Galaga vs. Retrofit: Overload

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

Galaga is a game by Namco for the arcade, originally released in 1981. Retrofit: Overload is a game by WAM Games for Xbox 360, originally released in 2010.
Folks describing their experience with Retrofit: Overload may be inclined to label it simply as “like Galaga”, and move on. The trouble is, nailing down the term “like Galaga” isn’t as easy as it seems, as the folks at Namco (now Bandai Namco) can tell you from experience. Namco struggled for years to capitalize on the success of this franchise, and to create a true successor that could carry the noble name of Galaga forward, and to appeal to a whole new generation of gamers. The trouble lay in pinning down the game’s appeal and translating that into new titles.

So, let’s start at the beginning with Galaxian. Technically, if we were to truly start at the beginning, we’d start with Space Invaders, which in turn inspired Galaxian and numerous other late 70’s and early 80’s starfield shmups. (And Taito struggled in the same way as Namco when it came to bringing the core of Space Invaders into new games, with numerous failures – not the least of which is Space Raiders – until finally finding success with the Space Invaders Extreme series in 2009.)

Galaxian was Namco’s first foray into the genre. While the game did not offer the row of shields at the bottom of the screen as Space Invaders did, it did feature multi-colored (with true color, rather than overlays) insect-based enemies that marched back and forth across the top half of the screen. Rather than simply dropping lower and lower, these enemies would break off from their formation and dive bomb your ship. You could only move to the left or right, and you could only have one bullet on the screen at a time, which made the pace of the game pretty slow. Eventually, once enough of the formation was destroyed, the enemies would go into a continuous dive bomb mode, until each was destroyed. Higher levels (indicated by the ranking in the lower-right of the screen) allowed for more enemies to dive bomb simultaneously and to drop bombs more frequently.

In Galaga, Namco refined this formula, making improvements in every aspect of gameplay. For starters, enemy waves flew across the screen in a line before taking their places in the formation, giving the player the opportunity to clear some of the enemies before they formed up, but also giving the enemies a chance to drop bombs and send some of their ships down to dive bomb the player. Again, once enough of the enemies were destroyed, they would begin to dive bomb you infinitely (with more ships doing this at once on higher levels). And so, the holy grail of the Galaga formula was created:
Enemy Wave > Formation > Dive Bomb and Re-form > Infinite Dive Bomb

And after every few levels, you’d get a challenge stage, where enemy waves would enter the screen, fly though a pattern without dropping any bombs, and leave without entering a formation. A bonus was given for the number of ships destroyed during these stages. Destroying all 40 ships awarded an extra large bonus.

The entire game basically only had 3 enemy types, each with its own set of behaviors. The red enemy was fast and could drop straight down at you. The yellow one could fly in circles, sometimes dropping below your ship’s level at the bottom of the screen, and then circling back up to hit you from below. And finally, the biggest addition of all… an enemy that could capture your ship. It is no exaggeration to say that this feature was a huge deal at the time this game was released, and it involved an intriguing set of mechanics. While players may have initially felt that it was best to avoid this “attack”, they soon learned that it was worth the risk to gain a potentially large reward: the ability to control 2 ships simultaneously for twice the firepower. Many a pair of cutoff denim shorts was filled on the day of this revelation.

The level ranking badges were redesigned to look more like military ranks. The player’s ship was faster and more maneuverable than it was in Galaxian, and 2 bullets could be onscreen at a time, allowing for a faster firing rate. Enemies increased speed and offered a few new surprises as the game continued. There was a lot of variety to be had, especially for a shmup that came out in 1981. It played fast, was very responsive, and gave players new experiences as they reached higher levels, rather than simply adding more enemies or a higher speed, as was the case in most games of the time.

There’s a reason why the game is considered a classic, and it goes well beyond nostalgia: this was a tightly-designed game that had interesting mechanics, required a fair amount of strategy, and was enjoyable to play. Namco tried very hard to recapture that feeling in the later Galaga games, but struggled to create another standout release in the series for over 25 years.

Bosconian could probably be seen as the next iteration in the formula, what with the starfield background, similar ship design, and more complex mechanics involving free flight and a radar system. However, the next true entry in the series came in the form of Gaplus, which was later re-released officially as Galaga 3, making it the only numbered sequel in the series.

It was the first in the series that allowed the player to detach from the bottom of the screen and move up and down in addition to left and right. The pace of the game was increased further, and enemy patterns became more complex. The game also introduced enemy drops that the player could collect to increase the effectiveness of projectiles or even equip the ship with a tractor beam that would allow the player to capture enemies and add them to his armada.

Up to 6 ships could be captured, and they would take their position at either side of your ship, firing upward at your enemies until they were destroyed. This further added to the overall complexity of the gameplay, and many who played it (it hit the market near the time of the arcade crash) felt that it strayed too far from the formula, and wasn’t enough “like Galaga”. And so, Namco went back to Galaga and started releasing modernizations of the original formula.

Galaga 88 was a more mission-focused game, which offered a set number of stages (as opposed to the hardware-limited kill screen at level 255 of Galaga). It had flashier effects and a level system which allowed you to warp from one section to the next by collecting canisters dropped during gameplay. It also did away with the plain starfield background and added things like planets and space stations, which unfortunately made it somewhat more difficult to track enemies and projectiles that were moving over them.

From there, Namco went to release “remixed” versions of Galaga, with a couple of Galaga Arrangement games that brought back old enemy types, added some new enemies and giant insect bosses, added ship upgrades, and made enemy wave patterns far more complex.

There was even a full 3D Galaga game released for PC and PS1 called Galaga: Destination Earth. It featured the standard overhead shooting segments, but also added side-scrolling levels ala Gradius, behind-the-ship sections ala Starfox, and even a first-person section where the player controlled a stationary turret. A GameBoy release of Destination Earth was released that was somewhat more true to the original 2D version.

And of course, there was the zany Galaga Remix in the Namco Museum Remix collection on Wii, which was essentially a first-person rail-shooter where you had to protect Pac-Man from invading galaga as he rolled through a track in space!

Finally, the team that created the incredibly popular and enjoyable Pac-Man Championship Edition went back and revisited one of Namco’s other classics, and Galaga Legions was born. Ironically, the next big release in the Galaga series was also the least “like Galaga” of any of the games that came before. The game broke away from most of the core tenets of Galaga and opted for a very fast-paced game that alternated between waves of enemies and formations, rather than having enemy waves enter the screen and take their spot in the formation, and then dive bomb.

And, as the name implied, there were tons of enemies… and a ton of player ships. The game indicated where the enemy waves would enter the screen (borrowed from Destination Earth) and the path they would take, which allowed the player to plot out a course of action and avoid the entry points. The player was able to fly to any point on the screen, but enemy waves could also appear from any edge. This was balanced by giving the player two invincible satellite ships that could be dropped off at any location, and which could bet set to fire in any of 4 directions. And so, the strategies of the original game were replaced with the management of your ships and the direction of oncoming enemies.

Many of the enemy waves had a bright yellow bomb attached to one end, and destroying the bomb would destroy all enemies in the wave and increase the point multiplier (there was a similar enemy which appeared on some waves in Galaga Arrangement). And there was one enemy type that – when destroyed – would suck in all enemy galaga and add them to your armada, allowing up to 16 additional ships, each firing their own projectiles (working similarly to Galaga 3’s additional ships, but to a much greater effect). At this point, you would have a veritable tidal wave of destructive force at your fingertips… but you had to be careful, because these ships could be destroyed quickly if they were caught in the wake of a huge enemy wave. Fortunately, these additional ships were able split off and form up with your satellite ships and could be deployed to deal with threats coming from any direction.

The graphics were given the same flashy presentation as Pac-Man CE, and took advantage of the hardware by allowing a near-endless onslaught of enemies to appear onscreen at a time, with nary a hint of slowdown. After more than 25 years from the release of Galaga, Namco had finally created a solid next-generation successor to their series.

But what if the timeline had taken another direction… What if Namco had stuck closer to the core mechanics of Galaga in their search to create the next great starfield shmup? Perhaps what you’d have is a game more along the lines of Retrofit: Overload.

Retrofit: Overload arrived on the market a mere 2 years after Galaga Legions, and in many ways, it is more “like Galaga” than the game that carries its name. Yes, it’s still fast and flashy (although not to the degree that Legions is), and it’s full of particle effects and bass tones, but that’s to be expected since it has to appeal to the current generation of gamer, who has the approximate attention span of a refrigerator magnet (ed note: no one knows what this means). But it was designed with an appreciation of the arcade starfield shmups of old, and an obvious understanding of what made Galaga work, and how to apply those qualities to a modern console game.

The tried and true formula from 1981 has been preserved and resurrected here:
Enemy Wave > Formation > Dive Bomb and Re-form > Infinite Dive Bomb

Enemies fly onto the screen in a line, take their spot in the formation while others enter, and eventually break off of the formation to dive bomb you. Once enough enemies have been destroyed, the remaining ones will dive bomb you until there are none remaining (with larger numbers doing this in later levels). Every few levels, you’ll encounter a challenge area where numerous enemy waves enter the screen, fly through a choreographed pattern, and leave the screen without firing. A bonus is rewarded based on the percentage of the enemies destroyed, with a much larger bonus being awarded for destroying them all. Oh, and before you ask, yes you can kill all of the enemies in the first challenge stage if you have 2 ships and just fire continuously while sitting at the bottom-center of the screen. (That was going to be your next question, right?)

OK, so based on this description, you might be thinking that the developers did a copy-paste job and threw in some shinier effects and bigger explosions. But that is not the case at all. A number of tweaks have been made to the formula, most of which add subtle improvements over the original gameplay.

First off, a few things that even the Galaga series managed to do at some point: the game offers 2P co-op, your ship moves more quickly, fires an infinite stream of bullets (instead of only 1 or 2 at a time), and it is no longer attached to the bottom of the screen.

Now for the new improvements. First off, gameplay has returned to a plain starfield. Many of the modernizations of the Galaga series decided to toss objects in the background, like planets or rotating space stations that – rather than adding to the experience – served only to obscure enemies and their projectiles, and added a bit of unneeded confusion. So, out with the space junk and in with the blackness of space. Also, in a clever design choice, the game preserves the widescreen presentation by extending the starfield and HUD to the edges of the screen. However, a thick cluster of stars appears on either side of the screen to create a virtual letterbox effect, offering a more vertical presentation. Enemy waves can still fly into this inaccessible border, but it’s functionally no different than having an enemy fly off the side of the screen in any other game of this type.

Secondly, you’re no longer limited to simply having 2 ships on the screen at a time (or 3 like in Galaga ’88). Enemies will occasionally drop powerups in the shape of stars, which will throw one additional ship into play. Yes, this does reduce some of the fun and challenge of having your ship captured and returned, but the reward itself is similar. And, rather than doubling the size of your ship, and thus increasing the chances that one of them will be destroyed, Overload simply adds one “arm” to your existing ship, increasing its width by a bit. This occurs with each new ship that is added to your fleet.

This new ship is also essentially a 1UP, making the life counter at the top of the screen a bit misleading. Yes, you may only have 2 ships remaining, but each additional ship that you have in your armada acts as one life. If you get hit with more than one ship, one of them is destroyed, but you’re given temporary invincibility so that you can get to a safe spot and not lose all of your ships in one go.

The next improvement is perhaps the most important, and that’s the fact that enemy waves are completely seamless. If you destroy all of the enemies in the first stage, the next wave will appear without missing a beat. You may be surprised the first time you make it to a challenge stage, thinking that you had completed only 1 or 2 levels beforehand. The only indication of your progress (other than faster, stronger enemies) is the wave counter at the top of the screen. This keeps the pace of the game at full-tilt for the duration of the experience.

Another nice touch is that you get a score multiplier for the more enemies you kill before they enter the formation. Up until then, the point value of each enemy will increase, as will the pitch of their explosion sound, so that you can tell when you’re getting the extra points. The score for these multiplier bonuses appears on the screen for a second after each enemy is destroyed.

Next up, bosses. Unlike the huge insect bosses in the Galaga Arrangement games, these are far more subtle in design. Actually the design of all of the enemies and the player’s ship are very simple, but strong. Your ship is a bright red, with sharp angles that suggest action. Enemy ships are a mix of geometric shapes with thick edges that spin on a hollow center. And the bosses are basically just larger versions of your standard enemies. Even so, the presentation for introducing them is done quite well… You’ll enter a screen with your standard waves of enemies working to create a large formation, and partway through, the boss will enter the top of the screen. Because the enemies can still dive bomb you, it’s best to clear out as many of them as you can, so that they’re not flying around and shooting at you while you’re trying to deal with the boss. The boss will begin firing on you after a few seconds, whether you’ve cleared the enemies or not, and it will alternate between firing a single stream of bullets to firing a spread, with a short pause between each fire type. The patterns are easy to dodge once you’ve cleared the standard enemies off the screen.

One design change that Overload offers is a shield. Longtime fans of the genre may cry foul at this addition, given that it seems to be a kind of cheat to overcompensate for either a) poor game design, or b) lack of player skill. Regardless, it’s in there, and it can get you out of some tight spots. You may need to call on it often due to another change in the design: enemies can drop bombs on you without breaking off from the formation. This means that you’ll not only be dealing with moving targets as they enter the screen or dive bomb, but also bombs that are falling from the ships already in formation. So, you can no longer sit back and just watch for the dive-bombers while picking off the formation from the safety of the bottom of the screen; you’ll need to actively dodge throughout the battle and pick these guys off as quickly as possible. And of course, it’s in your best interest to destroy your enemies before they can get into the formation.

In later levels, there will be lots of bullets on the screen, and you may need to use the shield to slice through a few to get to a more tactically advantageous position, and you can continue to fire even while the shield is active. You can even engage your shield and fly straight into the formation itself, destroying most enemies very quickly… but you’ll need to watch your shield meter, because you don’t want to run out while you’re surrounded. This tactic is not useful against bosses, however, as they deplete your shield meter almost instantly, and no points are awarded for shield-killing, so it’s best held for more desperate situations. Enemies will occasionally drop shield icons that restore some of your shield meter, or you’ll get a point bonus for collecting the icon with a full meter.

There is one other major difference between this game and Galaga, and it’s one that essentially puts a soft cap on the number of available levels. In the beginning stages, most enemies only take 1 or 2 hits to kill, but as you progress, the enemies will require more and more hits. Eventually you’ll get to the point where even the weakest enemies take several hits to destroy, and a single ship is practically useless against them. As the difficulty level increases and enemies become faster, shoot more bullets, and dive bomb in greater numbers, it can get pretty hard to hold onto a powered up multi-ship… and at some point, the formula will kill you. After about the second boss or so, the game will stop caring about your feelings, and even the challenge stages become impossible with a weakling ship, since you can’t inflict enough damage in a short enough time to destroy an entire wave of enemies.

Galaga got pretty hard once you got up past level 30, but at least the enemies themselves didn’t take 5 or 6 hits to kill. Overload does give you the ability to continue – and you’ll start in the exact spot where you left off – but tossing yourself back into the battle with an underpowered ship is not likely to get you far. The continue option tempts players to get back in and try their hand at getting through the next level, but the continuously-increasing strength of the enemies means that you’ll eventually hit a wall. The game is more enjoyable when starting from level 1 and seeing how far you can get (and how many points you can accumulate) before you reach the point where you can no longer outclass your enemies in the dodging and shooting departments. At that point, it’s best to restart the game from the beginning, or set the controller down and walk away.

WAM! Games is an indie game studio that was founded in Manchester, UK in 2008, which focuses on creating smaller experimental titles. Their members include former employees of EA, THQ, and Sony. Retrofit: Overload is WAM’s first 2D game, but it is planned as part of a Retrofit series that will bring back the gameplay of old favorites with today’s technology.

WAM’s only previous game was a 3D version of peg solitaire called Pegzo, where the goal is to jump pegs over one another so that only one is remaining. The Xbox Live Indie Game features 64 puzzle levels, and numerous different “Pegzos” which are little aliens that act as the pegs.

The next title scheduled for release is also a 3D game called Rola Trooper, which is an arcade action shooter. Characters ride on high-speed “Rola” balls in 3D physics-based environments with destructible scenery and big explosions. The Rola Troopers fight against hordes of robots to free their comrades from the Tyrant Prison Network.