With the upcoming release of the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition (NA) / Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System (PAL), we're going to (eventually) provide short profiles of all 30 games included on the system. This time around we look at Galaga, and you can catch up with past entries in this series on our NES Mini page.
We've covered simplistic arcade ports before now in this series, games that quickly jumped to Nintendo's red hot 8-bit machine to seize a portion of the home audience. It's interesting that in the 16-bit era SEGA effectively nicked that crown with the Mega Drive / Genesis, boasting its system as the home of arcade games. The NES was the 8-bit King in this regard, and few arcade titles are as iconic and timeless as Galaga.
It looks like a very simple game, and it is, but Namco's shooter captured the public's imagination with its subtle revolutionary touches. In fact, our own alumni Philip J Reed put it beautifully in his review of the 3DS Virtual Console release:
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.
As you can see if you watch that video of impressive play, there are tweaks to be found elsewhere, such as the risky move of deliberately getting captured, only to then regain that ship and double up your firepower. The core appeal, however, is in the simple but compulsive hook of the gameplay. From the sound effects to the bemusing yet logical enemy patterns, it's a game that draws you in despite the fact that, ultimately, you're doomed to failure.
Galaga has certainly lived on as one of Namco's most treasured titles. It's appeared in a startling number of compilations, accounting for a whole load of Nintendo systems among many others. Many will have encountered it in Namco Museum releases, in some cases remixed versions of the games that, for example, utilise the Wii Remote. From its 1981 arrival in arcades to landing on NES in North America in 1988, right through to today, it's a game that is simple but timeless.
Without exhaustively going through all of the releases and remixes, we're not sure what to say. It's Galaga, and the NES port is a strong version of the arcade original. To this day it's honoured and celebrated in popular culture, such as in The Avengers and many more besides. The 'boss' ship is one of the coolest items in Super Smash Bros., albeit extremely annoying to its victims. Galaga is unlikely to ever be forgotten or overlooked, in some respects just like some of Nintendo's most treasured IPs.
It's a classic, and you should try it out on the NES Mini.