Radiant Silvergun, that masterpiece of design and engineering, is surely the most famous Japanese shoot ’em up from the genre’s golden age. But it’s Battle Garegga that, for many, holds the era’s crown. Released in arcades in 1996 it’s by far the plainer-looking creation, a muted palette of World War II gunmetal greys and khakis foreshadowing the next decade of militaristic video game colour schemes. Unlike its peers and rivals, which have your fidgety aircraft feinting and swerving through a brightly coloured hail of enemy bullets, Battle Garegga’s designers make you navigate a shifting maze of realistic looking artillery fire. The grey and silver bullets blend infuriatingly with the tops of trees and froth seas over which they zip. No boss fights with sprinting deities here, either. Just a corridor extending up the screen and beyond, filled with battalions of crotchety tanks, kamikaze biplanes, and the odd spindly air fortress.
By 1998’s launch of the Sega Saturn version (the only one to successfully flee the arcades till the unbelievable arrival, next month, of a twentieth anniversary PS4 rerelease) there was little to mark Battle Garegga out from the shmup pack, aside from the prestigious name of its developer, Raizing, and the unlikely choice of publisher, EA. Sure, this was a game filled with a bewildering cascade of tokens and power-ups, but at a glance, its rules seemed routine, obvious, antique: Shoot them before they shoot you; Collect everything in sight; Make it to the end in fewer than three lives. Then, slowly, players began to notice arcane complexities.
For example, up to four drone-like ‘options’ could be collected and added to your ship’s arsenal. With a press of a button these could be arranged into different configurations, providing a wide spread of fire across the screen, or made to spin in a circle around your craft. Canny players noticed that, if you collected medals in a certain order, new configurations for your drones would be opened up. Then, there was the question of the game’s weird difficulty. Players who followed the typical shoot ’em up play style, taking down every enemy, collecting everything in sight and so on, would find that by the time they reached the game’s latter stages the game had become almost impossibly challenging. Conversely, players who died frequently along the way had a far easier time of it. Battle Garegga was unquestionably a classic. But nothing quite made sense in its knotted, topsy-turvy world.