They’re Coming For You
In 1955, Nakamura Manufacturing Company of Tokyo, Japan is founded by Masaya Nakamura as an installer and operator of merry-go-rounds perched atop a department store in Yokohama. In 1966 they begin licensing Disney characters for their rides. The company name is changed to Namco in 1972, and they establish a videogame presence with the purchase of the Japanese subsidiary of Atari Inc. in 1974. In 1979 engineers throughout the company are teamed together to create the company’s first internally designed videogame, including Akira Takundai and Hurashi Nagumo. They design an arcade game that pushes the use of full RGB colour in arcade games, as opposed to being merely replicated with the use of coloured overlays on the screen, al la Space Invaders. As in Invaders, Galaxian has players controlling a ship left and right along the bottom of the screen and firing at lines of aliens above, but this time the enemy is no sitting duck. They actually leave formation and swoop down the screen after you, dropping bombs all the way.
This furious action of having multiple enemies moving quickly around the screen is probably the more important technical innovation in Galaxian over the use of colour. It is achieved by Takundai and Nagumo eschewing the method of drawing graphics on the screen previously done in games like Space Invaders, called bitmapping. This entails having the CPU keep track of the entire screen in order to have images appear to move around. The Galaxian team instead pioneers the use of graphic ‘sprites’ in arcade games, allowing them to create individual objects on the screen whose coordinates can be shifted around, requiring much less overhead for the brains of the system.
The game creates quite a crazed sensation inside Namco during its development, and once released Galaxian continues to be a stupendous hit in the arcades, with Namco going on to produce some of the most popular arcade titles of all time. Their first video game has wide-ranging influence across the scene, including the team at Nintendo who will eventually produce the Famicom in Japan a few years later.
Gah-LAH-gah? Or GAL-ah-gah?
Numerous Galaxian sequels naturally ensue, including Namco’s own sequel, 1981’s Galaga, an immensely popular title in its own right. Takundai and Nagumo are joined by Namco programmer Shigeru Yoyogi to work on the new game, with improvements over the original such as more detailed graphics, as well as introducing a tractor beam the aliens use to capture the player’s ships. By shooting the offending alien the player can win back his ship and double his firepower. Galaga spawns its own set of sequels including Galpus (Galaga 3) and the drastic remake Galaga ’88 in 1988. Galaxian also features as one of Coleco’s popular and well-promoted tabletop mini-arcade LED games in 1981, with other entries including Frogger, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.
Flying Into Homes
When Space Invaders hits big in the arcades, its Japanese creator Taito decides to release their own games in North America without the assistance of Midway, their U.S. partner. Midway then joins up with Namco, and with their licensing agreement comes immense profits with the huge popularity of Namco games like Galaga in North America. Galaxian and Galaga follow Space Invaders to the home platforms with a rash of console translations and clones, including the well-made port of Galaxian to the Atari VCS/2600 in April 1983. There is a translation to pretty much every other console and personal computer of note around the same time.
The status of Galaga as being a sequel to Galaxian could be questioned with the release of an Entex handheld game called Galaxian 2, also hitting the market in 1981. Sporting an elaborate plastic case, Galaxian 2 is an LED version of the classic arcade game that offers simultaneous two-player action: a set of buttons on one side controls the Galaxy Ship, and on the other side is another set that controls the attacking Galaxian aliens. A single-player mode is also available, along with two skill level settings. In the Japanese market the game is known as Astro Galaxy, and in Europe as Astro Invader. The game is later produced by Futuretronics, with this version showing up as being played (rather unrealistically) by a space marine in the 2005 movie adaptation of id Software’s Doom.
On a slightly larger scale are the Galaxian 3 theater games made by Namco in the 90’s. Also known as Galaxian 3: Project Dragoon, they start with version GH-28 in 1990, a Japanese theme park attraction. Up to 28 people walk into a room and sit in chairs arranged in a circle facing out at a 360 degree, 20-foot high screen. The seats sit on a hydraulic platform that moves in time with the action, and each seat has a gun for the player to shoot. The game itself is a rail-shooter, where players do not control their movement, but simply shoot at targets in a 90’s form of an old shooting gallery. The participants are charged with manning the gunner positions in a bid to protect the Starship Dragoon from marauding alien spaceships. Galaxian 3 is pretty much a later, more elaborate entry in the laserdisc craze, with backgrounds generated via disc and displayed on the screen with twin RGB projectors. The players’ laser fire and target reticules are computer generated. GM-16 is a stripped-down version of the system for 16 players, without the hydraulic motion effects, released soon after its larger cousin. These large-scale gaming systems are eventually discontinued by Namco in 2000.
The Namco Theater system is further reduced in size down to Galaxian 3 Theater 6, released in 1992. Taking up a footprint of a mere 5 meters wide, 4.9 m long and 2.4 m high, this version sees a more common distribution to family arcades around the world. Six gunner seats are placed inside a walk-in enclosure in front of an 18-foot screen, with the whole shebang running arcade operators a mere $150,000. As an incentive for investment in the system, Namco promises Galaxian 3 can be converted to more games coming soon, but only one is eventually released, called Attack of the Zolgear. A version for Sony’s PlayStation console, supporting four players and utilizing footage from the arcade game, hits the market in 1995.
Namco eventually merges with Japanese toy and video game company Bandai in 2005, forming Namco Bandai. Remakes of Galaxian and Galaga, tarted up to be more graphically pleasing to today’s audiences, are included in a 2011 app for iOS devices, titled Galaga 30th Collection. Today Namco Bandai remains as one of the few early arcade game companies still producing video games.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
namcoArcade 8.0 ))) Corporate Philosophy – www.namcoarcade.com/corporate.asp
Vintage Computer and Gaming – www.vintagecomputing.com
System 16 – Namco Museum – www.system16.com/namco_history.php
Nikkei Trendy net, “Birth of the NES, pt. 6” – trendy.nikkeibp.co.jp/article/special/20081001/1019315/
Giant Bomb, Galaxian 3 – www.giantbomb.com/galaxian3/3030-31950/images/
Skooldays, Galaxian series: Old Memories – www.skooldays.com/categories/arcade/ag1054.htm
HandheldMuseum.com – www.handheldmuseum.com/Entex/Galaxian2.htm
8 Bit Central, Namco’s Galaxian 3… – www.8-bitcentral.com/blog/2013/galaxian3WalkIn.html
Image of the Entex Galaxian 2 handheld from Joe Haupt (France1978) flickr photo stream
Image of Galaxian 2 box taken at the Videogame History Museum exhibit, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
“The Secret of Namco’s Success.” Next Generation, Nov. 1998, pp. 28–29. 1966: The company expands operations, begins licensing Disney characters for rides.