Space Invaders

While the American-made Pong, released in 1972, heralded the emergence of video games as a new form of entertainment, it was the Japanese who, six years later, visually defined the first decade of commercial games. Space Invaders’ iconic pixilated alien combatants were designed with such economy and effectiveness that they remain prominent in pop culture’s collective consciousness, decades after amusement arcades began their decline.

In the game, you must defend yourself against a phalanx of phosphorous white alien blobs—eleven wide and five deep—that march in threatening, uniform rows down the screen. The only tool in your arsenal is a pixel peashooter. Chunky “bases” protect your ship from alien attacks, offering rudimentary cover until they are chipped away by enemy fire, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. Clearing the screen of attackers only replenishes their ranks with nimbler, more aggressive replacements. In every arcade game, you pay to postpone inevitable defeat, but in Space Invaders a talented defender can play on a single credit until reaching the game’s “kill screen,” the point at which a coding error prevents further play.

Space Invaders sold an unprecedented hundred thousand machines in Japan; Bally Midway, the game’s U.S. distributor, sold around sixty thousand units in 1979 alone. Today, with its jagged shapes and sine-wave squeals, the game is an icon of the industry’s formative days and the medium’s ongoing appeal: a simplistic rendering of fears that can be overcome with determination and a steady focus.

But Space Invaders didn’t always generate favorable press. In Japan, soon after the game’s release, a twelve-year-old boy held up a bank with a shotgun. He didn’t want notes, he told the clerk, just coins. Under interrogation, he admitted that he wanted the money to play Space Invaders. In England, in November, 1981, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy prostituted himself in a parking lot for two pounds. This was enough, he later quantified, for ten games of Space Invaders. Police in the South of England dubiously claimed that the Space Invaders obsession had “doubled housebreaking figures,” while the Labour M.P. George Foulkes, fearing for the “glazed eyes” of youngsters, lobbied to subject the game to local authority regulation in Parliament. The novelist Martin Amis wrote, in his 1982 ode “Invasion of the Space Invaders,” of a young actress he knew with injuries sustained in the arcade so severe that her index finger “looked like a piece of liver.”

The game Space Invaders has been a hit ever since it was released by Taito in 1978. In the original planning for the game, they had planned to have the aliens be human soldiers. Taito figured that they did not want to send the message that shooting humans was ok, so they changed it to aliens.

Shortly after being released, Space Invaders grew in popularity. In 1980, it was licensed for use in the United States. It was released in coin-operated arcades, the Atari 2600, and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Throughout its lifetime it has generated more than 500 million dollars in revenue.

For those who do not know what the game is like, it is a 2D shooter where a human must protect the earth from aliens. There are 48 aliens in each stage that are evenly spaced apart into 6 columns. The aliens move back and forth across the screen in a set pattern, slowly advancing toward earth. It is the job of the human player to shoot all of the aliens before they reach the earth. The aliens also fire randomly, so the human player must avoid getting shot by the aliens. If the human player is able to destroy all 48 of the aliens, then he or she advances to the next stage where they have a new set of 48 aliens to destroy. Another aspect of the game is the set of shields provided to the human player. In the game there are 3 shields which the human player can hide behind to prevent getting shot by the aliens. As these shields receive damage, they shots are allowed to penetrate through them.

Space Invaders has been updated and released on many different platforms, but all have been in the standard two-dimensional form. As of yet Taito has never released a 3D version of the game. However, in 1999, Space Invaders was re-released for the Nintendo 64. Although the backgrounds and characters were designed in 3D, the game is still a 2D shooter.