Galaxian: The Aesthetics of Simple Patterns



Successful game concepts always lead to imitators, and of course Space Invaders was no exception to that rule.  While many of the fixed shooters that followed in its footsteps in the late '70s were essentially clones, some designers were bold enough and clever enough to recognize the potential of the new genre.  In 1979, Namco developed an arcade game called Galaxian that would prove to be almost as revolutionary and influential as the game that inspired it.

The initial setup is essentially the same as Space Invaders, with several rows of aliens attacking an avatar at the bottom of the screen.  However, as soon as the game starts, in a development that probably blew the minds of kids in the late '70s, a handful of aliens immediately break formation and dive at the player, guns blazing.  From then on, the gameplay becomes not just a matter of target practice, as in Space Invaders, but also managing the attack patterns of the diving aliens such that you don't collide with them or their bullets.  You can still fire at the aliens lined up at the top of the screen, but the point payoff is bigger when you knock out incoming formations.  And, to make things even more interesting, the aliens have artificial intelligence, so they will alter their attack patterns based on your movements.

I didn't take to Galaxian right away, but the more I played, the more I began to see the alien motions as something vital, perhaps even beautiful. It wasn't long before I was dodging and weaving between waves of oncoming alien formations, planning my movements to both avoid immediate threats and guide future attackers.  Individually, the alien attack patterns are not complex, each curving only once or twice per dive, but randomly coordinated attacks and clever AI make it so that every game feels different.  Also, the bullet patterns have just enough spacing that you can squeeze through them if you're careful, making for plenty of exciting close calls.

All of these elements work together to give Galaxian a sort of hypnotic quality.  It's hard to reproduce that effect just by watching the game, unfortunately.  For one thing, an observer doesn't have to be constantly responding to the alien motions, and so doesn't have to process as much information as someone who is actively playing.  This has the effect of making the action appear to proceed more slowly when you're just watching.  To try to compensate for this and better capture what it feels like to play the game, the clip below is sped up by a factor of three.  Also, in order to emphasize the alien attack patterns, in this instance I only dodge the aliens without firing back.  


The hypnotic effects of slowly varying patterns are well known, and such techniques have become increasingly commonplace in the music world.  In my review of Breakout, I discussed the similarity between minimalist visual art and some early video games, but in music, "minimalism" is more often used to refer to pattern-based compositions than something that is merely sparse or simple.  The minimalist style of composition originated in the early '60s with composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, who used repetition and gradual transformation to create a hypnotic effect in their music. For an example, I recommend listening to this recording (courtesy of archive.org) of Terry Riley's, In C.


As good as Galaxian is, there is still room for improvement.  For one, the game's visual appearance borrows a lot from the pixellated aliens of Space Invaders, making the limitations of '70s arcade hardware pretty obvious.  There's also the problem that as the player builds skill, you have to proceed further in the game to achieve the same hypnotic effect.  This can take a while, as Namco purposely designed a slow build in difficulty so as not scare off the more casual gamers.

Regardless, I absolutely recommend Galaxian and it is certainly among the most impressive games to grace arcades in the '70s.  Namco would go on to improve on this formula with Galaga in 1981, and in the process create one of the most successful arcade games of all time.  But that's for another day...

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