Games live or die by their first stages. As stage 1 is where the rules of the game are established, perceptive players should, by its end, have a handle on what is possible within the game’s scope. And because everyone is already familiar with the basic rules of this genre (shoot, dodge, etc), good developers can use stage 1 to highlight what makes their game different from the rest.
Just a few seconds after the game begins proper, you are confronted with what you see in front of you.
Yep. Garegga don’t fuck around.
But this prompts the player to shoot, and upon doing so they find that ground enemies drop trinkets. Since there are so many, the player is bound to collect a few and notice that the meter at the lower left is going up. If they collect enough (and there are plenty of opportunities to do so), the meter is replaced with a bomb icon. The player learns how the bomb system works, is rewarded with one, and realizes that, if they want bombs, they’re gonna have to work for ’em.
Following that, air enemies start flying in and, as they’re shot down, items appear. Here, the developer took care to make sure that items cycle in a specific order:
- The player collects a and they get 100 points. These must be important for scoring.
- The player collects a and it powers up their shot. Cool.
- The player now sees a , notices it looks different, and collects it for 200 points. They now assume that collecting more of these will lead to greater values. They might even be curious if there’s an endpoint to how big they get, and will keep playing to try to reach that end.
- The player collects a , making the ship spawn a new little helper. These are called “options” and, like the medals, it does make the player wonder how many of these you can collect.
- Finally, the player collects another and hears a click. So, as you get stronger, you must need more powerups to level up.
But the player doesn’t have much time to think about these, since the first large enemy appears from the top-left. Its spread is denser than anything you’ve faced as of yet, and is just threatening enough to perhaps make the player try out the two other buttons on the machine. Button 2 deploys your hard-earned bomb, likely obliterating anything it touches. However button 3, unusable up until your recent option pickup, changes the position of said option. The fact that this operation gets its own special button makes it clear that effective option positioning is key to successful play.
To hammer it in, a fleet of active tanks now appears from the right side. As the player’s option is placed on their left side, you can see that this formation is just built for destroying with your option. Your main shot takes out the big row and your option picks off the flanks.
Finally, the stage concludes with a cart traveling along a railing. If the player doesn’t notice it right away, they’ll likely only be able to pick off the rear parts to get bomb fragments. However, a clever and powered-up player might choose to pick off the head, stopping the cart dead on its tracks and being rewarded with multiple option items. This is important because it shows that the game is fairly liberal with its powerups. It’s pretty easy to max out your options right there—and it’s only stage 1!
Likewise, if you happen to die soon, you’ll notice that you’re not that screwed. Though you’ll lose a shot power level and all your options, they’ll just fly to the top of the screen and are usually easy to re-collect.
Now remember when I said that Battle Garegga is a game that rewards thoughtful play? At this point, if you really think about it, you might realize how absurd this power-up system is. Why offer the player a lot of powerups when it’s easy to max out and there’s little risk of losing them? Unless, perhaps, there are situations where you might want to pass them up?
When people learn about Garegga for the first time, its dynamic difficulty system is usually one of the first things brought up. Usually it is portrayed as an opaque, counterintuitive, and brutal system. Yet situations like this only serve to telegraph that there might be repercussions for how you play.
Finally, we reach the boss. Unlike a lot of other games, where a singular boss throws out a series of patterns, Garegga’s bosses operate more like a collection of turrets connected to a central power source. This gives the player a lot of freedom in how they want to take the boss out. You can choose to focus all your firepower toward the core, withstanding the full force of its attacks but only for a few seconds. You can choose to cripple the boss, taking out its most dangerous armaments before unloading into the now-helpless fuselage—its power tied up in useless weaponry. Or you can choose to pick off each and every part, leaving behind just a clean carcass.
THE SECOND TIME
Of course, if you start taking a liking to Garegga, you’re gonna be playing this first stage many, many times. Good developers also realize this, and attempt to add layers of depth into stage 1 so that even players who have played it a hundred times will still have something to challenge and engage them.
Which brings us back to this initial formation. Let’s assume you want all the bombs you can get. Well, turns out you gotta pull off a complicated routine to scrape up all 30 chips. Timing your shots to hit every tank is a precise affair, and it requires quite a bit of practice to execute the whole thing without compromise. Fortunately you get the opportunity to practice each time you start a new game. Having this sort of bomb-collecting minigame helps to get people fully engaged right from the very start, no matter whether this is their first or fiftieth time at it.
Next, you’ll notice that a similar railing appears around the time you get your first option item. It’s difficult to pull off, but here it’s also possible to pick up three options where you previously got only one. Once again, powerups are always available when you need them.
Players will also notice that the option cycling allows you to aim your options backwards. However, they might also notice that no enemies actually appear from the bottom of the screen. This begs the question: why even have it in the first place? And to be honest, it’s up to you to figure it out.
T3-Kamui, famed superplayer, once stated that the beauty of Garegga is in how it brings out the personalities of its players. Every puzzle has multiple solutions, even for the same ship. Some solutions are easier, some are harder but more lucrative, some are necessary as a tradeoff for something else, and some are just flashier. But you get to choose which one you’ll employ. And maybe seeing these backwards options will get you to experiment.
Lastly, if the player decides to bomb, they’ll notice that their bombs affect the environment. Buildings will be burnt to the ground, and railings will collapse in a heap of medals. While doing this is pointless now, it will become a very useful mechanic later. Nevertheless, making the game consistent with these rules from the start is a nice touch.