If you’re plugged into the world of the C64, you’ve probably been hearing quite a bit of buzz recently around Galencia, a Galaxians-inspired game from Jason Aldred. The game received a physical release for the original hardware, but for those of us who no longer have a C64, it’s now available for PC via Steam – the first C64 game to be released on the platform!
It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this blog won’t be familiar with Galaxians, but just in case, I’ll go through the basics. Based on the early 80s arcade game, it’s best described as What Space Invaders Did Next. The screen fills with alien invaders who fly on from the side. However, instead of moving their way from side to side down the screen, some of these aliens peel off and fly around whilst taking potshots at you. This instantly makes them more dangerous: their flight paths can be unpredictable and hitting a moving target is inevitably harder than hitting a static/slow-moving one. This, then, is the basis for Galencia.
There are two important things to say about Galencia from the outset. Firstly (and most critically), it’s a great game, highly polished and very addictive. Secondly, it is essentially a new C64 version of Galaxians. All the gameplay elements you’d expect (swooping aliens, tractor beam aliens who can capture your ship, double ship bonus if you free a trapped ship) are present and correct. Beyond a bit of spit and polish here and there, it’s an update, not a reboot. If you come to it expecting a solid version of Galaxians complete with retro graphics and sound, you’ll not be disappointed; if you’re looking for a major overhaul (along the lines of Space Invaders Infinite), then it might not be the game for you.
Right, that’s the managing expectation stuff done, so let’s get on with the review.
The bottom line is Galencia is good; very good. The graphics are generally a decent size and full of character, capturing the look and feel of the original, whilst bringing in plenty of new design elements. There’s nice variety between different types and more are introduced as the game progresses (my favourites so far are the ones that look like flying skulls). They are well-animated although there have been times when I’ve felt they were perhaps on the small side, making them trickier to hit. The chatty “mission control” head that talks to your pilot via speech bubbles is a nice extra graphical touch that adds to the game’s character.
Sound is equally 8 bit, but that’s not a criticism from me. A great chip tune accompanies the action, with sound effects fairly minimal, but effective. In these days of overblown full, orchestral scores and sound effects loud enough to damage your walls, it’s good to get back to basics with a catchy chip tune and limited effects.
So far, it’s all been good news, but I’ve saved the best until last: the gameplay is spot-on. It’s surprising how much the simple act of adding swooping aliens and a tractor beam adds to the Space Invaders formula and it’s been perfectly implemented here. The game is certainly challenging, but it never feels unfair. When you die, it’s your fault: you didn’t move fast enough, you crashed into an alien or a bullet; it’s not because the game has “cheated”. As such (unlike many modern games where you get an achievement just for starting the game), it feels like a real success when you get onto the high score table or beat your own best score. It also feels incredibly tense as aliens are unpredictable and so no two games are ever the same. It’s not unusual for me to come away from Galencia with sweaty palms – more so than when I’ve played a “proper” horror game like Resident Evil. When you’re down to your last life, desperately hanging on to get to the next level/beat your high score/secure an extra life, it’s surprising how tense the game can be.
Because the gameplay has been so well implemented, it’s also lost none of the addictive qualities Galaxians introduced all those years ago. Games (at least when I play it!) tend to be fairly short. This makes it perfect for gaming when you don’t have a lot of time. Except it’s not, because there’s no such things as “a few quick games” as far as Galencia is concerned. As soon as you lose your last life, you check your score, find it wanting and instantly hitting Fire to have another go. As with all the best games, it’s not unusual to sit down to play for “just 10 minutes” before looking at the clock to realise over an hour has passed.
If there are criticisms, they are small ones. As far as I can see, the game can’t be run full screen, but runs in a small(ish) window. Presumably this is because it’s running on Steam via a modified version of the Vice 64 emulator. Secondly, controller support is very limited. It doesn’t work with my Xbox 360 controller (which is supported by most Steam games) and the only option is to use the keyboard. That said, whilst controller support might be nice, using the keyboard is more authentic, so will appeal to purists.
[Quick update: You can safely ignore these minor quibbles. A couple of hours after posting this review, the game’s programmer, Jason Aldred got in touch to say that pressing Alt & Enter will toggle full-screen mode on and off, whilst pressing J or K will select Joystick or Keyboard control, so it now works fine with my Xbox 360 controller (although actually, this has just proved that I prefer the keyboard input anyway!)]
Best of all, Galencia is stupidly cheap – less than £3 for a superb version of Galaxians – it’s a game that will offer hours and hours of fun and has endless replay value, thanks to the score-chasing objective of the game. My only real concern for Galencia (on Steam) is that modern gamers will dismiss it based on the screenshots or ignore it as “old-fashioned and boring”. If you’re a retro gamer on the lookout for a new version of classic game, thought, it’s definitely one to consider.
It’s probably my favourite C64 version of Galaxians apart from Galaxi-i-Birds. High praise indeed!