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The making of Taito's classic retro game Space Invaders

Updated on January 21, 2015

Back in 1978, there wasn't all that much to do in the arcades of those days. There were plenty of cabinets with all the latest videogames, but all of these were more or less based on the same archetype: Pong. The idea behind Pong is very simple. Move a rectangular block around the screen and try to hit a smaller, square block to the other side of the screen, where a friend (or the machine) is moving another rectangular block. Whenever the 'ball' went behind the block of your opponent, you had scored a point.

At that time, creators of videogames came up with all sorts of variations on this theme. Add two rectangular blocks and you had a game of football, for instance. Companies like Atari were trying to make variations that were a little bit more out of the box. Breakout for instance, where the action was turned around 90 degrees. Instead of from left to right, you hit the ball from the bottom of the screen to the top of the screen. There, tons of colored blocks were waiting to be destroyed by the ball.

The man behind Space Invaders

Space Invaders was designed by just one man: designer/programmer Tomohiro Nishikado. Nishikado had started his professional career working as an audio professional. When he left the company he used to work for at that time, a friend of his advised him to consider working for Taito, one of the first companies in the world specialised in videogames. Nishikado was not that interested in electronic entertainment at that time, but was tempted to show the people at Taito what technical skills he possessed. Around the time he started working for Taito, Atari had just released Pong, and Taito was in the process of making as many clones of this game as possible, all with a few small variations on the original model.

Nishikado was also allowed to work on this, and was excited to do so, since Pong was quite revolutionary for it's time. Before Pong, all games in the arcades were combinations of electronical and mechanical parts, but Pong was the first game that was all electronics. Nishikado analysed Pong and made no less than 10 different variations on the game. And so, the technician became a true games designer, who started to nudge the boundaries of what was possible.

It's a War of the Worlds!

Nishikado started working on his greatest game yet: Space Invaders. His inspiration for the game came from Star Wars, the classic scifi story War of the Worlds and Breakout. The last two games are the most clear inspiration. The aliens in Space Invaders look like the aliens in the old movie version of War of the Worlds, and when you put Breakout and Space Invaders next to each other, it's very clear they have a lot in common. In both games the idea is to remove the elements that are at the top of the screen. In Breakout you do this with a ball, in Space Invaders by shooting them.

In Space Invaders you control a spacecraft situated at the bottom of the screen. A little above you, there are a bunch of strong walls, that can withstand a fair amount of destruction. This destruction is levelled at you by the aliens hanging at the top of the screen. They are grouped in neat rows, shuffling across the screen, dropping bombs every now and then. As you shoot more and more aliens, they start moving faster. When few are left, they move at high speed and become harder to shoot, even more so when the last one is left. Besides this, when the aliens reach your defense, the walls disappear, and you only have a few chances left to shoot the remaining alien(s) before they collide with you and you lose a life...

Above the rows of aliens, all the way at the top of the screen, a smaller UFO might appear. This one moves a lot faster than the rest of the aliens. If you are able to shoot it, you get bonus points.

A hit in the making

The fact that the aliens were moving, and even shooting back at you, was hard to grasp for the people at the head of Taito, who were afraid this made the game too difficult for gamers. Up until the release of Space Invaders, games had not been that difficult, and this new game seemed much too intense. Nishikado did not want to budge and insisted his game would be released as he had intended it. He tried to convince his superiors that this game was the future of gaming. In the end, after a lot of discussion, Taito agreed to release the game, and they have not regretted that decision. The game did not just become popular, it was a nation wide phenomenon. The urban legend goes that when Space Invaders was released, in some parts of Japan there were no coins of 100 yen left, since they were all used for the game!

One of the things that sets Space Invaders apart from other games of that time is the look of the aliens. Up until that time, game characters had no character (after all, they were only blocks), but Nishikado had created characters that had distinctive features and looked like the nasty aliens they were. This was a big part of the success of the game. Well, that and the highly addictive gameplay of course. We can be thankful to Tomohiro Nishikado for creating his game when he did, and making it so memorable.

The success of the game was also noticed outside of Japan. The American videogame company Midway bought the rights to release the game in arcades, while Atari snapped up the rights to release the game on consoles. For Midway, this meant long lines in front of the Space Invaders cabinets, while the game was also a big reason why the Atari VCS 2600 console became such a huge hit. Up until then, the Atari 2600 had not sold all that well, but as soon as the Space Invaders cartridge was in the shops, with more than 100 different versions of the game, both game and console sold like hot cakes.

Every company making videogames at that time released a clone or variation on Space Invaders, making it one of the most cloned games in the history of gaming. Taito didn't mind too much, in fact they released many sequels of their own. Even recently, Taito released two new versions, namely Space Invaders Extreme and Space Invaders Infinity Gene. The genius and lasting popularity of the original game shows, because both games were successful. Having that said, neither game came even close to reaching the level of success of the original game. It's still the most successful arcade game ever, and without it, chances are videogame consoles might not have been as popular as they are now.

Watch Space Invaders in action

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