In the case of 1983's Galaxian, that one's a darn fine translation of the Midway arcade game. However, when great space shooters are discussed by 2600 fans, you're more likely to hear references to Atari's excellent 1980 version of Space Invaders or 1982's Demon Attack by Imagic than any discussions of Galaxian. That's a shame, too, because Galaxian is a faithful version of the arcade classic and a darn fine shooter that can go toe to toe with more popular titles from that genre.
The story behind Galaxian is simple -- go out and blow the heck out of an enemy fleet. We don't know why the Galaxian fleet has been sent out cause trouble in the universe, but that doesn't really so much when it comes to this game. The goal here is to simply kill as many Galaxian ships as possible. Since the Galaxian fleet will ultimately overwhelm the player and prevail, the focus is on running that score up as high as possible. This is a basic, addictive arcade game, which is just what any fan of the Atari 2600 should love -- something that's easy to learn and keeps the player hitting that reset button for "just one more game."
It's easy to compare Galaxian to Space Invaders, and there is some merit in claiming the former is merely and update of the latter. There are rows of nasty aliens shooting at the player's loan ship that moves on a horizontal plane across the bottom of the screen.
Ah, but there are some differences that make Galaxian worth owning. The aliens in Galaxian don't merely move from one side of the screen to the other and shift down for the purpose of landing like the critters in Space Invaders do. Nope. Galaxian aliens will bunch up into units and swoop down on the player with the intent of either shooting him or ramming his ship. The aliens are still pretty stupid in Galaxian in that their behavior is fairly predictable, but they present much more of a threat than the ones in Space Invaders. And, a formation of Galaxian aliens will actually "trap" the player on one side of the screen or another and then ram his ship.
The graphics in Galaxian are very good for the 2600. The alien ships are none too detailed, but the are very bright and colorful. The player's ship, while also lacking detail, is identifiable and large enough to make it difficult to avoid swooping aliens. The detail is good enough so the player can tell when another shot is loaded and protruding from his ship's "gun" (only one shot can be on the screen at a time).
The only problem I have with the graphics is that there's a small bit of screen flicker that appears when there's a lot of activity. That screen flicker doesn't get in the way of a good game, though, and I discovered I didn't even notice it after a time. I also wonder why there's an orange border surrounding the screen. I know it doesn't matter because I'm stuck moving on one horizontal plane, but the arcade game at least supported the illusion that the player was moving a ship through limitless space. That illusion is pretty much blown here by the unnecessary border.
The sound is about as good as you can expect from the 2600 -- serviceable, but nothing that boggles the mind. A high-pitched tone sounds as aliens swoop, there's another tone that sounds when a shell is fired and audio cues let the player know when he's hit an alien ship and when his own ship has been blown to bits.
As for gameplay, it's pretty much on par with the Galaxian arcade game. Fans of that game will enjoy this version, too. It's a very solid shooter for the Atari, and the controls are precise and as basic as possible (you've got move left, move right and fire).
The only place this game falls short is in the multiplayer area. In short, there is no multiplayer action here at all. This is a game for one player only, and that's all there is too it. There are nine game variations, and each one just messes with the speed and difficulty of the title. One of the things that makes Space Invaders so great is that two players can select a "cooperative" game and then be on the screen blasting aliens at the same time. That feature would have been great on Galaxian. And, while Space Invaders featured a lot of wild variations (moving shots, invisible aliens, mobile shields and etc.), the only variations on Galaxian have to do with the speed of the aliens and complexity of their movements. A little bit of creativity would have worked wonders for this game, indeed.
Still, this is a solid title that's easy to find and is a welcome addition to any Atari 2600 collection. Sure, it plays like an updated
Space Invaders, but that's perfectly fine -- a game that offers a novel twist on an established formula is typically enjoyable.