Galaxy Force is the ultimate culmination of Sega's Super Scaler series, developed for their System Y board in 1988. While the practice of using 2D bitmaps to simulate 3D has long become passe, this game manages to impress even decades after its release.
Not only is Galaxy Force is essentially "After Burner in space", but it also bridges the gap between Sega's older Super Scaler games and later, fully 3D rail shooters like Panzer Dragoon and Rez. Taking control of the spaceship Try-Z through six levels as you fight against an organization known as The Fourth Empire, you have two primary weapons - a rapid fire Vulcan cannon of limited use, and a much more powerful homing missile loadout, which can lock on to enemies if you target them with your cursor. Beyond that, though, are several tweaks to the formula. In After Burner, your range of motion was constrained to a fairly small box, but in Galaxy Force your movement is much less constrained. You're still flying forward on a set of rails, but you can veer off the sides a bit, plus it's much easier to dodge. It feels like you're more involved with the piloting of the ship instead of just watching scenery fly by. It's also paced signicantly slower, so it's a fair bit less chaotic. The missiles work a bit differently, in that you can lock onto multiple enemies, and fire at them all at once. You also have an unlimited supply of missiles, making them the go-to weapon in most cases.
Rather than flying over largely empty expanses of terrain, there's also a great concentration on level design. Most stages are divided into two areas - an outside area, and an interior "fortress" stage. In the the latter, you fly through caves and tunnels, an evolution of the canyon areas from After Burner. Each stage climaxes with a brief siege on a central core, which go down without any major fight. It's clear from the first stage that Galaxy Force was heavily inspired by the final battle against the Death Star in Return of the Jedi.
There are other subtle Star Wars references too, which go to point out how impressive this game looked, especially back in 1988. Shortly after you're launched out of your carrier for your first mission, a gigantic, long length crusier sneaks up from behind. Like everything else in the super scaler universe, it's just the same image stacked over itself multiple times, but due to the impressive visual trickery, it actually looks something like an Imperial Star Destroyer, albeit on a smaller scale. Similarly, when you fly through an asteroid field, the sprites are layered in a way that it actually looks like a fully 3D object, even though it isn't.
The graphics design, as you'd expect from Sega, never fails to impress. Each stage has a unique theme, ranging from the asteroid belt in the first stage, the lava and solar flares in the second, the jungles and waterfalls of the third, and the numerous devastating tornadoes of the forth. The final level also gets trippy, with tunnels featuring weaving expanses of colors and other bits of visual craziness that are meant to represent hyperspace. The music, as expected of Sega, is quite classy. The melodies of the most of the songs aren't terribly notable, but they all have really awesome bass lines, courtesy of some very high quality guitar samples, which gives the soundtrack a funkier texture than most other Sega arcade games. It was composed by Funky K.H. (Katsuhiro Hayashi) and Pritty K.N. (Kouichi Namaki), who also worked on Thunder Blade, which has some similarities to this soundtrack.
You can choose which of the five planets to begin your sortie, although they play out in a determined order from there. After conquering all of them, you can play the sixth and final stage. There are no power-ups, except for an attachment which will automatically merge with your fighter partway through the stage, allowing you to shoot more missiles at once.
Galaxy Force's biggest fault, moreso than most of Sega's other arcade games, is that it presents itself more as an amusement ride than a game. Many of their games featured cabinets that would sway back and forth as you pilot the ship, and Galaxy Force is no different. However, it is also much more transparent about milking as much money from the player as possible, due to the "ENERGY" meter at the bottom of the screen. You begin with 1200 points, which quickly counts down from the moment you launch. Additionally, although you begin with a shield, it'll disappear after a few hits, with all further damage deducting from the energy total. There are ways to mitigate the loss - accelerating in order to reach the end quicker, or killing as many enemies as possible to get a higher energy bonus, rewarded at various points through stages. But unless you play a nearly perfect game, the countdown is so quick that it's incredibly difficult to recoup your losses, and the net result is a game that's limited to a few minutes of play per credit. In the overseas release, you can easily continue from where you left off by pumping in more credits - at least, up until the last level - but the Japanese version forbids continuing at all. Regardless, even divorced from the motion-control cabinet it was meant to be played in, Galaxy Force II is still an incredibly impressive feat of programming, a work of art in its own unique way.
Most instances of the game are known as "Galaxy Force II". Much like After Burner, the numeral indicates an enhanced version, rather than a true sequel - it's more like Galaxy Force 2.0 than anything, thereby making the original version redundant. The first Galaxy Force was only on the market in Japan for two months before superseceded by this conversion kit. The number of levels was expanded from four to six, and each level was expanded and rebalanced, with all levels (except for the first) comprosing of two exterior and two interior scenes each. It also lets you fire all four missiles in a single button press, rather than firing individually like After Burner.
There are three different cabinet types - a standard upright cabinet, and two full sit-down cabinets that tilt side-to-side, known as the Deluxe Edition and Super Deluxe Edition. They are mighty impressive, especially the Super Deluxe version, which could rotate back and forth up to 335 degrees, and even tip forwards and backwards at 15 degrees. The Super Deluxe cabinets even had headphone jacks so the player could isolate themselves from the rest of the arcade and get lost in the sights and sounds of Galaxy Force. The Deluxe cabinets reportedly cost about 3.3 million yen, while the Super Deluxe cost about 5 million yen (about $26,000 and $40,000 in 1988 US dollars, respectively). Like most gigantic cabinets with moving parts, they were prone to failure, but when they worked, they were (and still are, if you can find one), incredible.
Deluxe and Super Deluxe Cabinets
Alas, most games tend to be more well known for their home ports rather than arcade originals, which tends to reflect badly on Galaxy Force. The System Y was simply far too powerful to be even remotely replicated on any console at the time, resulting in ports that were at best heavily compromised and at worst largely terrible. A major factor in all of the home versions though - since they're naturally less dependent on squeezing money from the player, the energy drainage is not as quick, and you regain substantially more after each level.
For a long time, the best version was released for the FM Towns computer, compatible with the Marty console system, which was only released in Japan. Ported by CRI, it looks and feels reasonably close to the arcade version, since the system was much more powerful than any other console at the time, but it's not without some downgrades. It runs in a window that takes up about 75% of the screen, plus the action isn't quite as smooth, often slowing down or causing sprite flickering. Some bits of detail have been scaled back - for example, the number of robots found in the second part of the first stage has been greatly reduced. The branching paths in the tunnels are also gone. Still, it's far better than the other versions at the time, and includes a fully redbook audio soundtrack with some cool remixed music.
Galaxy Force - Genesis
CRI also developed the Genesis version, which is far more regrettable. The system couldn't even replicate System 16 super scaler games like After Burner or OutRun, so what hope could it have for Galaxy Force II? Since the system doesn't support sprite scaling, instead it uses a set of sprites, each draw at specific distances, which is incredibly choppy in motion. Most of the obstacles and enemies have been removed. The tunnel stages are done entirely with rolling rasters, with only two colors, and it looks really, really awful. Due to the lack of buttons, the guns are on auto-fire by default, with the remaining buttons used to control speed and fire missiles. About the only thing that survived intact is the soundtrack, otherwise the game is barely playable. Unfortunately this is the version with the widest distribution, so it's the one that most American gamers think of when they hear of Galaxy Force.
Galaxy Force - SMS
The Sega Master System, being an 8-bit system, obviously had even less of a chance to replicate the game, so the developers at Sega took the wiser route and redesigned everything to make it more suitable to the platform. It was released under the title Galaxy Force, ditching the numeral from most other home ports. It did not receive a Japanese release - Sega published it in Europe while Activision handled the duties in North America.
In many ways, this port is similar to Konami's 1988 Famicom Disk System game Falsion. In general, the game controls a little more like Space Harrier than After Burner. Most of the obstacles have been changed to a series of waves or obstacles that recur through the stage, until you reach the tunnel areas. The action is actually quite a bit faster, especially on NTSC machines, though the animation is predictably very choppy. It's manageable in the exterior segments, although the interior segments are much more difficult, since it's hard to make turns properly without under or oversteering. Still, since these are animated using sprites rather than rolling rasters, at least it looks nicer than the Genesis version. There are some other changes and niceties - the pre-level launch sequences are now brief cutscenes, which actually look nicer than most of the other home ports. The Energy meter is completely gone, meaining there's no more timer instead your ship's integrity relies totally on your shield. The speed controls are gone too, with the two main buttons used for the gun and missiles. It's also missing the fifth stage. Though the game was not released in Japan, it supports the system's FM unit, which was not available in other region's consoles.
Galaxy Force - Commodore 64
The various home computer ports generally don't stack up to the console versions. In addition to being slower and choppier, they are played in a small window, with large status bars taking up most of the screen. The ZX Spectrum plays alright, if expectably very slow and choppy and even the music is fairly okay, but since the sprites are all transparent outlines, everything ends up blending in together. The landscapes are also rendered as checkerboards, similar to Space Harrier. The Amstrad version is similar but substantially more colorful, and uses rolling rasters. However, there's no music, and enemies have a nasty tendency to bump right into your back. The Commodore 64 version moves way too quickly, leaving everything as an incomprehensible mess of color. The music is decent though, and the "PENETRATE FORTRESS" and "POWER UP" messages in gigantic letters are amusing.
The Amiga port is comparable to the Genesis port, expect for smaller sprites, and a window that takes up roughly 2/3rds of the screen. It runs a little bit faster but is still fairly choppy. While the floors and ceilings are the fortresses are rolling rasters, the walls are displayed using a sprite stretching effect, so these areas look a little less barren. Unfortunately, your ship controls too slowly, and you really need to pay attention to the speed of your ship in order to make turns.
Galaxy Force II got another shot on home consoles in 1998, published as part of the Sega Ages line for the Saturn in Japan. Ported by Appaloosa Entertainment, it's better than any of the other previous conversions, but the frame rate is capped at 30 FPS (rather than the 60 FPS of the arcade) and still slows down here and there. The only extras are in the form of some background story (in Japanese) and the option to sit back and watch a pre-recorded playthrough of the whole game. The music is all straight from the arcade version.
In 2007, Galaxy Force II was ported yet again, this time to the PlayStation 2 as part of their Sega Ages 2500 budget line. Its full title is Galaxy Force II: Special Extended Edition. Developed by emulation wizards M2, this compilation includes a completely perfect port of the original arcade game, in addition to the Genesis and Master System ports. More importantly, M2 went above and beyond the call of duty by adding a new Neo Classic mode, which features smoothed out graphics, transparencies, and other graphical effects. They don't seem to be completely redrawn, and they're still pixellated, but it's still superior to the arcade version, even though it still suffers from the same pop up due to its erratic draw distance. The best addition is the addition of a widescreen mode, which makes the original game seemed horribly cramped by comparison. You're also given the option of listening to an emulated version of the arcade soundtrack, a streamed recording of the arcade soundtrack, or the arranged soundtrack from the FM Towns port. There's also a brand new (somewhat lousy) arrangement of the main theme. This completely satisifies any of the qualms regarding sound quality in previous Ages releases.
Neo Classic also has a built-in cheat menu that lets you tinker with the amount of Energy you start with,. To activate this, bring up the menu, highlight "Option", hold Right on the d-pad for three seconds until you hear a chime, then hold Left for another three seconds until you hear another chime. Enter the Options screen and you'll find the Extended Option menu, which will allow you to change your starting energy. The default for the arcade version is 1200. If you set it to 2500 and hold Right until you hear the chime, you can set it to 9999.