WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Mastering a classic arcade game isn't a lucrative hobby, so some of the world's best players of "Galaga" were thrilled to get all-expenses-paid trips to New Mexico to compete in its first-ever world championship.
The Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf showcased the game at its Score Wars tournament in April, with a top prize of $10,000.
Online platforms like Twitch that livestream events have brought a surge of interest in watching others compete on video games. While modern games like "Fortnite" dominate the scene, there's renewed interest in the retro games that started it all. Some 300,000 people tuned in to watch the livestream of the "Galaga" tournament.
People who grew up playing the game, like Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek, are part of that resurgence in interest. Many now have the time and income to become collectors of classic machines or to chase records.
THE GAME: Released by Namco and Midway in 1981, "Galaga" became one of the most popular arcade games. Players maneuver spaceships to shoot down bug-like aliens. In the 2007 documentary "King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," author Steve Sanders calls it one of the top five classic arcade games — along with "Donkey Kong," ''Pac-Man," ''Ms. Pac-Man" and "Defender." ''If you want to be known as world class, you have to master one of these games," he says.
THE KING: Andrew Laidlaw, 53, of Kirkland, Washington, entered the competition holding a 7-year-old world record of 4.5 million points on the game's tournament mode, as tallied by official record keepers Twin Galaxies . While growing up in Colorado, Laidlaw would bike to arcades to play.
THE CONTENDER: "Galaga" was invented eight years before Andrew Barrow, 29, of Wellington, New Zealand, was born. After playing at arcades with his dad and brother, he switched to playing competitively online. Since computer scores don't count for official arcade records Barrow, who is also an elite "Donkey Kong" player, flew to Australia to play on arcade machines there after struggling to find suitable ones in New Zealand.
THE FORMER CHAMP: Artist and former teacher Phil Day, 44, of Melbourne, Australia, is a past world record holder of what he calls, with his Australian accent, "g'LAR-ga" instead of the more common "GAL-aga."
THE DARK HORSE: Armando Gonzalez, 44, of Los Angeles, started out playing an easier, rapid fire version of the game, switching to the original arcade version to compete in the tournament. Gonzalez's opponents didn't know his skill level: Suitably, he changed his social media avatar to a dark horse.
GAME TIME: Ten players compete in the knock-out rounds, playing simultaneously on machines lined up at Meow Wolf's Score Wars event. Laidlaw beats Day, advancing to the semifinal against Barrow. Both have about 2 million points and three ships when — boom, boom — Laidlaw loses two ships. He waves at the machine and gets up, grabbing his lucky stuffed green alien toy.
"He's walked out. He's given up," a commentator says on the Twitch live-stream. "It's over, man."
Slapping his hand in excitement, Barrow stands up, letting go of the joystick and losing two ships. He extends his hand toward Laidlaw, who sits back down and continues playing his final ship.
"I think he's up. But he's back down," one commentator says. "No, but Barrow got up," says another. "Oh. Wait. I don't know what's happening."
"Was it a clever fake-out?" the commentators ask. The referee rules Laidlaw conceded. He says he got up to concede but when he saw Barrow was down to one ship thought, "Game on," assuming Barrow lost his ships during gameplay.
"It was pretty weird," Barrow says. "I'll give him the benefit of the doubt."
GAME OVER: In the final, Gonzalez makes the rookie mistake of shooting down one of his own ships. He fights on, drawing level with Barrow after a 2-million-point tear. He's in the zone, feeling like he's dancing.
But he loses more ships and it's over. Barrow is the first "Galaga" world champion.
"That was a brutal match," Barrow says. "It was up and down the whole way."
Before the final, Barrow and Gonzalez had agreed to split the $15,000 total prize for first and second no matter who won.
"I told him, 'You keep the money. You deserve it. You beat me,'" Gonzalez says. "But he said, 'No, we had a deal, and I'm going to stick to it.'"
BEYOND THE ZONE: A few weeks later, Gonzalez scores just over 6 million points on a friend's machine, smashing Laidlaw's record.
Twin Galaxies verified the record Thursday, putting Gonzalez on top of the all-time leaderboard.
"I was in the zone," Gonzalez says. "Even beyond the zone."
Laidlaw's ready for a comeback.
"Armando and Andrew are capable of beating my record any time they want to," Laidlaw said earlier. "When they do, I'll take it right back. I promise."