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Galaxy Game (Arcade) artwork

Galaxy Game (Arcade) review

"An Ambitious Experiment"

The first digital video games were created on a variety of mainframes and minicomputers throughout the middle years of the twentieth century. Most of these games were nothing more than mundane simulations of real-life activities, such as sports or board games. They were usually designed solely to demonstrate the capabilities of the machines they ran on, with their potential entertainment value being a mere afterthought. Everything changed when the Digital Equipment Corporation lent one of their PDP-1 minicomputers to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1962, Steve Russell and his fellow computer hackers at MIT pushed the machine to its limits and produced Spacewar!, a space combat simulation that quickly became a huge hit with students and faculty alike. In this two-player game, each player controlled a spaceship, and their objective was to shoot down the other player while carefully maneuvering in the gravity well of a deadly star. As a result of its popularity, the game was ported and cloned on a variety of computers across the country for the next several years.

Computer engineers Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck spent several hours of their free time playing Spacewar! at Stanford University. During one of their numerous play sessions, they pondered the idea of creating a commercial version of the game. Despite the fact that the technology would have been too expensive at the time for mass production to be a possibility, they decided to build a prototype machine anyway just to see if people on campus would be willing to pay money to play a video game. Using a customized blue fiberglass arcade cabinet connected to a fancy PDP-11/20 minicomputer, the duo constructed a coin-operated clone of Spacewar! called Galaxy Game. Along with Nolan Bushnellís Computer Space, another Spacewar! derivative, Galaxy Game was one of the very first commercial video arcade games. What does Galaxy Game do to stand out from its tech demo precursor, and does it hold up well against the later mass-produced arcade classics in the same genre? Letís take a look, and find out.

For the most part, Galaxy Game plays identically to Spacewar!. The game takes place in a small portion of outer space, with the playfield comprising a single screen. A star is positioned in the center of the playfield and serves as an obstacle. Each player uses a modified military joystick to control a spaceship. The goal of the game is to shoot the other playerís ship with a photon torpedo before they can do the same to your own ship. The first player to accomplish this task wins the round. A row of buttons between the playersí joysticks is used to select gameplay options as well as to begin a new round. When starting the game, players can pay ten cents for one round of gameplay, or 25 cents for three.

The joysticks on the Galaxy Game machine are used primarily for movement. Tilting the joystick left or right will rotate your ship counterclockwise or clockwise, respectively. Holding the joystick forward activates the shipís thrusters, making it move in the direction itís currently facing. At first, the ship will move very slowly, but if you continue holding the joystick, the ship will progressively accelerate. The ship does not stop on a dime when you release the joystick; it will continue to move in the direction that it was going in when the joystick was in use. To slow the ship down and be able to change direction, you will need to face the opposite direction of the shipís movement and activate the thrusters again.

Your only weapon in Galaxy Game is a limited arsenal of photon torpedoes. They are fired by pressing a trigger button on the side of the joystick. Each ship begins the round with 20 torpedoes. The game provides no indication of how many torpedoes each player has left, so players will have to keep track themselves. There is no way to refill torpedoes after a round begins, therefore accuracy is crucial. Fortunately, it only takes one torpedo to destroy an opponent's ship. Like in Spacewar!, Galaxy Game has a wraparound feature, meaning that ships and their torpedoes can move off one side of the screen and return from the opposite side. While this can be useful for shooting an opponent on the other side of the screen, players should be careful not to get hit by their own torpedoes if they miss. The torpedoes eventually disappear on their own if they travel far enough without hitting a ship. Unlike the ships, the torpedoes are not affected by the starís gravity, and they can move straight through the celestial death trap harmlessly. However, their paths and speed are affected by the force of the shipís movements, so novice players may want to slow down considerably when lining up their shots.

The last ship function is the hyperspace warp, which is activated by holding a small button on top of the joystick. This useful technique works differently from the way it functioned in Spacewar!, but its purpose remains the same: to save players from incoming enemy fire. In Spacewar!, the hyperspace warp would teleport the playerís ship to a random location on the screen, and there was a chance that the warp would instead cause the ship to explode, making it a high-risk maneuver. Gamers that are familiar with Atariís fan-favorite space shooter, Asteroids, should have a general idea of how this works. In Galaxy Game, rather than sending you to a random location, the hyperspace warp feels more like it places the ship behind the background layer, or like the ship simply turns invisible. While in hyperspace, your enemyís torpedoes, as well as your own torpedoes, will pass through your current location. However, your ship will not be protected from colliding with the star or your opponentís ship.

One notable improvement that the developers of Galaxy Game made over Spacewar! is the addition of on-screen fuel meters for the spaceships. Player 1ís fuel meter is in the lower left corner of the screen, and Player 2ís meter is in the lower right corner. On each meter, a small vertical line moves from the right to the left as that playerís fuel depletes. Fuel drains at a normal rate as you use your shipís thrusters, and it also drains at a slower rate on its own even when you arenít touching the joystick. The act of phasing in and out of hyperspace consumes large chunks of fuel, and your ship will explode if you attempt to enter hyperspace while low on fuel. Players should use the hyperspace warp with discretion.

Some of the gameplay mechanics in Spacewar! could be altered using switches on the minicomputer that it ran on, but this wasnít exactly easy for those who arenít tech-savvy to understand. Galaxy Game provides a more user-friendly approach to changing game settings by having a row of buttons that are specifically designed for that purpose on the custom arcade cabinetís control panel, between the playersí joysticks. After coins are inserted into the machine, an options menu appears on the screen. Each variable gameplay option has a number assigned to it so that players will know exactly which button should be pressed to change that particular setting. The variations include a choice between positive and negative gravity for the star, slow or fast gameplay speed, the option of removing the star from the game, and a single-player practice mode. In the practice mode, one player has to destroy a computer-controlled ship that does nothing except move straight down, due to AI limitations.

Considering the fact that itís one of the very first commercial video games, Galaxy Game obviously isnít going to impress anyone today with its primitive graphics. They were fairly detailed for their time; the graphics for the ships in particular were rendered with realistic rocket shapes. However, the graphics seemed to go through a slight downgrade from those of Spacewar!. While the ships in Galaxy Game look decent on their own, their appearances are too similar to each other, so if you were to look away from the screen in the middle of an intense dogfight, you may lose track of which ship belongs to you. This was not an issue in Spacewar!, as each of the two ships had a unique design; one was small and bulky, while the other was thin. In Galaxy Game, both of the ships have thin outer shapes, with only minor differences in how the inner sections of their vector sprites are drawn. The starís appearance has changed from a few glowing lines to a fuzzy, flickering white square. The game retains the background starfield from Spacewar!, with some of the stars shining brighter than the others and forming constellations. As for audio, there is none. The PDP minicomputers were not incapable of audio, but since Spacewar! and Galaxy Game used a lot of memory for their time, the audio had to be cut.

While Galaxy Game did make a few improvements over Spacewar!, such as the inclusion of an options menu and on-screen fuel meters, there are some areas where Spacewar! had the upper hand. The starís gravity isnít as strong in Galaxy Game, which prevents the use of the gravity assist, a popular strategic technique from Spacewar! that allowed players to fly close to the star at an angle and slingshot across the playfield with a speed boost. The gameplay feels rather slow for an arcade game, even on the fast speed setting. Also, since a player only needs to shoot down their opponentís ship one time to win a round, a single play session usually ends too quickly for the price to be justified.

Galaxy Game was an ambitious experiment. The Spacewar! cloneís success with Stanford Universityís student body certainly proved that video games could eventually become commercially viable. However, when considering the prohibitive cost of the hardware, as well as the fact that Galaxy Game did not provide much innovation to the Spacewar! formula, the game probably wouldnít have been able to make a profit as a commercial product, had it been released as such. In the mid-seventies, the microprocessor was introduced to the video game market, allowing more advanced shooter games such as Cinematronicsí Space Wars to be produced at a much lower cost. Expensive mainframes ceased to be necessary to run video games, as the industry quickly acquired the ability to make affordable dedicated gaming machines. Galaxy Game may be of interest to video game historians, but when it comes to content and overall fun factor, there are plenty of better options for modern gamers.


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Community review by Midcore (October 27, 2017)

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