Galaga – 30th Anniversary Developer Interview

Galaga – 30th Anniversary Developer Interview

This interview with Galaga creator and design Shigeru Yokoyama offers a unique look at the making of this arcade classic, early development at Namco, and the storied “golden age” of arcades in general. It was originally featured on the Galaga 30th Anniversary webpage in 2011. I’ve also included a short Galaxian interview with designer Kazunori Sawano. Conducted in 1985, it reads as a nice coda 30 years later.

—How did Galaga come to be?

Yokoyama: Namco’s first game was Gee Bee, and after that we released Galaxian. Then there was Pac-Man, of course. We produced an especially huge number of Galaxian pcbs, so it was decided that our next games should use the Galaxian pcb hardware too. The first in this line was King & Balloon. After this, because there were still so many Galaxian and King & Balloon pcbs circulating, we again used the Galaxian hardware, but this time to create another “space game”—and that turned out to be Galaga.

—So Galaga was originally going to use the Galaxian hardware?

Yokoyama: Yes, the project began on that premise, and we completed a partially-complete prototype, but Ishimura from Research and Development, who was responsible for our hardware, decided we should use a new board. Then we went back to square one and planned a new game, and that is the Galaga we know today. But yeah, that’s the history behind it.

—It sounds like Galaga had been planned for awhile then?

Yokoyama: Not really. It really all happened over a short span of time. After completing our previous game, we had the initial plans done for Galaga in less than two months, I think.

Shigeru Yokoyama

—You said your first conception of Galaga was a “space game”; you weren’t considering it as a straight sequel to Galaxian?

Yokoyama: Well, we didn’t have any explicit instructions to create a game like Galaxian. However, at the time, other companies were creating their own Galaxian knock-offs, but since Galaxian, Namco had been busy pursuing other avenues via games like Pac-Man and Rally X. And management had expressed a clear desire to us that we make “one more game like Galaxian”, so we took up the challenge.

—Did you study Galaxian much in preparation for making Galaga?

Yokoyama: At the time, I was the best video game player at Namco. When I was a student I played a ton of Space Invaders, and I was legitimately good. At the office it was always me sitting in front of the Galaxian cab. (laughs)

—I feel like your experience there is clearly reflected in Galaga. There’s a number of things that Galaga seems to have inherited from Galaxian, like how when you kill a boss galaga, the other enemies will stop firing for several seconds.

Yokoyama: Yeah, that is true. Another thing from Galaxian is the way the boss galagas will appear with two red guards, and if you destroy the guards before killing the boss, you get a higher score.1 That was something we added later in the development process of Galaxian. When a great player puts on a performance, you see, everyone watching goes “ooo!!” And the heart of that performance is scoring. Galaga didn’t have those elements at the start either, but we added a lot of stuff like that as we went along.

—King & Balloon is a STG game that came out before Galaga, but is there any connection between the two?

Yokoyama: King & Balloon wasn’t my idea. During the development of Galaxian, Kazunori Sawano, who oversaw game development at Namco, had another idea for a non-space STG. I acted as what you would now call a “director” on that project, and helped out with the design, but the original idea was Sawano’s.

—I see, and Galaga is the game where you did everything yourself, including the initial conception.

Yokoyama: That’s right. Unfortunately, King & Balloon used the same hardware as Galaxian, so it couldn’t do autofire.

A page from Yokoyama’s planning docs for King & Balloon.

In King & Balloon, the enemies steal the King, and that puts you in a state of panic, right? I wanted to have tons of bullets to reflect that panicked mindset, but sadly the Galaxian hardware couldn’t do that, so we settled on making the bullets faster than they had been in Galaxian. I was also told to make it autofire, but since we weren’t using sprites, we couldn’t do autofire either.

—I see, interesting. So even at this very early point in STG game history, developers were thinking about autofire. And then new hardware came along and you could add it.

Yokoyama: That’s right. With new hardware the impossible became possible.

The “Dual Fighter” Idea

—For Galaga, I understand you worked together with the programmers in coming up with the planning and design documents?

Yokoyama: Yes. First I’d write the spec sheet, making sure that what I wanted to create was technically possible for the programmers. Then the planning and game design docs would get stuffed full of all kinds of ideas… we didn’t really have planning meetings back then at Namco. If your boss, or your boss’ boss, gave you the OK, you’d just start working on it.

—In Galaga, your ship can be captured, and then rescued to be combined with your ship for double the firepower. Was that an idea you had from the beginning?

Yokoyama: No, it wasn’t.

—Was there a hint or suggestion then, that led you to it?

Yokoyama: Back then we always went through the process of creating one or two prototypes. With the first Galaga prototype, enemy formations would appear at the top of the screen, and fly down at you in patterns that were different from Galaxian. It was playable, but to be honest, it was kind of uninspired. Galaxian is all about weaving your way through the gaps of the missiles that are fired at you, but it would be boring if we just rehashed that. The first thing we tried, then, was creating enemies with a different attack style. I can’t remember the movie now, but there was one out that had these beam weapons…

—Like a tractor beam, or?

Yokoyama: Yeah, a tractor beam. Not the kind of laser that destroys things in one blast, but rather the kind you would use to capture something. I wanted something like that to capture your ship, and then you’d be able to rescue that captive some how.

—I see.

Yokoyama: At first, when you rescued your ship, it gave you an extra life, but that was just a different spin on extends, so I thought it was boring. That was when I thought of the “dual fighter” idea. Then came the question of whether to make them line up horizontally, or vertically.

Yokoyama’s original planning documents, showing the tractor beam idea.

Designing the Challenging Stage

—Vertically? That would have been amazing. (laughs) How did the special Challenging Stage come about?

Yokoyama: Well, Pac-Man had the “Pac-Man Show” intermission cutscenes, and Rally X had the Challenging Stage, so I knew Galaga was going to need some special showy feature like that. But for awhile I just couldn’t come up with anything. I was wracking my brain when our programmer Tetsu Ogawa came to me with a bug he had found, where the enemy formations would appear and then just fly off, without breaking formation. He called me over and said “I wonder if we can find a use for this?” (laughs)

—Hah, so Ogawa thought it was interesting too. (laughs)

Yokoyama: The bug also prevented the enemies from firing. I thought it would be fun to sit there and just blast away at them, so this became the Challenging Stage in Galaga. It was a product of chance.

—But it must have taken a lot of effort to work the the Challenging Stage up into something so elaborate and spectacular.

Yokoyama: At first there was only one pattern they’d fly in, which was the pattern that the bug had originally created. During the course of the development we realized we wanted this to be a game with a lot of replay value, so we decided to add more patterns. I owe a lot of that to Ogawa, who told me he could create more patterns by using some code from another program he had made. Ogawa was a talented programmer, but he also had “game sense”, and many ideas in Galaga were added by him. If I had not linked up with Ogawa, I don’t think Galaga would be half the game it was!

Sprite Design

—Were the enemy sprites something you created yourself?

Yokoyama: Yeah, just the initial conceptual image for them though. At first they didn’t look like this at all—they resembled Galaxian more. They were actually drawn by Hiroshi Ono, a designer who, from Galaga onwards, became famous for drawing these kind of sprites. He became known as “Mr. Dotman”, an authority on pixel design, but these characters were the first he made.

—How many projects were you overseeing as a planner, at the time?

Yokoyama: Around three. Galaga, which I was in charge of everything for, and then Bosconian and Dig Dug, which were left in the hands of my junior colleagues. I helped them out here and there with some of their work.

—Wow, you worked on a lot of different games at the same time. That sounds very difficult.

Yokoyama: For Galaga, I did all the planning docs myself. In contrast, I left all the planning decisions for Bosconian to my juniors. Even Ono had to do more than pixel work, so although he mainly worked as a graphic design specialist, my colleagues and I helped out by drawing some of the minor sprites.

Several of Hiroshi Ono’s favorite sprites that he made at Namco (L-R:) Mappy, Xevious, Galaga. (from a separate interview)

—Were you also the one who thought up the title “Galaga” ?

Yokoyama: No, if I remember correctly, that was actually our design section manager. He told me he wanted to have something that sounded like Galaxian, so he wanted to use “Gala” in the title. The “Ga” also reminded us of moth (蛾 [ga] in Japanese), and I heard “Galaga” has some meaning in English too. Anyway, our President Masaya Nakamura heard the name and approved it. We all really liked how it reminded us of Galaxian, and I said it was a great choice.

—Ah, the “ga” from Galaga means moth, interesting! How about the enemy names, “zako” (minion), “goei” (guard), and “bosu” (boss)?

Yokoyama: Those are just katakana spellings of the traditional names we’d been using for a long time, zako, goei, and bosu. (laughs)

—Hah, you just used them as-is. (laughs) You were saying a moment before that the dual fighter idea first came not from a consideration of the player’s firepower, but from thinking about the enemy’s attacks. That’s the first time I’ve heard that.

Yokoyama: Yeah, but there was one problem with the whole idea. We had reached the sprite limit (back then we called sprites “objects” at Namco) of the hardware. Specifically, if we had two ship sprites on a row, then it wasn’t possible for them to fire two missiles as well. Our solution was to make one 16×16 sprite for the ship and one 16×16 sprite for the missiles, thereby reducing the total sprite count by two.


—Oh, so even though it looks like you’re firing two missiles in dual fighter mode, it’s actually just one sprite? Clever!

Yokoyama: When you power up your hitbox becomes twice as big, and we didn’t really know how that would play out until we tried it ourselves. Once the feature was added, everyone at Namco who playtested it never went into dual fighter mode. They could stay alive longer with the smaller hitbox of a single ship. The tradeoff, of course, was that you could do much better in the Challenging Stage with the dual fighter.

—The key is to go into dual fighter mode right before the Challenging Stage!

Yokoyama: That’s why we made the later stages so that if you don’t kill the majority of the enemies when they fly in during the stage opening, there’s no way you’re going to survive as dual fighter.

The Galaga Cabinet and Control Panel

—Were there any difficulties on the production side, for Galaga?

Yokoyama: Once the pcb changed, we were back to square one and somewhat lost. After that, the biggest thing we argued about was the cabinet.

—The cabinet?

Yokoyama: Until Galaga, our cocktail table-style cabinets for Galaxian, Pac-Man, and others had the stick and buttons laid out vertically, flush with the cabinet siding. Galaga was a game where you would need to be firing repeatedly, and I knew the vertical layout would be awkward. The buttons themselves were really stiff and wide on the Galaxian cabinet too, and hard to use. I consulted with cabinet makers and engineers and told them to lay out the buttons horizontally, using a panel that protruded from the table.

—Wow, you had a lot of authority!

Yokoyama: They made a prototype, and when people tried it out, it readily apparent how much easier it was this way. I said we needed to change the buttons too, and we tried out a variety of different ones.

—Yeah, the buttons became lighter and easier to press from Galaga onwards.

Yokoyama: There was a lot to choose from there: heavy buttons, light buttons, the amount of spring, and durability too… we ordered a bunch and picked out the one we thought was best.

—Galaga was the first game to use a control panel with everything laid out horizontally. Did you have to change the shape of the tables too?

Yokoyama: The tables we were going to use were already on location, so there was some objection from management about how they were going to retrofit this control panel. They were complaining it would take too much time. Opinions were divided, with some people at Namco agreeing, and others refusing. I then went around to each department at Namco and let the managers try out the new control panel and see for themselves how much easier it was to play.

Top: the newer, easier to use control panel that Galaga ushered in. Below: the older style, shown here on Galaxian.

They agreed it was better and that this panel should be adopted as the new standard. However, sometime after that decision was made I got really chewed out by a furious executive: “there’s no *$#%$ way we can sell these!!!!” He told me to change it back right away, but since I now had a lot of people on my side who thought this new panel was better, we ended up using it after all. Thank goodness I won that battle!

—And ever since then, we’ve been using this layout for arcade cabinets.

Yokoyama: Well, that executive was so angry, at the time even I was wondering, “is this a good idea?” (laughs)

Challenges of the Location Test

—Were there any crazy deadlines or time limits you had to meet with Galaga?

Yokoyama: To be honest, we had zero interest in Namco’s sales or profits, so we didn’t even notice. We basically were allowed to decide the deadlines for ourselves. (laughs) As the game approached completion and the question of a sales date came up, someone else from Namco came by to check in on things, and I think that was when an actual date was set. In that sense it was the most laid back of developments.

Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, has said before that deadlines back then weren’t as strict as they are now, and that you had as much time as you needed to fine-tune and perfect the game. I think that explains why there’s so many masterpieces like Galaga from this era.

Yokoyama: Yes, I think President Nakamura’s magnanimity was a big part of it, but I think Namco could also afford us a bit of breathing room because their previous games like Galaxian and Pac-Man had been such big hits. (laughs)

—Did you get feedback from people about Galaga during the development process?

Yokoyama: We had other employees at Namco test it out and give us feedback, yeah. Once it was completely finished we had everyone come try it, and they all seemed to be really enjoying it. Even the women in the office were really getting into it, so I thought it was all going to work out.

—That’s great, to have that boost of confidence before releasing it into the world.

Yokoyama: Yeah, although I was really worried after the location test failed to pull in a very good income. The average playtime of a single coin back then was about 3 to 4 minutes, but people were playing for 7 or 8 minutes with our game, so the income was lower. There was some grumbling about that at Namco, but I asked them to let us leave it this way. I said the fact that people could play longer would make it popular, and it would still draw a good income. However, from the arcade operator’s perspective, short-term profits were the priority, so in the final commercial versions of we ended up caving to management and doing it their way.

—In point of fact, Galaga did extremely well, and became a long-running hit.

Yokoyama: There was one other thing that gave me confidence. Iwatani was working on another game at the time, but I let him try Galaga, and he told me “You’ve really thought this through, I’m amazed at the detail.” The game balance, the layout of the Challenging Stages, and even little things like the special sound effect you hear when you get a medal for clearing enough stages… seeing that he noticed those things gave me a huge boost. I remember him saying “It’s clear the amount of effort and care you’ve put into those details. I think this is going to be a game people will not tire of quickly.”

—Can you tell us a little about the instruction card and art for the arcade release?

Yokoyama: (pulls out instruction card and points to the text) We argued a lot over what to write here. It needed to be something that would get people’s attention.

—Ah, the “secret attack technique” part. You mean the text for it?

Yokoyama: Yeah. The design was done by our graphic designer, but the text was all the planners.

The Galaga instruction card.

—The first thing you see there isn’t an explanation of how to play.

Yokoyama: No, at first we wrote that—how to move the lever and what the button does—but that was pretty boring. Since the dual fighter feature was the big selling point of Galaga, we decided to put that here, to draw people in.

—That was probably the right choice, since most people already knew about Galaxian and the basics of how-to-play.

Yokoyama: This version is the one President Nakamura liked himself. We kept bringing versions of the instruction sheet to his room, and he’d reject them over and over, until finally he just ordered us to complete it right there in front of him, to his liking. (laughs)

—I’ve heard before that Nakamura really got his hands into the nitty-gritty details of Namco back then, like the Namco logo and such. Your story proves it!

Yokoyama: I also remember that at our first location test, at a game center by Nishiogikubo Station, none of the people I saw playing were using the dual fighter ability!

—Ah. Yeah, I do remember it being like that at first.

Yokoyama: Everyone was just dodging. And we had gone to all the trouble of putting that instruction card up! I thought that would have explained it, you know. (laughs)

Creating Games at Namco

—Did it take you a long time to think up ideas for games?

Yokoyama: I like to think things through very thoroughly. But I can’t do it at work… it happens at home, or after I’ve left the office.

—I guess there was just too much actual work to get through at the office?

Yokoyama: Yeah. Creating all the game data, writing out our planning documents… Iwatani has a brilliant, quick mind, but if I had to say, I’m rather sluggish in my thinking… I think a lot, and then sit down to write, laboring over how to connect each idea. It takes me a long time to reach any conclusion. So I can’t do that kind of work at the office.

—I think that reflects the extent and depth of your imagination.

Yokoyama: Well, in those days games could be made by one person alone. There’s no way you could do that with the more elaborate developments today. (laughs) In that sense, I was very lucky to work when I did.

—By the way, what games were you into when you were young?

Yokoyama: In middle school and high school I did a lot of bowling, and in between games I played a lot of pinball. I didn’t play video games much.

—Yeah, back in the day you could find pinball machines lined up at any bowling alley.

Yokoyama: When Breakout came out, I started playing video games, but the one that really hooked me was Space Invaders, of course.

—When Galaxian came out, a bunch of other developers released similar STGs. Were there any parts of those games that influenced you?

Yokoyama: Atari’s games were an influence. I hardly paid notice to domestic Japanese games, though. I think it was probably the same way for everyone. We’d check to see what had been released, but we didnt study them.

—Back then it felt to us players like Namco really stood out among the rest. Was there a company-wide understanding about quality or what made games fun?

Yokoyama: I’ve often been asked what the “Namco essence” was, but all of the developers then had very distinct individual personalities—there was no central philosophy of game design. However, the one thing we did all share was a commitment to do things right, down to the last bit. That’s why we playtested our games so thoroughly, both with others and by running simulations ourselves. Not wanting to do things half-assed wasn’t some principle we had as craftsmen or anything; it was part of putting ourselves in players’ shoes and imagining what would be fun for them. I think that helped us stay balanced as developers.

Shigeru Yokoyama

—Always thinking from the player’s perspective… it sounds easy, but I bet it’s actually quite difficult.

Yokoyama: Well, another thing that helped us was that we tried to do what other developers weren’t doing. After Space Invaders came out, everyone tried to imitate its success, including us with Galaga and Bosconian. But we also made different games like Rally X and Dig Dug. If you do something unique, that others haven’t done, you’ll find your market there. No one likes rehashes.

Gaplus and later games were made by someone else, right?

Yokoyama: Gaplus was Hajime Nakatani’s debut. He was my junior colleague. From the end of Dig Dug’s development to the release of Pole Position and Xevious, I had a more background role, watching over as my younger colleagues made games.

—Galaga, then, was probably the game you were most deeply involved in the development of?

Yokoyama: Probably. I also made Cutie Q. That was my debut.

—Cutie Q is a great game too, with a deep ruleset.

Yokoyama: After we made Gee Bee and Bomb Bee, we were going to make one more game. So Sawano made Galaxian, Iwatani made Pac-Man, and I made Cutie Q.

—Cutie Q was released before Pac-Man. Maybe it should be called Namco’s first character game, then?

Yokoyama: Yeah, it did come out before. Right around the same time as Galaxian. Iwatani designed the ghost sprites.

Galaga, Still Loved Today

—Do you have any message for young aspiring game designers today?

Yokoyama: Hmm… that’s difficult. (laughs) I’ll share something similar to what I said in the self-introduction I gave at a recent management training event. The games I made were done almost entirely by two people: myself and Ogawa. So we knew every last inch of how they worked. We were able to develop those games with total knowledge and control, but the scale of game development has changed today and that kind of thing is no longer possible. But if you have the chance as a young developer to experience that, I recommend it.

Nowadays you can specialize as a programmer, planner, designer, or musician, but originally a “game creator” was simply someone who wanted to make a cetain game, and he knew and did everything involved: design, music, programming, documentation. I think you grow a lot more as a developer that way.

—Why do you think Galaga was such a long-running hit, personally?

Yokoyama: I think it’s the difficulty balance, and the variation that keeps you from getting bored quickly. Those are the basic keys to a long-lasting game, I think. Also, the fact that it was a simple game—simple enough that no real instructions are needed to play. I think that’s a part of it too.

—Did you spend a lot of time fine-tuning the difficulty?

Yokoyama: Since Galaga isn’t a huge game, we were able to spend a great deal of time on the game balance. We tried out a lot of different parameters: should this be set at 1, or 2?, etcetera.

Galaga as featured in the 1983 film WarGames.

—And eventually you arrived at a difficulty level that everyone could enjoy.

Yokoyama: Before the location test we let many Namco employees try Galaga out. We had women working at Namco then, and we also had pro-level players—people with very different approaches to how to play games. However, because Galaga has autofire (in contrast with Galaxian, which was a relatively stoic, hard game) it could be enjoyed even by women who didn’t play games much, as a way to release some stress. I thought that was a good thing. For new players, we decided to make the dual fighter easy to get and to keep the game balanced more on the easy side.

—30 years later, and people still name Galaga as one of their favorites. What do you think of that?

Yokoyama: Unlike Pac-Man, I’ve long-since grown distant from Galaga. But there’s still many people playing Galaga, via the Namco Museum, and the franchise is still alive with Galaga Legions, and that makes me very happy.

—It’s well-known overseas, too.

Yokoyama: One memory I count among my happiest involves a trip I took to America. I was on a bus tour, and the bus guide actually knew about Namco. I told her that I had made Galaga, and I was deeply moved by how wide its fame had spread. Even this middle-aged bus lady knew it! (laughs)

—Finally, I have one more question: Galaga was developed on hardware with certain limitations. Were there things you wanted to add, if the hardware had had more power?

Yokoyama: In this particular game, no, there is nothing I would add.

—It sounds like you achieved all you wanted.

Yokoyama: With Galaga, I can say “this is perfect.” I feel the same way about Pac-Man.

—It’s wonderful to hear you say that. Galaga, and Pac-Man too, both have a sleek, efficient beauty to them, containing only what was necessary. Thank you for your time today!

Galaxian – 1985 Developer Interview

with designer Kazunori Sawano

“The post-Invaders arcade scene belongs to Namco!” —that was the goal we set, and the pressure riding on us with the development of Galaxian. You could call it the first video game space war visual simulator, with it’s pioneering use of multi-colored sprites.

Our plan was to make a game that anyone could play, not just maniac gamers. With our “simple is best!” mindset, we boldly trimmed away the excess ideas from the initial planning docs. We wanted a game that would keep evolving infinitely, using only two enemy types (4 if you count the color changes).

With such a simple setup, the enemy characters we did have needed varied actions. We programmed them to judge the player’s movements and react accordingly, so it seemed that they had a will and personality of their own, the way they would individually divebomb the player’s Galaxip. I think this element, more than any other, made Galaxian feel new and fresh compared with previous games.

Some might even say it was Galaxian that saved the arcade scene from the doldrums of the post-Invaders lull!

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  1. In Japan, the three common enemy types in Galaga are bosu (boss), goei (guard/escort), and zako (minion). They seem to be called various names overseas (commander, minion, bugs, etc).

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