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Galaxian is a triumph on the Atari 2600

As a child of the 1970’s, I’ve been attracted to arcade video games since I was tall enough to reach the controls. This was 1981-84, during the heyday of the arcade’s Golden Age, a time when games like Pac Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga were new, hot, and everywhere. Grocery stores, gas stations, seemingly anyplace people might spend time, you’d find a couple of arcade games, ready to suck the quarters out of anyone who passed by.

Just slightly older than these games were the ever-popular Space Invaders, and its evolutionary next step, Galaxian. Although these titles were top shelf games in their day, I found that I didn’t enjoy them very much.

Space Invaders was just frustratingly slow at first, but then sped up to an unfair pace by the end, and I could never manage to destroy that last invader on the first wave. You had to have perfect aim to hit it, and it moved so fast it was seemingly impossible to track, so you had to be lucky. If you missed, the slow-moving missile took forever to disappear at the top of the screen, and you couldn’t fire again until it did. Usually this delay meant your death, as the hyper-paced final invader would reach the ground, ending your game. Plus, it was black and white. It felt old. I respected it — even then I could tell that it was a important game — but grudgingly, I had to say that I just didn’t enjoy it that much, although I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone back then.

Galaxian, too, was a game I found too slow and frustrating to play at arcades. It seemed like the next step in the vertical space shooter. Graphics were now in color. A formation of aliens marched back and forth across the screen, but this time instead of descending toward the earth, they stayed at the top of the screen, while one by one, or in pairs, individuals would peel off from their formation and dive bomb you. Their bullet patterns and flight paths seemed to make it all but certain that they would hit you if you didn’t hit them first. I could usually survive for a while, maybe clear a screen, but it never failed that if I happened to miss a dive bombing enemy, it would corner me in the side of the screen and crash into me, or hit me with too many bullets to dodge. You could always dodge one, but there’d always be another one following up, and your first dodge would put you right in its path. It seemed unfair, and so, not very fun. I always gravitated toward the games that I could last a bit longer on, so I could get my money’s worth out of my quarters.

I had a cousin who owned an Atari 5200, and played Galaxian on it once or twice while visiting them. The 5200 port was a very faithful reproduction of the arcade experience, not exactly arcade-perfect, but nearly so. I still didn’t care much for it, because it suffered from the same shortcomings. It wasn’t as bad to lose at home, since it cost nothing, but I still preferred to play games that felt fair.

It never entered into my mind that maybe I just wasn’t very good at Space Invaders or Galaxian. But probably, I was. Ok, not probably. I sucked. But in my defense, I was like 6, and just tall enough to reach the stick and see the screen. But back then, I blamed arcade games for being “greedy” in contrast to home consoles, which seemed to reward players with longer games that were still challenging, but more fun because they weren’t so brutally ass-kicking hard.

I never played Galaxian on the Atari 2600 back in the day. I’d played the 5200 version and was impressed with its arcade-quality graphics, and I remember seeing the pictures on the back of the box on the 2600 version, and being unimpressed. Since I never particularly enjoyed the game, I didn’t have any interest in owning it on the 2600, never knew any kids who had it in their collection, and so never played it. At some point, we had an Atari 7800, which had Galaga, the sequel to Galaxian, and one of my very favorite games, so I played a lot of that.

I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point I picked up a copy of the 2600 port of Galaxian, probably a few years ago. I recognized it was a significant title in videogame history, and so I wanted it for my collection, despite not having favorable memories of it from its heyday.

I finally got around to playing it today, and came away very impressed. Here’s a video review so you can see what it’s like:

The 2600 port plays much better than I remember the arcade. The motion is extremely fluid, which, considering the limitations of the Atari 2600 hardware, is nothing short of amazing. Maybe I’m just better at videogames than I was at ages 5-8, but I found that the game felt very fair, with divebombing enemies that are actually dodge-able. I’m sure, the horizontal aspect ratio of the screen plays into this somewhat, as you have more room to dodge, and also your shots that miss take less time to leave the screen, meaning that you can fire follow-up shots that much faster.

I was always a fan of vertical shooters of the Atari 2600, my favorites being Megamania, Phoenix, Threshold, and Tac-Scan, and Space Invaders. Galaxian is every bit as good as the best of these, and is still fun to play even now.

Playing Galaxian tonight, I found that my strategy was different from how I played the arcade original some 35 years ago. My old strategy was to try to shoot the enemies still in formation. They were easier to hit, since they didn’t swoop or shoot at you, and it seemed to me safer to eliminate them before they could turn into a threat. I’d try to shoot the divebombing aliens as they flew over me, and dodge out of the way of them and their shots, but mostly I concentrated on blowing away he ranks of Galaxians in formation, much as I approached Space Invaders.

My new strategy was much more successful, and rewarding: I ignored the galaxians in formation, since they don’t do anything that can hurt me, and focused on the divebombing aliens. It turns out, this has many advantages. First, by focusing on the divebombers, you are focusing on the only thing in the game that can threaten you. Shooting them is a much more reliable way to avoid them than dodging. You will need to dodge sometimes, but if you focus on developing skill in shooting the moving enemies, it gets pretty easy to pick them off before they can collide with you. The green Galaxians are simple, slow moving, and easy to hit. The purple ones are harder to hit, but with a little bit of practice the timing becomes easily mastered.

Hitting divebombing enemies in mid-flight makes you safer in two ways: enemies are destroyed before they’re low enough to collide with you, and they can’y get all their shots off. Typically, you’ll hit them as they cross ahead of you, and so you’ll be moving in the same direction, to track them, and the shots they do get off will fall harmlessly behind you, and by destroying the alien as it passes directly above you, you prevent it from getting ahead of you where it can drop bombs that would be dangerous to you.

Additionally, by hitting them as they’re diving toward you, your shot has less distance to travel, which means that you can get off more shots — since you can have only one shot on the screen at a time, when they hit something low on the screen, the shots don’t have as far to travel, meaning they hit the target sooner, meaning that your bullet is consumed and you can then fire another shot more quickly. If you miss one of the bombers, you might still end up hitting one of the galaxians still in formation, especially early in the stage, which isn’t so bad either. But the lower your shots are when they connect with an enemy, the faster you can shoot.

This in turn sets up a rapid flow of firing, hitting a dive bomber, then hitting the next dive bomber with a rapid follow-up shot. Once mastered, you can mow through the entire formation in quick succession in this manner. This turns out to be very enjoyable. You feel more skillful, since you’re targeting the fast-moving enemies, getting more points for them, and it looks more risky, since you’re often hitting the enemies pretty low on the screen, when it looks like they’re most dangerous — but at the same time you’re actually playing the least risky style of play. Of course, that’s what skill is — finding the right pattern of actions to minimize your risk, while doing what looks the most daring.

It’s clever, because the more intuitive way to avoid risk would be to try to avoid the dangerous enemies and attack the enemies that aren’t a threat. But counter-intuitively, when you focus on the dangerous enemies, and take the aggressive approach of destroying them rather than running from them, it minimizes the risk they pose to you, while the enemies that aren’t a threat remain a non-threat.

At this point, I recognized what a truly well-designed game Galaxian for the Atari 2600 is. I’m curious to see whether this strategy applies to arcade Galaxian. Since I don’t have ready access to an arcade with Galaxian in it, the next best thing is to watch a YouTube video of a skilled player.

And it looks like this is indeed the strategy to employ, although this player also has enough time to target plenty of enemies still in formation. I think the 2600 and arcade versions are different enough in their game play that they feel like different enough that while the basic strategies are more or less the same, the specifics are different. In the arcade, there’s much more space between the bottom of the screen, where you are, and the top of the screen, where the enemy formation is. But ultimately, I think the Atari port gives you less time to target the enemies in formation, forcing you to spend most of your time focusing on the swooping divebombing enemies.

In any case, Atari 2600 Galaxian is a fantastic game, and if you’re into vertical shooters is a must have, being one of the finest examples of the genre on the Atari, as well as an outstanding port of a historic and classic game.

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