Playing Galak-Z made me remember the first time I saw a spaceship transform into a mech. I was eight years old…
Do You Remember _________?
If Galak-Z: The Dimensional existed in a vacuum, this review would be very short. I would tell you that it's an anime inspired, top-down space shooter with “rogue-lite” qualities, like procedural level generation and permadeath. I’d say that you pilot a spaceship with a modular, upgradeable ship, and you can transform that ship into a mech with a laser blade, a shield, and the ability to grab and toss the detritus of asteroid fields and wrecked space hulks. I’d compare the control scheme to Asteroids, probably. In a vacuum, I could tell you Galak-Z is pretty damn good, and leave it at that.
But Galak-Z doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even though it takes place in cold dark of space, Galak-Z exists in the dead center of a warm, summer atmosphere sweltering with nostalgia.
In June, Sony put The Last Guardian, Shenmue 3, and Final Fantasy 7 all on the stage of their E3 press conference. Ernest Cline, author of the Best Selling nostalgia-driven sci-fi novel Ready Player One, wrote a new novel, Armada, that took the basic narrative of The Last Starfighter—average gamer is chosen to save the day—and tosses in a lot more pop culture references, which sparked a second round of conversations about how we should think about the stuff we love. And there was Pixels, and Rare Replay, and the announcement of a LEGO game that seems to be filled with every brand I’ve ever heard of. It hasn’t just been games, either: Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman made many confront the idea that the fictional icons of our youth could be fallible, and that was followed soon after by Hulk Hogan revealing that our favorite slightly-less-fictional icons are also prone to disappoint us.
Throughout all this, there was discussion and debate about what the proper response was. Is “empty” nostalgia a harmless and joyful feeling that reminds us of the things that got us through hard times and helped to shape us as a person? Or was it a shackle that limited us, kept us from innovating and challenging our own preconceived notions about games, art, and culture?
In the end, I worked through my thoughts on nostalgia through talking with the other members of Giant Bomb East, first with Alex Navarro in our Post-Pixels podcast, and then on this episode of the Giant Beastcast. I don’t hate nostalgia, I said, but I was more interested in doing new things with the stuff I was nostalgic about than simply returning to the same old stuff. As the insightful Cara Ellison said, “...it's more important to concentrate on how to recreate the *feeling* that golden era games gave you rather than recreating the game.” There. That’s it. All settled.
But then I played Galak-Z. Galak-Z and its 1980s, bootleg anime visual flair. Galak-Z and its soundtrack, a blend of Terminator analog synths, modern electronic music, and a distorted cassette tape. Galak-Z and its twisting, twirling Macross-inspired space jet. Galak-Z and its Gundam-esque, beam-saber wielding mech, which dodges enemy fire with balletic curves and dashes in for sudden and effective counterattacks.
To ignore the place of nostalgia in Galak-Z’s style, design, and content is to miss a great deal of what makes it work.
...I was eight years old and watching the Sci-Fi channel on a day I’d faked being sick so I could call in from school. I did that pretty often in 1993—my mother had just survived a then-experimental sort of brain surgery, and I wanted to spend as much time as I could with her as she slowly, painfully recovered. But that day, she wasn’t awake yet, so I curled up on the couch and put on the TV. I can remember the feeling of the terrible vinyl couch we had, that scratchy noise I hate to even think about. And there, on the screen, I watch a VF-1 Valkyrie Veritech Fighter fly...
From the very start, Galak-Z sets itself up as just one more mecha show to add to my collection. Developer 17-Bit brings out a familiar set of anime tropes to set up the world: You play as A-Tak, a rookie pilot who stumbled into the cockpit of a prototype weapon. The supporting cast includes a brilliant scientist, a legendary admiral, and a smuggler with a heart of gold (and the desire to sell you upgrades for your ship.) From your position on the Axelios, the last capital ship in the human fleet, you set out to save the universe by taking down giant bugs, hordes of space pirates, and the armada of an evil alien empire.
On its face, this is all standard stuff, but Galak-Z does do one thing to mix up the formula. Though the player controls A-Tak, it’s Beam (the Axelios’ chief scientist and captain) that serves as the audience surrogate. When the blustery Admiral Akamoto says something absurd, she’s there rolling her eyes along with the player. And the way that Beam balances her friendship to A-Tak with frustration at his foolhardy exuberance mirrors the way I’ve come to feel about the immature (yet lovable) heroes of shows like Mobile Suit Gundam.
Galak-Z doesn't quarantine the anime inspiration to the story, though. Even the game’s structure tries to emulate the cartoons that inspired it. Players must successfully play through five “episodes” (missions) comprising a “season” before moving forward onto the next collection of levels, with four seasons in total. The composition of these seasons isn’t set in stone, as the episodes are made up of a collection of mission-types pulled from a bucket of options. The first four episodes of a season demand you perform some rote task like recovering supplies, destroying an hidden enemy satellite, or taking out a powerful ace pilot. Over the course of playing and replaying the seasons, these missions repeat (like reruns), but the fifth and final episode of each season has a unique goal, often a boss fight. If you fail anywhere along this path, you start a season over, losing all of the upgrades you’d earned. But even if you complete a season, you head into the next season returned to your starting ship (just like a Saturday morning cartoon hero resets to the status quo after a story arc completes.)
Galak-Z sells all of this with added presentational flair: Each episode has a title card (with a procedurally generated episode name and fake script writer), and each season ends with an endearingly cheesy closing credit song. In fact all of Galak-Z’s sound work, from character banter to the soundtrack, sings. (A-Tak’s repetitive, in-combat shouts were a serious problem for the first week of release, but a recent patch fixed that as well a number of performance issues and bugs.)
The presentation isn’t all aces, though. While the structure, characterization, and peripheral elements nail the feeling of 1980s anime, the actual animation is all wrong. The characters move more mechanically than the heroes of the hand-drawn animation of that era. In Galak-Z, everything is a little too clean for its own good. The game’s cutscenes look like very well made Flash animations, and while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, it is a little jarring given the special touch brought to other elements of the presentation.
From the VHS-styled menu screen to the ‘lampshaded’ tropes to the technoir soundtrack, so much of Galak-Z works as a sort of secret handshake between the developers and clued-in players. “Please tell me you remember this stuff, too. This stuff we love is cool, right?” And it is cool, or at least I can feel the love for those familiar things stirring in me when I see them.
Still, If these references made up the entirety of Galak-Z’s connection to its major influences, I think I’d be mark this down as another piece of empty nostalgia. My empty nostalgia, yes, but not much more than that. Thankfully, Galak-Z does more than just peddle what I love back to me. It offers me something new, too.
...And there, on the screen, I watch a VF-1 Valkyrie Veritech Fighter fly through the open sky, pursued by a swarm of missiles, slipping between the narrow breaths of air between them. It transforms fluidly into a humanoid mech, laser rifle in hands, blasting back at the alien robots. It was pretty and powerful and I watched a lot of Robotech that year and in the years that followed…
The basics of Galak-Z are straightforward. Every episode starts by warping you into an asteroid field just outside of a large, procedurally generated dungeon (either an asteroid-based cave network, a space station, or some combination or multiple of these). You enter the dungeon, beat a marked enemy or collect a MacGuffin, and then return to the warp zone, and along the way you fight enemy ships, collect “scrap” currency and hidden ship upgrades. Those upgrades range from extra health to increased thruster speed to a collection of modular weapon parts that can modify the attack speed, shape, and the other qualities of your ship's basic attack.
With those upgrades, difficult missions become more manageable, but they aren't the only option for dealing with challenges. Enemy ships have Metal Gear Solid-style vision cones, and if you can avoid them you can land an opening barrage that tilts things in your favor. Or, you can let yourself be seen by a group of enemies and then lead them into a group from a rival faction—space fishmen hate space pirates, apparently. But in the early hours of play, trying these techniques mostly led to chaos, and chaos led to me losing health. That was a serious problem, because while your paltry shields regenerate, your health does not, not even between episodes.
Part of the reason that the early going of Galak-Z can be so difficult is that the nuance of its controls is hard to grasp, and the game's short tutorial and lack of any sort of training mode don't help. Galak-Z does, in fact, control a little like Asteroids. The left thumbstick directs ship facing, the shoulder buttons handled forward and backward thrust, a hard-to-master strafe, and an afterburner, and all of these produce momentum that you need to learn how to manage and predict. You can supplement these with a defensive "juke" as the ship, or by using your mech's shield, but it's easy to overuse these, only to wind up cornered and dead.
Once you're confident with the controls, Galak-Z's combat comes alive. Dance through asteroid fields and watch in a combination of fear and joy as enemy mechs slash through the rocks you're hiding behind. Switch easily between ship and mech modes, letting loose with a river of missiles before sweeping around for a finishing attack with your glowing blade. Galak-Z’s devotion to 80s anime doesn't end with its presentation: Even the combat shows flashes of the actions scenes I’d loved in Macross and Gundam.
But the energetic combat is just one element of Galak-Z: There's also it's "rogue-lite" structure. Over the last four or five years, we’ve seen designers try out different ways to make randomization and permanent death of roguelikes accessible and enjoyable for broader audiences, but Galak-Z doesn’t fit neatly into any of the models set up by competing rogue-lites.
FTL rewards players with new starting ships if they complete a set of specific challenges beyond simply finishing the game. In contrast, Galak-Z lets you collect blueprints from dead enemies and scattered chests, and while these will add some powerful new upgrades to the roulette of options available in the game’s shop, you can’t ever count on the ones you want showing up. Rogue Legacy gives players a feeling of constant progress, as they can spend their earnings on permanent upgrades. While Galak-Z does reward players with “Crash Coins,” a currency that carries over to new games after death, these can only be used to pay for the regularly available, impermanent upgrades available in the shop. And while both Spelunky and Galak-Z allow players to skip ahead to unlocked levels, the time commitment is meaningfully different: In the time it takes to complete just a single episode of Galak-Z, an average Spelunky player could move from the opening “Mines” to the “Jungle.”
The result is a game that can be deflating at first. Dump 45 minutes into a single run at any of the other major rogue-lites, and you’ll either be close to a win or else will have made some degree of progress towards a large meta goal. In Galak-Z, you may only just be coming up on the conclusion of a single season, making a loss sting hard. But if you can push through that frustration, Galak-Z shines brightly. It's a bit cliche to say this, in the age of Dark Souls, but the most important upgrade you can make in Galak-Z is to improve your own skills and to learn about how the game works. It was in the middle of the third episode of season three that I figured that out. That’s also when I realized that I didn’t just like, but loved Galak-Z.
I hadn’t played particularly well that season, so I wasn’t able to purchase my favorite upgrades. I’d powered through the first two episodes of the season by corralling enemies with my a weak, but easy-to-use spreadshot before transforming into mech mode, latching onto enemies with my robot’s grapple-claw, stabbing them with my laser blade, and tossing them into a nearby wall. Then I repeated the process over and over again. It had worked so consistently for so long, that I thought I’d found a winning combination.
And then suddenly I found my shields torn away by an unexpected shotgun blast. I was up against three Void Raider ships: A Hyena and two Vultures. The latter were the bottom rung of the space pirate food chain, easy to manage, dodge around, and take down. But Hyena-class ships, a little larger and equipped with a giant shotgun and side-boosters, were able to juke and dash around the battlefield with disorienting speed. And as my opponent taunted me, Star Fox style, I realized he wasn’t just an ordinary Hyena, it was a Hyena Captain, the top level variant. And suddenly it made sense: When you throw away a regular Hyena, it flips away from you safely. But the Captains keep control, and the second you’ve tossed them aside, they fire their powerful shotguns, point-blank and too quick to dodge or even block. Down come the shields, and there goes my hull armor. And there’s A-Tak’s battered helmet, floating across the game over screen. Time to find a new strategy.
That’s Galak-Z. It’s a game that brings together a huge set of tactical choices with an even larger collection of enemy types and behaviors, and then sets those together in dynamic environments. Through a combination of choice and luck, you will wind up with a unique character build which you’ll have to learn how to use against enemy groups of varied composition and capability. Sometimes you lose, but in the dying, you pick up something new—and if you manage your recharging shields well, you may not even have to die to learn something. This process of figuring out some little secret about Galak-Z just feels fantastic, and after 15 hours with the game, I’m still picking up new tricks.
This devotion to learning also explains the game’s specific take on the roguelike structure. You can't upgrade your way past difficult enemies, you have to confront them. Instead of buying new, permanent armor for your ship, you need to learn which enemy ships can be kited. Instead of choosing the exact starting loadout you know you can use successfully, you're forced to try out new weapon and upgrade combinations every session. All the while, you’re improving on your fundamentals. You learn how to glide into melee range in broad, beautiful arcs with the mech; you figure out how to actually control the strafe instead of just hoping for the best; you master the timing on the shield, parrying attacks and issuing devastating counters.
Given the success of its rogue-lite competitors, it is a fault of Galak-Z that it doesn’t better introduce players to its structure. A lucky build (and a hefty collection of Crash Coins) can allow a player to power through the first two or three seasons without seeing the depth that makes the end game soar. And the lack of visual variation in mission locale can easily lead to feelings of repetition. But once you push through the repetition long enough to see all the moving parts underneath, tuning back in for reruns becomes a lot more attractive.
But even this sells it short. Galak-Z isn’t just a somewhat repetitive game with strong fundamentals, it’s also a game that manages to translate a genre of action from one medium to another. And that translation isn't just about obscure references and inside jokes, which means that its appeal is broader than just The Truest Anime Fans. Even when it isn’t leaning into the bootleg VHS aesthetic or blaring its grimy analog synths, Galak-Z is able to It captures the frenetic energy of mecha anime better than any game since Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram or Zone of the Enders 2. And then it goes a step further, and plugs that action into a cycle of defeat, reflection, and improvement. And that cycle is itself at the core of Galak-Z’s source material: All of those shows about unlikely heroes slowly coming to grips with their own human potential, tending to their wounds, learning how to tap into that little something extra needed to make the impossible possible.
...And in the years that followed, I went on to watch so much more “old” sci-fi and mecha anime. Zeta Gundam. Legend of Galactic Heroes. Votoms. I’m currently running a mecha-themed tabletop game that explicitly wonders about why we tell stories about giant robots. I ask the question: “We could’ve built them to look like anything, but we made them look like us.”
I say all this not to “disclose” anything, but because this is part of what has made Galak-Z a complex thing for me to face. I have been, in no uncertain terms, shit-talking “empty nostalgia” all summer, and now I’m faced with a game custom made to slip between the plates of my armor and re-open those old, wonderful wounds.
But this isn’t empty nostalgia, I don’t think. I've had that particular itch scratched by a whole collection of bad Gundam games, and believe me, this is not like those.
Instead, Galak-Z is what Cara Ellison asked for in that tweet: More than just a checklist of familiar references, more than just the old stuff with a new coat of paint. It is a game that captures the feeling I had on that vinyl couch, watching those old animated machines on the screen and wondering what it was like to be so fast, so powerful, so invincible.