Is Space Invaders Perfect?
I don’t know when I first discovered Space Invaders, much like Pong. Hell, my first memory of it isn’t even the game itself; I was 13 in a woodworking class. We were asked to make moving wooden cam projects and I choose Space Invaders. The idea was simple, show the tank shooting an alien. This was going to be achieved by having round wooden gears (cams) move sticks up and down and left and right as they were cranked. I don’t know why I choose Space Invaders, it wasn’t a favourite of mine, but I did like how the designs of the aliens looked.
I think it’s interesting that even though I wasn’t super familiar with the game, or maybe hadn’t even played Space Invaders, the sheer design and simplicity of what I knew about it was enough for me to spend months of class time working the project. I loved how it looked, and they seemed to love it back in 1978 too.
So, Space Invaders is an arcade videogame designed by Tomohiro Nishikado in 1978, published/ manufactured by Taito in Japan, and by Midway in overseas territories (1979). Taito originally focused on Jukeboxes but had a small electro-mechanical games division. This division made games like pinball.
Nishikado worked in this small division of Taito. It didn’t bring in the big yen like jukeboxes did, so they were mostly left alone and allowed to make their own games. So Nishikado did that. The first game Nishikado worked on was Ghost Gun, an American game that Taito bought the rights to. He worked on games like this for 3 years until Pong released in 1972. To say that Pong shook up the arcade industry is to say that an iceberg shook up the Titanic, which I have already talked about here.
The success of Pong caused Taito to begin making videogames and as the only electrical engineer Nishikado was asked to make them. He worked on a few products, the first being a redesigned pong gamed called “Soccer”. This game made Taito a bit of dosh, so they went forward with further development.
Later in the 70’s, microprocessors were making the rounds and becoming gosh darned cheap. This allowed for more advanced games to be made, as the processing power was far greater than what could be achieved on the old hand-made boards. This caused an explosion of creativity and ingenuity. Space Invaders was born of this era.
Nishikado drew inspiration from Breakout by Atari (1976) to have enemies slowly crawl down the screen while the player shoots them from the ground. He liked the difficulty of trying to hit the last block in breakout and designed the game around that feeling. Space was chosen as the setting as Nishikado says that the tank looked wrong from other angles, so shooting up was the best look. Aliens were chosen as they were in vogue at the time and made sense to be coming down from space.
As a kid, we had a game called Blue’s Treasure Hunt, which had a Breakout minigame inside of it. I would always play through this game, which even had its own level editor. I never managed to play all 100 levels, but I gave it a hot try. Since then, I have always had a soft spot for Breakout, always playing a few levels if it is included in a game collection or as a minigame in a larger title. I can understand why Nishikado would want to make a whole game to scratch the itch of that last block.
Nishikado couldn’t get his game running at the correct speed the whole time, but found that as some enemies were killed the others would speed up. He thought this was an issue at first but enjoyed the ramping up of difficulty as time wore on. This turned the bug into a feature. He also implemented the aliens shooting at the player as he found it to be interesting and changes the gameplay more from Breakout.
When he first showed the game to the executives at Taito and local arcade owners, they thought the difficulty was too high, but other game designers and employees at Taito loved the game and would sneak off to play it for whole workdays. This convinced Taito to give it a shot in arcades and see what happened. It went well to say the least. It became a massive draw for arcades, with people lining up to play it, and spawning rumours of 100-yen coin shortages. I believe that the big draw for the game was it’s skill-based gameplay, and it’s pretty pixel art.
Space invaders is a great game to waste a couple hours, over the course of a few weeks. It’s high score system makes me want to go in and keep playing after (almost) every death. The gameplay is fair, I never felt like I was killed for no reason, it was usually me flailing like Kermit the Frog on the controls. It is difficult though, especially for the era. When comparing the game to its inspiration, Breakout is much easier. Just hit the ball at the block, only fail state is missing the ball multiple times. It’s simple and I imagine I would get my money’s worth at a Breakout machine.
Space Invaders also had a interesting attract mode. When not in use the machine would show how many points you would gain for destroying an alien, show a small section of gameplay, and also have gags with the aliens, such as flipping the “y” in Play. This definitely contributed to getting people over to the machine.
However, Space Invaders is definitely not perfect. During the game it can feel like you are waiting for a notable period of time for an alien to come to just the right spot on the screen. Also, some deaths, while fair, feel as cheap as Scrooge. Losing because I missed the last speedy alien by a pixel is possibly the most disheartened that I have felt in a long time, and this year I caught the COVID just before going overseas. Chasing the high score is fun, but when I’m only competing against me, myself, and I, some of that juice is lost. However, Taito released a game called Space Invaders Extreme in 2018 which refines down the arcade high score shooter to a much better game. It is level based, has far more variations of enemy patterns, and even includes boss battles. It also has a global leader board and gives you a world ranking, making you want to go in and get a better position in the charts. There is a free demo on steam of this game, and I highly recommend you go check it out. That game could possibly be described as perfect, and I wont get to that later.
Space Invaders 1978 is definitely an important game in history, and it has it’s moments, but much like my high school woodwork project, I will appreciate it’s art and significance while giving the gameplay no second thoughts.
1. Space Invaders