I rode my mountain bike over the continental divide and it was so Galaga
July 12, 2014 5:50 PM   Subscribe

"Galaga" is an excerpt from Michael Kimball's book of the same name about the classic arcade game of the same name. Kimball is also the author of the heartbreaking novel Us and the experimental non-fiction Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), his selected favorites from which are 45, 46, 51, 52, 54, 66, 70, 75, 86, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 112, 114, 118, 128, 129, 131, 133, 160, 165, 167, 171, 192, 195, 199, 209, 216, 221, 225 and 240. Postcards 54, 75, 98, 114, and 225 feature non-human subjects. 131 is Tao Lin, and 128 is Kimball himself. [Via.]
posted by Monsieur Caution (21 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I had the unique shame of dominating the high score on that machine in college for a long, long time.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:05 PM on July 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Man, I clicked on one of those "life story on a postcard" things and it was about an apple, and I was sure I hated this guy, but then I clicked on another, and another, and another, and they're actually quite nice. I see a lot of myself in the one he wrote about himself. Hopefully my life story turns out as nice as his when I'm his age.
posted by malapropist at 7:29 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have quite a lot to say on the subject of Galaga. It is forthcoming, I will try to post it later tonight, please stand by.
posted by JHarris at 7:59 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wasn't much into Galaga, but man could I write about Konami Super Basketball...
posted by Huck500 at 8:57 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know about all this, but the guy who made the Galaga wiki doesn't even know that you can just leave your ships in the middle for the challenge stage & get all the enemy ships without moving. I called this the "beer drinking stage" because it could be accomplished with one hand.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:25 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Galaga excerpt was pretty nice. The obsessive fact-cataloging, combined with the little drips of information about the narrator's life, suggest a whole lot of buried trauma, presented not as a theatrical meltdown, but as a pervasive off-ness.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:42 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you enjoyed that Galaga excerpt you might also like D. B. Weiss's Lucky Wander Boy, specifically the sections entitled The Catalogue Of Obsolete Entertainments. I really did, and I'm always on the lookout for more, so I've ordered a copy of Kimball's book.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:54 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always wanted to be playing some kind of game. The terrible stuff happened when I wasn’t playing games.

Oh.. man. Yep.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:13 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Okay, so, Galaga.

The two classic-era arcade games you still have a decent chance of finding, in some form, in the wild are Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga. Namco helped this along with their popular 20th Anniversary machines, themselves now over ten years old, which have both games (and secret Pac-Man) in one cabinet. The games are rarer now than they were though. For a while, when Midway was still selling arcade games, they would give out a free Ms. Pac-Man with the purchase of another game. Of course, now Midway is gone, and with them Bally, Williams and Atari. Alas.

Like Ms. Pac-Man, which can commonly be found both in classic and speed-up forms (and some people, like my friend Matt Matthews of Curmudgeon Gamer, once thought they were good at Ms. Pac-Man only to discover they had always been playing the fast game), Galaga has two versions, the normal game and a version with much faster player shots, which is much easier. The 20th Anniversary machines can be set for either style. If for some reason you seem to do much better at a particular machine than others, this may be why.

There is a well-known bug in Galaga where, if you survive on level one for fifteen minutes with a single blue bug from the edge of the formation attacking you, the bugs will stop firing for the rest of the game. The cause of the bug has been discovered by the site Computer Archeology. Their description, and fix, can be found here. It is a fine explanation, and goes into a lot of detail. I now explain, in simplified terms, the cause:

Galaga's graphics hardware is capable of displaying 64 sprites at a time. Eight of those sprites are reserved for enemy shots. When not being deployed by the game, these sprites are kept off-screen, at X coordinate 0. Every frame, the game steps through each of the shots. It checks each X position; if it's not 0, it must have been fired, so it updates its X and Y position based on its motion. If it's 0, then the shot isn't in play, so it is skipped.

There is another section in memory, a sequence of eight bytes, that also tracks which shots have been fired (contains an 06 hex) or is out of play (contains an 80). This section is used, particularly, when a new shot enters play. The program checks each of the locations to find one containing an 80 (meaning not in use), writes a 06 there, then moves the shot to the location of the currently firing enemy.

When a shot is in play, each frame the code moves it to a new location and checks for collisions with the player's ship. If the shot leaves the borders of the screen during this move, its X coordinate is set to 0 and its location in the shot-in-use table is set to 80 again, so that shot sprite can be used again by another enemy.

It's a good system, except for one situation the designers didn't consider: it is possible for an enemy to fire shots at an X coordinate of 0.

When this happens, the code sets the shot as in use (writes an 06 to the table), but because the shot is at X=0, the shot's position is never updated. Since it's never updated, it's never checked to see if it's off-screen. Since it's never checked to see if it's left the screen, its never marked as free and useable again. That shot is effectively out of play.

What is more, the game is designed generally so that, when a player dies or a stage is cleared, instead of resetting the game playfield to a cleared state, the next life or level follows directly from the previous one. The shot array is only cleared at the beginning of the game! Those shots will remain there, in limbo, until the game ends. Thus, if it happens eight times, the bugs will never fire again.

The four blue enemies at the extreme left and right edges of the formation are capable of firing a shot from X=0 when they dive. More commonly this happens during the end-of-level period where the bugs don't return to formation but continually attack. In that state, those four particular enemies will fire a shot at the bad coordinate approximately once every two minutes.

A notable thing about this bug: it is possible for some of the shots to get stuck, but not all of them. If this happens multiple times in a game, it will get progressively easier as the enemies are able to launch smaller volleys at the player's ship. All it takes is a single enemy firing a bad shot to block that bullet for the rest of the game. And the trick can be pulled off at the end of most levels, not just the first, but the first, of course, is the easiest to survive.
posted by JHarris at 11:45 PM on July 12, 2014 [10 favorites]

Somewhere is my basement is a xeroxed paper memo that was handed down to me by someone that worked at Bally-Midway. It was a briefing on Namco's new games that were available for selection to manufacture in North America. The section on "Galagar", with hand-drawn explanations of how it differed from Galaxian, is half informative and half "who the fuck knows what the Japanese are thinking but let's go with it". Someday I'll scan it to the web. I doubt anyone will believe it's real.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:33 AM on July 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

DevilsRancher: That trick of leaving your ship in the middle for the bonus stage was key, but the ship had to be pixel perfect in the middle. There was one way to guarantee this: get your ship captured and then rescue it from the very last bug. Your ship went double as the stage ended, and now you were in position.

I couldn't drink beer in 1981 but mastering this technique made you look pretty bad-ass at the arcade.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:38 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do it, JoeZydeco! This stuff needs to be preserved for the ages. Scan it and let jscott know about it, he might be interested.
posted by JHarris at 1:22 AM on July 13, 2014

Maybe its because of Tommy Ramone and Charlie Hayden this last week, but these postcard bios read like Obits.
posted by xtian at 7:30 AM on July 13, 2014

Galaga is the only video game I have ever been god at and I will always love it.
posted by thelonius at 8:38 AM on July 13, 2014

the only video game I have ever been god at

typo???? lol
posted by Hoosier Prospector at 10:14 AM on July 13, 2014

Non-freudian slip? iddqd?
posted by ostranenie at 9:35 PM on July 13, 2014

Some more Galaga --

The Challenging Stages are one of the most distinctive parts of the game. Starting with level 3 and every four levels beyond that, you get to shoot at 30 bugs that fly in, perform various acrobatic maneuvers, and leave. If you shoot them all you get 10,000 points. In addition to the standard bugs, a few of the Challenging Stage enemy designs are not seen elsewhere in the game. The design of the enemy in the last (eighth) Challenging Stage before they cycle is obviously inspired by the Starship Enterprise.

There are actually three games in the classic "Ga*" series. The first, Galaxian, was released soon after, and was obviously inspired by, Space Invaders. It had a formation like Space Invaders, but instead of descending as a group to the player's level, occasionally enemies would leave formation and attack the player more directly. They also only fired shots while attacking. It's interesting as an artifact of its time but is not really fun to play now. The "boss" bugs from that game, however, have become one of Namco's minor trademarks, making cameo appearances in various places, such as being one of the "fruit" in Pac-Man.

The third game, Gaplus, came after Galaga. It is interesting for its own host of reasons. It's not at stylish as Galaga, is less focused, and a bit more confusing, which might explain why it was nowhere near as popular. It does have interesting gameplay features, including the ability to move vertically on the screen and a powerup you can use to capture alien bugs and use them to provide you with extra shots. The naming convention of the games also obscured its connection with Galaga; one variant changed the name to Galaga 3 (despite being the next game after Galaga).

Later Namco made a variety of other ports and updates. The NES version is fairly good. At one point Namco figured it'd make "arrange" versions of its classic arcade properties. I'm not too fond of these versions, to be honest. Of course recently there's Galaga Legions and Galaga Legions DX, Namco's attempt to transfer some of the magic from Pac-Man CE over to another classic arcade game.

Of all the variants of Galaga, I think the only one that could be considered the equal of the original is Galaga '88 (sometimes called Galaga '90), a full update that doesn't lose sight of the charm of the original, while still updating it and providing mostly good improvements on the formula, like a special fighter that represents a triple ship (it's only as wide as the double ship, thankfully), a couple of scrolling areas, and a unique "Dimension" system that lets players wanting a greater challenge get it while remaining accessible to more casual players . In the Challenging Stages, now called "Galactic Dancin'," the enemies still come out in formation to be shot at, but they now fly around to catchy music! It's one of those things that, before you see it, you don't know you missed it, but afterwards it seems obvious and awesome.

Here's part of a game that goes through most of Galaga '88, cued up to start at the first Galactic Dancin' level.

Here's a video of the remixed Galactic Dancin' stages offered as an option in the rare Sharp X68000 home computer version of Galaga '88, featuring cameos and music remixes from other classic Namco series. (It concludes with the arcade game's impish high score entry music, which always makes me smile.)

One weird thing about Galaga '88 demonstrated by that last video: if you wait through a Challenging Stage without touching the control (not firing or even moving horizontally by a single pixel), you won't hit any enemies of course, but you'll get a secret bonus of 10-15K points at the end. This is less than you'd get if you perfectly destroyed all 40 enemies, since you're missing out on both enemy destruction and formation clearing points, but probably more than if you shot 39/40.
posted by JHarris at 4:38 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was only good, not god
posted by thelonius at 10:57 AM on July 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by JHarris at 10:59 AM on July 14, 2014

posted by thelonius at 11:01 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just checked -- I said my first video, re: Galaga '88, was cued up at the challenging stage but it doesn't seem to have hotlinked that part of the video. If you're interested, here's a link to the good bit.
posted by JHarris at 1:59 PM on July 16, 2014

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