There are hardcore videogames, and then there are hardcore videogames, the ones that break down all but the most stubborn and defiant of players. Ninja Gaiden on NES is one example, Battletoads is another. Raizing’s Battle Garegga easily belongs in this club.
For the last 15 years, the Shmups.System11 forums have conducted an annual poll to rank the 25 greatest arcade shooters ever made; Battle Garegga nearly always finishes in first or second, losing only to Cave’s DoDonPachi. This game has become a holy grail for the genre thanks to a combination of brilliant audiovisuals, a deep and richly complex gameplay system, and absolutely crushing difficulty that rewards patience and practice. It inspires and frustrates in equal measure, and I’m not just speaking for myself. Even if you find yourself overwhelmed and pulling the hair out of your head, you have to enjoy the ride and respect the effort.
Battle Garegga is a vertically-scrolling military shooter that reminds you of the classic Toaplan classics like Twin Cobra as well as Capcom’s 194x series. You fly an assortment of fighter planes across skies, mountains, forests, oceans and industrial bases. The game’s design feels like a 1940s version of steampunk, World War II mashed up with futuristic anime machines. Each of the four main fighter planes have their own unique attacks as well as “option” fighters who accompany you in a number of aerial formations. Sneaking through the options menu reveals four extra fighters who originally appeared in the 1993 fantasy-themed arcade shooter Mahou Daisakusen, as well as a host of customizable options that will keep everybody happy for a long time. Believe me, you’ll need some of ’em.
Visually, this game is a sprite-crushing masterpiece for Sega Saturn, pushing the system’s 2D powers to its limit. All of the enemy ships, tanks, bunkers and aircraft shatter and explode in bursts of shrapnel, sometimes falling slowly out of the sky, sometimes exploding in a burst of fire. Add to this the impressive number of bullets filling the screen at any given time, as well as their varying shapes and sizes, in addition to your own cannons, fireballs and smart bombs. Saturn takes all of this in stride. I can only imagine how badly the 16-bit consoles would have choked trying to handle these graphics.
Note the first stage boss battle against an large bomber armed with multiple gun turrets and cannons, each of which fires dizzying rounds of bullets in your direction. As you shoot out the engines, rolling walls of flame erupt from the wings. Eventually, a large cannon emerges and fires mortar shells at you. After that is destroyed, another weapon emerges that unleashes spread-shot patterns in your direction. All the while, dark clouds race below you as a deep canyon stretches in the distance. It’s quite an impressive feat; if anything, it’s a little too impressive at times.
This brings up a common sticking point with this game: it’s very to lose track of who’s shooting at what. The shrapnel blends into the bullets which hides behind the explosions which gets lost in the rust-colored backgrounds. Expert players and those who have devoted months and years of playtime will manage nicely, but what about the rest of us? Tough luck, kid. Tell it to all those GIs who were cut down on Normandy Beach without warning. This is war. Also, and this is the more honest answer, this is a video arcade game, and the manufacturer requires you to drop another two quarters into the machine every sixty seconds. Indeed, Battle Garegga’s ranking system is designed specifically to punish you for not dying on cue, ramping up the difficulty based on a number of factors. Again, the experts have learned how to game that system and manipulate it for maximum effect (such as knowing when to avoid power-ups and when to lose a life), which is one key reason why they love it so much.
Battle Garegga is one of those videogames that I deeply respect and admire, but only play on rare occasions. The difficulty is simply too far off the charts for me, and I say this with the awareness that I could become better if I just sat down and practiced more. If I were still ten years old, I would probably have this game wrapped around my fingers. That said, whenever I pop the disc into my Saturn, I quickly find myself wondering, Hey, why am I not playing this more often? It’s certainly a better waste of my time than channel surfing the idiot box or flipping through Twitter in the vain hope I will learn something. Toss in a tall glass of Guinness and Pearl Jam on the turntable, and that’s a pretty good evening.