What elements would the perfect old-school shooter require? A steadily rising challenge? Definitely. Plenty of variety? Most certainly. Multiple paths through the game? Perhaps. A smattering of strategy? Go on, then.
Namco’s Galaga 88, I’d argue, contains all those elements, plus a few unique ones of its own. The third iteration of a series the company began back in the late 70s with Galaxian, and later refined with Galaga and its sequel, Gaplus, Galaga 88 is, for this writer, the very finest 2D shooter ever created.
It’s odd, therefore, that Galaga 88 is seldom mentioned in the same breath as genre greats such as Gradius, R-Type, Radiant Silvergun, Raiden, or any other classic blaster you’d care to mention. Maybe this is because, at first glance, Galaga 88 appears to be a simple update of Galaga, except with mildly improved graphics.
Galaga 88 is, like its predecessors, a logical progression of the old Space Invaders premise; the player’s hunkered down at the bottom of the screen in a tiny, dart-like spaceship, and assaulted from above by wave after wave of alien ships. At heart, it’s little more than left, right, shoot, left, right, shoot. So just what is so special about an ancient arcade game that nobody talks about anymore?
Initially, Galaga 88’s brilliance can be summed up in a single word: refinement. It may not become apparent at first, but it’s a perfectly balanced shooter, and one that gradually builds up its challenge in a variety of cunning ways. Players looking for a quick, fun blast will be content to blast the colourful waves of Galaga bees as they come hurtling in from left and right; those looking to rack up highscores, meanwhile, will realise that gunning the little blighters down before they can rank up in the middle of the screen isn’t always the best tactic.
Doing so will allow for better scores, assuming you can avoid the bombardment of bullets and enemy ships that will come screaming down from the main formation above. And depending on which stage you’re on, shooting certain bees will uncover little blue canisters. Collecting these will not only give you a couple of seconds’ invincibility, but also transport the player to a different dimension at the end of each world.
This means that players can choose their own path through the game; those looking for a relatively easy path to the final level can simply ignore the blue canisters, while those looking for bigger bonuses and a sterner challenge can collect them and follow the space-time rifts to the top of the highscore table.
It’s not a concept unique to Galaga 88, but it is a relatively unusual one in 2D shooters. This is quite surprising, since Galaga 88’s multiple paths mean that, even if you’ve completed the game via one route, there are plenty of others to explore, each with their own unique enemies and challenges.
And as Galaga 88’s levels progress, it becomes clear that Namco hasn’t merely concocted a straight update of its earlier hit. In later stages, the fixed screen of earlier rounds is replaced by scrolling sections. Depending on which dimension the player’s chosen, they’ll be bombarded by waves of asteroids and ferocious bees, before encountering an entire battalion of deadly enemies. Assuming you defeat all these, Galaga 88 throws in another surprise: a huge area boss, which again, vary depending on the path you’ve chosen. My favourite is the giant killer crab.
There’s no doubt that Galaga 88 is a tough game, but there are ways of evening the odds a little. As in the original Galaga, certain enemy bees will attempt to suck up the player’s ship with a shimmering tractor beam, resulting in the loss of a precious life. While this seems like bad news to the uninitiated, the player can turn the situation to their advantage by killing the evil bee with their next ship, which will result in their previous craft returning to the bottom of the screen, doubling the player’s firepower. In Galaga 88, the same trick can be repeated twice, resulting in a much larger ship with a hugely upgraded rate of fire.
Of course, a larger ship means an easier target for the bees, but the additional firepower comes in extremely handy during challenging stages. Here, bees swarm in at top speed in time to a jaunty tune (“That’s galactic dancin’”, as the game puts it), and every single one has to be zapped in order to earn a special bonus (though lazier players can sit back and do nothing for a 10,000 point pacifism award).
It’s the choice and variety of play that provide the greater percentage of Galaga 88’s brilliance, but there’s a real sense of playfulness to the way it’s designed that also makes it so captivating. Its creators have come up with all kinds of strange alien insects that you won’t have seen in a shooter before or since; some mutate unexpectedly into other weird lifeforms. Others will explode like gigantic colourful fireworks, while still others will gradually inflate like balloons until they pop with a satisfying snap. Minimal yet infectiously hummable tunes (the highscore table music sounds like the theme from The Addams Family) and immediately recognisable sound effects add to the sense of fun – you’ll find none of the deathly seriousness of a Toaplan or Treasure shooter here. This is the Morecambe and Wise of 2D blasters.
All these elements come together to the most addictive and downright fun 2D shooter ever made. Whether you’re the type of gamer who’s constantly striving to best their own highscore, or someone who just wants a challenging shooter that will offer surprises from beginning to end, Galaga 88 really is the ultimate example of the genre.
So now that we’ve established that Galaga 88 is the finest 2D shooter ever, how can the current generation of gamers go about playing it? A purist might suggest that the only way to enjoy the game is in its original form, but for most, dragging a gigantic arcade cabinet into the living room will just result in a scuffed carpet and a terrible argument with partners or housemates.
Fortunately, there are a number of cheaper and simpler options. Although not the most prominent shooter of the 80s, Galaga 88 has appeared on numerous systems in ported or emulated form. The Sega Game Gear got a rather good cut-down portable version called Galaga 91, while the arcade version appeared on the Namco Museum 50th Anniversary collection for the PS2, Xbox, Gamecube and PC – a quick scout around on eBay should be enough to find a copy.
For me, though, the best way to play Galaga 88 is via the PC Engine, NEC’s rather obscure, 20-year-old Japanese console. While not arcade perfect, it’s a remarkably close port of the original, and in some ways, slightly better; its difficulty level is rather less steep on early stages, and its music sounds wonderful through the console’s sound chip. Given that the PC Engine’s quite a rare and expensive machine these days, there’s an alternative here, too – an emulated version of the Galaga 88 PCE port is available on the Wii’s Virtual Console under the name Galaga 90 (its name in the US and Europe).
Whatever your budget, there’s a way to play Galaga 88. But whichever version you choose, bear one thing in mind before you start playing: it may not have the snazzy graphics of Radiant Silvergun or the horrifying bosses of R-Type, but it’s insidiously addictive. And once you start shooting those Galaga bees, you may never be able to stop…