2279: Expansion leads to conflict in Galaxian

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Following the successful defeat of the UIMS, as chronicled in Galaxian³’s Project Dragoon and The Rising of Gourb stories, the UGSF came to understand that there were many threats awaiting them out in the depths of space, and thus it was clear that appropriate preparations needed to be made.

By researching and adopting the technology discovered from the two defeated varieties of UIMS in the Galaxian³ incidents, the UGSF was able to initiate a strategy known as “Project D”. With this new-found technology and the knowledge that came with it, the UGSF was able to scale down its spaceships from the multi-seat behemoths pilots and gunners took control of in Galaxian³, and was instead able to standardise the production of small, high-performance, well-armed single-seater fighters.

Galaxian
An iconic attract mode if ever there was one. (Arcade)

At the same time, around the year 2260, the technology claimed from the UIMS allowed the United Galaxy, under the protection of the UGSF, to make unprecedented strides across the galaxy, resulting in widespread immigration of 60 different star systems. Planets were modified and terraformed, and the result was over 40 billion in human population residing in star systems far away from Earth.

All was quiet for a while, but in 2279 an incident occurred; there was another case of unfriendly first contact when the United Galaxy encountered a race of beings that they termed the Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence or ETI. These aliens were small in size and myriad in number, and thus it was possible to fight back against them using a similar approach to the Galaxian³ incidents. Instead, the UGSF deployed the first prototype of its smaller-scale single-seater fighters, known as Galaxip, and thus began the Galaxian-Galaga War of 2279.

Said conflict was chronicled in Galaxian, one of the earliest-released games in the UGSF timeline. First hitting arcades in 1979, the game was a deliberate and direct response to Taito’s monstrously successful Space Invaders from the previous year. It was designed to have more advanced presentation than its spiritual predecessor, plus more varied and in-depth gameplay.

Galaxian
Look at those colours. Namco does what Taiton’t. (Arcade)

As was so often the case with new arcade games back in these days, Galaxian was something of a pioneer. It was one of the first games to make use of RGB colour graphics rather than the monochrome graphics of earlier titles (which often had colour added via transparent overlays on the screen itself). It was one of the first games capable of moving and animating multi-coloured sprites around the screen. And it was one of the first games to demonstrate scrolling.

The game was designed by Kazunori Sawano, acting under orders of Namco’s president Masaya Nakamura, who wanted the best “post-Invaders” game possible. It took six months to put together, though Sawano was knocking ideas around for a good half a year before active production on the game began.

Besides wanting to better Space Invaders, Sawano also found himself inspired by the 1977 release of the first Star Wars movie. He felt that the large-scale space battles depicted in A New Hope would be ideal for adaptation into a video game, and thus he strove to incorporate as much of this inspiration as he possibly could into the new game. Indeed, prior to settling on the final designs of what would become known as the ETI forces, Galaxian featured enemy ships that bore a striking resemblance to the Empire’s TIE fighters from Star Wars.

Galaxian
The excellent Famicom version, which you can enjoy on Evercade. It’s a bit easier thanks to the different screen layout.

To Sawano, a big part of recreating the space battle experience came through the game’s sound effects, and thus he took a lot of time during Galaxian’s production to perfect the overall sound of the game. Indeed, the result was an instantly recognisable game that you could hear a mile off in an arcade, combining mysterious, otherworldly and sinister “alien” noises with some meaty explosions.

Sawano also knew that making a good arcade game that would pull in the players involved balancing the difficulty perfectly. Too easy, and arcade operators would complain that the game wasn’t bringing in enough quarters; too hard, and people would shy away from even trying it.

Thus, a significant amount of effort was taken during production to balance the difficulty in such a way that the challenge factor increases gradually. Enemies become more aggressive and the pace increases somewhat — but the fundamental gameplay remains constant, allowing for instant familiarity.

Compared to many modern shoot ’em ups, Galaxian feels very much like a “thinking man’s shooter”. Every shot you take is a deliberate choice, since you can only have one bullet on screen at once — and with the swooping ETI forces doing their best to eliminate you by crashing into you as well as firing their own laser blasts at you, you often have to make split-second tactical choices about whether you should try and get a shot off, or if you should just get out of the way.

Galaxian
One of Galaxian’s most famous appearances: while Ridge Racer on PS1 was loading. Destroy all the enemies and you unlock all the cars!

It’s a very simple game on paper, but one which has endured in popularity over the years thanks to its solid, well-implemented mechanics and deliberate pacing. Galaxian is certainly a game that is easy to pick up, but it’s also one that is extremely tough to master, even by the standards of early arcade games; if you’ve never encountered it before, chances are it’ll take you a good few attempts to get even close to the default starting high score.

Despite the challenge factor, Galaxian was immensely popular in the arcades, and enjoyed myriad ports to other systems. Atari released versions for three of its own systems between 1982 and 1983, including the Atari 2600, Atari 5200 and Atari 8-bit family of home computers, and their Atarisoft label published ports for Apple II, ColecoVision, Commodore 64, VIC-20, IBM PC and ZX Spectrum.

Meanwhile, various other companies worked on ports for MSX, NEC PC-8801 and Sharp X1, with Namco releasing their own port for Famicom in Japan. The latter can be enjoyed as part of the Namco Museum Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade, and the arcade original has made it into numerous Namco Museum releases for various latter-day consoles over the course of the last couple of decades.

Those accustomed to more complex shooters may find that Galaxian doesn’t hold their attention as much as more modern fare — but regardless of your own personal preferences, it’s hard to deny the impact that this game had on video gaming in general. Rather than being a simple clone of the game it was trying to “beat”, it genuinely innovated in terms of both technology and mechanics — and thus it played a significant role in establishing the world of video games as a highly competitive place, filled with constantly new and exciting developments for players to enjoy.

Galaxian is a legend, and every fan of video games should make the time to enjoy it at least once in their lifetime. Even if you end up absolutely sucking at it, which you almost inevitably will.

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Pete Davison
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