There is perhaps one game which influenced video game hardware more than any other: Galaxian. It was not the first game to be in color or the first game to use sprites, but its method of implementing these things at the hardware level created a standard for what we recognize as ‘pixel art’ today. With this one accomplishment, Namco cemented itself as one of the most influential companies in video game history. Without the Galaxian sprite system we may not have gotten the NES, so that makes a big impact all on its own.
The best lens from which to view the innovations of Galaxian is by looking at Namco’s prior hardware system, colloquially known as the Namco 8080. This solution powered Gee Bee, Cutie Q, Bomb Bee, etc. While highly unusual in its time for hardware generally, it was nothing unique as far as video game graphics were concerned. The objects had two potential colors, could be stored in ROM, and were drawn to the screen with a standard framebuffer first pioneered in Dave Nutting Associates’ Gun Fight. In this method of drawing, all the graphics are treated the same, drawn with the same scanning down the entirety of the screen on a single CPU.
What made Galaxian different? Instead of simply parceling out sprites as part of the entirety of the screen, these pictures were given their own dedicated spot in the circuitry. Each sprite was drawn in its own isolated bitmap independently of the rest of the screen. This way, an object could be placed anywhere on screen without having to be “racing the beam” to be completely drawn by the CPU each time it was necessary. Even better, the Galaxian sprites could hold up to four different colors with up to 15 of them per line. Video game worlds could be more detailed and alive than ever before.
While hardware was going to inevitably advance, the particular way that Galaxian signaled a leap forwards for the way games could look changed the industry just as quickly as Space Invaders, and for many of the same reasons. It’s little known that in Japan, Taito found itself entirely outpaced with the success on their hands. Having far more demand than they could supply, the company would sublicense the manufacturing of Space Invaders to smaller Japanese game makers with idle factories, creating official Space Invaders clones. The same thing happened with Galaxian.
Namco had never experienced a hit on the scale of Galaxian before. They were a small company at the time, relatively speaking, having only just entered into video games. As such, they followed a successful strategy which had been used not only with Space Invaders but also Sega’s Head-On earlier in the year. When Namco had released Breakout, they found themselves outmatched by clone manufacturers who updated the game to run on early CPU hardware. Now, Namco went to some of those same companies to fulfill orders for Galaxian.
These companies included the bigwigs, Taito and Sega, but they too went to the smaller manufacturers. Among them were Nichibitsu, Irem, and Konami. All of these companies had started in video games making Breakout style games and all of them would take their experience manufacturing Galaxian to heart. While there was no particular indication that they could use the basic hardware in their own creations, imitation of the Galaxian board would become a cornerstone of the Japanese video game industry from that point forward.
Immediately after the first Galaxian sublicenses appeared, games which built on the Z80-based sprite system used in that game quickly followed. Nichibitsu’s Moon Alien Part 2 and Irem’s Uniwars were more or less simple palette swaps, but steadily these licensees began to explore their own takes with this new hardware. Nichibitsu had Moon Cresta, Konami had The End, and Taito would release Phoenix, all minor upgrades to the concept and hardware. Usually the improvement would be small, such as adding a dedicated soundchip (which Namco was also soon to do with their 1980 line-up, including Pac-Man).
By 1981, the baseline for Japanese games became defined by Galaxian. Scramble from Konami opened new doors into the expansiveness of video game worlds – only hinted at in Galaxian’s scrolling starfield. SNK’s Vanguard built on this new mode with a large emphasis on stylized presentation. Even Namco would extend the hardware into the greatly expanded Galaga and Bosconian, all influenced by the style and appearance of their past work.
Hardware projects which did not directly imitate the Galaxian board were nevertheless greatly influenced by what had first been seen in 1979. Nintendo in creating their similar Radarscope hardware which would power Donkey Kong drew a ground for capability from this source. Sega’s G80 behind 005 and Astro Blaster had an identical screen resolution despite featuring all around upgraded hardware. The size at which people would accept the blocky 8×8 or 16×16 sprites had been established.
Artists were liberated and constrained by the new focus on individual sprite objects. While one could overcome limitations such as size, color depth, and uneven borders by mounting up blocks in an unusual order, the incentive to create small objects sitting in the center of an 8×8 space would dictate the visuals of video games for many years to come. This did also call on artists to increase definition of their designs with bolder colors. On the whole, this would be a positive movement, as it established the visual movement today known as pixel art.
So what was Galaxian’s legacy? While it is possible to find examples of games which did look more technologically advanced at the time it was released, Galaxian established a bar for what video games could look like which was achievable for those video game companies who hadn’t the capability to make something majorly impressive. It also assisted in allowing the roles in game design to become separate. No wonder Toru Iwatani could spend his time designing the characters of Pac-Man when he didn’t have to double duty on creating the tools to display it at the same time. This was a liberating concept, and also allowed for games to be prototyped quicker with rudimentary art already pre-defined in the hardware. No guesswork on how much processing time would be needed to draw a sprite.
For these reasons, the Galaxians were the true lasting conquerors of the arcade.
Main sources are System 16, Sega Retro, and Codex Gamicus for technical information as well as それは『ポン』から始まった and アーケードTVゲームリスト 国内•海外編 (1971-2005) by Masami Akagi.