Exploring the Classic Arcade Game: Galaga

While Pac-Man was Namco’s arcade legacy, they produced several extremely popular games during the era of coin-op arcades, including Galaga. As America was moving on from Pac-Man fever during the late 70s, Namco introduced Galaga. While it was not as financially successful as Pac-Man, it still got pretty popular. It has always been the counterpart to Ms. Pac-Man in re-released cabinets. Today, it is still a classic that’s enjoying popularity among people who love arcade classics.

Overview of Galaga

Galaga is a fixed shooter arcade game developed and published by Namco and released by Midway in North America. Released in 1981, it was a sequel to Galaxian (1979), Namco’s first breakout arcade game.

In Galaga, the player controls a Starfighter – a fighter spaceship – tasked to destroy the Galaga forces in each stage while avoiding projectiles and enemies. At the start of each stage, the area is empty, but soon, enemy aliens form up and descend, ready to shoot or collide with the player’s ship. The player can fire back throughout the stage, and once all enemies are defeated, it’s on to the next stage.

The player’s Starfighter is placed at the bottom of the screen and can move left and right along the bottom of the playfield. Insect-like enemies swarm in groups in a formation near the top screen, then begin flying down toward the player while firing bullets and attempting to crash them.

In more advanced stages, some enemies even attempt to break from an entering group to frantically try to crash into the player’s Starfighter. The game is over when the player’s last fighter is lost – either by colliding with the enemies’ bullets, colliding with the enemy, or by being captured.

Gameplay

Galaga is a fixed shooting game. The player takes the role of a lone Starfighter who wants to save humanity. Positioned at the bottom of the screen, your mission is to prevent the Galaga forces from wiping out mankind. The objective of each stage is to defeat the incoming Galaga aliens forming from the top and the sides of the screen. Like Galaxian, these aliens shoot projectiles and dive towards you. Colliding with aliens or projectiles will make the player lose their life.

In this game, a player must destroy every enemy in the formation to advance to the next stage while avoiding the bullets and the enemies. When defeated, diving enemies give more points than those in formation. The more escorts a Boss Galaga dives with, the more points it’s worth.

Among the enemy forces are four formidable “Boss Galaga” at the top. It takes two shots to bring them down. These bosses can use a tractor beam to capture your ship, costing you a life if they are successful. If you have extra lives, you get a chance to shoot down the Boss Galaga holding your captured ship. It rescues the ship, turning your single-fighter setup into a “dual-fighter” with more firepower but a larger target.

Beware, though—destroying a Boss Galaga with a captured ship while in formation makes the captured fighter turn against you, acting as an alien. It will reappear in later levels as part of the enemy formation. Some enemies can transform into different types, including one mimicking the Galaxian Flagship.

Stages are marked by emblems at the bottom-right, and as the game progresses, enemies become more aggressive, firing more projectiles and diving faster. Players get a bonus stage for every fourth stage featuring aliens flying in a set formation without attacking the player.

Galaga vs. Galaxian

Before there was Galaga, Galaxian existed. Some may not know this, but Galaga is a sequel to Galaxian, which was released in 1979. Galaxian was Namco’s first major arcade game that was a hit before Pac-Man came onto the scene.

Galaxian was an improved version of Space Invaders that featured full-color graphics instead of the two colors in Space Invaders. It became successful, so Namco created two sequels – Galaga and Gaplus, but Galaga remained the sole game in its series that has been part of Namco’s many arcade game compilations.

Galaga brought in several new features compared to its predecessor, Galaxian. In this game, players can fire multiple shots simultaneously, see their “hit/miss ratio” at the end of the game, and enjoy a bonus “Challenging Stage” every few levels. In these stages, enemies move in set patterns without attacking, offering a 10,000-point bonus if all are destroyed or 100 bonus points for each defeated enemy.

A new gameplay element in Galaga is the ability for enemies to capture the player’s fighter. While controlling a single fighter, a Galaga boss tries to capture it with a tractor beam. If successful, the captive fighter joins the enemy formation and can be shot down. The player can still fire until their ship touches the captor, which gives them a chance to shoot it down. Captive fighters can be freed by destroying the attacking boss, Galaga. The freed fighter combines with the player’s ship, doubling firepower but making the target larger. If the captor is destroyed while still in formation, the captured fighter isn’t rescued and reappears in the next stage as a satellite for another boss, Galaga.

Development

Because Galaxian became a success, game developer Shigeru Yokoyama faced the challenge of creating new games that could run on the Namco Galaxian board. This resulted in the creation of King & Balloon (1980), the pioneering speech-incorporating video game, and a second game for the newer Namco Galaga arcade board, which powered titles like Bosconian (1981) and Dig Dug (1982). Galaga was originally developed for a Galaxian arcade board, but it was shifted to a new system, as suggested by Namco’s research and development division. Though Yokoyama wasn’t given explicit instructions to make a shooting game, management wanted him to make a game similar to Galaxian.

Yokoyama led the development of Galaga with a small team. It took about two months to finish the initial planning of the game.

The inspiration for the dual fighter mechanic was taken from a movie that Yokoyama saw before development, where a ship was captured with a large circular beam. He also thought of introducing enemies with distinct attack styles. Yokoyama integrated this concept into Galaga, creating a scenario where an enemy captures the player’s ship with a beam, needing rescue. Originally, rescuing the ship granted an extra life, but this was revised to have it fight alongside the player.

However, this novel idea encountered a hurdle due to hardware limitations; the game could only display a limited number of sprites, hindering the dual-fighter from shooting more missiles. Yokoyama ingeniously addressed this by creating a 16×16 sprite for the ship and another for the bullets, reducing the total sprite count by two.

Yokoyama was inspired by the bonus stages in Rally-X (1980) and the intermissions in Pac-Man (1980), so he decided to incorporate special bonus levels into Galaga. During the planning phase, lead programmer Tetsu Ogawa discovered a bug where enemies would fly off the screen instead of forming a pattern. Ogawa found this intriguing and proposed integrating it into the game, so they came up with Challenging Stages. The enemy patterns evolved from a single type to multiple variations for enhanced replay value. Graphic designer Hiroshi Ono contributed and designed many of the sprites, including the player’s ship and the Boss Galaga alien.

Before the location testing phase, the team concentrated on designing the instruction card – a guide to playing the game. Planners handled the text, while a graphic artist managed the design. The initial card displayed the control layout and basic game mechanics but was deemed too boring. Yokoyama suggested showing off the dual fighter mechanic instead to attract players.

During this time, the project was getting popular within the company, with the president taking interest himself. The team kept presenting their designs to Namco president Masaya Nakamura, who repeatedly rejected them until he eventually instructed the team to create them right in front of him.

The Galaga development team was allowed to set their own deadlines because Namco’s corporate structure was laid back at the time. Nakamura gave feedback on the project along with other employees, including Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani.

Early location tests were unsuccessful because players were able to progress for many levels with one coin only, thus generating low income. Yokoyama defended that the game’s popularity can still generate income, but the executives at Namco instructed the team to increase the game’s difficulty level.

In September 1981, Galaga was finally released in Japan. It was then released in North America in October of that year by Midway Games. Galaga went on to receive critical acclaim and became one of the most successful arcade games. Today, it’s widely regarded as a classic during the golden age of arcade video games and one of the greatest video games of all time.

Critics praised Galaga for its engaging gameplay, innovative features, addictive nature, and notable improvements over Galaxian. Namco released several home ports for different platforms, including the Atari 7800, MSX, and Nintendo Entertainment System, along with releases on digital distribution platforms like Xbox Live Arcade. Galaga is a staple in many Namco compilations, showcasing its enduring popularity. In 1984, it was followed by a sequel titled Gaplus.

Controls

  • Joystick: Guides the ship along the bottom of the screen. Push left for left movement and right for right movement. Your ship cannot move beyond the sides of the screen.
  • Fire button: Press to launch a missile directly above your position. You can send out only two missiles simultaneously, but there’s an unlimited supply.
  • 1 or 2 Players: Push these buttons to start a one or two-player game.

Characters

1. Fighter

This ship is under your control. You can move it left or right along the bottom of the screen, but it stays at the bottom. The Fighter can link up with other Fighters, allowing them to work together and fire simultaneously. To activate this ability, you must first rescue a red captured Fighter.

You can launch up to two missiles onto the screen at a time per ship. If you have two linked Fighters, you can fire up to four missiles simultaneously.

Extra men are awarded based on reaching a particular score set by the arcade operator. However, after reaching 1 million points, no additional points are given. Any extra men more than eight will continue to be awarded but not shown on screen.

2. Bee (Zako)

In the frontline of the Galaga army, Bees occupy the bottom two rows of the formation at the top of the screen. They occasionally break from formation to go for a bombing run, trying to shoot or crash into your Fighter. After their initial dive, they may swoop back upwards to try to hit your Fighter from behind. Both actions are fatal to the Fighter. Shooting down Bees during a bombing run earns more points than shooting them in formation.

3. Butterfly (Goei)

Occupying the two rows above the Bees, Butterflies also break from the formation for bombing runs. They have a tendency to maneuver quickly left and right while diving, making them more challenging to hit. The top row of Butterflies comes with a Boss Galaga as an escort when the Boss Galaga is not attempting to use a tractor beam on your fighter. It’s advisable to target them during the opening of a stage while they are still forming.

4. Boss Galaga

Boss Galagas stands out in the Galaga army. They look like birds, and they must be shot twice so they can be destroyed. The first shot changes its color from green to purple. In either color, they engage in one of two actions. They may embark on a typical bombing run, potentially taking one or two Butterflies with them. Alternatively, they initiate a tractor-beam run. During a tractor beam run, the Boss Galaga brings no Butterflies along, completing one loop at the top of the formation. It then goes down midway on the screen and activates the tractor beam. If your fighter gets caught, it turns red and gets captured and carried to the top of the screen.

5. Transforms

Starting Stage 4, a Bee (or a Butterfly if there are no Bees present) transforms into a set of three enemies. It happens once per stage. The type of enemy created changes every few stages. This trio of enemies dives down, firing at you, completes one final loop, and exits the screen without returning to the formation from the top. Killing some of them earns points, but eliminating all of them grants a huge bonus. The transformed enemies include, in order, Sasori (Scorpions), Midori (Bosconian Spy Ships), and the Galaxian Flagships.

6. Bonuses

There are exclusive enemies that you will only encounter in Challenging Stages, including Tonbo (Dragonfly), Momiji (Satellite), and the Enterprise. They can come with Bees, Butterflies, and Transforms. Outside of Challenging Stages, you will never encounter these three objects.