Monday, September 29, 2014

Drew Reviews: Galaga

Galaga by Michael Kimball
3 Stars
Pages: 136
Publisher: Book Fight Books
Released: July 2014

Guest review by Drew Broussard 

The Short Version: Everybody has a game that they love, that means something special to them.  For Michael Kimball, that game is Galaga - and he explains not only what makes the game marvelous but also what makes it so important to him in simple, honest terms.
The Review: I'm too young to have really ever encountered arcade culture.  Oh sure, I've been to arcades and played plenty of arcade games - but home systems were the norm by the time my friends and I were old enough, so we only know of things like Pac-Man and Galaga through a different lens: that of their being 'classics', respected but also a bit antiquated. 
But that doesn't make them any less potent than their successors.  For every memory I have of playing Myst or Heroes of Might & Magic III, I have to acknowledge the simple wonder that was these games.  These games that made our games possible.  And it's not like we're unfamiliar with Galaga, us millennials: we caught that reference in The Avengers, you know?
But this book is as much about Galaga as it is about one man's experience with the game and the way that it - not to put too fine a point on it - saved his life.  The confessional bits of this novel are, in fact, rather startling for their openness and simplicity.  Kimball endured a childhood of abuse at the hands of his father and older brother and he's really honest about it.  To the point that he says that he still, many many years later, flinches at unexpected contact.  That's pretty heavy stuff for a book about a video game.
But the thing about the game is, it was his lifeline.  It was something that he found that allowed him to escape - not unlike books, movies, music, etc do for countless others.  If anyone in the world still believes that video games rot people's brains, I'd direct them to this installment of Boss Fight Books.  I challenge you to hear this story and think ill of video games or video game culture.
And when I say that, I do mean the purest form of that culture, that artistic expression.  Example: the Grand Theft Auto games hold no redeeming quality, I'm sorry (except for maybe that horse video).  But the honest joy of playing a game and acquiring skill at said game - even if it's a skill that can't exactly be replicated in the world (e.g. shooting alien bugs from the sky)... there are a lot of good things that come out of it.  There's even a delightful list towards the end of the novel of "lessons" that can be learned from Galaga about life - and, you know what, they're good ones.  Simple ones, but they're good ones.  Sometimes, especially in light of tough times, it's good to be reminded of those simple, good life lessons.  
A word, in closing, about the book-as-concept.  Kimball uses the structure of Galaga to tell the story both of his life and of the game and its development - but there are, not surprisingly, moments here that might only appeal to the hardcore fan.  Or that feel a little like filler in order to flesh out the 255-stage concept.  This is the danger of a series like this (I think, too, of the 33 1/3 series - some of those are great, others... not so much).  I'm intrigued by Boss Fight Books, believing immensely that video games (especially classics) deserve the attention that music/movies/shows/books have received... but also, you have to know that they're for a limited audience no matter who writes it or what game they write about.  Still, if you're part of that audience, you'll enjoy this one, and even if you aren't, Kimball transcends the traps that a lesser writer could easily fall into with a book like this.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  Again, it's a question of your interest level.  If you're into classic games, this is ideal.  If you're into stories about how [insert artistic thing here] shaped the life of a young person, this is also ideal.  Kimball does a really great job at elevating what could've been a boring, dry fact-based thing about the game into a deeply personal look at life, at youth, and at love - of others and of an object.  Your mileage will vary, but the fact is: this book does what it sets out to do and more.  And for that, it is a success full-stop.

Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble.  He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.

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