Galaga [1981]

(Content warning: war.)

The first thing that strikes me on booting up Galaga [1981] is that it is a beautiful game. Games I’ve written on up to this point have been eyesores. (They mostly make a virtue of it.) Even the prior entry in this franchise, Galaxian [1979], a visual tour-de-force, looks pretty drab, predominated by some uneasy Windows 95 shade of dark teal. Galaga borrows instead on the palette of bright neon colors that so vexed me from Pac-Man [1980] (and some of its sounds, too,) but each of its large now-multicolored sprites finds a pleasing balance that’s easy to look at. These dazzle ships move across the screen like synchronized swimmers in elaborate formations, then dive off into personality showcases in pairs. Disco stars pass twinkling in red, green, blue behind it all.

The Nick Straker Band – A Little Bit Of Jazz [1981]

The game feels as good to play as it looks. Most of the game is weaving through the sheets of iron rain. Zip, to the left, to the right, zap. At the end of every play cycle, you’re graded on your hit-miss ratio, which feels like some kind of act of deception to me, and unneeded imposition of valuation. I wish to praise the button mash, the poetry of the twitch. I strum the hammer down more frantic than is needed, more than is effective, like a human sewing machine. It’s a kind of desperation, yes, but it’s also a kind of ecstasy. It’s like screaming with my fingers. It’s as though I think I can exceed its capacity. It’s as though I could pound through the machine and into its reality. I mean, there were about four days straight I was worried this blog wasn’t going to survive my encounter with Galaga because I simply did not want to put it down and start writing anything beyond “Galaga is so so good.” As if this could be the terminus, the first time I played a game I found truly addictively fun to play on days on end. (I eventually realized it was a bout of depression that made me want to do nothing but play Galaga and pet my cat and shower and drink coffee.) Point stands: Galaga is a trance enducer. I got better at the game a little, realized I could fire faster at closer objects, learned the waves, let it carve canyons in my grey matter. I can only imagine what it might be like to be actually good at this game.

The top score for Galaga now is 20.9 million points. Twin Galaxies, the self-appointed official scorekeeper for arcades, was founded as an arcade itself only one month after Galaga’s North American release. Arcade games had already gotten into the business of using score as their extrinsic motivator and measure of value, how you can compete with someone who, perhaps, you’ve never seen. Galaga itself has a fairly sophisticated score-keeping mechanism, where you are granted greater amounts of points for taking riskier shots at divebombing enemies. I read that the top players don’t go for those, though. Sure, nickels and dimes add up over time, but what adds up even more is more time, and you get that by playing conservatively, keeping your ships safe. The objective is to play a game what lasts for hours, as in most of your waking day. Unlike Pac-Man, there is no “kill screen,” before which a run must be perfectly optimized for maximum score. Instead, you claw at the infinite, towards the Galaga Valhalla. Just like a very low skill player such as myself, you are to ignore the score. A friend of mine with more shmup experience told me that the most important thing to learn is that everything besides what’s going to hit the ship is a distraction, but it goes further than that. The closer you look, the less of the game you’re meant to see. The cabinet art, the fancy and attractive choreography, even the incentive structure all drops away like so much noise as you attenuate to the true signal.

There’s something to be said here about refinement. I just played a lot of games from 1980 that went out on a limb to try a very new core concept and felt pretty lumpy because of it. Galaga, on the other hand, is an iteration on a well-established genre formula. It’s the sequel to Galaxian (a riff like many others on Space Invaders [1978]) by designer Shigeru Yokoyama, who was fresh off another iterative entry in the Namco halls, New Rally-X [1981]. Like Pac-Man, Galaga’s creative direction and success was essentially forged by a keen, sober attention to business realities such as excess materials, marketability, ergonomics, et cetera. There’s this basic, casual assurance and competence throughout the early business history of many Japanese gaming companies, coming as they did from already-established amusement businesses, that stands out only when contrasted with most of their American counterparts (especially Atari), coming as they did from California.

This isn’t to make it sound staid and workmanlike. There are innovations in Galaga, but its chief virtue is indeed in its craft, how it benefits from and contributes to the slick tightening of the Shmup genre. Unlike Space Invaders, there’s nowhere to hide and take a breather. You are constantly in danger with only brief respite. It’s not as stressful as that sounds. If anything, it’s a stress reliever. Galaga hypnotically demands your constant and total focus. An onslaught becomes a meditation. We step closer to the world of the bullet hell rain game, though we’re still very far away. Part of the way Galaga hooks people like me, in fact, is that it is actively easier than many other arcade games, it’s the cultivation of that intoxicating ego-stroke of making it to the fourth wave on your very first try. There’s a “challenge” wave that’s actually zero threat and thus challenge at all, just a points farm. Like Space Invaders, you’re dancing with the cabinet. These aliens do not march, they wander through the sky, all synchronous superfluous loops and curves as though they are animated by the sheer thrilling love of skilled motion, a bullet ballet. It’s downright contagious.

As they step away from computer-straight lines, you step towards it, mind melding in the middle. You are as a carpenter’s square. You move on one axis, left and right. Your bullets fly straight and true, theirs drift. Like Qix [1981], insomuch as this is a battle and not a stage play, it is a war theater of tactical philosophy — yes, once more the erratic against your right angles, but also the collective against the solitary, finding its synthesis in the way you can and nearly must lightly adopt and adapt their group tactic by taking a perfectly-sync’d buddy alongside you. This only occurs if one of your ships gets sucked into the aliens’ tractor beams and temporarily becomes one of them, removing one of your lives, then is returned, all the wiser. The “lives” system here is thus conceptualized not as a clean respawn, but as an entirely new ship from the mass-produced fleet that is merely indistinguishable to you, the commander, who need not see their individuations, like the pilots’ lives, if they even exist.

The aliens’ much more dissimilar insectoid design is consonant with a recurring subject of panic, the Killer Bees that infamously were borne of (basically Gregor -Mendel-level) Science Gone Wrong, a beast escaped from laboratory conditions run rampant and coming soon to a theater near you. Their appearance also brings to mind the common science-fictional idea of a hive mind, in their immaculate formations. They make what have been frequently flippantly described as “kamikaze” dives, with no further interrogation of that idea and its place in the Japanese right-wing fantasies of the past, the way it plays into the implication that the members of this mass swarm have completely subsumed their individual consciousnesses to become appendages of the whole. Look twice, though, at the stars passing by. You are not defending a position but advancing. They are making a fighting retreat. When they break rank, they’re not charging you, you’re driving into them. Your death is certain, there is no victory. You fight to feel electric and alive for just a little longer.

So, what’s supposed to be the fundamental difference between you two that puts you so at odds? Who’s the villain? Well, what is a hero in a war? To become a hero just means to take on risk. When we call someone a hero, that just means they’re expendable — another word could be “victim.” We try to reimburse them with cheap honor and platitudes. There’s the civilians caught in the nest of suffering who aid others, but there are no bystanders in Galaga, and to be a soldier means to be violent. Galaga’s moral universe, like that of Berzerk [1980], is one scrubbed clean of any justification or specifics or externalities, a depiction of free-standing conflict, where nevertheless you end up automatically siding with the one you control who’s outnumbered. War is fundamentally a horrible business of mass murder we abstract with nobility. “I don’t know how many layers of abstraction you need to apply to your war video game before it stops being pure militarist warmongering propaganda” but the pure vacuum of Galaga might overshoot the mark. It’s reminiscent of the trivializing, easy relativism that mystifies conflict over actual stakes, grievance, and ideologies into senseless violence on both sides so as to functionally let aggressors off the hook. One side’s hero is another’s villain!

What does it mean for me to feel good and clean killing? To fall enraptured with the solace of thoughtlessness? To muse on the beauty of these violent arcs?

Computing itself was a technology most useful to the military that spent decades searching for civilian applications. Business is one, but then, business types also find good use for The Art Of War [5th century BC]. Like the walkie-talkie before it, combat-themed video games are a war tool finding one of its easiest adaptations as a children’s make-believe toy. Well, maybe combat-themed video games never stopped being war tools. Just… ones targeted at civilians, to convince them to think and feel the way an army wants them to, a vital function in recruitment armies and democratic societies. It was definitely a topic in cultural currency through the 1980s, like in previously-mentioned The Last Starfighter [1984], where a teen finds their calling in a Space War through gaming. Maybe Galaga’s so easy to play because the war machine wants your mind more than it wants your money. The general panic in the 1990s USA halls of power over violent games brainwashing our impressionable youths into killing machines, in this light, comes to seem more like a manifestation of the suppressed fear of the ravenous violence we inflict abroad (or in the arcade) where it was fine by them coming home to roost (on the television set.) Another work of science fiction animated by these anxieties is Galaga novelization Ender’s Game [1985], in which Ender is brutally indoctrinated with war games by a fascist society. They pull a dirty trick by mediating reality the same way as the simulation so we can’t tell the difference. Later, Master Chief of the Halo [2001] series would have a remarkably similar backstory as his impetus for shooting large swarms of bug aliens. Later still, Israeli military contractors are developing tanks that are handled with Xbox controllers, remotely handled via triple-wide screens. And when they’re being piloted by AI instead, those are trained to kill swarms of bug aliens on Starcraft II [2010].

Forgive me for the dour turn. Of course none of this was ever intended to be in this work. Now I’ve looked so close I’ve stopped looking at the game and the ship with bullets bearing down upon it at all and started talking right past it, and I’m beginning to wonder if the whole thing is just a distraction. Maybe I’m still on the Island and Galaga is just a room.

Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than white people, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.

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