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Space Invaders - Classic Arcade Games Reviewed
The Original Arcade Game
In 1978, when Taito released Space Invaders, little did the company know the impact their arcade machine would have on the videogame industry. Space Invaders took the video game out of the bar, and into the hotel lobby, the bowling alley and the restaurant. It was a game that had people queuing up to play, and governments ordering more coins to be minted to keep up with the demand. Over 30 years later, people still refer to arcade games with the generic term "Space Invaders", such is the impact of the game on popular culture.
In this article I will be looking back at the original game, and consider its influence on the video games we play today.
Origins of Space Invaders
Inspiration for the game is claimed to have come from several sources, including the Star Wars film which was released in 1978, and the arcade game Breakout. The aliens themselves were said to be modelled by creator Tomohiro Nishikado on sea creatures, and you can see the resemblance to crabs, octopus and squid in the characters. The game featured a number of firsts, perhaps the most significant being an enemy that could actually fire back at you, unlike previous games in which you alone had a weapon.
The challenge for Nishikado in developing Space Invaders was not just that of programming, but also creating the hardware that could bring his design to life. The processors to drive Space Invaders had to be custom made, and a problem with these custom chips accidentally resulted in one of the key features of the game. Keeping so many aliens animated put strain on the processor, resulting in them moving slowly at first, but when the aliens became fewer, the processor was able to process the movement more quickly.
At launch Space invaders sold well in Japan, so much so that it famously caused a shortage in the 100 yen coins used to play the game, and during its life saw hundreds of thousands of units being sold both in the domestic market by Taito and worldwide, where the game was disitributed by Bally Midway.
Space Invader Cabinets
There were two main variations of cabinets released by Taito, the first being the "cocktail" version, so-called due to its resemblance to a cocktail cabinet. This version had a screen sunk in a low table, and facing up towards the glass covered top. Players would sit at the table and play using controls at either side, situated underneath the glass. Rather than players taking turns with the same controls, these cabinets would have 2 sets, one on each side, and the graphics would "flip" 180 degrees to face the current player. The screens on these cabinets had coloured film attached to different areas, rendering the monochrome graphics red, green and white.
The second variation produced by Taito and Bally Midway was the more traditional upright cabinet that is usually associated with arcade games, where the player stands or sits on a bar stool to access the controls. These cabinets featured the now classic artwork associated with Space Invaders, namely the large monsters that strangely do not appear in the game itself - although this is explained by the working title of the game, which was originally "Space Monsters".
Bally / Midway, US
Playing Space Invaders
The game features rows of aliens attacking your 4 bases at the bottom of the screen, with your player represented by a single tank-like ship shooting upwards. As the game progresses, the aliens move from left to right, waving their tentacles at you, and dropping down every time they reach the side of the play area.
Your mission is to destroy all of the aliens, without getting shot yourself, or allowing a single alien to land on Earth, which results in your ship being destroyed. The tension mounts as the aliens dwindle in number, and both the speed of the remaining aliens increases, and also the tempo of the ominous 2 tone sound effect. Extra points could be gained by shooting the mother ship which appeared occasionally across the top of the screen.
Destroy all the aliens, and the process is repeated with a fresh screen of enemies, until each of your 3 ships are destroyed and the game is over.
Playing Space Invaders Games Online
There are a whole host of websites such as Miniclip that allow you to play a reasonably authentic version of Space Invaders within your web browser using flash games technology. These free game websites make the most of the very simplistic nature of Space Invaders, and the fact that it only needs 3 keys to play.
The popularity of Space Invaders lead to the manufacturers of the Atari VCS (later called the 2600) licensing the game for their console, and this one cartridge alone doubled sales of the VCS in 1980, as well as turning home video gaming into a mainstream activity. The Atari game itself was a reasonably faithful reproduction of the arcade original, given the graphical limitations of the 2600 which always struggled with multiple characters on screen at the same time.
In addition to the officially licensed versions of Space Invaders, there were numerous unofficial releases on virtually every console and home computer platform in the early 1980s, all bearing a remarkable resemblance to the original Taito game.
As well as console versions, there were some ingenious handheld versions created, using Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) technology to represent the game on a portable screen. Games such as the Tandy "Fire Away" and CGL "Galaxy Invader" allowed gamers to play a simplified version of the game on the move. These games have now become very collectable, and suprising are still playable today, 30 years after they were released.
Impact Beyond the Arcade
Space Invaders has entered into popular culture in a way that few video games have ever done, with the graphics from the game appearing on everything from T-Shirts to lunchboxes. The classic crab-like space invader graphic, like the Atari logo, has become synonymous with retro video gaming, and the height of geek chic. The game itself has featured in TV shows such as Futurama, where an alien force attacks earth in strict Space Invader formation, and there was even discussion in 2011 of a movie based on the game.
The game has also inspired the street artist of the same name to decorate public buildings with his Space Invader themed mosaics. In 2011 the artist was arrested after being found near the Los Angeles MOCA building with tiles and grout, and although released, several Space Invader mosaics were later found attached to walls in the area.
Arcade Games Influenced by Space Invaders
Space Invaders introduced a new genre of arcade gaming, the "Shoot-em-up", or "Shmup" that has evolved along a number of different routes, but always with the same formula, a ship at the bottom of the screen shooting upwards at descending enempy ships.
In Galaxians, game manufaturer Namco took the central premise of Space Invaders, with rows of aliens arranged above your single spaceship. Rather than the aliens just slowly descending down the screen, they would break off in singles or in a formation and dive bomb your player. This required careful timing to not only avoid the enemy missiles, but also the kamikaze aliens that would destroy your ship on contact. Shooting all the aliens in a diving formation would result in extra bonus points.
The Galaxians game was very popular and ported to a number of home consoles including an excellent version for the British home computer the BBC Micro.
With this game Namco took the rows of aliens from of Space Invaders, and the diving concept from Galaxians, but with much faster gameplay and whole rows of aliens streaming onto the screen in eccentric formation. In between levels there were bonus rounds, where the objective was to shoot all the the aliens as they swooped on and off the screen to score extra points.
A unique feature of the game was the ability for your ship to be caputured by a boss alien equipped with a tractor beam, and your ship becoming part of the alien attack. Shoot down your captured ship's wingmen, and your ship would be returned to you, effectively doubling your firepower, which was very handy for the bonus round.
Galaga had a number of arcade sequels through the 80's and into the 90's, each one introducing faster gameplay and more extravagant graphics.
You could say Gorf was influenced by Space Invaders and Galaxians, or more accurately you could say it just copied them in their entirety. The Gorf game featured 5 levels, including a clone of Space invaders and a game strikingly familiar to Galaxians. There was also a semi-homage to Phoenix, where you had to shoot a mother ship through a small porthole in the base.
This rather cheeky game managed to stand apart from it's predecessors due to the over the top presentation, including a sythesized voice which would taunt players, and a reward system that awarded you a military rank based on the number of levels you completed.
"I'll get you, space cadet!"
Space Invaders Legacy
Space Invaders introduced the world to arcade gaming on a grand scale, and popularised home video games, giving rise to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. Everyone who was around in the 80's remembers the first time they came across a Space Invader machine, and the huge amount of interest that these games caused at the time.
My own experience was as an 8 year old boy, taken by my father to a social club on a Sunday with one of my friends, and discovering a cocktail cabinet version of Space Invaders. We played the game for hours, with coke and potato crisps balanced on the glass top, and had to be dragged home again. That whole week at school we talked about the game, and counted the days until Sunday came around again and we could return to the shiny glass table armed with a pocket full of coins...