gaplus

Galaga ’88: When an Arcade Masterpiece Should Be Left Alone

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the second essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

Galaga is the perfect pop game sequel. Though a fixed vertical shooter like its predecessor Galaxian, Galaga is a more exhilarating, dynamic affair. Single shots are a thing of the past. Enemies zip onto the screen in graceful sychronization as opposed to automatically being in rows. Bonus stages emphasize accuracy and provide a suitable break from the game’s kill-or-be-killed paradigm. The aesthetic of the main ship evokes the offensively minded X-Wing from Star Wars rather than the more passive Enterprise spacecraft from Star Trek. Most importantly, players can double their firepower by allowing a ship to be taken hostage and then freeing it. With all of these changes, director Shigeru Yokoyama produced one of the most beloved games of any era and made Galaxian a forgettable footnote in the history of shooters.

Galaga ’88 wants to be a superior version of the 1981 masterpiece. The title says it all. The reference to 1988 is not just technical acknowledgement of the approximate time of the release. The citation of the year is a way of telling us that the game is for people of a modern age with more sophisticated demands. As consumers, we go to a car dealership with the expectation that we will see the latest year’s offerings on the lot. Newer is sexier. Look at how the sports video game market persists.

Galaga ’88 must live up to the braggadocious implications of its title, to its suggestion that the mega pop hit Galaga has been reincarnated in a superior body. (Some might claim that Galaga ’88 is only a sequel, but this idea overlooks Gaplus, the 1984 follow-up to Galaga that didn’t reuse its immediate ancestor’s title.) The souped-up presentation of Galaga ’88 reveals the desperation of a development team attempting to top a lean mean classic. Now the player’s ship takes off from a futuristic platform, as if we need that continuity in a gallery shooter. Now the ship has to go into warp drive for the next stage to begin, as if a simple change of levels isn’t enough. Now imagery in the background changes, as if the modest space setting of Galaga wasn’t convincing. Now the bonus stages are referred to as “Galactic Dancing,” which is just about the corniest term one could use for such a thing, and become nauseatingly precious when the musical compositions by Hiroyuki Kawada add contrived levity to the proceedings.

Galaga ’88 is an attention whore that, despite all of its cute little bells and whistles, has never gotten the attention that Galaga has received over the decades. Perhaps that’s because greater simplicity reigns supreme in the arcade, but Galaga ’88’s new gameplay ideas also lack inspiration and creativity. As in Galaga, you can fuse together two ships for more bullets, but the dual ship in Galaga ’88 can be transformed into a triple ship. Although this concept might seem cool on the surface, Gaplus already had a tractor-beam trick that could triple one’s firepower and then some by adding enemies alongside the main ship. The other problem is that Galaga ’88 makes the triple-ship process overly simple: two ships can be selected, with the loss of one life, before the beginning of the first stage. This means the triple ship can be achieved quickly, and the increased bullet coverage turns the first few stages into a mindless shooting spree.

Another wrinkle in Galaga ’88 is the inclusion of scrolling stages. Let me repeat that with more truth. Another wrinkle in Galaga ’88 is the inclusion of utterly uninteresting scrolling stages. The enemies and obstacles in these segments don’t get my blood pumping at all, as their patterns and positioning pose little danger compared to the threats in Xevious, which preceded Galaga ’88 by a few years. The absence of a provocative power-up system, as in 1985’s Twinbee or 1989’s Blazing Lazers, also does no favors for the action here. Most egregiously, scrolling stages don’t fit the fixed-shooter formula of relegating the player to movement along a single horizontal plane. When you combine movement restrictions with perfunctory enemy encounters, you wind up with padding and zero emotional resonance. In this pitiful context, the entire point of having scrolling stages with a ship — to create an illusion of flight and momentum — is lost.

Even if Galaga ’88 is viewed uncritically, it still resembles an awkward, behind-the-times missing link between the fixed shooter and modern vertical shooter. There are bosses, but they move, spray bullets, and spawn minions in primitive and embarrassing fashion. There are branching paths, a la Darius and Star Fox, but they amount to a negligible sense of adventure. Consider this thought experiment: if Galaga ’88 had been the original Galaga in 1981, it would seem far ahead of the curve, born from the unusual whims of a mad game designer. Galaga ’88 wants us to imagine what could have been. As romantic as that proposition may seem, it requires us to disregard the history of video games so as not to notice that we’re looking at a bunch of wallpaper.