[Editors note: The following is the opening of Galaga by Michael Kimball, a book about the classic 1980s arcade game. Galaga can be purchased from Boss Fight Books.]
Galaga (1981) was Alec Baldwin’s favorite arcade game and it might have saved his life. Apparently, in the 1980s Mr. Baldwin would play the game as a way to come down from his long nights of drinking and doing coke. In the morning, he would show up at a warehouse arcade in Los Angeles and wait for the owner of the place to open up for the day. He would play arcade games while other people were eating breakfast and going to work. According to Mr. Baldwin, playing video games “was the only way I could go ‘beta’ and go into that state I needed to be, where I could calm down and take my mind off everything.” The rush of playing video games became a substitute for the rush of drugs and alcohol. Playing Galaga and other arcade games for a couple of hours allowed him to wind down enough that he could go home and go to sleep.
Galaga is a coin-op arcade video game and a sequel to Galaxian (1979), itself an unofficial update of Space Invaders (1978). Galaga is a shooter, a fixed shooter, a spacy, a space shooter, a bug shooter, or a single-screen schmup (a.k.a. shoot-em-up). Galaga is also sometimes called a bug war, an exterminator, and a kind of insecticide.
Galaga was released in December of 1981 when I was 14 years old, but it probably didn’t reach Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the Lansing Mall until early 1982 when I was 15 years old. It was a difficult time in my life and going to the arcade any chance I got was a good excuse to get out of an abusive household. Galaga was my longest quarter and I could almost always set the daily high score in any arcade. Playing that video game gave me a way to space out and let me forget about the rest of my life. Galaga was my game and it might have saved my life too.
Many consider Galaga the first arcade game sequel. Ms. Pac-Man (1981) preceded Galaga, but it was originally a Pac-Man (1980) hack called Crazy Otto that Midway bought out while waiting for Namco to deliver Super Pac-Man (1982).
Side note: I’ve never actually seen or heard of Galaga being referred to as an exterminator, but I thought it was funny.
There are lots of playing tips later in this book, but here is a cheat sheet:
(1) Get double fighters.
(2) Don’t do anything stupid that destroys one of the double fighters.
(3) Stay out of the corners.
(4) Learn the entrance patterns for each stage.
(5) Clear out at least one side of the formation before the Galagans begin attacking.
(6) Focus on clearing stages rather than maxing out points.
(7) Max out the Challenging Stages.
Back in the 1980s, Galaga wasn’t the most popular arcade game or the one that made the most money, but it has endured for more than 30 years and continues to be played on many platforms. Galaga is an incredibly successful sequel. In my adopted hometown of Baltimore, Galaga can still be played in a pool hall, a pizzeria, a Laundromat, a hipster bar, and a crab shack. Those are just the places I know. I like to imagine secret Galaga machines tucked into strange establishments all over the city.
The blue, yellow, and red alien insects are bees. The white, orange, and blue ones are butterflies. Sometimes, the bees are referred to as hornets or wasps. In Japanese, the bees are “zako” and the butterflies are “goei.” Sometimes, the butterflies are referred to as moths. But one of the mysteries of Galaga is what the Boss Galagas are supposed to be. It has been suggested that they are birds and cicadas, but neither of these suggestions seems quite right. I checked with a cicada expert who said the Boss Galagas are definitely not cicadas. She didn’t think they were birds either. Another possibility is that the Boss Galagas are giant flies. An entomologist didn’t rule out that possibility.
There is a definition on Urban Dictionary that makes Galaga an adjective and defines it as “to do something really cool.” Here is a representative usage: “I rode my mountain bike over the continental divide and it was so Galaga.”
Galaga starts with some upbeat 1980s techno music and a single fighter travelling through deep space that is flecked with red, green, blue, yellow, purple, and orange stars that twinkle and scroll off the bottom of the screen. Player 1 is the single fighter at the bottom of the screen. The joystick stands between the first finger and thumb of the player’s left hand and the fire button rests under the first two fingers of the player’s right hand. Soon, swarms of alien insects swoop down in long looping columns from the top and the sides of the screen. At first, it’s unsettling the way the alien insects seem so ready to kamikaze the fighter, but they pull up before crashing into it and then curl back up into troop lines at the top of the screen. The alien insects settle into their attack formation: two rows of ten alien bees, two rows of eight alien butterflies, one row of four Boss Galagas. There is a brief pause and then the alien invaders start dive-bombing the fighter. It’s up to Player 1 to save this world.
When I started doing Galaga research, I was surprised by the extent of the game’s legacy. There are Galaga clothes, jewelry, and collectibles. There are Galaga tattoos, Galaga ringtones, and Galaga baked goods. There is Galaga art. Galaga continues to show up in songs, books, TV shows, and movies. Galaga is one of the most bootlegged video games in the history of video games and there are also a bunch of Galaga hacks, clones, and updates. I love Galaga, but I didn’t know that so many other people love Galaga too.
In a full formation, the first alien insect to attack is one of the bees, which jumps off the left side of the formation, curls around, and dive-bombs the fighter. Almost immediately after that, an alien butterfly jumps off the right side of the formation, fluttering and bobbing at the fighter from the opposite direction. Then one of the Boss Galagas backflips from the top row and somersaults down the screen. This is just the first of wave after wave of attacks.
Rule #34 states: If it exists, there is porn of it. After Googling “Galaga” and “porn,” I found a drawing of a naked Terezi, the blind troll from a comic called Homestuck, feeling up the Galaga fighter. I found a series of photos of porn star Jordan Capri getting naked in front of a Galaga machine. I found out that some people see the futuristic art on the side of a Galaga machine as two huge orange breasts with big red nipples. And I found a photo of a naked gamer girl with her knees up and her legs spread, while a Gameboy defends her vagina from three Galaga fighters that are photoshopped into the shot.
Eventually, some version of Galaga was released on nearly every gaming platform — including, alphabetically, Android, Atari 7800, Casio PV-2000, Dreamcast, Famicom, Fujitsu FM-7, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, iPad, iPhone, MSX, Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, Nintendo GameCube, PC, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Roku, Sega SG-1000, Sharp MZ, Sharp X1, TurboGrafx-16, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii, and WiiU.
The Galagans attack in ones at first, but then in twos and threes, swarming down from both sides of the screen. They blanket the deep space with bullets as they criss-cross above the fighter, which Player 1 pushes left and right against the attacks. Eventually, the second Boss Galaga loops off the top of the formation and somersaults down the screen. Then, oddly, the Boss Galaga stops two-thirds of the way down the screen and releases a blue tractor beam to the sound of some twirly, hypnotic music.
After doing some pretty standard Google research on Galaga, I started to Google “Galaga” and anything I could think of — including “cake,” “candy,” “jewelry,” “rap lyrics,” “shoes,” etc. That’s how I found out, for instance, that you can buy a Galaga wine stopper, download a Galaga cursor, or buy a Galaga license plate frame.
One of the reasons I must have been drawn to Galaga was my recurring apocalyptic nightmares in which my school, my neighborhood, America, or the Earth is being invaded by Russians, monsters, or aliens. In these nightmares, I had to save whatever was under attack. On some level, Galaga was my nightmares transformed into an arcade game, but it was fun and I wasn’t as afraid to die. It only cost a quarter to fight the invading alien insects of Galaga. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
In almost any video game, a player’s instinct is to avoid being captured, but Player 1 moves the fighter into the blue tractor beam and watches it twirl up to the Boss Galaga. The captured fighter turns red and the Boss Galaga wheels around and tows it back up into the attack formation like a trailer on a hitch. Player 1 gets a new fighter from the fighter reserve and waits as an alien bee and then an alien butterfly loop down from different sides of the screen. Then a green Boss Galaga jumps off the right side of the formation with two alien butterfly escorts leading the way and the player’s captured fighter trailing it. Player 1 moves the fighter to the right side of the screen and waits for the attack group to line up vertically. A quick two shots take out the two alien butterflies. Another quick shot turns the Boss Galaga blue and then a fourth one destroys the Boss Galaga, rescuing the fighter.
There is a doctored photo of Lady Gaga wearing a black leather (or maybe vinyl) dress that has a blue Boss Galaga at the neckline (which almost looks like a huge piece of jewelry) and then the blue tractor beam descends the length of the dress. She looks like she’s arrived from the future wearing a dress from the past.
Galaga was created by Namco in Japan and released there as Gyaraga in September of 1981. Galaga was released by Namco’s North American distributor, Midway, in December of 1981, though it didn’t reach most arcades in the U.S. until early 1982. Galaga can be played in three different cabinet styles: (1) the standard upright version, (2) the mini-cabaret version, and (3) the cocktail-tabletop version. There was also a fourth type of Galaga machine, a portable mini-television version to be used when travelling, but I’ve never seen one of those. Please note: The pure and true and full Galaga experience can only be captured when playing the standard upright version. The other versions do not play as well.
The rescued fighter turns back to white and spins back toward the center of the screen where it lines up vertically and drops in next to the second fighter. They link up and there’s a little riff of celebratory music. The double fighters start firing away at the alien armada in the brief moments before they begin attacking again, clearing out the center of the attack formation. An alien bee jumps out wide and curls back toward the center of the screen while the double fighters slide over and quickly take it out. The same thing happens with an alien butterfly on the other side of the screen. Then one of the last two Boss Galagas does its backflip at the top of the formation and Player 1 lays down two pairs of bullets that destroy it at the top of the screen.
In 2009, Hallmark sold a miniature replica of the Galaga arcade cabinet as a Christmas tree ornament. It lights up and includes a sound chip that plays the game’s music. These four-inch ornaments have become collector’s items, often selling at many times their original price.
There is only one way to play most classic video games, but Galaga has options. With Galaga, the player had to choose between a single fighter or double fighters. At the time, it was the only game in which the player could turn a bad thing (a captured fighter) into a good thing (double fighters). Getting double fighters made me feel like I was in on a secret.
Before I started playing video games like Galaga, I played board games like Candy Land, Battleship, Life, Clue, Masterpiece, and Monopoly. I played card games like Crazy Eights, Rummy, and War. I played a lot of baseball, basketball, football, and kickball at school, in organized leagues, and in the neighborhood. At home, we often played tag, freeze tag, something we called Spud, and something else we called Gorilla, Gorilla. I always wanted to be playing some kind of game. The terrible stuff happened when I wasn’t playing games.
There are just a handful of Galagans left at the end of the wave and they attack together — an alien bee, an alien butterfly, and then the last Boss Galaga. Player 1 picks off the last Boss Galaga with two quick shots while another alien bee and another alien butterfly begin their attacks. Player 1 slides the fighter away from two bullets and away from the alien bee looping under it, then picks off one alien bee and then a second one. The two alien butterflies flutter through the bottom of the screen, but then don’t retake their positions in the formation. They continue attacking instead and the fighter sprays two sets of bullets on the right side of the screen and then the left side, taking out both alien butterflies.
The double fighters in Galaga were a huge shift in gameplay at the time. And double fighters are one of the biggest keys to playing Galaga at the highest levels. It’s easier to aim, easier to clear stages quickly (thereby limiting enemy attacks), and the player’s shooting statistics (which are displayed at the end of the game) are much improved. Double fighters are a bigger target, of course, but if the player uses them properly, there are considerably fewer instances where they are a target at all.
Besides playing games with other people, I played a lot of games by myself. I made up games to keep myself company. I always had a deck of cards and played different kinds of solitaire in front of the TV or on my bedspread. I made up different board games on colorful sheets of construction paper that I then taped together so I could play against different versions of myself. I played a baseball game that used nine baseball cards for each team, with batting orders and defensive placements, and little slips of paper that I pulled out of a baseball hat to determine each playing card’s at-bat. I loved playing these games by myself and, at the time, I couldn’t have imagined how playing video games by myself would be so much more fun than playing non-video games by myself.