Category Archives: Arcade Games

Galaga by Namco – Retro Arcade Review

At the time of writing, summer is here, and I am reminded of hot days spent in the arcades playing games like space shooter Galaga.  In the early 80’s my holidays would be spent camping with my family, and many of the campsites we visited would have a clubhouse and games room, and my pocket money would be spent indulging my habit on whatever cabinets were available.

galaga arcade konami screenshot
Galaga Arcade
In 1981 Galaga was the game of the summer for me, released by Namco as a successor to one of my previous favourites, Galaxians.  Having played the excellent space shooter Galaxians to excess I was keen to master it’s sequel – Galaxians’ diving aliens were a revelation to me after playing the more pedestrian Space Invaders, and I was sure that Galaga would be even better.

The first thing you notice on firing up Galaga is the graphics – big, colourful and incredibly fast, faster than anything that had come before it.  Rather than being presented with all of your enemies at the start of each wave, columns of aliens would fly in from the left and right, presenting an opportunity to take a few out before they fell into formation – if you could hit them.  Fortunately, unlike Space Invaders and Galaxians, your Galaga ship had the ability to fire multiple missiles, rather than waiting for each to hit home before you could launch the next, and this was absolutely necessary in Galaga due to the speed of the enemy ships.

Once the enemy ships were in formation they would begin to attack, and like Galaxian’s, small groups of attackers would break off and dive bomb your ship, requiring you to either avoid them and their missiles, or stand firm and destroy them for extra points.  Care was needed to avoid being trapped in a corner due to the angle of the dive, and also look out for the bigger ships which need 2 hits, although they do change colour after the first hit to remind you.

With each hit you are rewarded with a great sound effect, sounding like a kind of high pitched squelch, similar to the sound of pac-man eating a pill.  With the speed of Galaga, the sound created was a constant chattering and chirping that was an audible reminder of the success of each shot.

Beam me Up

At certain points, the large green and blue “boss” aliens at the top of the formation would dive, and half way down the screen fire a tractor beam towards the player.  You have 2 options here, either destroy the boss before he grabs your ship, or allow yourself to be “beamed up” by the alien and lose a life.  At this point your ship is returned to the formation, and will begin to attack your remaining vessels along with it’s wingmen.  If however you can destroy the wingmen of your captured ship, it will be returned to you giving you a “double ship” with twice the width but also twice the firepower.  This extra firepower comes in handy from stage 3 onwards…

Galaga Bonus Stage

[amazon asin=B004UJLNMQ&template=iframe image]Starting at level 3 (and every 4th stage after) you will be presented with a bonus round, where the Galaga ships would fly onto the screen and off again, following erratic flight formations, whilst you try to shoot them all down.  The trick with the bonus level is to find the point on the screen through which all the aliens must travel repeatedly, and at the slowest point of their flight, in order to maximise your chance of hitting all of them.

After 5 waves, each having 8 enemies, you are given a bonus score based on the number of ships you manage to take out, with 40 (obviously) being a perfect score. Hitting all the enemy ships see you rewarded with a special bonus of 10,000 points.  It is possible to score a perfect 40 without a twin ship, but it makes it a lot easier so is highly recommended.

There is a bug in the system that means that only player 2 can score more than 999,990 points, as player 1 is limited to 6 characters for the score.  You’d better get a screenshot though, as only the first 6 digits will display on the high score screen regardless of player number.


Matthew Broderick playing Galaga in War Games
Galaga in the movie “War Games”

The Galaga game appeared in the movie War Games starring Matthew Broderick, as one of the “latest games” his character downloads from the hacked servers of the an un-named computer company.
At the time I thought this was a fantastic idea, and wanted to make me build my own computer to play arcade games, it’s only 30 years later that I actually managed it with my MAME project.
Looking back the idea of downloading a game from a remote computer to play at home was like witchcraft, whereas 30 years later you can do it on your mobile phone. Back then Matthew Broderick needed his own computer and a dial-up modem with an acoustic coupler, all very exotic stuff.

Home versions

Galaga Konami NES version screenshot
Galaga NES Version

Galaga was released on number of home consoles and computers, the most notable being the Atari 7800 and NES versions, as well as a later port to the Gameboy, where it was bundled with Galaxians.  Modern consoles can access Galaga through the Namco Museum compilations, and it has also had the iPhone treatment as part of Galaga 30th Anniversary Collection,  which is available as a free download from the iTunes store.

Of all the home versions I would have to go with the NES release as being the most faithful.  Despite playing all of the recent conversions and compilations I can’t recreate the feeling of playing Galaga on an upright machine, so when I am in need of a fix I will head back to my MAME cabinet, which takes me all the way back to the summer of 1981.

Snow Bros. Nick and Tom Retro Arcade Review

There are some games which I hesitate to write about, as they are so good I just don’t feel I will do justice to them, and I put them off to another day. On this list would be the original Star Wars arcade game, as well as the classic Track & Field, neither of which I am quite ready to tackle. Snow Bros may not be as well known as these games, but until now it was also on my list.

Snow Bros. Arcade Screenshot
Snow Bros. was released by Toaplan in 1990, whilst I was at University, and my first experience was playing in the basement of the Student Union. My first thought was that the game was very similar to Bubble Bobble, with the bubbles being replaced with snowballs. My second thought was that I may have to ditch my afternoon lecture on microprocessors to play this game, it was that good. 20 years later and I am still playing Snow Bros, now on my recently completed MAME cabinet, and a recent late night game session prompted me to finally write this retro review.

Snow Bros Arcade Marquee

Snow Bros is a platform game starring two brothers, Nick and Tom, whose mission is to rid the world of monsters, using the power of snow. Each level, which features different platform and monster combinations, requires you to destroy all of the enemies in order to progress to the next. Your Snow Brother achieves this by throwing snow at the monsters until they turn into snowballs, incapacitating them for a period of time. Kick the snowball, and it bounces around the screen and destroys the monster when it reaches the bottom, as well as killing any other monsters it encounters along the way.

The trick with Snow Bros is to turn as many monsters into snowballs as you can, without kicking them, and then kick one at the top of the screen to destroy all of the monsters on the way down. This generates a big bonus, in the form of currency which drop from the top of the screen and need to be collected quickly before the level ends.

There are various monsters to be found as you progress, each with different characteristics, requiring different approaches to destroy:

  • Red monsters can move around the screen in the same way as the Snow Bros, and can only kill you by touching you
  • Yellow monsters can run on all fours and move quicker than Red Monsters, killing you on contact
  • Green monsters move slowly but breath fire, which can kill you from long distances
  • Blue monsters spin like mini-tornados, and can move through platforms and attack you directly

Take too long to clear the screen, and you will be attacked by an invincible pumpkin-head monster, which can only be slowed down with snow, not destroyed.

Destroying monsters gives you bonuses which come in two forms, either a piece of sushi for extra points, or a bonus potion that will give you extra powers, including faster movement, big snowballs and increased throwing range. A green bottle provides a special bonus, where your snow brother inflates like a balloon and whizzes around the screen killing everything he comes into contact with.

At the end of every 10 levels, which in classic Donkey Kong style, progress upwards, you will encounter a boss. These boss levels provide a break from the platform levels, and take some time to work out. There are 5 bosses to be beaten across the 50 levels in the game, including a giant lizard, a big pink head, and a pair of yellow birds, who can be destroyed by turning their weapons back on them. Each boss will have a different projectile to throw at you, and by turning these into snowballs, they can be kicked at the boss to cause damage, indicated by a health bar at the top of the screen.

Like many classic platformers, there are multiple ways to complete Snow Bros, and developing the optimum approach for each screen is part of the challenge if you want to progress to latter stages. Even then, this game is going to take some beating, with later levels a veritable minefield of enemies approaching you from all angles.

Home Conversions

Snow Bros for the Megadrive

Few home conversions were made for this game, but there were good versions produced for the NES and the Sega Megadrive (Genesis), with the Sega version being the most authentic. There was also a version for the Gameboy that is worth a play.

Returning to the game now, I instinctively repeat the tactics learned on and off over twenty years, almost on auto-pilot, until I get to level 20 and above, when all tactics go out of the window and I switch to survival mode.

Snow Bros. may have caused me to miss a few university lectures, possibly cost me a grade or two, but it was worth it.

Strider Arcade Retro Review

Strider Hiryu – Capcom’s Arcade Hero

My first introduction to Capcom’s Strider was not through the arcade cabinet, but the excellent Megadrive port, which was like nothing I had seen before, with it’s huge sprites and fantastically varied levels and incredible bosses – it was an arcade revelation.  At it’s heart, Strider is a side scrolling beat-em-up, but that simple description does the game a huge injustice.

Strider - mechanical monkey
One of the more impressive bosses
Set in a futuristic world, your “Strider” Hiryu must leap and slash his way through 5 levels in order to defeat the evil Meio, whose army has taken control of several European states.  The mission begins with Hiryu flying in on his hang-glider, before he leaps into action in the first level, a Russia themed location.  The first thing that grabs you is the size of the characters and the detailed animation, with Hiryu able to leap directly upwards, or cartwheel left of right.  He can also grip onto platforms above him, grappling across chasms, and perform a sliding tackle move.  His main weapon is a light sabre that is used to perform rapid slash movements to dispatch enemies.

To help Strider Hiryu on his way, various power-ups can be obtained including wingmen in the form of a small robot, a big metallic cat and a mechanical hawk, each of which feature their own special moves and animations.

Stride Arcade Hill Section
Strider Arcade – Hill Section

The five levels include the Russian location, snowy Siberia, a flying warship, the jungle of the Amazon and finally Meio’s Moonbase.  Each level is distinctly different in terms of the format, the enemies and tactics required to complete, and within each level there are mini-bosses, as well as end of level bosses, depicted using hugely detailed sprites.  Stand out bosses include a terminator-style mechanical gorilla with a huge reach, and a looping snake monster that needs to be beaten by jumping on it back.

Strider Megadrive / Genesis Console Conversion

One thing you realise very quickly is that it is HARD.  Strider only has 5 levels, but to see all of them will have cost you a few 10p pieces back in the arcade, as death was frequent and certain points in the game were very tough to navigate.  Thankfully the Megadrive port was incredibly faithful to the arcade orginal, and allowed you to perfect your technique without costing you a fortune. In fact the console conversion was so good it made it into my list of Top 10 Megadrive / Genesis Games.If you haven’t had the chance to play Strider, I recommend this is the best way of sampling one of CAPCOM’s finest games and a real retro classic that represents the pinnacle of 2D arcade gaming.

Strider 3 – the Return of Strider Hiryu on PS4 and Xbox One

Due to the popularity of the original Strider games, the series received a reboot in 2014, entitled simply Strider, but for the purposes of this article I’d call it Strider 3. The game was launched for the latest XBOX One and Playstation 4 platforms, as well as the last generation XBOX and PS3, and followed the original Strider story, as Hiryu battles against the evil Grandmaster Meio.

I’ve yet to play this version, but it’s on my growing list, and it will be interesting to compare this version of the Strider universe with the fantastic arcade original.

Thanks to The Games Shed for recording this video specially for me, please pay the shed a visit at

Missile Command Retro arcade review

In the early 80’s we were at the height of the nuclear arms race, and the Doomsday clock representing our proximity to a nuclear war between the west and the Soviet Union was at 11:57. Released at the start of the escalation in 1980, Missile Command was a game that came to symbolise that arms race, painting a bleak picture of our chances should the war ever happen.

Missile Command Arcade by Atari
Missile Command by Atari

Charged with control of three anti-missile bunkers, your mission was to defend 6 cities at the bottom of the screen from attack by missiles raining down from the top. This classic arcade game from Atari was one of the first to feature a trackball, a kind of large upside-down mouse wheel, as opposed to the usual joystick control.

You had 3 missile bases from which to launch counter-measures, which destroyed the missiles in mid flight before they could hit your cities, with each missile base having it’s own fire button.

The cursor on the screen controlled where your counter measure would strike, and you had to time firing to ensure the explosion caught the incoming missile in it’s halo.

Careful tactics were required to prevent using up your limited supply of ammo, so timing a shot to take out more than one missile was key to getting to the higher levels of the game. You could also allow a missile to strike a destroyed city and conserve your arsenal.

Destroying all missiles in a wave and keeping at least one city alive would allow you to progress to the next, faster wave. There was no end to the game, just ever faster and more agressive missile attacks, resulting in some frantic trackball spinning.


One of those simple but maddeningly addictive games, it was transferred to home consoles but never quite the same without the speed and accuracy of the trackball.  One of the most successful conversions, despite the blocky graphics and lack of a trackball was the Atari 2600 conversion, which was remarkably playable and captured the essence of the original.  It also featured some great box art, with evocative images of the missile launch control.

More recently the game has been recreated for iPad and iPhone as part of Atari’s Greatest Hits, but is spoiled by the touch screen controls, and only really playable using a bluetooth controller (see my review of the iCade controller).

A great game that sadly is no longer playable in its original form as most working cabinets are now in the hands of private collectors, and finding one in an arcade is very unlikely, at least in the UK.

Battlezone retro arcade game review

Battlezone: The Original Tank Game

Battlezone was a truly unforgettable game from the early days of the arcades, that saw you in control of a tank in a 3D battle against enemy vehicles and space ships, set in a dali-esque landscape of cubes and pyramids.

Battlezone Arcade Screenshot
Battlezone Arcade Screenshot
Battlezone used wireframe vector graphics technology, the same technology that was used in the classic Asteroids, and perfected in the original Star Wars Arcade game. Rather than using a matrix of dots on the screen to make up an image, as used in more common “raster” screen technology, vector screens drew lines directly onto the screen using the cathode ray. The phosphor on the screen glowed just long enough for the line to appear solid and the ray had a chance to redraw the next frame, hence the slight flicker associated with the technology. Due to framerate issues it was impossible to draw solid blocks of colour, hence the characteristic wireframe look to all vector games.

Whereas Asteroids was a 2D experience, Battlezone cretaed a 3D world where objects were continually redrawn based on the relative position of the tank, allowing you to drive towards and past them. Through clever use of parallax scrolling, where wireframe 3D objects in the foreground moved at different speeds to the mountains in the background, the Battlezone playfield also had a sense of depth and distance.

Battlezone Arcade Cabinet
Battlezone Arcade Cabinet

The control system was unique in that you had two parallel joysticks which controlled the two tank tracks, so pushing both forwards moved you forwards, push one to turn left or right, or opposite ways for a fast turn. The cabinet also featured a periscope-like hole through which you viewed the screen. This combined with the 3d had the effect of making the game very immersive, for a while you really were driving a tank.

The trick was to use the terrain to hide behind objects whilst waiting for the enemy to drift into your sights. To help with positioning you had a radar that showed the location of enemies, and due to the slow pace of the tanks, you often found yourself in a race with your opponent to rotate to the correct firing position and get your shot in first – too early on the trigger and you might miss, too late and you would be hit. Being shot yourself resulted in your tank being destroyed, indicated by an explosion and the screen being “cracked”, much better than just saying “game over”.

Reputedly used by the American military for tank training, this game was an instant classic and was converted into home ports for the Atari 2600 and also for PC (DOS) amongst others. I recently downloaded a great ipad port called VectorTankX which is well worth checking out.

Dec 2011 – Atari did eventually notice the similarity between Battlezone and the VectoTankX game, and have had it removed from the ipad store. Shame as this was a great app.

Gradius (aka Nemesis) arcade retro review

Gradius Nemesis Arcade Game
Gradius Nemesis Arcade Game

Gradius Origins

The local arcade near the station where I grew up had a Gradius machine (aka Nemesis), and it was my first experience of a shooter which I had to “learn”. My previous favourites, Galaxians, Galaga, Phoenix etc. all had simple patterns and no power ups, and so were very easy to pick up and you played them more instinctively than by learning movement patterns. Although Phoenix did have a rudimentary end of level challenge, Gradius was also my fist experience of shooters with multiple bosses, that could only be beaten with regular practise and a lot of 10 pence pieces.

Gradius was a side scrolling shooter that like R-Type, had an organic feel, with a mechanical / biological enemies and architecture, including Easter Island heads and flaming dragons. It also had a power up system, but unlike R-Type, was controlled by the user with a novel risk / reward system. By picking up power-up cells, a bar at the bottom of the screen would light up the next power up in the list, starting with speed up, and later lasers, missiles, bombs and a force field. You can select the power up lit, or wait for the next power up which left your ship vulnerable for a while but gave you greater power. Some screens required specific powers, such as the laser for clearing a path on the screen, or homing missiles to clear gun turrets at the top and bottom of the screen, and this added to the challenge.

Playing Gradius

Knowing where to place the ship during certain stages, when to power up, and how to defeat the bosses meant that Gradius required many hours of practise to master. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that your powers were all removed when your ship was destroyed, and in many of the later stages this resulted in certain death due to the time taken to level up again.


Gradius Home Conversions

Gradius NES Box Art
Gradius NES Box Art

This difficulty level resulted in one of the most famous cheat codes being implemented in certain home versions, the so called “Konami Code”, which was added by a programmer to help with testing, by giving the player full power ups whilst the game is paused. If you have a NES version of the game, try entering “UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, LEFT, RIGHT, RIGHT, B, A. Also well known for the hilarious sequel “Parodius” (Parody + Gradius) which replaced ships and aliens with flying pigs and scantily clad women bosses, and even later sequel “Sexy Parodius” which just had more naked women.

One conversion that shouldn’t work but somehow manages it is on the origibal Gameboy.  Given the basic screen resolution and monochrome graphics, a complex games such as Gradius would seem impossible, but Konami pull it off.   If you have an original Gameboy I highly recommend the Gradius cart.

Less popular than R-Type, possibly due to the level of difficulty and the investment required to master, but a great shooter worth investigating if you didn’t the first time around.