Chances are, if you ask a hundred Garegga fans which stage is their favorite, most of them are gonna point to this one. Yet, with its simple cloudy background and subdued music, it’s hard to see why.
So why do people love it so much? Because stage 5 is a masterclass in pacing. It is a slow build to a glorious end. It is the perfect embodiment of Battle Garegga’s thesis.
...and is the utter deconstruction of that thesis.
After a few warm-up planes, the level kicks in for real with these floating aircraft carriers. They come in one at a time, and then keep coming in one at a time for a couple minutes—hella long in shmup time. In any other game this would be asinine filler, yet in Garegga it works. But why?
For starters, these enemies are the most perfectly Garegga enemies in the entire game. Each carrier contains four rear turrets, six front turrets, a front cockpit serving as the core, and six grounded planes along the middle which leave behind items. Because of this, you can approach and exploit these enemies in a variety of ways. Those playing for score will want to jump in and scoop out the medals from the center, leaving behind the other powerups. Those desperate for resources can use this time to power up and collect bombs. Those who merely wish to survive can take the core out from a safe distance, letting the items slip away as they move on to the next one.
However, these carriers have another secret. As you could probably guess, the rear and front engines can also be destroyed with a bomb, and they’re worth quite a lot. Which means that those who are committed to playing for score can then sacrifice their bombs to fully destroy these ships. As these engines also hold the turrets’ bomb chips, players will need to then quickly scoop them up in order to keep going.
Of course, an abundance of power-ups is also video game-speak for imminent danger. Could we really be approaching the end?
Commence the arrival of the bosses from stage 1 and 2. They’re amped up, but the general strategies remain the same. However, things are a lot different from when we last saw them. While it’s fairly easy to control your resources during the first two stages, it is much more difficult to maintain such control for five. Mistakes sap your lives, tight situations warrant safety bombs, and scoring errors can put you thousands behind the extra life you’ve planned for. Plus, since you’re fighting the bosses back-to-back, you gotta make sure that what you have can serve two.
Thus, players are lead toward adopting different strategies due to the change in context—that is, improvising. This simple difference is enough to turn a boss rehash into something that feels significant. It reinforces the freedom you’re given to mix up your strategies.
Finally, we come across the mammoth ship being built back in stage 3. Our ship is dwarfed by its now-complete form; it likely being fifty times larger. But since its turrets are all discrete, we are still able to pick away at it bit by bit. Since the turrets even drop bomb chips, we could also choose to torch the ship itself, stripping it to its skeletal state. Even when faced with seemingly-impossible obstacles, Garegga lets you choose your own way through.
Until the fuselage cracks, and we find ourselves face to face with Black Heart.
Black Heart represents the negation of all of Garegga’s tirelessly-established principles. Instead of a collection of armaments to pick apart, you have a core and two wings. The wings are invulnerable too, just to rub it in. Instead of phases determined by parts destroyed, you now have phases determined by core health—with them only switching after the previous attack completes. Everything about Black Heart is ruthlessly prescriptive, and comes as a shock in this game which up until now has never told you what you ought to do.
The attacks during phase 1 are randomly chosen. In a way this pattern is stating that you’re not allowed to control or even know perfectly what’s coming up. Instead you know just enough to know that Black Heart’s decisions are outside of your control. You cannot even anticipate it; you can only cope.
Black Heart alternates between this random array and a wide vulcan which locks you in place. We’ll examine this one later.
Phase 2 begins with Black Heart dropping down and attempting to incinerate you with its afterburners. There’s a striking note of sadomasochism in this attack, as it is easy to position yourself directly beneath the boss and fire directly into its core. It’s as if the pain is irrelevant; what truly matters is that you are under its control.
This dive is then alternated with a zig-zag radial bullet pattern emitted from its core. Attacks with no blind spots are rare in Garegga; most patterns can be dodged entirely, and those which can’t can often be simply prevented. You do not have this luxury here. You are forced to pick your gaps to dodge through.
Yet despite being radial, this attack still takes the player’s position into consideration. Attempting to follow the paths of the zig-zag will cause it to readjust to your location, distorting the pattern and making it more difficult to dodge when it swings back around. One way or another, you’re gonna have to dodge through.
Phase 3 is much the same as the first. The random array is back, and just a touch more brutal. It is similarly followed-up by the wide vulcan.
Only this time it moves.
It’s one of the most iconic attacks in the game, and its deviousness is clear as day. The shots are moving so fast that, if you try to bomb out of the attack, one is bound to clip you anyway. The spread is so wide that, even if nothing clips you, it’s nearly impossible to fully escape its attack range. In a game which has always given you a way to regain the upper hand, you are left with no outs. In a game where nearly everything can be avoided, you are forced to confront the unavoidable. You must swallow your pride and recognize the hopelessness of your ingenuity. You must now do exactly as you’re told. And you must remember that Black Heart is responsible for your enslavement.
And you’ll remember even after it is long gone. But that’s irrelevant. Death is a meager price to pay for the utter subjugation of another, if only for a season.