Fighter Captured – The Galaga Phil story

Back in August, you may have heard about an Aussie getting the unofficial World Record for Galaga. His name is Phil Day, and there’s much, much more to the story. But first, we have to go right back to the very beginning in Goulburn… a city two hours southwest of Sydney…

One day in 1979… Anthony Day & his friends went to play at the local squash courts. Accompanying them was Anthony’s younger brother Phil, aged 5. Whomp, Whomp, Whomp. What was that new machine against the wall? Space Invaders. This was the era when pinball was king, and videogames had only been around a few years. But Space Invaders was far more detailed than anything they’d seen before. And – far more addictive. Five year old master Day happily watched the older boys, as they took turns obliterating the black & white aliens… Whomp, Whomp, Whomp…

As a new decade began, videogames became colourful, and much more popular. More arcades began to appear, such as the one that opened in 1981, in the Bradfordville Shopping Centre. There Phil discovered games like Moon Cresta (which he found really hard), Frogger (he didn’t like it), and Scramble (a game he rarely got to play, as the older boys hogged the machine). But Phil did get a chance to play another game; Galaga. He enjoyed it’s faster movement compared to that of Space Invaders. And even though the enemies had no official names, master Day made up some. “I called the blue and yellow aliens ‘bees’, the red ones ‘moths’ and the Galaga bosses ‘cicadas’”.

Frogger - Moon Cresta - Scramble

The shopping centre’s arcade soon closed its doors, so the Day boys had to find a new location to play the “Spacies”. A local bowling alley became the new haunt. Some of Phil’s favourite games there included Dig Dug, Moon Patrol & Dragon’s Lair. Ahh yes, Dragon’s Lair. Phil loved drawing – so Don Bluth’s interactive cartoon was quite a revelation. Another part of the attraction might have been the free games! Phil was given free credits on Dragon’s Lair by other players, so he could show them how to progress further. An added benefit was that more money could be spared for Galaga! And while it may not have competed with the visuals of Dragon Lair, it certainly kept Phil occupied in the early 80’s.

Dig Dug - Dragon's Lair - Moon Patrol

Dig Dug - Dragon's Lair - Moon Patrol

In those days, elder brothers could be relied upon for arcade adventures. Parents.. were less supportive. Phil’s father didn’t like videogames at all. He was a cobbler, who managed the shoe shop in the main street of town. His lack of gaming enthusiasm may have stemmed from the business next door – an arcade called Con’s. He told his son – “If I ever see you in there – I’ll kill you!” Mrs Day didn’t mind her son playing videogames, though she considered them a waste of money. Little did she know whose money was at risk! “I used to slide a butter knife into my mum’s moneybox which she kept by the phone.” Phil admits. “I would jiggle a coin onto the knife and gently slide it out. But I never took too much; otherwise it’d be a bit obvious.”

By the mid 80’s, scrolling platformers became popular in arcades, and some of Phil’s favourites included Ghosts ’n’ Goblins, Rygar and Green Beret. The other genre to explode at this time was racing games, but Mr Day had no time for them… “I never liked racing games, particularly those ones where you’re sitting in a car or on a bike that jolts and moves around.” Arcade titles were increasing in complexity, yet Phil could still find a Galaga game when he felt the need for some old school space insecticide. Of course, he had other interests in his teenage years.. with a blossoming interest in art, and a healthy participation in cricket.

Ghosts n Goblins - Green Beret - Rygar

Ghosts n Goblins - Green Beret - Rygar

After high school, Phil’s interest in art led to studies at the Canberra School of Art, at the Australian National University. It was during this time that he met his wife, Ingeborg. Outside of his classes, Phil enjoyed the other attractions a city of Canberra’s size has to offer. He started playing squash. He visited Canberra’s arcades, including Happy Days which still had a resident Galaga machine. And Namco’s classic game also featured at Heaven nightclub, where Phil’s friend Bruce was a DJ. The two students would play Galaga in between DJ sets.. and Bruce came up with a special rule. Whenever a Michael Jackson song came on, they both had to abandon the game, and head to the dancefloor. Well, at least it got Phil off the machine…

In 1997, our moonwalking gamer had completed his studies, and co-founded a private press, to print limited-run art books. At this time, Phil went blind in his left eye. Losing his depth of field meant that he could no longer play cricket or squash. “This maybe one of the reasons I turned my attention to Galaga…” Phil suggests. “This is where video games are a great equaliser. Doesn’t matter what age you are, or gender, or in my case, if you are blind in one eye, you can still be a serious contender.”

Galaga - Title & gameplay screens

Five years later, Day moved to Braidwood, and became the Art & Design teacher at a local school. And in 2007, his favourite game appeared in his life again. Braidwood’s Royal Cafe had a Gallag (Galaga clone) machine, and Phil introduced the game to one of his art students, Michael Ison. Michael had no experience of old-school games. He scored around 30,000 points. You can imagine his face as his teacher scored 750,000! Phil and Michael wondered what the Galaga world record for the game might be… Googling led to the Twin Galaxies scoreboard, where Richard W Marsh had the number 1 spot, with 1.5 million points. That seemed like a pretty difficult challenge. But Day continued playing the game regularly. It was a good way to unwind after a school day.

When people talk about a videogame world record, you might assume there’s one per game. But Twin Galaxies has two records for Galaga. One is the ‘marathon’ record, where the game is adjusted to give you 3 initial lives. More ships can be earnt at 20k points, 70k and every 70k after that. The marathon record is rather aptly named – it would take you at least 10 hours to beat the current champ! The other Galaga record is named ‘tournament’. The player starts with 5 lives, but no more can be earnt. So game times are much easier on the bladder – at around one to two hours. Tournament is the variation that Richard W Marsh played.

Onscreen "tournament" settings for Galaga

Onscreen "tournament" settings for Galaga

In 2007, Phil’s interest in art & classic gaming collided in a most unexpected way. He attended an art exhibition, and got talking to an older woman. She told him about a film she’d just seen; a documentary, about 2 Americans competing for a videogame world record. Yes – it was King of Kong. Soon, Phil saw the movie with a mate, and even before the credits had finished, he’d decided to buy a Galaga machine, and go for the record. It was time to get serious. But when Day revisited the Twin Galaxies scoreboard, he got a rude surprise. “I checked the high score and discovered Marsh’s score had been surpassed by Andrew Laidlaw, and surpassed by quite a bit.” (2,729,350 pts vs 1,557,50 pts)

Phil was undeterred. But he knew very little about buying an arcade cabinet. The one thing he did know – from King of Kong – was the necessity of using an original game board to compete on Twin Galaxies. This led to much frustration. Each time he tracked down a ‘Galaga’ machine, it actually had an ineligible 48-in-1 “bootleg” board. Eventually, Day found a man selling a Hankin upright cabinet in Melbourne, with an original Galaga PCB. The deal was done, and soon it arrived safely at Phil’s home. He began his ‘training’. Unfortunately, he had to end it – within a few weeks! The machine had begun to overheat and malfunction. He contacted a local arcade supplier, A Blast from the Past Amusements, and they kindly offered a free repair. Soon, he was back on track.

Phil Day & his Hankin upright cabinet with original Galaga

Phil Day & his Hankin upright cabinet with original Galaga

At the outset, Day was reasonably confident of reaching 3rd position. A score of 750k (which he’d achieved at The Royal Café) would be more than enough. His new retrogaming friend, Michael Ison was more than an arts student. He was also a target shooter, who had a useful tip for a would-be endurance champion “Go off the coffee – it’ll help you concentrate.” Another friend, who played for (Australian rugby union team) the Wallabies agreed. So that’s what Phil did. Coffee was out. Soon, he developed a routine.. one hour ‘Galaga practice’ each weeknight, then two or three games back to back on the weekend. Phil set up a camera tripod to film his weekend games, just in case.

From mid March, he’d regularly update his Facebook status… 577k… 734k… 770k… 845k… 899k.. Then on April 11, he made an unofficial claim on 3rd place, with a score of 1.06m. Phil sent his DVD of game footage to Twin Galaxies senior referee, Kelly R Flewin. Mr Flewin is one of a number of judges who verify the tapes/DVDs sent in by players from around the world. It’s only once this process is complete, that a score is validated. Soon, Phil got the news from Twin Galaxies – he was the official “World number 3” for Galaga tournament.

Phil gets the world record – or does he?


7 Responses to Fighter Captured – The Galaga Phil story

  1. Phil says:

    Thanks for all your hard work.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by justonemoregame: Please RT… JOMG’s *biggest* story yet! “Fighter Captured: the dramatic tale behind the new Galaga record.”

  3. Damon Claussen says:

    Great story. Best of luck pursuing the top notch for Galaga. The Blast from the Past Amusements mention was very surprising. Our company had the same name and was started in 1997. We restore and sell classic 80s arcade video games. Too funny.

  4. […] the classic videogame Galaga, an Australian called Phil, and how he got there. You can read it at this link here and (probably) be inspired to dig-out your own copy of Galaga or thinly-disguised knock-off title […]

  5. […] Bei mehr Interesse: Die Galaga Phil Story ! […]

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