Every Mission is a Suicide Mission

Accompanying a contestant to a pro-level Galaga tournament to discover how many digital space bugs you have to destroy to find renown, community, and a modicum of inner peace.

Nicholas Mainieri | Longreads | August 2018 | 25 minutes (6,273 words)

A tall man — mustard-yellow face paint, blackened eyes, Slurpee-blue mohawk, ripped denim, fingerless leather gloves, baseball bat on his shoulder — stalks past. He’s what they call a juvieganger, one of the cyberpunks who haunt the nearest interdimensional video arcade. He sneers: “Everyone’s looking around like it’s not 2038 or whatever.” Twelve-foot-tall columnar lamps emanate soft neon blues, pinks, and purples throughout the room. The dark walls bear bright geometric decals that look like 1980s fever visions of space-station Rubik’s cubes. On a row of LCD screens, space fighters zig and zag through cascades of extraterrestrial insects. Music pulses in the air, hypnotic beats threaded with the repurposed tones of old Commodore 64 games. An overwhelmed fighter explodes with a pixelated starburst. We groan, but enemies keep coming. The juvieganger guffaws, then prods a spectator: “You got any quarters, man?”

It’s 2018, and I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the World Championship of Galaga, the 37-year-old arcade game whose anchor sunk deep into the cultural eddies of arcades, bowling lanes, pizza parlors, dive bars, and — at one time — fried-chicken joints, supermarkets, drugstores, and laundromats. In Galaga, a player’s control of the avatar is restricted to lateral movements along the screen’s bottom border. The gameplay itself bears the player irrevocably forward across a universe of multicolored stars. The triangular space fighter, red accents on its white wings, faces squadrons of Galagas. The Galagas are mostly space bugs: bees, butterflies or moths, dragonflies, scorpions, and cicadas (perhaps), but also, on several mildly perplexing stages, things that look like the Starship Enterprise. Dodge their missiles and kamikaze dives, mash the fire button. Once nothing remains but the austere depths of flickering space, advance.

The championship is the main event of the inaugural ScoreWars, an event organized by the arts collective Meow Wolf. It is held in a redesigned wing of their New Mexico headquarters, alongside the collective’s immersive, otherworldly exhibit, “The House of Eternal Return.” Beyond the row of ten Galaga machines hooked up to monitors, the arcade room features dozens of other classics tuned to free play for spectators, as well as a roped-off section of games including Track & Field, Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Robotron, and Nibbler, where well-known players will attempt to break their own high scores. ScoreWars, mindful of aesthetics and propelled by a reverence for the past, strikes a different tone than the contemporary competitions of big-business eSports. There’s something here that, even with the underlying finances, cuts more directly to the heart of what it means to play a game with one’s friends.

Music pulses in the air, hypnotic beats threaded with the repurposed tones of old Commodore 64 games. An overwhelmed fighter explodes with a pixelated starburst. We groan, but enemies keep coming.

Mark Schult, a friendly Hoosier and IT technician, is one of 10 pro-level qualifiers for the championship, where the winner will receive $10,000. Mark wears close-cropped brown hair. There are laugh lines at the corners of his mouth and blue eyes. His cheerful disposition brings the word “Midwestern” to mind. He loves the film WarGames. “A great technology movie,” he says, with bonus points for the scene in which Matthew Broderick plays Galaga. Mark and I work together back in Indiana, at the University of Notre Dame, where he supports the technology in my department. I didn’t know Mark that well yet when, one February morning this year, I overheard him recall eating a corn dog at the mall and listening to the electronic sounds from the arcade’s shadowed entrance like 8-bit sirens in a cave. It slung me back to the fifth grade, the corner of Skate U.S.A., and the frenetic theme of the Street Fighter II cabinet. 

I learned that morning that Mark Schult is a great Galaga player. He is also, potentially, the game’s biggest fan. A partial list of items he owns:

  • black T-shirt, featuring a space fighter and the words Galaga Fighter Training
  • legal Indiana license plate Galaga 1
  • Christmas-ornament-size Galaga cabinet, to scale, fully playable with fingertips
  • several large Galaga wall decals
  • custom-made Galaga travel mug
  • light-up Galaga marquee, wall-mounted like a neon beer sign
  • Galaga jacket patterned with the garish carapace of a Galaga, red eyes glaring out from either side of the zipper

A few weeks before the championship I spoke with Mark in his home office, which is also stuffed with memorabilia celebrating his beloved New York Jets, while he practiced on the MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) computer program. He recounted tagging along to his father’s bowling league matches in Michigan City, where Mark grew up, because the lanes had a Galaga. “I’d bum quarters so hard from his teammates.” Nickels, dimes, whatever he could get. “I’d do anything to play a game.” Then came the Marquette Mall, lunch at Hot Dog on a Stick with his mom, and games at the Goldmine Arcade. When the economics changed, the Goldmine swapped out arcade cabinets for redemption games — tickets for trinkets. The arcade shuttered in the early 2000s, but the largely vacant mall held on until just a few years ago, when it too went out of business. In 2018, drifts of dead leaves gather against the building’s papered-over entrance, and gulls, blown inland from Lake Michigan, orbit silently over the parking lot.

Mark only recently joined the upper echelon of Galaga players with the score that vaulted him into the championship. In the week leading up to the qualifying deadline, he drove daily from work to the Galloping Ghost Arcade in the west suburbs of Chicago — more than 200 miles round-trip — where there was a Galaga cabinet calibrated to the correct settings, and where the arcade could stream his qualifying runs for posterity.

Mark Schult at ScoreWars. (Courtesy Meow Wolf)

Galaga game boards are circuits the size of pizza boxes studded with computer chips and DIP switches. They offer several adjustable variables for gameplay, including rate of fire, difficulty rank (i.e., setting), and total number of fighters. Most functioning cabinets you’ll find feature one of two enhanced firing speeds confusingly referred to as “fast shot” and “rapid fire” — semiauto and auto, basically. Galaga’s original firing speed, however, only permits two missiles to be fired until both have either hit something or left the screen. Indiscipline is a costly vice.

The best players separate themselves by their ability to routinely score more than a million points on the presets known as “tournament settings.” This means: original rate of fire, hardest difficulty rank, and the finite starting total of five space fighters. Heading into ScoreWars, Andrew Laidlaw held the world-record tournament score at over 4.5 million points. His record-breaking game would have stretched five lives across more than three hours of play and something like 14,000 destroyed Galagas, all while limited to firing two concurrent missiles.

The final day of ScoreWars would pit the ten pros against each other in a head-to-head, single-elimination bracket on tournament settings. Laidlaw would compete, as would Andrew Barrow (#2 in the record book) and Phil Day (#3). So would Jon Klinkel, the only competitor to have previously held two separate Galaga records. Klinkel is a friend of Mark’s, his “Obi-Wan.” Considering this, I’d asked Mark while we were in his office whether he felt like an underdog going into the competition.

“I feel like I’ve already won,” Mark said. He showed me his autographed Twin Galaxies trading card of Klinkel. He described a “brotherhood” of classic gamers of which he now felt a part. He’d Facebook messaged with Day, Barrow, and another competitor named Armando Gonzalez. Sharing tips, sharing stories. “I’ve already won.”

Mark shrugged. He glanced at the photo of Joe Namath on his wall and grinned.

“Of course … I’m a Jets fan, and no one expected them to win Super Bowl III, either.”

It’s hard to quantify Galaga’s popularity today. There are indicators, like more than 295,000 individuals tuning in to stream the final two days of ScoreWars, but Bandai Namco keeps revenue figures for the brand confidential. According to a document shared with me by Felix Gonzalez, an international licensing officer at the company’s Tokyo headquarters, the arcade game sold well for four solid years following its release, “an impressive feat of its time.” Since then, versions of the game have been ported to just about every platform invented, from the Atari 7800 to the games tab in Facebook Messenger (now unavailable). According to census ownership records at the Videogame and Arcade Preservation Society, Galaga machines rank 96 on a scale of 100, where 100 means “most often seen” among the collections of the VAPS’s membership. The game’s sustained presence within our cultural imagination is reflected in the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, when Tony Stark busts a Helicarrier tech worker for playing Galaga instead of working. Recently, a university student told me he learned to write code in a high school course by programming a version of Galaga. A new animated television series, The Galaga Chronicles, is in development at the entertainment company The Nuttery (Meow Wolf is a producer on it). The Nuttery cofounder and CEO Magnus Jansson told me he was inspired, in large part, by his own experiences playing the game back in Karlstad, Sweden, his hometown.

Electronic sport was born, arguably, on February 9, 1982, in the Twin Galaxies arcade of Ottumwa, Iowa. The founder of the arcade, Walter Day, recounted the moment for me over the phone. While teenagers put their reputations at hazard amid public trials of Asteroids and Frogger, Walter placed a call to Williams Electronics seeking to learn whether their local Defender high score might be the best in the world. No such database existed at Williams, however; the same was true for every other manufacturer. The corporations were beset with calls just like Walter’s, but they had no answers and likely didn’t care. Arcades bought the games, and kids put money into them. That was good enough.

Walter redialed Williams. Then he called six more manufacturers and a couple of magazines. “We’re your scorekeeper,” he told them. They each insisted his number would go to the receptionist’s Rolodex. Mind clear, Walter returned to his arcade floor and played some Gorf. Within 30 minutes, the phone rang again. On the line was a kid from Goodlettsville, Tennessee, who wanted to report a high score on a new game called Galaga. (Midway had just released it in North America that past December.)

Walter was thrilled, but he played it cool. He glanced at the Twin Galaxies’ local scoreboard and saw that his night watchman had a score higher than the kid’s.

“Congratulations,” Walter said. “You have achieved the world’s second-highest score.”

Six days later, the kid called back: 1,547,000 points, moving him into first.

Before then, arcades had been provincial enclaves. They knew the best gamers on the block. Now, many of them became united, Walter told me, into “a global eSports arena, long before that word was ever imagined.” Game companies directed arcades, players, magazines, newspapers, radio shows, and television stations to Walter Day and his scoreboard. “Galaga was ground zero, the alpha score. We suddenly found ourselves merged into a huge Galaga war that no one knew had existed. Everybody, everywhere, was going for high scores on that game.”

Vince Kadlubek, a Santa Fe native, was born during the great Galaga war of 1982, not that he or anybody else could have known that. In 2014, Kadlubek and a group of like-minded artists calling themselves Meow Wolf threw a rave. In the middle of the party, they set up an arcade cabinet connected to an emulator. While raving, Kadlubek jumped onto Galaga and “locked in, man.” He was there to party, but he “ended up just playing Galaga all weekend.” Kadlubek developed the idea for a new art project: a character known as Galagalubek, the best star-fighter in the galaxy, whose mission it would be to set high scores on every Galaga machine in the state of New Mexico. He commissioned a costume and bought his own arcade cabinet to practice. “I’m gonna walk into a Pizza Hut in Roswell and get the high score on their Galaga. I’ll have it filmed, I’ll blog about it, I’ll raise money around it, blah blah blah.”

As Galagalubek neared mission launch, however, Kadlubek garnered a meeting with another Santa Fe resident, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Kadlubek pitched Martin on his friends’ idea for a Meow Wolf headquarters and permanent exhibit. They just needed the space. Martin, convinced, bought an abandoned, 33,000-square-foot bowling alley in November 2014 and leased it to the artists. Suddenly, Kadlubek had become the CEO of a new company. Meow Wolf’s Art Complex welcomed 400,000 visitors in its first year (2016). “The House of Eternal Return” generated a record $90,000 in one day this March, and on each of the four days I spent there, the entry line was steadily out the door and down the block. But, as a sad byproduct of Meow Wolf’s success, Galagalubek never got off the ground. Once the company found its footing, Kadlubek wanted to return to Galaga and the video game forebears of the Meow Wolf aesthetic. The result was ScoreWars, which Meow Wolf plans to make an annual event.

During the first two days of ScoreWars the competitors play on “marathon mode” (i.e., 18 total space fighters) in order to seed themselves by score for the championship bracket. Galaga’s highest difficulty setting is called Rank D. The gameplay reaches top speed earlier, and when a player clears Stage 255, he rolls to Stage 0, then Stage 1, then Stage 2 … Like baseball or tennis, a game of Galaga could theoretically last forever. But they always have an end. A player lasts as long as his fighters. What matters most is the proficiency of one’s continued existence. Armando Gonzalez, on the first day of ScoreWars, rolls the game to Stage 0 twice as he approaches 7 million points after four hours of play in a single game.

The Bandai Namco documentation shared with me refers to Galaga’s original design as “simple, yet deep.” Its elegance lies in its ability to insist upon a high level of integrity in the gameplay. This is not a game that can be “point-pressed” by running up the score with needless actions. In Donkey Kong, by contrast, a player can mindlessly leap extra barrels for more points. Donkey Kong also boxes players in with a terminal “kill screen,” the interval where the game board simply doesn’t have the memory to continue play. The same is true of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. Scrambled code appears on the monitor and the game resets. Limited in such a way, the pursuit of a high score divorces itself from the game’s purpose: Dicking around with extra barrels has nothing to do with saving the princess. On Galaga’s hardest settings, however, the objective of the game and the achievement of a score are inextricably bound together. A high score is the product of existing well. At lunch a couple of days before ScoreWars, Mark tells me that’s the reason he loves the game: “It’s all on me.”

Galaga’s original boards held three Z80 CPUs, a significant bump in processing power for video games in 1981. The graphics and sound benefitted, but so did the complexity of the experience. I see this exemplified in the range of strategies and styles the Galaga pros employ at ScoreWars. Initially, everybody lets themselves be captured by the cicada-looking “Boss” Galagas’ tractor beams. When you shoot a captured fighter free (as long as you don’t destroy it in the process), it attaches wing-to-wing with your current fighter and doubles your firepower. From there, however, approaches vary:

  • Andrew Barrow, a 29-year-old savant from Wellington, New Zealand, has mastered a style of play that looks automatic. Peter Chapman, the ScoreWars project manager, remarks that watching Barrow is like watching the game demo. His fighter displays no wasted movement. He’s memorized patterns, knows where to be for these bees or those moths, and he doesn’t miss. On ScoreWars’ second night, Barrow lets a 10-million-point marathon run bomb out only because he’s too tired to keep going. Armando Gonzalez calls him “the T-1,000.”
  • Gonzalez’s style, conversely, is physical and aggressive. Forty-four years old, his right hand thrums over the fire button with a controlled blur reminiscent of a lead guitarist’s tremolo-picking. He’s faster than everybody else, a skill grown to match the strategies he crafted while playing the rapid-fire cabinets of Boyle Heights, in East Los Angeles. He dives beneath swooping Galagas instead of letting them circle around. He parks in the corners to cut down moths before they’ve even fully appeared. These are tactics other players find inadvisable, too dangerous. But Gonzalez has angles no one else utilizes. He’s perfected his strategy, clearly one of the top players here. His unofficial scores in L.A. “barcades” would have smashed world records. He just never cared to submit them to Twin Galaxies.
  • Phil Day, also 44, from Melbourne, Australia, is a visual artist and writer. Galaga, he tells me, is like a game of chess. In the opening game, you and the Galagas assemble, maneuvering for position. In the middle game, you try to control the center of the screen. In the endgame, the Galagas swoop toward the fighter and if the player has not set himself up correctly, he’ll quickly be overwhelmed. Phil, indeed, organizes his movements relative to the space occupied by a particular bee on the top left, as if it’s the threatened square on a chess board.
  • John McAllister, 49, a Seattle locksmith, approaches games just like his work — he seeks to unlock them, exploit gaps in the programming, break them down. A puzzle is a puzzle, and he goes at it with a dogged intensity. He’s well known for a marathon record on Asteroids, which required more than 50 hours of unceasing play. He’s only turned his attention to Galaga in the past year, drawn by the $10,000 prize. He qualified in last place, the only score under 1 million, but already in New Mexico his machine has coughed up a 3-million-point score beneath the unrelenting pressure of his focus. McAllister, while speaking to me on the second day of competition, alludes to a “secret strategy” for the championship day, something “no one else has really thought of before.”
  • Mark’s strategy features a bit of everything, an indication I imagine of its ongoing development. In the early stages he looks like everyone else — lining up his first shot, then tracking enemies from one side, drawing fire, and sliding to the other side. As the game progresses, however, he often chases enemies rather than letting them return to him in the middle of the screen. He puts himself in the position of reacting to enemy movements rather than using the game’s artificial intelligence against itself, drawing enemies to the places where he wants them to go.

A really good strategy, as long as the player maintains strict control over his concentration and timing, keeps the player indefinitely ahead of the CPU’s programming. Through practice, the player has developed his approach to the patterns of each stage. But even the most minor mistakes — missing two of 12 moths on their first pass or a half-second-late arrival to a particular line of fire — have ripple effects. Galaga, like chess, features largely prescribed opening gambits; but, also like chess, no two games ever happen in the same way. The casual observer might not notice a small error, but within a moment’s time the consequences have expanded. A player slides to a typically open patch of space only to find it occupied by two plunging moths. Space constricts. He dodges, falls behind, and survives by jumping into the corner, but enemies bear down at an angle so there’s no line of fire. He might be lucky enough to break free by sacrificing one of his doubled fighters, but can he regain control amid the ceaseless waves of enemies? Even if he manages to advance, he won’t have the firepower to prevent another critical mass of Galagas on the next stage, and doubling one’s fighters at the game’s top speed is incredibly difficult. He likely won’t last much longer.

During his first marathon run, Gonzalez has rolled the game from Stage 255 to Stage 0 for a second time. He acknowledges the small crowd behind him during the brief lull between stages by saying, “I just want to get to seven million.” This break in his concentration coincides with a changeup — the game’s fastest pace suddenly drops to its slowest back on Stage 1. Gonzalez’s doubled fighter stutters and collides with an enemy. He can’t get back in sync. Within a few minutes he’s lost several more fighters. His game ends at 6.97 million points. He played for more than four hours on his first ten fighters, but he lost his last eight in nine minutes.

When things fall apart, they fall apart quickly.

(Courtesy Meow Wolf)

Physicist and math professor Tom Asaki, who’s at ScoreWars to play Nibbler, tells me that each video game is its own universe. We seek to understand it by playing. The act of play, then, is a search for meaning, the pursuit of defining oneself relative to a game’s particular context. Each player’s approach to Galaga is the product of that pursuit, of necessarily delivering one’s whole self into the fabric of the game. When Phil Day sought and then achieved the world-record high score in 2009, the endeavor provided him a way of managing severe clinical depression. Arielle Roybal, a 14-year-old competitor in ScoreWars’s amateur-level tournament, tells me she began seeking out Galaga cabinets for the “therapeutic” quality of play, how she can “become completely oblivious” to the things troubling her. Mark unwinds from the workday with rounds of home-console Galaga after his wife Chrissy and their two children have gone to bed. The author Michael Kimball, in his 2014 memoir of Galaga, describes escaping an abusive household through the game; it was his “longest quarter” at Aladdin’s Castle. “It might have saved my life,” Kimball writes.

The ability to extend one’s play (and therefore develop a more consequential relationship with the game) is not an accident. Galaga head developer Shigeru Yokoyama discussed this in an interview translated into English for the occasion of the game’s 30th anniversary in 2011. In 1981, the average single-coin play time for an arcade game was about three minutes. Galaga’s early tests, however, revealed that beginners could play for at least twice as long on their first quarters. This worried Namco — longer play times meant less lucrative games — but Yokoyama stuck to his guns, though this limited how many units would be manufactured. Counter to the era’s corporate wisdom, Galaga became successful because it provided players a more substantial opportunity for the stilled mind and steadied level of focus necessary to play. We tend to fall back on escapism terminology when describing meaningful video game experience, but it is not an escape from one’s own life that Galaga offers; instead, the game lets players live for a little while with inessential burdens pared away.


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“Woo!” Mark hollers.

It’s late on Saturday. Mark hasn’t been playing great, frequently bombing out even marathon games well below the million-point benchmark. “I’m just so exhausted,” he told me. But now, on his last doubled fighter, Mark crosses into 2 million points for the first time in his life, aided by a series of miraculous jukes and dodges. He’s not outrunning the processing with technique. He’s just having fun. “What am I doing!” This feels as exhilarating as watching a small child run through the backyard grass as fast as he can for no reason but the thrill.

When Mark clears the stage, however, he goes quiet and his play changes. He mows down a spiral of bees on the left, slides to the right and meets the moths curling in. The level is over before it really gets going — Mark has used the opening game to eliminate the chance of any major threat in the end game. He nonchalantly picks off the last few enemies.

Next to me, someone says, “He’s in the zone.”

Phil Day describes a Zen-like state he reaches only through pure saturation in the game. For him, it occurs around 1 million points. It’s a physical sensation. He feels like he grows shorter by a few inches, and his peripheral vision fades. He no longer has to aim, his movements seeming almost predestined on the salutary groove of uncomplicated survival. Others describe something similar. And here’s Mark, experiencing it himself, with a quality of play he’s not yet exhibited this weekend. The bass-thump of the music accelerates and Mark rips more than 500,000 points on his last two lives. When he finally tires and bombs out at 2.58 million, the room erupts with cheers. Mark spins from the machine and leaps into Phil’s arms. Mark, laughing, points to the screen where the rankings are displayed, still showing him in 10th, and says, “Change that crap!”

The score cements a championship day matchup between Mark and the relentlessly focused game-smith John McAllister with his secret strategy.

When things fall apart, they fall apart quickly.

On the flight to Santa Fe, I’d read in Galaga’s October 1981 Parts and Operating Manual that I am “the pilot of a space fighter stationed in space to defend your planet against the oncoming hordes of invaders,” which, frankly, is hard to buy, considering the shortage of narrative evidence for that scenario in the game itself. I finally realize, while watching at ScoreWars, that the direction of the streaming stars indicates that the fighter is chasing the Galagas. This doesn’t seem to be a defensive situation at all. When the enemies turn to shoot or dive-bomb, it looks like they are simply fed up.

But it gets weirder. Bandai Namco asserts that “Galaga is set in a living, breathing universe.” The game, it turns out, fits into an uber-narrative called the United Galaxy Space Force Series (UGSF), which spans 5,000 years and incorporates games as varied as Ace Combat 3 and Dig Dug in its chronicles of a forever-war between the Galagas and the UGSF, the space military of the Galaxians (interstellar humans). The whole story is retrofitted, of course. You can read it at a recently translated official website. I can’t get over the fact that Dig Dug takes place in the year 2382, and that Galaga, somehow, is set a century before that. All this gilding the lily distracts. For instance: How in the hell does the UGSF recruit enough space pilots to fuel a five-millenia war when literally every mission is a suicide mission?

Mark and I explore “The House of Eternal Return” on Saturday. We enter onto a dark suburban street in front of a mansion with windows aglow. There’s ambient music and the twittering of nighttime insects. Something bad has happened to the family who lived here. We can go as deep as we want, hunting clues, reading the family’s mail and the notes taped to the fridge. We could thumb through the books on their shelves or analyze the newspaper article framed on the wall of the boy’s upstairs bedroom: “Kansas Teen Plays Record-Breaking Galaga Game.” Instead, we take our own kind of trip, pulling on a bookcase to open an interdimensional portal — a low, worming tunnel banded with red and blue light. We exit and travel through a forest of hanging vines and glowing mushrooms to discover the entrance to Wiggy’s Plasma Plex, the alternate-universe video arcade haunted by juviegangers. In the fiction of the place, the cyberpunk gang runs the petty-criminal empire of a six-foot-five humanoid rat named Plotzo. Vince Kadlubek’s personal Galaga cabinet lives in Wiggy’s now. So does a glitchy Street Fighter II machine Mark and I jump on. The color is off behind a snow of static. Ryu versus Chun Li. Mark’s joystick is broken, but forget the janky machine. We’re playing a game, together, in a space that was made just for that. Meaning lies in the story unfolding at any given moment outside the boundaries of an arcade’s hardware.

A portion of “House of Eternal Return.” (Courtesy Meow Wolf)

Mark wears his Galaga jacket on Championship Sunday. He has his Galaga travel mug. “When’s the next time in my life I’ll get to play against John McAllister?” Today is head-to-head, tournament settings. Highest score wins. If one bombs out, the other plays until he’s either crashed his fifth fighter with a lower score or has surpassed his opponent’s. Mark hops up and down a few times, knees high like a sprinter before a race. McAllister, who keeps his gray hair closely shorn and has glasses with thin metal frames, arrives in a vintage Joust T-shirt tucked into black denim shorts. They bump fists, and the match begins.

Mark doubles his fighter then quickly clears Stage 1. Meanwhile, McAllister is doing something strange, letting each of the first 40 Galagas fly into view and form up, pulsing as though with collective breath. When they bank and plunge toward him, he dodges, sliding back and forth and rarely firing. Mark is through three stages before McAllister has finished with one.

An explosion resounds. Mark loses his first fighter on Stage 4 — way too early.

McAllister’s secret strategy is twofold. First, he’s slow-playing the easiest levels, watching Mark race ahead so that he has an idea of the point total he needs to aim for. Second, he’s point-pressing, which everybody says is virtually impossible in Galaga. You get a few hundred more points if you shoot the insects at certain moments — when they’re diving, for instance, or after a bee has multiplied into three scorpions. It’s peanuts in the grand scheme of a multimillion-point game goes the theory, and not worth the risk of letting the CPU’s processing pile up. But McAllister has practiced on MAME for the better part of year, memorizing patterns of attack in a crowded stage should he move his fighter here or there.

Mark doubles back up, then quickly loses another ship. His gameplay looks tentative, halting. By the time he reaches Stage 13 the game is at top speed, and he’s dodging in desperation.

Boom!

McAllister has lost his first ship. By the time I look — boom! — he’s lost another. He is still a few stages behind Mark, and suddenly they are even at three fighters apiece. By score, Mark is well ahead. As the speed of McAllister’s game picks up, his point-pressing strategy withers with head-scratching moments of disaster, his fighter yawing directly into trouble. Enemies materialize where he doesn’t expect them. The geometry overwhelms. His fighters stutter and explode once, twice. One fighter remains. Later, McAllister will be flummoxed, telling me that something in his MAME-developed strategy didn’t translate to the arcade cabinet. While the emulator program had allowed his point-pressing, the complexity of the original game board denied it.

Mark, on his own last life, succumbs to the constricting waves of enemies on Stage 25. Game over at the paltry total of 269,120 points. He raises his arms: “That’s all I could do.”

McAllister, on his last fighter, is still 40,000 points behind with no functioning strategy to guide him. The game is too fast for the firepower he has. Mark joins us to watch. At 243,000 points, the Galagas funnel McAllister into a corner. It looks to be over but he dashes through columns of moths and bees to regain the center of the screen.

Mark actually cheers: “Let’s go, John!”

The game continues, slower now. 248,000—250,000—255,000.

At 257,000, streaking missiles herd McAllister’s last fighter into a purple-and-blue Boss Galaga’s tractor beam, whump-whump-whump. The fighter flashes red as it spins, rising.

We’re playing a game, together, in a space that was made just for that. Meaning lies in the story unfolding at any given moment outside the boundaries of an arcade’s hardware.

In his 2017 narrative history of video games Bit By Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World, the author Andrew Ervin states that “mimesis is not the point” of games, or any work of art really. “Realism,” he writes, “is secondary to a representation’s ability to pose questions about reality itself.” For me, the games that pose the most interesting questions are the ones unrestricted by the ticking clock or final boss. Modeled on our own prosaic fantasies of immortality, they offer preventative doses against despair. A. Bartlett Giamatti, once the commissioner of Major League Baseball and a great scribe of the game, called this “the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion.” We are creatures who need games which kindle in us the belief that something might last, for the ascending arc of the spirit at play skirts wonder. The fiery descent, however, is of equal value. No final buzzer required. No credits reiterating the fiction. The abrupt end is the organic function of having been alive in the first place. Games like this, returning to Giamatti, are “designed to break your heart.” Every mission is a suicide mission, but that is why it matters. If the player forgets about the inevitable end, then the revelatory heartbreak underscores the inestimable value of the preceding revelation: You exist. In this, games refurbish one’s capacity for wonder.

McAllister’s fighter is still spinning when the Boss Galaga explodes. I’m stunned, confused. I didn’t know it was possible to shoot oneself out of a tractor beam. The bosses are the only Galagas that must be shot twice. This one was purple and blue. If McAllister hadn’t already shot it once it would have been green, I realize, with no escape possible. His fighter returns to the bottom of the screen as his score lurches past Mark’s. He bombs out, 4,000 points ahead. There is clapping, cheering. Mark is the first to reach McAllister, congratulating him.

It’s also important to remember that something can just be fun, which is profound enough. On Saturday, Galagalubek bursts from within a smoking Galaga cabinet to challenge the champion of the amateur tournament. Galagalubek’s helmet and belt and boots are trimmed with glowing neon tubes. He wears a cape made from the enmeshed 2D carcasses of Galagas — destroyed, I presume, by his own hand. When he plays the amateur champ head-to-head during an intermission on Sunday, Europe’s “The Final Countdown” blares. As if some interdimensional rift has opened, the whole crew of juviegangers arrives from Wiggy’s Plasma Plex, flooding into the competition room. They jeer at spectators and pump-fake with their baseball bats. Mark bounces around now that he’s been eliminated from the competition, taking photographs with new friends and joining the live Twitch broadcast to offer enthusiastic commentary.

Galagalubek takes his turn. (Courtesy Meow Wolf)

Andrew Barrow and Armando Gonzalez face off in the championship bout. Mark pumps up the gathered onlookers, running back and forth: “Are you ready!” Barrow’s game is characteristically crisp, but Gonzalez makes a catastrophic sequence of errors early on. Hemmed into a corner, he loses his first fighter just as the game reaches top speed. A stage later he loses a second one, shooting it himself as he tries to double back up. He’s down to three fighters before reaching 100,000 points. But Gonzalez adapts. He regains the upper hand and survives for three more hours. It’s an impressive feat, pushing Barrow to his own limit but not overtaking him. When it’s done for Gonzalez at 2.8 million points (good enough, at the time, to secure fourth place in the tournament-settings record book) he collapses onto the cabinet’s control panel, head in his arms. Mark and the others rush to embrace him.

Less than a month later, Mark will be sitting on his couch and watching the NHL playoffs when he receives a message from Barrow in New Zealand. Gonzalez, Barrow tells him, is making a run at the tournament-settings world record. In the weeks following ScoreWars, they’ve all encouraged Gonzalez to go for it, and now he’s playing at the Los Angeles home game room of Hector “Fly” Rodriguez, the legendary Track & Field player who was also at Meow Wolf. Mark springs from his couch and sprints to his computer. He, along with his fellow Galaga champions, logs onto Hector’s Twitch stream. Together, from their disparate corners of the globe, they’ll watch as Gonzalez soars to a record-obliterating height: 6,056,490 points.

But back in New Mexico, once Meow Wolf has closed the arcade to all but the competitors and artists, I see Mark venture to a Galaga machine and sit for a game by himself. No spectators. This is about something else, anyway — the simplicity of playing a game that he loves. After his match against McAllister, I’d asked what was next for him. He had shrugged, smiled small, and said, “More Galaga.” Now I watch him, absorbed in a game whose stakes need not extend beyond himself. Around us, bottles of champagne appear. Barrow hefts a giant novelty check, which yields lots of jokes about how he’ll get it through customs. I watch as Mark clears a stage. For a breath, his companionless craft drifts across the flickering universe — a lone soul amid all the great, improbable tumbling. It is an indispensable reminder, for after his solitary mission has concluded, and when it is time for me to go, I find Mark laughing with a group of other players. I hope there’s champagne in his Galaga mug. I tell him I’ve got an early flight out of Albuquerque tomorrow. Mark thumbs toward Klinkel and Phil Day and Gonzalez and Barrow and all the rest. He says, “I’m gonna hang with these guys as long as I can.”

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Nicholas Mainieri is the author of The Infinite, which was a finalist for the 2017 Crook’s Corner Book Prize and listed among the best books of the year by Southern Living Magazine and WBUR’s On Point Radio. His work has also appeared in The Southern Review, the Southern Humanities ReviewSalamander, and Hobart online. He holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and currently lives in northern Indiana with his wife and son.

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Editor: Ethan Chiel
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler
Copy editor: Jacob Gross