Inside the Arcade: Galaga (1981)
I had a handful of best friends growing up. This was one of them.
If you walked into any medium-sized arcade in the early 80s, you were guaranteed to find two things: Pac-Man and Galaga. The universal popularity of these two machines made them essential building blocks for anyone looking to start an arcade.
Pac-Man was a groundbreaking game. It was early, it was unique, and it was fun. But it was also helped along by a media blitz called Pac-Man Fever: Nightly news stories of teenagers losing their minds, constant word of mouth, a Pac-Man cereal, and, believe it or not, even a Saturday morning cartoon.
Galaga’s road to prominence was less sexy. There was no “fever,” no cereal, no cartoon. And yet, it remains one of the greatest arcade games of all time. Why? Because it was a great game, and gamers loved it.
In 1981, Galaga moved into the realm left vacant by the waning popularity of the first “holy crap” moment generated by Space Invaders. Once Space Invaders made its successful leap to the Atari 2600 and stopped becoming a must-play at the arcade, Galaga moved in to take over the space-themed throne, and it never really left.
The simplicity and complexity, the playability, and the challenge of navigating your spaceship through stage after stage of various space bugs were just captivating.
No matter what new machine landed in the arcade, at some point I always found my way back to Galaga because it never failed.
What I loved most about this game was that you couldn’t hide. If the rain of bombs and enemy bugs became too much, you might find yourself trying to tuck your ship into the corner of the screen. But if you stayed there for even a split second, you were dead. They’d find you.
The key to Galaga was to keep moving and keep firing. That constant movement is what created a flow, almost a state of Zen, when things were going well. And if you could catch a good wave you could plow through stages (and then Challenging Stages) and rack up points and extra men. But you had to stay sharp as things could go south in an instant.
If both ships went down in, say, stage 21, a restart was hard. To acquire another side-by-side formation at that point in the game was not easy. Sometimes I could get back on the horse. Sometimes I couldn’t.
But one day I managed to do something incredible. My mom had a vintage Galaga machine at her house in Florida. Every morning while visiting her I’d get some coffee and play a few games to start the day. During one of these games, I looked at my score and extra men and realized I was doing really well. It seemed like I had a chance to reach 1,000,000 points. Could I do it? Well, we were gonna find out.
About an hour later on a stage that must have been north of 100, I reached 1,000,000 points. The score up top returned to 0. I had flipped the board. I’m sorry to say that nothing special happened inside the game. There was no kill screen or the like. The game just continued as before. I guess they hadn’t planned on many people getting that far. And considering it was a game designed in 1981, I couldn’t really blame them. So, I played a few more stages and then scuttled the rest of my ships. I had conquered Galaga, but I hadn’t beaten it. And I never will, because you can’t.
But that doesn’t stop me from coming back, even to this day. Whenever I see a Galaga machine in a vintage arcade it’s like seeing a dear old friend. And I always pop in a quarter and say hello.