“I’m just going to play Spacies” or “I spent all my pocket money on Spacies” became the mantra of a generation of youth in the late 70’s & 80’s.
Despite there being a plethora of other, far more advanced arcade games by the end of that decade and the fact that actual Space Invaders cabinets were few and far between at this late stage, ‘Spacies’ was the term that encompassed not just a game, not just a genre of games, but a whole form of entertainment.
This is indicative of the impact that one solitary electronic game had on a generation, an impact that still ripples through the gaming industry thirty years after its 1978 release.
Space Invaders, for the one or two of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is a two-dimensional shoot-em-up in which the player controls the left and right movement of a laser cannon across the bottom of the screen. The player’s cannon is partially protected by several stationary defence bunkers which can be shot away gradually by both the player and the advancing ‘invaders’. There are five rows of eleven invaders which slowly move uniformly across the screen, dropping down one line each time they reach the left or right extremities. The aliens’ goal is twofold, trying to shoot the laser cannon, at which point the player loses one life, and trying to avoid being shot themselves with the view to landing on the ‘planet’ surface.
The in-game music is a rhythmic, marching, heartbeat-like throbbing bass which speeds up along with the pace of the action as you shoot more invaders. Eventually the player is left with a solitary invader to shoot which is travelling at a frenetic pace. Killing this final enemy often proved to be the downfall of many players as timing a vertical shot to hit a swift horizontally moving target took considerable practice and/or luck.
Shooting the invaders earns the player points and every so often the player would be given a chance to shoot a bonus UFO which would travel across the top of the screen. Shooting these bonus ships required a well place shot between invading ships and was essential to acquiring higher scores.
Tomohiro Nishikado of Japan spent a year designing Space Invaders and developing the hardware to run it on. In 1972 Taito released a mechanical game named Space Monsters, and it is widely reported that this partly inspired Space Invaders along with a dream Nishikado had about Japanese school children being attacked by alien invaders. Atari’s earlier electronic game Breakout was also an inspiration, with Nishikado aiming to create a game with the same feeling of relief and achievement when a level was cleared. In Space Invaders, this post-level relief is enhanced due to it being the first arcade game to feature an intermission of sorts. The next level required the press of a button to start, something which is has been a mainstay of most electronic games ever since – although in the last fifteen or so years that pause has been needed to load graphical information into the hardware’s cache.
Space Invaders helped to turn what was considered a niche industry of novelty children’s entertainment into a global goldmine. In fact following its release, Space Invaders caused a temporary shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan (the coins used to operate the game itself) and by 2007 Space Invaders alone had earned Taito approximately NZ$850,000,000 in revenue. To this day, the Guinness Book of Records recognises Space Invaders as the #1 arcade game of all time.
Not surprising then that a long list of games, many very successful in their own right, were based upon the same ground breaking formula. Well known arcade classics such as Galaga, Galaxian, Moon Cresta, Phoenix and Defender all owe a debt of gratitude to the game that paved the way for all that followed.
Space Invaders spawned a number of sequels, remakes and remixes on several formats. In 1980 a Space Invaders release on the Atari 2600 console proved to be one of the first ‘killer apps’ and quadrupled sales of the hardware. Some other ports and copycats received a far less enthusiastic reaction however.
Space Invaders is as synonymous with electronic gaming as the guitar is to rock music. It opened the doors for what is now a bigger industry than film or music. The pixilated imagery of the invaders is known across the globe by consumers spanning three generations. Sound bites from the game are instantly recognizable by gamers who might not have played Space Invaders for thirty years. It’s ingrained into the synapses of thirty-somethings whether they were avid arcade gamers or not. It’s an icon of a time where games were designed to make you want to insert another coin, then another until your pocket money had vanished down that slot at which point you’d stand there and enviously watch the next kid do the same.