In a film packed with nerd-baiting moments, the best scene in The Avengers for gamers was the onein which Tony Stark points out that a bored S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was playing Galaga on the bridge of one of the organization’s helicarriers. Having the stalwart space shooter get such a high-profile pop culture shout-out helped give the game some much needed pop culture love, reminding arcade veterans of how amazing the title was to play in the first place.
Lacking a memorable character like Pac-Man (who at one time was so popular that International Pac-Man Day became a thing), Mario, Sonic, Link, or Donkey Kong, Galaganever quite connected with the zeitgeist like it should have. Not that this matters.
Since debuting in 1981, Galaga has remained one of the most popular games ever released, regularly appearing on retro game compilations and in multicade machines. It may not have yielded much merchandise, but for players, it was an experience that was unforgettable.
The game made its debut in Japan in September of 1981, and it hit U.S. shores in December of that year. To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Galaga, here’s a look back at the game and its impressive legacy.
Level 1: The Beginning
Although Galaga wasn’t released until late-1981, its seeds were planted in 1979’s Galaxian. Released by Namco, the game was a riff on the then-familiar Space Invaders formula of a ship shooting at attackers from another world. The game was set in outer space, where players controlled a ship determined to stop swarms of the evil E.T.s at all costs.
Galaxian was imbued with a fantastic color scheme and intuitive gameplay that really connected with audiences of the era. And it had just the right amount of difficulty to be challenging without wiping players out of their quarters. Here’s the game in action:
The title was an immediate smash for Namco (and its North America distributor, the now defunct Midway), and thus the desire for a sequel was born faster than the pixels of a demolished alien could disappear from the screen.
Level 2: An Arcade Classic Is Born
Galaga‘s arcade cabinet promised “new twists, new turns, new special effects including the intriguing ‘tractor beam.'” Galaga reached these shores as December of 1981 was coming to a close. More of an advanced remake than a proper sequel, the game faced fierce competition at the arcade – Frogger, Defender, Turbo, and Donkey Kong were also released that same year.
Yet just as The Empire Strikes Back had bested Star Wars, Galaga also became more popular than Galaxian, which is an apt comparison given the outer space environs both sagas share. (Does anyone else hear a John Williams influence in the opening theme of Galaga?)
So the question can be raised, why did Galaga connect with audiences…then and now?
It’s a complicated question with a very, and perhaps none-too-surprising, answer: It all comes down to the gameplay. Galaga is an absolute joy to play.
From the second players insert their quarters, they are constantly under attack by a variety of insect-inspired opponents, who are on a mission to destory all human life off screen. It is a simple seed of a story that grows in the players mind with each additional enemy ship destroyed. For this is a game burdened with, to bring it back to The Avengers for a second, glorious purpose.
Unlike navigating a frog through the streets or enabling whatever the hell Pac-Man is with his haunted eating disorder, Galaga‘s stakes feel real. The galaxy is at risk, and you are its only hope!
Games at the time were geared towards kids and teens, and Galaga gave those who felt powerless the chance to prove themselves. To say that such a thing doesn’t have any real world impact is both insane and inaccurate.
Galaga put the players in charge to accomplish a task that allowed them to tap into their inner strength. Without getting too grandiose here, its easy to draw a correlation between getting a high score and building self esteem. Video games can be empowering, and Galaga, with its engaging gameplay, visual inventiveness, and inherent addictiveness, more than most.
Level 3: A Legacy Revealed
Having never met a great idea they couldn’t exploit endlessly, Namco/Midway released more follow-ups to Galaga, from 1984’s ill-advised Gaplus to the recent Galaga Assualt.
As was also the case with the endless Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man sequels, these titles did little more than to rehash what had gone before. They didn’t bring anything new or inventive to the plate. The Galaga sequels never quite improved upon the source material, which makes them curiosities but not much more. To trot out the old cliche, you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice. Not even in the video game industry.
These days, Galaga regularly takes its well-deserved spot in best arcade game listicles. Although it is getting up there in years (and really, aren’t we all?), it remains a true arcade classic whose very name should elicit feelings of joy. Especially, but not limited to, when it is spoken by Robert Downey Jr.