Shooter Gallery #5: The Galaxian Model

Having discussed the model that Galaxian used to expand on the Space Invaders formula, I want to take a look at some games from the following year that made use of that model.

Radar Scope (1980, Nintendo)

American arcade-goers are most likely to be familiar with Radar Scope as the motivation for the creation of Donkey Kong.  The story goes that Radar Scope was a big hit in Japan, but flopped when Nintendo attempted to market it in the US.  Stuck with thousands of unused arcade cabinets, Nintendo decided to outfit them with another game, a game that would eventually become Donkey Kong.

But Nintendo's failure with Radar Scope was more likely a consequence of bad timing (the US release took a while) than design.  The game offers a Galaxian-like setup, but with various subtleties in the mechanics that increase the player's engagement with the divers.

Sample gameplay from the 1979 arcade game, Radar Scope.  The sprites for the player and enemies are also shown.

Targeting the armada is less fruitful than it was in Galaxian because most of it is beyond the reach of the player's shots.  You can still occasionally pick off aliens from the bottom row, but not with any consistency.

What's more, the divers are straightforward to target.  All dives in Radar Scope begin and end with approximately straight-line trajectories, giving the player a reasonable chance at targeting the aliens in either direction. 

Example paths taken by the enemies in the 1979 arcade game, Radar Scope.

The aliens all look the same, so you won't know their complete trajectory ahead of time, but they only fire in their descent, so this unpredictability shouldn't result in unavoidable deaths.  

But my favorite aspect of the Radar Scope design is the enemy shot distribution.  Watch what happens when I sit motionless in the center of the screen for a while.

Demonstration of Radar Scope, with the player sitting still.

Attacking enemies will either fire straight ahead or diagonally at the bottom of their dive, leaving a safe spot in between.  This encourages the player to stay near the center of the screen and stay engaged with the incoming ships.  Note that you can't sit still forever -- eventually an enemy will dive at you -- but in a pinch, you're often better off moving to the center of the playing field.

Phoenix (1980, Amstar Electronics)

Sample gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Phoenix.  The sprites for the player and enemy birds are also shown.

I've already discussed Phoenix at length in other entries, so I won't dwell on it too much here.  The most significant change relative to Galaxian is the complexity and speed of the enemy dives.  

Gameplay still of Phoenix arcade, with the path of the small bird traced out.

Anticipating enemy movements is a hopeless endeavor for all but the most experienced players, so hitting enemies often comes down to luck.  

Phoenix certainly is a large step up from Galaxian from the visual standpoint, and the birds' aerial acrobatics are part of that visual impression, but the gameplay leaves something to be desired.

Mad Alien (1980, Data East)

Sample gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Mad Alien.  The sprites for the player, motorcycle, and car are also shown.

Mad Alien relocates the Galaxian model to a highway, where the player is now in control of a police car and the enemies are rogue motorcyclists.  How aliens fit into this picture is unclear... maybe they stole the motorcycles?

Anyway, these motorcyclists are very small and hard to hit.  Also, in direct defiance of typical shooter design, they only shoot at you up close.  This would normally mean that you should just steer clear of the divers, but unfortunately they often end their dives on near-horizontal trajectories.  Here are some example dives:

Example paths taken by the enemies in the 1980 arcade game, Mad Alien.

Dives like that fourth one are especially nasty, and are hard to avoid if you don't take out the motorcycle before it reaches the bottom.

Mad Alien likes to throw randomizers at you, like blacking out the screen for brief periods and enemy "spin-outs" where they veer quickly to the side after being hit.  And don't be surprised if your targets suddenly change their speed or trajectory while you're targeting them.

Still, there is a lot of potential here.  The learning curve is steep initially because of the aforementioned dive patterns, but once you learn how to manage the divers, the game develops some flow.  I could have done without the blackouts, which increasingly obscure the patterns and make the outcome more of a crapshoot, but I still had fun and found myself improving steadily.  

Devil Zone (1980, Universal)

Sample gameplay from the 1980 arcade game, Devil Zone.  The sprites for the player and enemies are also shown.

From the highway to depths of Hades, Devil Zone takes the Galaxian model to an action-packed extreme.  The pseudo-3D playing field was probably borrowed from Nintendo's Radar Scope, but what really stands out is the behavior of the enemies.  These baddies really are like mad devils, erratically juking and jiving across the playing field.  If you had trouble targeting the birds in Phoenix, you can forget about Devil Zone.  Here are three examples of diver paths:

Example paths taken by the enemies in the 1980 arcade game, Devil Zone.

You should focus on the armada in the background if your want to maximize your efficiency in defeating the devils, but don't expect it to be easy.  You spend so much effort trying to avoid the diving aliens that it's difficult to find the opportunity to target the armada.  Also, the 20-frame limit is breached on many occasions here, with the alien trajectory changing unexpectedly in as little as four frames, and their shots hitting you in less than ten.

Devil Zone does, at least, seem to be aware of how helpless it's making the player.  The demonic theme is apropos of the gameplay, and when your bullets make contact with an enemy, the subsequent fireworks are satisfying.  If Universal were really set on making the experience so frantic, they should have committed more fully.  Specifically, a maximalist makeover along the lines of Robotron: 2084 or Missile Command would have hit the spot.

Interesting side note: I found the Devil Zone manual at the International Arcade Museum site, and it included the following tidbit:
When the last plane of the four plane formation began assaulting while turning, destroy it at as remote a position as possible to score high points.
It's an odd bit of prose to disentangle, but I think it means you can score a bonus if you hit a devil at its highest point while it's looping around you.  Hitting one of these bastards at any specific point in their path is a tall order, but I figured it was worth a shot.  After many attempts, here's the best I could do.

Unlocking the "bonus" points in the 1980 arcade game, Devil Zone.

It hardly seems worth all that trouble for 600 points, but hey, I guess it's... um, something.

Big Picture

By the end of 1980, experiments with the Galaxian model had had mixed results, but the commercial and critical pinnacle was still to come.  Up next, the mighty Galaga