Fighter Captured – Galaga Phil – part 2

In part 1, we traced Phil Day’s history with Galaga… through childhood, adolescence, his university years… Until a chance conversation led him to start competing for the world record. In part 2, he makes his claim for the number 1 spot, but things don’t go always to plan…

Once Phil had achieved world number 3 in Galaga, the word spread at Braidwood Central School. Some students thought playing such an ancient game was a bit dorky, but more & more started to think it was “pretty cool”. They’d leave messages on his Facebook page. Michael left this one: “Make me a Galaga shirt/badge, I don’t care what, just make it and I’ll wear it.” At this time, he’d taken Phil’s lead, and started some competitive retrogaming of his own. He was playing The Pit on MAME and soon managed world-class scores. The Pit is a pretty obscure title. It came out in 1981 – just like Galaga – and it’s the predecessor to games like Dig Dug, Mr Do and Boulder Dash. Phil calls it “The most difficult video game ever.

The Pit - a very rare & difficult arcade game

The Pit - a very rare & difficult arcade game

Meanwhile, he kept playing Galaga, and by May 9th 2009, he triumphed again, beating Richard W Marsh’s score (1.8m vs. 1.58m pts). Phil posted his CD to Mr Flewin, in order to claim 2nd place. And his thoughts turned to retirement. “I was ready to give up – simply because I didn’t think I’d reach Laidlaw’s 2.7 million.” Phil recalls. But his friends were excited about his 2nd place achievement. They pressed Phil to keep going. Another piece of encouragement came via email – from a surprising source. Andrew Laidlaw himself. “He was really encouraging; he told me it was just a matter of time before I’d break his score.” Obviously this competition was going to be very different, from that portrayed in King of Kong. But being on friendly terms with the current record holder doesn’t make the challenge any easier.

Twin Galaxies Certifificate for 2nd place

Twin Galaxies Certifificate for 2nd place

Playing the game at Twin Galaxies’ tournament standard requires both physical and mental ability. For Day, he found that the 1 million point barrier loomed large as he played the game. “I played a lot of games that fell short of 1 million. My heart would race when I got near it.” Phil sought advice from another friend, a former long marathon runner. “He explained that his fitness carried him half way, his desire carried him the next quarter. By the last quarter he was ready to pass out, but it was the crowd that kept him going. He said he kind of finished the marathon ‘for’ them.”

Phi’s friends, family & students rose to the challenge. One friend suggested he set up a ‘Galaga Phil’ Facebook fan page. This he did, and he soon had an idea of how to grow his army of supporters & harness their enthusiasm. For the past few months, Michael had kept suggesting he make badges or t-shirts. So Phil designed some commemorative ‘2nd place’ badges and had fifty made. “I’d post them out for free, provided they asked for it on Facebook.” He explains. “This way their friends, who also might like one, would see.”

Phil's 2nd place commemorative badge design

Phil's 2nd place commemorative badge design

Slowly, the badges & Facebook fans started to multiply. More and more students would meet the world number 2 in the playground, and ask “How’s Galaga going, Mr Day?” All the while, he kept up his regime of weeknight practice/weekend competition. Now that Phil had conquered his fear of the million point barrier, his new challenge was to score a million points using his first life. So he kept practicing. June, July, August… weeks and months went by. Early in August, Phil received his official ‘World Number 2’ notification, and it helped spur him on. A week later, Michael gave him further encouragement for his 35th birthday. “I thought I’d get Phil something unique..” he explains “and since he was getting closer and closer to the world record score, I exchanged $4 for a roll of twenty 20c coins. I wrote on them ‘for Galaga world record attempts ONLY’ and gave them to him as a gimmicky present.” From that point, each time Day used a coin for a ‘serious’ attempt, he’d write a number on the back. He referred to them as his ‘lucky coins’.

The evening of Friday August 28 began uneventfully. Phil went out to dinner with some friends. At the completion of the meal, he did something he hadn’t done for 4 months. He had a short black coffee. Not surprisingly, when he drove home, he felt pretty awake! So, he started a game of Galaga at 10.30pm. He didn’t manage a million points on his first life – he lost it at 750k – but he battled on. Unlike some other arcade games of the era, Galaga doesn’t keep speeding up as you progress from stages 1-256. Phil explains the difficulty curve… “It seems to plateau at around Stage 13 or so. From there on it’s much the same. The truth is anyone can clear a stage on Galaga, but it is the endlessly clearing of each stage without losing your last life that is difficult. Everything is stacked in the computers advantage in Galaga – you will lose, it’s just a matter of time.” Soon, Day hit 2.2 million points. As he told Canberra’s ABC radio at the time, this was when he thought to himself – “I’m gonna break this.” At 2.7 million, he lost two more ships. But most importantly, he’d passed the old record of 2,729,350 points. Phil quickly glanced up at the camera, pointed at the screen, and kept going.

An original Galaga PCB - required under TG rules

An original Galaga PCB - required under TG rules

Soon, Phil reached level 256. Now, in games like Donkey Kong & Pacman, this would result in a ‘kill screen’ where the game would end. But on Galaga’s tournament settings, it simply rolls over to level 1, and continues. Going from level 256 to 1, means a drastic slowing down of gameplay; this took Phil by surprise. But he battled on, until level 12, when a blue bee circled underneath him… and crashed into his final ship. But after two hours and five minutes, his score was over 700k ahead of Andrew Laidlaw’s. He had the unofficial world record score. But sadly, no-one was there to share the moment. His wife, Ingeborg wasn’t within earshot. She was at the other end of the house, doing some gaming of her own: playing Scrabble on Facebook. Phil told her of his score and she asked.. “So, are you going to send it in?” Ingeborg also said she thought he could do better – and maybe get four million! Phil then jumped onto Facebook to update his status: “Phil Day just scored 3,448,630 points on Galaga Tournament.” Then it was time to sleep.

Now that Phil had achieved his target, did it mean his wife could finally get a game herself? “Ingeborg has never played Galaga, so she doesn’t know how exhausting the game can be, but she does know that a score of 3 million gives her two hours of time to herself.” So besides Facebook Scrabble, what does Mrs Day do, while he was busy ‘defending the universe’? “Ingeborg loves cricket, so if that’s on… she’ll be glued to the tele.” Phil divulged. “Also she reads a lot. So much… she’s literally turned the front of our house into a book shop.”

Commemorative T-shirt transfer - modelled by Ingeborg

Commemorative T-shirt transfer - modelled by Ingeborg

Details of Phil’s unofficial record hit the net two days later, and the media loved the story. He appeared on many websites, including Kotaku, the Sydney Morning Herald & Bigpond’s Bennie & Ritchie Show. He was even challenged to an onair Galaga duel on (Australian national youth station) Triple J. I asked Phil what the strangest experience was, during this period. “A German student came to the house wanting to play the Galaga machine. I let him play, then asked him to translate an article about my score on a German website. He was happy to do it. According to him, the article said ‘To reach a score of 3.44 million you would need supernatural powers’.

As usual, Phil sent his DVD to Kelly R. Flewin for the official adjudication. Sure, his number 2 record had taken months to be authenticated, but a World Record claim gets ‘priority’ treatment. One week passed. Two weeks. Then – a bombshell.. Mr Flewin emailed to say there was a problem with his claim. Day’s video camera was set to ‘long play’ – so the footage was too grainy to be accepted. His record was likely to be rejected. Sure, he’d used the same camera, settings & Galaga board as his successful number 2 record, but the referee simply hadn’t noticed the long play problem earlier. Phil was bewildered, to say the least. He really didn’t know what to do. “It took quite a bit to get over the loss, especially since the media thought I was sure to get the World Record – *I* thought I was sure to get the World Record. In retrospect.. I’m glad I kept saying to people that it was yet to be verified.”

Galaga - ship destroyed

For the first time in 2009, Phil’s Galaga sat unplayed.

It remained that way for a week or two. Friends, family & students kept asking when the world record was going to be official. So Phil told them what happened. And most people had a three word answer for him. “Do it again.” Each day at school, he saw a visual reminder of his support base. “Many of the students wore those badges, which was a reminder to play for that world record.” Day recalls. “Often they’d ask how Galaga was going, while others, who I didn’t teach or even know, would ask on Facebook. If it wasn’t for that ‘crowd’ support, I’m pretty sure I would have given up.”

With renewed enthusiasm, Phil played his first complete game since the bombshell. 1.8 million. Not big on his usual scale, but a reasonable effort. He bought a new video camera which would satisfy Twin Galaxies requirements. And he started to play more regularly. One morning, Day noticed something during a practice game. A little gameplay fact that he’d never noticed in thirty years of Galaga gaming. There was a particular insect on the left, that usually caused him problems. If he could take it out early, his chances on that level improved. Three decades on, and Australia’s best Galaga player was still learning. He kept practicing. “I would aim to get a million points without losing a man. Once this became a regular occurrence I felt I was ready.

– Phil attempts the world record – again.


One Response to Fighter Captured – Galaga Phil – part 2

  1. Albert Wollmer says:

    This is outstanding! can’t wait to see more.

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