Sunday, March 22, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #26


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.

Serving as an early example of this phenomenon is the humble arcade classic Galaga, which helped popularize the shooter class for which I've previously expressed my apathy. It was normal that I'd happily avoid any game whose attract mode or cover art conveyed to me that its action entailed slowly flying through space while picking off hordes of neatly arranged, plodding enemy invaders, but I could always spare a few quarters for the quietly alluring Galaga, which had certain intangible qualities that colored its gameplay with a distinct hue, its hypnotic shade working to block my compulsive mental processes that ordinarily functioned to dismissively file away a product of its type as "just another derivative space-shooter." 

Galaga wasn't so easily categorized. I mean, it looked and played a lot like those other "shooting games," but I didn't feel comfortable lumping it in with their kind. At the time, I would have said that its superior fun factor is what successfully distanced it from its contemporaries, but that would have been a simplistic explanation of its transcendence. It was better than the rest, yes, but I can say with greater wisdom that this was true because of what it had over them: The visceral thrill of it all. The intensity of tapping the Fire button like mad, building finger speed to the point where you could take out incoming enemy packs before they could even complete a formation. Averting death by narrowly dodging storms of projectiles and dive-bombing enemies. The cosmically unpleasing sound effects that incited panic, their sudden prompts signaling danger where your eyes couldn't afford to focus. And that deeply satisfying sense of mastery that came along with scoring a perfect 40 in a bonus stage.

That's what kept me coming back where the others squandered the opportunity. 

Many arcade shooters followed that same blueprint, but Galaga did it better. Where similar games had rows of uniformly colored marauders mundanely inching downward or shifting about in predictable sequences, Galaga had packs of colorful enemies flying in from all directions, amassing into a whole before their separate ranks would begin breaking from the formation and filling the screen with their circling and waving dive-bomb attacks; some would literally break apart, forming smaller enemy chains capable of their own troublesome flight-paths. Standard shooters had aliens that accosted you in unique ways, yeah, but Galaga had them beat in terms of interaction; its main enemy, the game's name namesake, could spiral down to the ship-level and project a cone-shaped beam whose net could capture your fighter, triggering the game's best mechanic: If you could take out the captor on its next descent without accidentally destroying your visibly restrained ally, both the current fighter and the one freed would become adjoined, the player now afforded double the firepower!

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.

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