Near the end of last year, a friend of mine sold me his PC Engine - that's the adorable console from the late '80s that was way ahead of its time and mangled pretty horribly when brought to the US as the Turbografx-16. In its native land, the PC Engine was an insanely small and smartly designed console, a joint effort between iconic game developer Hudson Soft and electronics manufacturer NEC.
Besides the small form factor, the PC Engine also eschewed cartridge storage in favor of a proprietary format known as Hucards (and eventually CDs), which looked like this (the case is exactly the same size as a CD jewel case, for size comparisons):
Over its nearly decade-long lifespan, the console received a huge number of hardware revisions, which you can read about here. In my case, I ended up with the CD-Rom "briefcase unit," which combines the original console with the CD-rom attachment in one easily transported and slightly ridiculous Vidja Game Bungalow.
After owning the console for a few months, I decided that it was high time to start writing about the games that make the PC Engine what it is - stupendous. So let's kick things off with a look at Galaga '88, a good port of a great arcade game, and one of the signature games of the PC Engine, in my opinion.
Galaga '88 is something of a remake of the original Galaga, one of the best single-screen shooting games ever made. In thinking about what makes the original such a classic game, I concluded that it's the personable, charming touches that elevated it above being just another Space Invaders clone. The immediately recognizable sound design, iconic alien designs and wealth of secrets. Stuff like that.
So what did Galaga '88 bring to the table? Somehow, further boatloads of charm. The "challenging stages" of Galaga, with their hypnotic patterns of pacifist alien craft, are now synchronized to chunky FM big band music, and introduced with "THAT'S GALACTIC DANCIN'". I get the impression that the developers were proud of these stages, because opting to kick back at the bottom of the screen without firing - simply watching the aliens dance around - rewards you with a fairly decent Special Bonus.
The enemy patterns outside of the challenging stages are much the same as the original game, but the enemies are significantly more interesting. There are rainbow-hued invaders who explode in a display of fireworks. There are extra large creatures of various shapes and sizes who require several shots to defeat, but reward an appropriately large bonus. There are shelled space beasts who are impervious to fire except when in a certain vulnerable state.
Nearly all of these guys have little nuances to their behaviors - some will merge into even larger versions of themselves when given enough time, and will reward a huge amount of points if defeated. Scoring well is about knowing when to shoot. Managing the waves of enemies for survival in addition to eliciting their secret behaviors is essential.
Also essential is not getting hit. Like Galaga, you can get your current ship captured, then defeat the enemy that stole it away and merge back together for double the firepower. Even better, you can start the game with the combined two ships' worth of power at the expense of losing one of your extra lives. Even better than that - you can get your double-ship captured, then take it back for three ships of firepower. Same width as two ships, too!
The issue that results is that, in an average game, it's very easy to be cruisin' along with the triple-ship, comfortable. Then you'll get hit once or twice and end up losing control, plummeting into a death spiral of lost lives. Since you effectively have three lives in one with the triple-ship, you can sometimes go from doing pretty decently to Game Over in the span of a few seconds. It's brutal when it happens, but considering the sheer power of the triple ship, it's also a pretty good case of risk-reward at work. The game's fairly generous with extra lives, which evens things out a little bit, but considering how powerful the triple ship is, it's often in your best interest to keep yourself at full power whenever possible. Tough call!
Galaga '88 has a finite length of 29 stages, divided into different "dimensions." You can think of dimensions as being a representation of the overall game difficulty - you go through all 29 stages no matter what, in the same order, but you gotta do a little work in order to jump between dimensions.
So, right. You start out in dimension 1. Fair 'nuff. Defeating certain enemies or destroying the debris that often appears at the beginning of a stage will cause a blue canister to drop - grabbing it will grant a brief period of invincibility, and collecting two will prompt a shift to the next dimension at the next challenging stage, along with a steadily increasing bonus.
You can jump all the way up to dimension 5 (or 4 in the PC Engine version), with shifts occurring every 3 stages or so. Each dimension brings different enemies and a steady increase in difficulty. Dimension 5 is quite fucking hard - by about level 15 onward, the enemies tend to rush onscreen, fire a huge barrage of shots and then kamikaze you. A lot like high level Galaga, but with a much higher difficulty curve. The game forces you to bump up to dimension 2 near the beginning of the game, even if you abstain from picking up blue capsules, but it's still considerably easier than the alternatives.
Of course, enemies at higher dimensions are worth more points, the challenging stages are different, and there are 4 possible endings (all of which are pretty great!) depending on which dimension you finish the game at. The final boss gives you a huge bonus multiplied by the number of your current dimension, too. I think? Pretty sure.
Anyway, the main differences between the PCE and arcade version are about what you'd expect. The arcade game runs on a vertically-oriented monitor, the PCE version runs at 4:3. The arcade version has a lot of interstitial animations between challenging stages in which random aliens bellow at you in Galaganese, while the PCE version does not. The highest dimension in the arcade version is 5, while it's 4 in the PCE version. Most importantly, the arcade version is pretty fuckin' hard, while the PCE version is... a lot easier! Especially if you use the built-in autofire of the PC Engine controller! Dunno if that's shunned or not, but if it is, maybe they shouldn't have built it into the controller, huh?
Anyway, Galaga '88 rules, and the slightly delayed US version, Galaga '90, is available on the Wii Virtual Console. Same game, $6, go check it out if you get the chance! Oh, and for comparison's sake, here are videos of both the arcade and PCE versions of the game, from the youtube:
PC Engine and Arcade.
(before I forget, there's a port of this game on the Sharp X68000, but I haven't had a chance to actually try it out, I'm afraid. Based on my prior experiences with X68k ports, though, it's probably arcade perfect.)