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Galaga Legions DX review: Identity crisis

Jordan Mallory

When it was originally released in 1981, Galaga set the bar for top-down shooters. Having improved on Galaxian's original design, the game revolutionized the genre, found multinational success, and has since been ported to over 21 different consoles, spawning four sequels along the way. Galaga is one of the forefathers of modern shooters, and is arguably one of the most important games of all time.

Namco Bandai's Galaga Legions DX is the latest addition to the legacy, and despite small nostalgic touches scattered throughout the UI, the game eschews the majority of its heritage and forges a path between two strikingly different genres of contemporary shooters: "Twin-stick" and "bullet-hell." The result is, sadly, a bit of a mess.

Gallery: Galaga Legions DX (E3 2011) | 12 Photos

For some reason that's never mentioned or explained, you must pilot a ship through what is apparently space and destroy the Galaga; giant space-faring-space-bugs from... uh, space. Galaga DX is a modern interpretation of a relic from a time when games needed quarters, not explanations, so this lack of context and story can be forgiven. You've got lasers, there are bugs, go shoot 'em. It's not that complicated.

Your ship has two firing modes controlled by the right thumb-stick: "Focus Fire" and "Diffuse Fire," which use your ship's satellite cannons to deliver lasers to bugs. The Galaga (Galagas? Galagi? Galagagag?) attack your ship in enormous, scripted formations, and rely on the sheer volume of their species to bring about your destruction. Exploding a squadron's leader will automatically destroy the fleet, so gameplay consists entirely of memorizing and recognizing Galaga formations in order to learn the quickest, most effective way to reach and destroy the leaders.

On paper, this sounds like a pretty solid recipe for shooter success. The end result, however, is half-baked. Galaga DX's main problem is that it tries to split the difference between twin-stick shooters and bullet-hell shooters. As it turns out, the King Solomon school of game design isn't that great of an idea.

Twin-stick games are thrilling because they're frantic and unpredictable; and while the experience provides the illusion of frantic action, that's all it is: An illusion. Once you realize that every squad formation has a "correct" way of being solved, and worse still, that you fight the same patterns every playthough, you may as well have no control over your satellites at all.

Galaga DX's shortcoming in emulating the bullet-hell genre is much more pedantic: By replacing bullets with bugs, Namco Bandai has betrayed the core principles of the genre. Bullet-hell games are about stress, and tension, and the relief and elation you get from successfully navigating a seemingly impossible barrage of enemy fire. They're about immediate and ever-present death, more than anything, which simply doesn't exist here. By replacing something deadly (bullets) with something that can be easily neutralized (space-bugs), Namco Bandai has removed the danger that typically defines the experience. All you're left with is patterns, and patterns aren't fun if they require very little skill to overcome.

This game is a frustrating experience -- not because it's difficult, which it isn't, but because it's a mechanically excellent game ruined by flawed game design. Individually, everything checks out: The graphics are gorgeous, the ship's controls are crisp and responsive, and the soundtrack is tastefully nostalgic in just the right way. The UI even lets you replace the new sprites with classic sprite "themes," so you can play Galaga while you play Galaga.

These superb touches only serve as a reminder of how good the game could have been, and how thoroughly its been spoiled by its one defining flaw: It tries to find a happy medium between two genres, but sadly fails to capture the essence of either.
This review is based on a retail version of Galaga Legions DX for XBLA provided by Namco Bandai.

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