The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Galaxian (Atari 5200 / 800XL - Atari - 1982)

At first glance, it might be tempting to dismiss Galaxian as nothing more than a generic Space Invaders clone. The enemies fill the top of the screen in a somehwat rigid formation, marching back and forth across your line of fire in a relentless assualt. Your ship is constraining, firing only a single shot into the battle with no other offernsive capablities. Movement is likewise limited, giving you the option of moving only left and right, with no power-ups in sight. This wouldn't be that impressive except for the fact that the enemies diverge from their marches and glide downward, taking their attack directly at your position, flinging massive waves of bullets at you in the process. Acting in your favor, there's a sporadic episode where the enemies can pause for a moment, giving you time to escape their line of fire. Your ship doesn't offer anything elaborate, you have only your skills and reaction-time to survive as long as you can. Each stage completed gives you another flag to hang on-screen, appearing on the lower-portion of the playfield as a secondary indicator, beyond the basic scoring, that marks your progress in a unique manner.

Surgical precision in shooting games isn't usually the case in classic titles. but Atari's seminal edition of Galaxian requires just such a skill in order to succeed. You need to slide beneath seemingly endless waves of opponents as they drop prodigous numbers of shimmering bullets at you. Since you have no way of blocking these attacks, evasion is your only strategy. Its relatively simple in practice, but in-game, locating a safe spot in the split-second between waves isn't nearly as easy as it sounda. There's little room for error, especially in the later stages which gives you little breathing room between attacks. As you expect, Galazian's scoring system rewards more daring players, since opponents that are diving reward players with more points, the added difficulty in shooting down these is enhanced when you shoot one of the yellow aliens, which can burst into the classic Atari Fuji logo for a brief moment before disappearing. This is relatively simple to accomplish early on, but later stages become exercises in pure survival where your primary objective isn't to beat the game, but to survive Galaxian's onslaught as long as possible.

Playing through the gane is made more enjoyable thanks to its polished design and presentation. Instead of a static background, the Atari computer and 5200 editions offer a beautifully scrolling background where twinkling, shining stars light up the playfield. Even the menu screens and text between stages shares this aesthetic, giving the game a futuristic, appealing consistency that's different than the arcade, but makes for a uniquely enjoyable experience. Enemy formations also festure exceptional animation, with the colorful ships and detailed renderings offering sharp, brightly-hued opponents that glide across the screen with rare smoothness and consistency that's hard for other systems to duplicate. Sterling sound effects, the gliding woosh of the intruders adds to the drama, making the gameplay feel that more urgent. A unique signature call and memento between stages and at restarts enhances Galaxian with a unique audio cue that brings the action to the forefront. In-game sound effects gives the action an appropriately thumping, yet unrelentingly consistent rhythm that helps to keep the player excited and motivated, without becoming tedious or redundant. A gradual ratcheting up of intensity is compllmented by the straight-forward soundttacks that brings an unwavering pace to the action without overwhelming it. Sporadic periods of rest are punctuated by bursts of intense battles. punctuated by the screeching wails of your opponents who dive at you relentlessly. In total. Galaxian's audio and visuals are effective and bring the arcade game to life vividly on both machines, despite not achieving arcade-accurate perfection.

Refining a robust, unique style while maintaining the essence of the original games isn't an easy balance, but Atari's programmers did an excellent job in achieving just such a feat. This is only enhanced by the game's smooth, intuitive controls. Since both translations are almost completely identical, the differening controls offered by the systems mark the only significant departures between the two systems. The Atari 5200's analog joysticks are particularly well-suited to the task, offering a smooth sense of motion that gives the player an excellent sense of freedom despite the limited range of movement. This also applies to the 800XL & home computer edtions that benefit from the added precsion enabled by using a standard joystick controller. You almost feel like you're gliding through the waves, there's little of the stuttering halts that plague many shooter games of its genre. Instead, players are treated to a fluid control scheme that's instantly accessible with an immediately recognizable interface.

As a basic arcade port, there's litle in the way of flourish or enhancements. This edition instead delivers a highly-tuned and entertaining conversion. It's solid stucture and implementatiom make it a quick learn for most players, while delivering depth and nuance that will keep them coming back repeatedly to reach higher scores or challenge the game's latter levels. Several levels of difficulty allows players to skip ahead to harder portions but novice or older players might want to start off in the lower challenges, in order to warm up or get the hang of things. Still, it shouldn't take most players long to master the basic techniques and strategies. Mostly, this involves more defense than offense, which isn't immediately obvious, but suprisingly effective. Swerving around waves of bullets is a mainstay of this straightforward conversion, but the undeniably appealing gameplay comes to the fore once you master this technique. Once you've achieved a consistency on this areas, you can concentrate on the enemies themselves.You can time your shots and get out of their way intuitively. Opposing ships will disappear rapidly once you begin chaining hits together successfully, which allows you to clear stages, add points and earn flags in quick succession. You won't need a lot of practice to get the flow of Galaxian's basics, but mastering the skills for sustained battles will challenge playes' concentration and endurance.

- Michael Palisano