Space Invaders - 1978

Game Profile
Original platform:Arcade machine
Brief description:Fixed shooter (space warfare)
Number of players:One or two
Developers/contributors:Taito Corporation

Space Invaders is probably one of the best-known and most fondly remembered arcade games of any description in the history of video gaming. It was the creation of Japanese game developer Tomohiro Nishikado, and was released by the Taito Corporation of Japan in 1978.

Prior to the arrival on the scene of Space Invaders, video arcade games had not made much of an impression in Japan. The most popular arcade game at the time was something called Pachinko, which was essentially a Japanese version of the "one-armed bandit" coin-operated gambling machine. Following the release of Space Invaders, large numbers of Pachinko machines were rapidly replaced by Space Invaders cabinets. The arcade machines were originally manufactured by Taito in Japan, and were later manufactured under license in the United States by the Midway division of the Chicago-based Bally Manufacturing Corporation.

Nishikado reportedly took his inspiration from a number of sources, including Atari's Breakout game, Byron Haskin's 1953 film adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and the film Star Wars which first appeared in cinemas in 1977. He spent a year developing the game and its associated hardware. His intention was always to produce a shooting game of some description in which the targets would be moving objects, but the parameters shifted somewhat during the development process.

The targets were originally intended to be tanks, planes or ships, but Nishikado was not happy that he could create a convincing enough game scenario involving this kind of military hardware, given the technical limitations within which he had to work. He briefly considered depicting soldiers as the targets, but apparently found the idea distasteful. Shooting aliens appears to have been both the most practical and the most palatable solution.

A screenshot from one of the many playable online versions of Space Invaders

A screenshot from one of the many playable online versions of Space Invaders

The end result, as with Atari's Pong, was a deceptively simple video game that captured the imaginations of millions of people. The game became so popular in Japan that it created a shortage of the hundred-yen coins required to play the game, and supplies had subsequently to be increased. The game allegedly spawned a mini crime wave, with youths carrying out grocery store robberies in order to acquire money to play the game.

Parent-teacher associations in Japan are reported to have attempted (unsuccessfully) to have the game banned on the grounds that it was causing a truancy epidemic. Space Invaders achieved similar success in the United States and Europe. The medical profession in the US reportedly identified ailments such as "Space Invaders Elbow" and "Space Invaders Wrist", while in the UK attempts were made to bring a bill before Parliament to ban the game due to its addictive nature and allegations that it caused "deviancy".

As for the game itself, the aim is simple - destroy as many alien spacecraft as possible in order to achieve a high score and stop the aliens invading Earth. The player is confronted with row upon row of alien spacecraft that traverse first one way and then the other across the screen. Each time the alien fleet reaches one side of the screen or the other, the entire fleet moves one step closer to the bottom of the screen.

The player controls a laser cannon that can be moved left and right across the screen, along the bottom. The laser cannon can be used to destroy alien ships, but can itself be destroyed by projectiles fired by the aliens. Nishikado had introduced a novel element to the video game - an enemy that could return fire, and that could exercise a measure of intelligence in targeting the player's weapon.

Nishikado also demonstrated a degree of ingenuity in exploiting one of the limitations of the hardware. He found that the speed with which the alien spacecraft moved backwards and forwards across the screen was determined by the number of aliens present. The fewer aliens there were on screen, the faster they moved. Instead of trying to compensate for the inability of the processor to keep up with the demands placed upon it, he made it a feature of the game. It thus becomes more difficult to target and destroy the alien spacecraft as their numbers diminish.

The speed of the game is also matched by the tempo of the electronic soundtrack that accompanies it so that, as the spacecraft move faster, the tempo increases. The overall effect is to instil a sense of urgency in the player which grows stronger as the game progresses (I can remember playing this game in an amusement arcade in the late seventies and experiencing a level of anxiety verging on panic).

Players have a fixed number of lives at the start of the game, although they are awarded additional lives if they score enough points. Each alien spaceship destroyed increases the player's score. At arbitrary time intervals, a different kind of alien ship flies across the top of the screen at a much greater speed than the rest of the "fleet". Destroying one of these ships earns the player far more points than destroying a "normal" alien craft, although they are of course much more difficult to hit.

It is also necessary to ensure that no alien craft actually reach the bottom of the screen, because if they do it's game over. There is not much respite, either, when the player has destroyed the last alien craft in the current wave. The screen is immediately filled with a new batch of aliens. Worse still, each new group of aliens materialises just a little bit closer to the bottom of the screen than the previous group, giving the player less time to take out the bottom row of spacecraft to prevent the aliens from landing.

High-value targets appear at random time intervals at the top of the screen

High-value targets appear at random time intervals at the top of the screen

The laser cannon can be protected to some extent using the shields positioned at the bottom of the screen. The player can move the cannon under a shield in order to prevent it from being destroyed. The shields themselves can be broken down by enemy fire, however, so you can't hide forever. You will in any case need to emerge from cover in order to fire at the alien ships. A shield is also damaged if the player fires whilst the laser cannon is directly underneath it.

Movement of the cannon is achieved using either a simple joystick or by holding down left and right buttons (depending on the type of cabinet installed) whilst a separate button is used to fire. In most of the online simulations we have played, the left and right cursor buttons control the movement of the laser cannon, and the spacebar is used to fire the weapon.

Although the arcade version of the game could be played by two players, only one player could play at a time. The interactive nature of the game was thus primarily characterised as a contest between a human being and the machine. Competition with other players did of course exist, for the simple reason that the game not only allowed to player to see their accumulated score at all times, but also allowed the highest score to be recorded on the game machine.

Needless to say, recording the highest score was an achievement many players aspired to. Later versions of the game would also allow the player with the highest score to record their name on the machine (sadly, it was never my name up there in lights).

Most of the game's electronic components came from the USA. The central component was an Intel 8080 microprocessor, and the game's audio was generated by a Texas Instruments sound chip. Since generating colour images was somewhat beyond the limited capabilities of the game's circuitry, the graphics were initially monochrome only.

The arcade machines produced in the United States by Bally Manufacturing had strips of coloured cellophane overlaid on the screen to give the illusion of a coloured graphics display, a practice which was also later adopted by Taito in Japan.

Within two years, Taito had produced more than three hundred thousand arcade machines in Japan, with a further sixty thousand or so being produced in the United States. During the first few years of the game's existence, it reportedly generated revenues worldwide of over six hundred million US dollars per year. This kind of financial return on investment for a video game was unprecedented, and showed that, as an entertainment medium, video games could compete with the film industry in terms of profitability.

Atari were quick to realise the potential of the game, and in 1980 licensed it for several of their game consoles, starting with the Atari 2600. In so doing they became the first company to license another company's game for home consoles. As a result, they made a huge amount of money from sales of their home game consoles. In 1985, Taito licensed the game to Nintendo for their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), but only for the Japanese market.

Space Invaders has inevitably spawned a number of sequels, remakes and imitators, and has undoubtedly been a major influence on generations of games that followed it. Updated versions can be found on many of today's game consoles, and numerous simulations of the original game can be found online.

A pretty good simulation can be found at Like Pong before it, Space Invaders has become a part of popular culture, and has frequently been parodied or alluded to in various forms of entertainment, including television shows, theatre productions, and contemporary music. Pong had proved that video games could be both hugely popular and profitable. Space invaders showed the world just how profitable they could be.