare.

Part of the reason Galaga was the instant success that it was is that it tapped into that fantasy more deeply than any game that had come before. Sure, it's pretty clearly a variation on the template laid down by Space Invaders, but it's a significant variation in more ways than is immediately apparent.

The difference in enemy attack pattern is the most obvious, but also revolutionary was the context. Whereas Space Invaders saw you defending the planet against hostile alien ships, in Galaga you are the hostile alien ship. You didn't wait for the bad guys to find you; you took the initiative to go out there and find them. This slight tweak in context immediately re-frames the entire mission as one of offence rather than defence. Whereas the unnamed hero of Space Invaders had to defend his planet against a conquering army, the unnamed hero of Galaga is out to prevent that army from ever getting near his planet in the first place.

This more active role is further reinforced by another tweak: the illusion of forward momentum. In Space Invaders your vessel is confined to the ground, and can only move horizontally. Galaga doesn't change this fact at all; you are still restricted to horizontal movement at the bottom of the screen. And yet a set of twinkling pixels soaring by in the background creates a feeling of advancement. You aren't waiting for the enemy to come to you; you are going to the enemy. The gameplay might be close to identical, but the context is altered substantially.

The 3DS Virtual Console release is, of course, the NES port of the arcade classic, but it's a tight conversion. The graphics don't look as bright and vivid as the original's, but otherwise the experience holds up quite well, and having it on a portable console is a definite benefit on its own. The game was very simple to begin with — move left and right, fire at the enemies — so there was very little room for anything to be lost in the transition to a home console.

Unfortunately that simplicity is what might hold Galaga back today. While the option of having your spare ships deliberately captured by the enemy so that you can win them back and beef up your firepower adds a seductive element of risk and reward to the heat of battle, there's not really much to do apart from dodge projectiles and pepper the sky with your own.

The fact that Galaga is so much fun is a testament to its tight controls and sense of urgency, and fortunately those aspects made it intact to the NES, and now to the 3DS VC.

Potentially, however, there could be a problem. Playing on a 3DS XL we didn't find it very difficult to keep track of enemy projectiles, however they were absolutely quite small. If you are playing on an earlier model it might be genuinely difficult to stay visually aware of the danger, potentially making them unfairly difficult to avoid.

Of course, anyone downloading Galaga should be prepared for a sometimes unfair and always gruelling experience anyway. Even the first couple of stages will pose a problem for the uninitiated. You will always be outnumbered and outgunned by the faster, nimbler enemy ships...but that's part of the appeal. You know, ultimately, that you are going to lose. That knowledge is liberating, because it means that your only concern is how many of them you'll take down with you.

Now get to work.

Conclusion

Galaga has aged surprisingly well. Its controls are tight and its gameplay as addictive today as it ever was. Having it on the go is also a nice feature, as the majority of players will find their games ending rather quickly. Those who take the time to master it, however, will find a satisfying — if not necessary deep — challenge. The game looks fine on a 3DS XL, but those with earlier models may find it difficult to keep track of the tiny projectiles. This NES version might not be quite as fondly remembered as the arcade original, but it was a very good port then, and it's worth revisiting now.

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