I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The truly greatest games transcend their genre. Fighting games, for one, have long hovered near the bottom of my list, but there'd never be a time when I wasn't eager to throw down at the mere mention of the intuitive, mechanically brilliant Street Fighter II. I've had an aversion to RPGs ever since my painful early experiences with Dragon Warrior, when I spent hours circling Alefgard's opening area fruitlessly attempting to make sense of it all, but I have nothing but the deepest adoration for the utterly absorbing, emotionally powerful Final Fantasy IV. I don't particularly like first-person shooters, but I could dedicate days at a time to scouring the engrossingly unsettling, wonderfully constructed world of Doom.
That's what kept me coming back where the others squandered the opportunity.
For any seasoned Galaga player, it made perfect sense to let yourself get captured. The idea of willingly sacrificing a stock might sound foolish, especially when dealing with an arcade game, but here it was a desirable prospect despite the risk attached; it was worth it for the added benefit of being able to immediately thin the herd and limit the scope of the enemies' fully organized attack. For me, getting hold of that second fighter is when I felt the game jumped to the next level, since I found it to be so much more fun when you could absolutely plow through enemies and clear stages with ease if you knew the packs' spawn points--particularly in the "Challenging Stages," where big points and potential extra stock were yours for the taking if you could accurately wipe out all of the enemy packs. It was difficult to keep two fighters in play for long periods, since the pairing of two bulky units made for an easier target, but you'd do what you could to keep that second fighter in play as long as possible, every second of the twin assault a moment of gaming bliss you didn't want to relinquish.
These are the reasons why Galaga trumps the vast majority of its competition and stands among my favorite arcade games. Galaga also occupies a top spot on my list of all-time-favorite shoot-'em-ups, which is admittedly short--a crop limited to titles like Space Invaders, Centipede, Gorf, Gradius, Commando, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600. Still, it's nonetheless a top-tier shooter and second in my book only to the sterling Megamania.
As was too often the case, Galaga was one of those coin-op games I shied away from as the new generation of arcade hardware began taking over the scene. Somehow, shamefully, I went almost twenty years without playing it. The drought might've lasted longer if not my father, who for some reason bought a
Pac-Man 25th Anniversary Edition arcade machine for his home in upstate New York (we're talking about a guy who hasn't played a video game since Pong); it's only in the last eight years, ever since I learned I began visiting him there, that Galaga has once again become prominent in my life. As I said of Pac-Man in a previous piece: It's always customary for me to play at least one round of Galaga before making the long trip back to Long Island.
I don't play for the high score, since the machine's already been maxed out, so it's more a matter of seeing how long I can endure. I've actually gotten pretty good at Galaga over the years, improving my dodging skills and button-mashing proficiency little by little, and am now able to reach somewhere around the fourth "Challenging Stage" on a single credit. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but you might want to give me a break. Keep in mind that you're judging someone who took 23 years to realize that "Galaga" was the name of the ship-stealing alien bug and not the game's hero.
And that's Galaga, my second-favorite shooter, which I slot as such because it lacks much of Megamania's enemy variety and strategic depth--the game becoming repetitious with its unvarying enemy formations and predictable sequencing (strangely, the most diverse members of its enemy cast are relegated to the bonus stages, which don't carry the same stakes). But its quality is transcendent all the same, its furious, fast-fingered action some of the most rewarding in gaming history. I'd play it any time.
"Simplicity" and "accessibility" may have become dirty words, but for Galaga they were endearing qualities--the portrait of an arcade game that was easy to play but tough to master. It's not ironic, then, that Galaga has always been so closely associated with Pac-Man, which is considered the quintessential video game. The two are practically joined at the hip, Galaga an equal partner.
I look forward to our next close encounter.