Following a poor first half of the season that brought home only three wins, Villarreal desperately needed to get the year underway with a win.
However, it needed to be done without skipper Mario Gaspar through suspension, while the returning Santi Cazorla and in-demand attacker Samuel Chukwueze lead the attack.
With Mariano Diaz and Marco Asensio out through injury, Real's options in attack were limited with Karim Benzema as the only recognised out-and-out striker.
Villa were quick out of the starting blocks, with Chukwueze bursting through to the box to aim for a top corner finish, but Thibaut Courtois steadied to pull off a huge save inside three minutes.
Two minutes later, the recently-crowned FIFA Club World Cup champions were stunned when Chukwueze's cross ito the box found Cazorla, who curled home a wonderfully worked effort.
With barely moments gone, Real were level after Benzema rose high to meet a looping cross from Lucas Vazquez for a free-header into the bottom corner.
The Frenchman was close to a brace, but from a similar scenario to his initial effort, the header shaded wide of the Villarreal goal-post.
Inevitably, the lead was claimed by the powerful Los Blancos when a header from Raphael Varane found its way into the back of the net inside 21 minutes.
Not much separated the sides afterwards, but Real were close in adding to their tally when a low shot from Bale forced Marco Asenjo to a resounding save moments later.
It appeared as if Real had extended their tally when Luka Modric propped up inside the box to turn home a low cross but the offside flag flew up and correctly so in the end on 33 minutes.
At the interval, Bale was replaced by Isco after the Welshman suffered a slight injury midway inside the first half.
Benzema though was still probing and on 51 minutes, came close to finding the net but his delivery was send wide of target.
Later on, Asenjo showed his goalkeeping prowess once more to keep out a shot from close-range by Vazquez.
With the rhythm subsiding, the best either party were able to bring up was half-hearted attempts from Marcelo and Alvaro Soberon.
The Yellow Submarine gained energy to go ahead and secure the equaliser courtesy of a back-post header from Cazorla eight minutes from time to rescue a point.
The result no doubt is a massive confidence booster to the home side who move slightly out of the bottom-three area.