Thursday, June 4, 2020

Coin-Op Time Machine #4: GORF

The year is 1981. I was 9 years old at the time, having just moved back to Western Massachusetts after a brief residence in Norwich, CT. When I visited the Holyoke Mall with my paternal grandmother that summer, there were two Just Fun arcades in the Cafe Square food court. One was a big room, with lots of machines... and the other was considerably smaller, with fewer machines lined up along the walls. Two of the machines had voice synthesis-- Wizard of Wor, and the game featured in this installment of Coin-Op Time Machine. 

It's a game that I dropped many of the limited quarters and tokens I had at the time into. It's a game that I would eventually get to play at will on the home versions for my Commodore VIC-20 and, later, my Commodore 64. It remains one of my favorite arcade games of all time. That game is...

Distributed by Midway in 1981, GORF is a repeating series of five levels as players fight the evil Gorfian Empire as they man ships representing the Interstellar Space Force... and, no, neither Christopher Nolan or Donald Trump had anything to do with the name. After beating all five levels, the player receives a promotion in rank and the levels repeat at a higher difficulty. The game provides an option to play with three lives in reserve for one credit, or six ships in reserve for two credits. Each mode of play has its own high score board-- although no initials can be entered for high scores, which is too bad.

Let's examine each stage:

The first of these stages will look familiar to any arcade veteran. Dubbed Astro Battles, this stage is a wave of enemies from Space Invaders, with a couple of notable differences. For starters, an arcing shield protects the player from incoming missile fire as long as the player's ship isn't shooting back. The player's ship can fire faster than the moving base in Space Invaders, and shots can be cancelled by firing again. Finally, there are several different types of targets that cross the top of the screen and can be shot down for bonus points, including an undeniably cute member of the Gorfian Empire. 

The blue background makes incoming missiles tough to spot. This can lead to some cheap, early lives lost. My strategy here, since I first played the game, is to pick off the enemies as they are dropped into formation. As players reach Space Colonel level and beyond, this strategy is almost mandatory. Formations start out very close to the bottom, so quick reflexes and trigger fingers are needed to clear them out. 

Next up, we have Laser Attack. In this stage, there are two squadrons of enemy ships to pick off, each spearheaded by a laser cannon. Much like Galaxian, the ships attempt to dive bomb the player while the laser cannons jump around the screen and try to shoot the player down. Eliminating the laser cannon causes the remaining ships to continually dive bomb the player until they are shot down. Conversely, if the ships are destroyed before the laser cannons, the cannons gain speed and fire faster. 

This level is pretty simple the first time around, at the Space Cadet level. As ranks increase, however, the ships move faster and are harder for players to dodge. The preferred strategy here is to take the cannons down first, and then destroy the escorts. To be honest, this is my least favorite level in the game. It's easy to make mistakes here, and losing a life or two isn't uncommon. Beginners may wind up losing their extra lives here, and be forced to try and survive through the next three stages without error. It's a weird difficulty spike. 

Galaxians is another level that's going to be familiar, because it's literally Namco's Galaxian. The scoring system varies slightly, and there's a chance that a Gorfian soldier can be shot down as it crosses the top of the screen if it appears, but the core here is exactly the same. What makes this version tricky is that incoming enemy bullets are tiny and not all that easy to see. Enemies also fire a lot of bullets, making it unfairly difficult to dodge everything. As with the original game, try to leave the "boss" Galaxians until they dive out of formation to earn more points for these targets. 

So, you may be asking... how did this game get away with blatantly copying levels from two other arcade games? Midway was the domestic distributor for Space Invaders and for Galaxian in the early 1980s. While Taito and Namco would never allow this today, they let it go back then. When the home versions came out a couple of years later, though, the Galaxians stage was removed... and it wasn't replaced by anything. The only way to play GORF as it was originally released is to play the coin-op version. 

Anyway, moving on...

Space Warp is an interesting level. Enemy ships spiral out, one at a time, from a cluster in the center of a warp hole. Each ship takes a different path; some fly in tighter outward spirals, while others take a more oval-like trajectory. These ships also fire torpedoes with varying speeds at the player, which can be tough to dodge, Additional enemy ships are added after the Space Cadet rank, and their speeds increase. 

There are two ways to approach this level. The first is to stay close to the bottom of the screen and focus on dodging everything. This is an effective strategy if trying to conserve lives, but avoiding ships doesn't add to a player's score. The other way is to move the ship up closer to the center of the screen and shoot down enemies as they emerge and before they can fire. This strategy works best early, but as enemy ships get faster from Space Captain level and beyond, it's also risky. I tend to do the latter, but that's after years of play. 

Finally, we come to the Flag Ship level, which is my favorite in the game. At first glance, it seems easy. It's just the player's ship and the enemy flagship, with its obvious glowing reactor core as a target in the center. Before long, though, the challenge becomes very apparent. For starters, the flagship has a shield that the player must shoot holes in before any missiles can find their targets. Hitting the core isn't easy, and any part of the ship that a missile hits careens back down toward the player. It's deadly if it hits the player. The ship also frequently drops torpedoes down toward the player. From Space Captain level onward, two Gorfian soldiers also appear and drop down toward the player. 

It can be very difficult to keep track of everything here. Falling pieces of the ship are easy to miss at times, and torpedo fire intensifies as the flagship descends toward the player. Cutting through the shield can be annoying, and it's always frustrating to line up the perfect shot... only to have it strike a small piece of the shield that remains. With persistence, skill, and a bit of luck, eventually a missile will find its target. And, when it does... 

Watching the screen flash and then the flagship explode for 10 seconds while seeing the rank rise to the next level is always satisfying. Then the levels start again, with faster enemies, more projectiles, and more ribbing from the Gorfian Emperor. It becomes a battle of endurance, as players must stay focused and avoid mistakes in order to keep playing and compete for a spot on the leaderboard. There isn't an ending here, so good players can shoot for becoming Space Avengers-- the best warriors on all of the Interstellar Space Force. 

GORF still holds up today, nearly 40 years later. Competing for high scores has become a bit of a lost art in modern video gaming, but GORF defiantly dares players to rack up the points. Putting your score up on the leaderboard was a badge of honor back in the 1980s. You never knew when someone better might come around and knock you off... so you dropped another token in and tried to beat your new high score. High score competitions were at the core of arcade culture back then, and I definitely miss it. 

In fact, I miss all of arcade culture. I miss the ambient sounds. I miss watching other players and learning from what they did. I miss the thrill of shooting down another player's score. I miss watching attract screens and perhaps learning a thing or two from them which convinced me to try them. There was rarely any trash talk, and arcade attendants never took kindly to jerks. 

I'll always feel fortunate that I got to be an active part of the Arcade Era. 

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