“This game is from 198-what?” That approximates the first thought to enter my head when I booted up Galaxy Force II and watched it run through the first stage during its attract mode demo.
As a kid growing up without much access to arcades, I guess I’d just never been exposed to what you can really do with sprites when you throw enough raw processing power at them. By the time consoles got to that level, they had largely switched gears to the polygons of early “true” 3D rendering. Nintendo’s Mode 7 had given us a taste of the special effects and pseudo-3D trickery that could be achieved by smoothly scaling bitmap graphics, but the SNES just didn’t have the cycles to apply it to dozens, never mind hundreds, of sprites at once.
Sega’s “Y Board” arcade hardware was essentially three 68k processors taped together, but that was plenty to drive scores of sprites on multiple layers each with independent rotation and scaling. By this point Sega was already quite familiar with the technique of simulating forward motion through a 3D environment using sprites as seen in Space Harrier and After Burner; with Galaxy Force they used their newest arcade board to push the idea to its limits.
The result is a series of lush environments that you’d hardly believe relied solely on sprites if it weren’t for the pixellation when you get close. Tropical oceans, volcanic wastelands, fluffy clouds, and enormous battleships all stream past smoothly, with a level of lush texture and detail that wouldn’t be possible with polygonal graphics for many years to come. Over all this fly hordes of enemies and projectiles, as well as multi-sprite monsters and dynamic obstacles. It does occasionally get a bit overwhelming, with the pixels of detailed contrails and explosions mingling with the pixels of detailed corridor walls and enemy turrets until you’re not quite sure where you’re going, but for the most part it all sorts itself out in motion.
As far as gameplay goes, it does suffer a bit in an archival state—this is a game that was clearly designed for custom cabinets. In fact, it was released in multiple models at varying price points, some of which had seats that could tilt or swivel for that visceral piloting experience. More important, though, was a nice chunky flight-stick for the somewhat touchy analog controls. Piloting with a keyboard or mouse is doable, but barely—not so bad for the early, open levels but downright painful in some of the tight interior corridors that appear later on.
Speaking of later on, the game’s structure proves alternately forgiving and ruthless. You can play the first five stages in any order, and continue as much as you like (quarters permitting), but each one must be completed before facing the final stage, in which a single death spells a non-negotiable game over. As such, it may actually be wise to intentionally die shortly before the end of the penultimate stage, just to have maximum power heading into that final, acid-trip-tinged gauntlet.
Article by Ben Elgin
GameSpite Journal 12: Galaxy Force II