Phalanx: The Emperor’s New Groove of Gaming

Most people remember Phalanx for its cover: an old man playing a banjo next to his dog while a spaceship flies by in the night sky overhead. What the banjo player and his hound had to do with a fairly typical space shooter has left laymen and scholars alike arguing for the past fourteen years. The hypothesis that most people work under: it was a clever ad campaign to get people talking about an otherwise unremarkable game. We’re still talking about it almost a decade and a half later, aren’t we?

When I say unremarkable, however, I don’t mean “bad”. I just mean that the title isn’t nearly as compelling as the many, many, many other games of its type that have come out. Ikaruga, most recently, has achieved cult status for its spin on the genre.  R-Type and Gradius continue to have faithful followings, even though they haven’t done anything revolutionary to the genre in almost a decade. The Japanese space shooter’s following has always been greater than that of its American counterpart, but if you get a large group of gamers together in a room, I doubt that there will be more than one or two who won’t pick up and play a shooter of Phalanx’s type when given the option.

That’s because these games are fun, easy to play, and difficult to master. The surface details are superficial, unimportant, and usually the same. Alien race. Last pilot. Experimental fighter. Long Odds. Fate of the World. The story doesn’t matter: these games are based in dogma from an age when story had to be limited so that a game could be played. It was a simpler time, when a game had to be judged on its gameplay alone. A grandiose tale of yore couldn’t save glitchy gameplay; glitch gameplay WAS the tale.

Phalanx, then, epitomized all of the best traits of its genre. It’s got a rocking soundtrack. Its levels get progressively harder until Wink Baufield (the hero of the title, and also candidate for the coveted Most Video Gamest Name Ever Award) finds himself in the ridiculously-silly-hard arena. Its graphics are little better than decent, but its framerate never slows, even when hundreds of bullets, baddies, and bombs are hurling themselves through space toward your A-144 fighter. In short, it’s a challenge that will make almost anyone hurl their controller across the room. It’s designed that way; what’s wrong with that?

We’re going to dive into the realm of personal preferences for a little bit, but I think a title that knows what it is and doesn’t try to go beyond that is a load better than a title that jumps for the stars but stumbles on its shoelaces coming out the door. That’s not to say that innovation is no good: far from it. It’s just that sometimes it’s good to reflect and make something that’s fun for fun’s sake, using the tools of the trade and plying them in a successful manner.

Take The Emperor’s New Groove, for example. Lame title notwithstanding, it’s a fun and funny little bit of animation from Disney, which, at the time of the film’s production, couldn’t decide between producing cash-ins like Cinderella 2 and the let’s-not-get-too-adult noble failures such as Treasure Planet. It didn’t break the box office records, it didn’t win a load of awards, and it didn’t remake animation rules. But it did keep me entertained for about 80 minutes, and still does whenever I’m in the need for a good laugh.

That’s the kind of game that Phalanx is: no-frills fun. Action, and LOTS of it. High-speed thrills through a forest of well-animated alien hardware. Steady streams of little red bullets that mean instant death. A MIDI soundtrack that sets the mood without becoming too distracting (or annoying). A short-but-sweet running time that does what it can with the limitations of its era’s hardware. It’s not an epic, 50-hour magnum opus, but it doesn’t need to be. Phalanx is Phalanx. And in honor of it, this is just going to be a short and sweet review, without any frills. Little more than an ode to a nearly-forgotten classic.

To the Old Man and his dog, wherever you may be, thank you.

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