Concept to Console: ‘Space Invaders’

There are few games throughout the lifetime of video games that are really integral pieces of history. But if you could make a case for any game, it would have to be 1978’s Space Invaders. It’s a game that even non-gamers will be familiar with – an alien shooter that is responsible for the first video game boom and currently ranks as the highest-grossing video game of all time. So where did it come from?

Space Invaders was created by a designer called Tomohiro Nishikado, who at the time, was fresh from the release of a combat flight simulator called Interceptor and was seeking a new challenge. He reported being inspired by an Atari arcade game, Breakout, in which you move a paddle and ricochet a ball against a wall of bricks to eliminate them. Nishikado’s plan was to create a shooting game that drew on similar principles of completing stages by destroying targets, but he wanted to push the graphical capabilities of an arcade cabinet – thus, he decided to use moving enemies who could retaliate.

He said: “My aim was to give players a shooting game the like of which they’d never experienced before. I did have the notion that I was introducing a new gameplay element, as the trend had been for only the player to shoot, but here the enemies fired back. More than that, though, my focus was more on beginning software development for the microcomputer I used for the game, which was a new sensation given that games had been developed on hardware up until then.”

But what enemies should he use? Early designs for the game included tanks, combat planes and warships but, as Nishikado noted, “the movement and animation didn’t match the game”. Trying different enemies revealed that “by far the best match were soldiers, but shooting people was frowned upon”. Eventually, he saw what happened with Star Wars: “I realised I could use aliens because no-one would complain about shooting them. For the actual design of the aliens, I took inspiration from HG Wells’ octopus-like Martian design.”

Space Invaders was one of the first games to become a popular phenomenon, and it’s no understatement to say that it rewrote the rules of gaming

Development proved a challenge for Nishikado, who was limited by hardware limitations and slow processing speeds. He later said: “The halting movement of the Space Invaders characters was the absolute best I could deliver, but it eventually grew on me.” While programming the game, he found that the processor was able to render each frame of an alien’s animation graphics faster when there were fewer aliens on the screen – thus, the reason they come at you faster towards the end of the game was simply a computer problem. Rather than solve the problem, Nishikado kept it in as a challenge and inadvertently invented difficulty spikes in the process.

The game was released only in Japan at first, and it wasn’t an immediate success. But after a few months, the advanced graphics and new kind of gameplay became a sensation – Japanese gamers were waiting in line for hours to play because developer Taito simply couldn’t keep up with demand. The game’s success caught the attention of Midway, which secured a licence to release the game in the USA, which began the worldwide dominance of Space Invaders. Many arcades featured nothing but Space Invaders, and by the middle of 1981, it crossed $1 billion in worldwide revenue.

In 1977, the home console market was really struggling – game developers were essentially only releasing Pong and clones of Pong, so gamers were bored and uninspired. But Space Invaders was the new life the console market needed. In 1980, Atari landed the first home console licence for the game, the first time an arcade game was licenced for the console. Sales of the Atari 2600 quadrupled, and more than two million Space Invaders cartridges were sold in its first year. The prospect of Space Invaders really helped shift systems.

The game influenced video games in a myriad of ways. Nishikado decided to link the player’s score with their in-game progression, leading to high scores being permanently saved to the arcade cabinet for all to see. This simple act transformed gaming from a bit of fun to a competition. It inspired some of gaming’s greatest creators, including Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto and John Carmack. Deus Ex creator Warren Spector said: “Space Invaders and games like it represent the roots of everything we see today in gaming. It represents the birth of a new art form, one that literally changed the world. Space Invaders is important as a historical artefact, no less than the silent films of the early twentieth century or early printed books.”

Space Invaders has seen countless remakes, ports and sequels – a particularly interesting one is the 2008 WiiWare spin-off Space Invaders Get Even, which lets the player control the aliens. It has been referenced and parodied in a variety of films and TV shows – I really like the ‘Anthology of Interest II’ episode of Futurama, which pits Fry against Space Invaders led by Lrrr. After Lrrr’s ship, the last surviving one, reaches Earth, he admonishes Fry: “You are defeated. Instead of shooting where I was, you should have shot at where I was going to be.”

The game even made it into the Museum of Modern Art in New York. According to Kate Carmody, curatorial assistant at MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design: “Space Invaders met the criteria we defined for outstanding interaction design. It is a classic that is important to the history of gaming and technology as well as to the history of electronic interaction design.”

Space Invaders was one of the first games to become a popular phenomenon, and it’s no understatement to say that it rewrote the rules of gaming. That the spirit of Space Invaders lives on more than 40 years later, and that it’s still one of the cultural entry points into gaming, speaks to just how influential it was. Without Space Invaders, home consoles may have vanished long ago, and gaming may never have escaped its reputation as a novelty hobby. It may look primitive now, but the legacy of Space Invaders is a strong and hugely important one.

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