1UPs for rent

I can remember only three things about Raizing’s celebrated/feared arcade shmup Battle Garegga: It’s rank-based, which means the difficulty dynamically alters depending on your actions as you play, it’s really hard even at the best of times, and counterintuitively to established genre rules you’re supposed to  kill yourself off at several points due to the aforementioned rank-related shenanigans and other sundry tactical reasons. After my first session with it in so long I honestly couldn’t tell you which century I’d last played it in, I have a fourth fact to add to my little list: The default bullets are so tiny and have such poor contrast against everything else I literally gave myself a headache trying to pick them out amongst the scenery.

It’s not a great first-ish impression for such a widely respected shmup, and after that disappointing encounter I put it down for a bit to find something less painful and more productive to do, like tread barefoot on Lego.

Pouting concluded and one “Red Ball” switch in the options menu later so I can at least see what it is that’s killing me every five seconds and… no. I’m still clearly sore from last time and not in the right frame of mind to give it a fair shake. The best thing to do in situations like this is to think about some of the positives before having another go, so let’s start with the presentation: Garegga feels enjoyably course and worn, the slightly rough nature of the sound effects and speech samples complimenting the Irem/Nazca-ish industrial-fantasy pixel art well. And when you’re not being blown to smithereens every other moment it does feel exciting and dramatic, with the lack of pre-boss fanfare – there are no big warning screens, excitable snatches of dialogue, or switch to fast paced music – somehow making them feel more dangerous, like they could pop up any time they choose. The manual is slender but mostly helpful, confirming that chucking a life away really is a recommended tactic, (temporarily) lowering the difficulty. The final few pages also casually mention a terrifying feature I had no idea existed: using your standard shot contributes to your rank and increases the overall difficulty.

To slightly rephrase that for emphasis: Shooting things in this shmup only makes the shmup harder.

At least now I know how the basics work, although I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to do with that knowledge. I also know that taking screenshots during a run is a really bad idea, which is why the majority of images on display here show some frankly appalling first-go scores. Time to try again.

It’s clear that there’s a lot going on in here. A lot. Pressing any valid button (or even no button at all and letting the timer run out) to select your chosen ship changes their colour scheme, name, and special properties – standard, better speed, or smaller hitbox (or a semi-hidden combination of the latter) – turning four basic ships into sixteen bewildering options. Then there’s the secret point-boosting birds on the second stage I am apparently the last person on the planet to learn about, the extra 1UP in the Factory stage hinted at the in manual, and so much more. And so I go in handling Garegga like it’s radioactive – I don’t have the time to learn all this stuff, and I don’t want to spend a single second of my day playing like I’m actually going to break records or get a 1CC or play in an optimal manner; I just want to have fun.

But… but what if this game can do both? What if it can make the hardcore shmup mechanics the fun part?

I find myself feeling a different sort of headache coming on this time around, but only because it turns out I’ve been subconsciously furrowing my brow in concentration as I play. I can’t help but get drawn in. I want to get better, I want to understand how this all works and learn its secrets. I restart stages over and over again because I died when my pride tells me I really should have dodged something, and have to remind myself that this is a game where not only do people tend to die a lot at the best of times but dying can actually be the right thing to do. Over time my ship starts to feel a little less strange, and enemy attack patterns become familiar if not something I can reliably avoid. Eventually I earn enough points for my very first 1UP, which on the default settings also means my score is impressive enough to sit at the very top of the game’s (default, empty) high score table. Two tiny arcade shmuppers, one holding a pitchfork and the other a harp, sit on my shoulders, pointing out that’s a goal I should’ve reached two stages ago and praising my huge improvement respectively.

My single credit exhausted once again, I input my name in the high score table and start over, only to reach – and outdo – my previous high score a whole stage earlier. A whole stage. From that moment on I’m hooked and I play until my fingers hurt, until I’ve pushed every default off the high score table and I feel disappointed in myself if I’ve not hit certain (low) score thresholds by particular points in a stage. I’m finding score enhancing medals more consistently, discovering new ones hidden in what appeared to be nothing more than background scenery, and have even started daring myself to tactically destroy parts of larger ships before blasting away at the centre so I can wring every last point out of the stage. The medals I collect tend to be worth more too, even if these happy chains don’t last for as long as I’d like.

I’m in love.

Battle Garegga reminds me of Treasure’s Ikaruga, both of them beautifully crafted action-puzzles in shmup form. The idea of reaching the fourth stage (of seven) before I use up all my lives may remain tantalisingly out of reach but I want to get there because every extra inch scrolled, every high score outdone, feels like a real triumph. I can now see why so many people practise so hard to perfect their own runs, why so much praise has been heaped upon this game over the years: Garegga’s difficult, and obtuse, and weird, and incredible.

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