twinbee

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.

TwinBee Review — Not That Cute

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of the Famicom version of TwinBee on the 3DS. The emulation is titled 3D Classics: TwinBee, but the 3D effect was not used for the purposes of this review.

Playing TwinBee proves that “cute ’em up,” a description frequently attached to the game, is almost as inarticulate and useless as “shmup.” I’ve never thought about TwinBee’s cuteness (the visuals are fairly bland in the Famicom version), which testifies to both the non-communication of trendy game terms and, more significantly, the intensity of TwinBee as a vertical shooter.

Developed by Konami, TwinBee follows the lead of Namco’s Xevious with the dual concern of shooting flying enemies and bombing enemies on the ground, but the inspiration largely ends there. TwinBee introduces a bold conceptualization of the power-up. Clouds appear as the screen scrolls in TwinBee, and some clouds release bells when you shoot them. The bells are typically yellow and change color when you juggle them with enough shots. Non-yellow bells grant upgrades that include speed, twin-fire, two ghost copies of yourself that shoot their own fire, and a shield.

Unlike the unfocused Dragon Spirit, TwinBee establishes a clear strategic point for its elusive upgrades. The most obvious problem is that you have to battle flying and ground enemies while juggling the bells, which are lost once they fall past the bottom of the screen. You soon realize the challenge is far more complex. TwinBee only has five repeating levels, but the enemies grow deadlier each time the levels repeat. When you desperately need an upgrade in a tougher level (your default speed and weapon are disadvantaged to say the least), you run the risk of inadvertently juggling a non-yellow bell while killing enemies. If you juggle a non-yellow bell, it turns back to yellow, that is, a non-upgrade, meaning that you have to juggle more bells for another chance to upgrade.

But never forget, the main point of TwinBee is a high score, not survival, even though the high score requires survival. The game’s five levels contain zero of the visual allure or mystery of Xevious’ one continuous level, so the only convincing reason to continue beating the five levels is attaining the highest score imaginable. If you’re not getting a better score, survival is a nuisance given the madness of the bells.

The dialectical art of TwinBee follows: the yellow bells, which don’t help you survive, are the key to higher scores. This rule is more counter-intuitive than Xevious’ approach, where destroying enemies is often the best path to both survival and a high score. In TwinBee, you get a higher point bonus every time you collect a yellow bell, provided you never allow any bell to fall off the screen. Once you hit the maximum bonus of 100,000 points, every yellow bell you fly into will be worth that many points. Gaining more points also gives you extra lives.

Extra lives don’t prevent your inevitable destruction as effectively as a strategy that incorporates different upgrades. My preference is the triple shot, a candy-shaped upgrade left behind by certain ground enemies you destroy, combined with a shield and four or five speed upgrades. (Too much speed in TwinBee can kill your handling.) The triple shot has a wide range of fire that can destroy enemies and juggle bells straight ahead or in two diagonal paths. The triple shot can be particularly devastating with lateral movement. The issue with this style is that triple-shot bullets can juggle bells when you would rather let them fall for collection. Simply collecting bells is a tricky affair, as you have to make sure you’re not running into an enemy or fire as you anticipate the descent of the bells after some juggling. You also can’t collect bells at the very top of the screen — quite the nerve-wracking rule.

If any of this sounds cute, it certainly doesn’t play cute. The panic you experience in TwinBee is more comparable to the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Bells.” The last part of Poe’s poem goes (for the proper format of the poem, visit here):

In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

In TwinBee, a bell turns into an enemy if you shoot it too many times. You’ll have trouble thinking of a more diabolical vertical shooter.