Despite launching almost four decades ago, Space Invaders remains one of the most recognizable shooter arcade games. It even kicked off what is now called the Golden Age of Arcades, a period of history spanning the late 70s to mid-80s.
Players controlled a laser-shooting spaceship whose job it was to eliminate rows of aliens before they reached the bottom. Sometimes the most straightforward ideas really are the best. Specialty arcades opened with nothing but Space Invaders cabinets; by the end of ’78, over 100,000 machines had been sold.
The arcade game was developed by Tomohiro Nishikado. It was manufactured and sold by Taito in Japan and licensed to the Midway division of Bally for overseas distribution. Space Invaders was the first fixed shooter and set the template for the shoot ’em up genre. The goal is to defeat wave after wave of descending aliens with a horizontally moving laser to earn as many points as possible.
Designer Nishikado drew inspiration from North American target shooting games like Breakout (1976) and Gun Fight (1975), as well as science fiction narratives such as the novel The War of the Worlds (1897), the anime Space Battleship Yamato (1974), and the movie Star Wars (1977). The aliens were originally planes and tanks, but Taito didn’t want to present “an image of war” in their games. He took it further, taking a cue from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and designed the enemy aliens after sea life like octopuses and crabs.
His success with Space Invaders earned him a promotion at Taito. Unfortunately, this had a downside. Nishikado’s name was kept off Space Invaders and he was contractually obligated to not claim it as his creation. It wouldn’t be until 2013 that he assumed the credit he deserved. He created the arcade board using the latest microprocessors from the United States.
One of the most iconic aspects of Space Invaders is the aliens’ increasing speed. The more aliens you destroy, the faster they drop down the screen. It’s a simple trick to add difficulty to the game, and it was completely by accident. See the game used really weak microprocessors and blasting aliens freed up memory space, making the remaining aliens less of a burden on the system.
The developers were going to program this glitch out but playtesters liked that the game got harder as they progressed. Convinced, they left it in the final version. The game uses an Intel 8080 central processing unit (CPU), displays raster graphics on a CRT monitor using a bitmapped framebuffer, and uses monaural sound hosted by a combination of analog circuitry and a Texas Instruments SN76477 sound chip.
The game sounds from Space Invaders are truly iconic. The high-pitched “pwew” from the missiles offset by the repetitive background hum of four bass tones seared themselves into gamers’ minds worldwide. These four tones play at increasing speed, keeping pace with the rhythm of the aliens descending, to great effect:
The only detail for which I gave (Kamei) a firm direction was for the sound the enemies emitted when they moved. I wanted it to be a low sound, almost reminiscent of the beating of a heart. So I took up my guitar and played the four notes I wanted.Tomohiro Nishikado
the faster the game, the faster the music plays, increasing the tension. Responsible for the game audio was Michiyuki Kamei, who joined Pacific Kôgyô at age 22, a hire straight out of electronics school. Kamei was given instructions by Nishikado, who knew what he wanted from the background music.
The aliens (in Space Invaders) came from the top of the screen and descended little by little, going faster and faster. The player therefore had to feel their threat, with the help of sound effects. And so I knew the sounds had to be heavy, eerie and pressure-boosting, just like the title theme of Jaws…Michiyuki Kamei
Upon release, Space Invaders was an immediate commercial success; by 1982, it had grossed $3.8 billion with a net profit of $450 million. This made it the best-selling video game and highest-grossing entertainment product at the time and the highest-grossing video game of all time. Though initial sales were slow, Space Invaders soon boomed in popularity after its 1978 Japanese debut.
People were lining around the block to play it. The game’s huge popularity actually led to a long-lived urban legend in Japan. According to rumors, so many people were playing Space Invaders that it led to a nationwide shortage of 100-yen coins. Moral panics around video games are nothing new, but Space Invaders might have been the first. Soon after the arcade game’s release, a story circulated in Japan about a 12-year-old boy robbing a bank to use its coins on Space Invaders. Similar stories occurred in the UK, leading to a backlash.
Parents and teachers believed the game contributed to burglaries and juvenile delinquency, and one politician even drafted a bill to ban the game. The bill failed, but this wouldn’t be the last time video games would be blamed for misbehaving kids. While the arcade version of Space Invaders is the best-known, ports of the classic game exist on almost every console.
Space Invaders Arcade Versions
- 1978 Space Invaders
- 1979 Space Invaders Part II
- 1980 Space Invaders II
- 1985 Return of the Invaders
- 1990 Mininvader
- 1991 Super Space Invaders ’91
- 1994 Space Invaders DX
- 1995 Space Invaders ’95
- 2008 Space Invaders The Beat Attacker
The Atari 2600 version was nearly more successful than the arcade. As the first arcade game licensed to a console, being able to play Space Invaders at home without needing quarters gave the Atari 2600’s sales a huge shot in the arm. The arcade controls were in line with the simplicity of the 2600 joystick’s configuration. Shooting an invader garners points (between 5 and 30) depending on their initial screen position.
You can also fire away at the periodic Command Alien Ship (200 points) that appears at the top of the screen. He can’t fire at you, but he’s a great distraction when you’re under fire and imminent death.
And don’t forget you can’t travel the full-screen width pillars on the right and left to define the end-points of your laser cannon’s movement. It may look more on-screen, but you can easily get cornered by enemy fire. Space Invaders is known as a killer app, which is a video game that had a massive impact on the sales of their associated game consoles. Other killer app games like this are Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64 and Halo for Xbox.
Space Invaders Home Versions
- 1980 – Atari 2600, Atari 8-bit
- 1982 – Atari 5200, Handheld electronic games
- 1985 – Nintendo Entertainment System, SG-1000
- 1990 – PC Engine
- 1999 – PlayStation, PC, Nintendo 64, and Game Boy Color, Color FX
- 2002 – VG Pocket Caplet, Game Boy Advance
- 2007 – Mobile phone
- 2009 – iOS
Space Invaders Part II Home Versions
- 1990 – Game Boy and Skill for Prizes
Space Invaders ’90 Home Versions
- 1990 – Sega Mega Drive
Super Space Invaders ’91 Home Versions
- 1991 – Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Windows, Game Gear, Master System, and ZX Spectrum
Space Invaders DX Home Versions
- 1994 – Game Boy and Super Nintendo Entertainment System
- 1995 – TurboGrafx-CD
- 1996 – Sega Saturn
- 1997 – PlayStation
- 2001 – Nuon
Space Invaders Revolution Home Versions
- 2005 – Nintendo DS
Space Invaders Evolution Home Versions
- 2005 – PlayStation Portable
Space Invaders Extreme Home Versions
- 2008 – Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable
- 2009 – Xbox Live Arcade
- 2018 – Microsoft Windows
Space Invaders Get Even Home Versions
- 2008 – Wii
Space Invaders Extreme 2 Home Versions
- 2009 – Nintendo DS
Space Invaders Infinity Gene Home Versions
- 2009 – Mobile phone and iOS
- 2010 – PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360
- 2013 – Android
- Tomohiro Nishikado (born March 31, 1944, in Osaka) is a Japanese video game developer and engineer. He is the creator of the arcade shoot-’em-up game Space Invaders, released to the public in 1978 by the Taito of Japan, often credited as the first shoot-’em-up and for beginning the golden age of video arcade games. Prior to Space Invaders, he also designed other earlier Taito arcade games, including the shooting electro-mechanical games Sky Fighter (1971) and Sky Fighter II, the sports video game TV Basketball in 1974, the vertical scrolling racing video game Speed Race (also known as Wheels) in 1974, the multi-directional shooter Western Gun (also known as Gun Fight) in 1975, and the first-person combat flight simulator Interceptor (1975). [Back]
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