by Ryan Lambie
With its seemingly endless army of aliens slowly marching down the screen, the thump-thump-thump of its sound effects, and its dodge-and-shoot action, Space Invaders was one of the earliest icons in video gaming.
Made at a time when the industry was still in its infancy, Space Invaders could easily have looked and sounded very different. It was a worldwide hit and sparked a moral panic, yet for years, its designer remained anonymous. Here's a look at some of the fascinating facts behind the story of Space Invaders.
1. ITS CREATOR HAD NO INTENTION OF ENTERING THE GAMING INDUSTRY.
Fascinated by science and electronics as a child, Tomohiro Nishikado studied engineering at Tokyo Denki University and graduated in 1968. Nishikado initially specialized in television circuitry, but a year after his graduation, he managed to get a job at Taito, an electronics company just moving into making video games.
2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY BREAKOUT.
Nishikado created some of the earliest home-grown games in Japan, including Davis Cup and Soccer. These were both bat-and-ball games, inspired by the seminal Pong. By 1976, Nishikado became fascinated by Atari's Breakout, itself an evolution of the bat-and-ball mechanics of Pong.
“I was determined to come up with something that was even better than Breakout,” Nishikado told The New Yorker. What if, he thought, the bricks at the top of the screen didn't just wait to be struck by the player's bouncing ball, but actually moved and fired back?
3. EARLY VERSIONS OF THE GAME WERE MUCH DIFFERENT.
With this inspiration at the front of his mind, Nishikado began to devise a dynamic shooting game, with the player hunkered down at the bottom of the screen and an army of enemies slowly advancing from the top. The space theme didn't arrive until later in development.
Nishikado's initial idea had the player shooting down planes, tanks, and soldiers; the latter idea was rejected by Nishikado's bosses at Taito, who did not want a game featuring "the image of war." Nishikado was inspired to use a space setting once news of the popularity of Star Wars began to reach Japan. He also found the idea for the aquatic alien invaders from H.G. Wells's sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds. He modeled his sprite designs on various sea creatures, including squids, crabs, and octopuses.
4. IT FEATURED A NUMBER OF INNOVATIVE IDEAS.
At a time when game design was still in its nascent stages in Japan, Nishikado spent a year building what would become Space Invaders. But while he wrestled with the limitations of technology, he managed to work a number of innovations into his concept: Space Invaders's introduction of barriers which slowly dissolved under enemy fire had never been seen before. It also saved the previous highest score, thus daring the next player to try to beat it.
Even the game's technical limitations positively affected the gameplay: As the invaders are destroyed, the load on the microprocessor decreases and the aliens' movement—and accompanying soundtrack—speed up. For perhaps the first time, a video game didn't just feel challenging—it felt intimidating.
5. SALES WERE INITIALLY SLOW.
Space Invaders's success was by no means assured from day one. Within Taito, management was unconvinced by it; when the game was shown to arcade operators, their response was similarly muted. "The feedback was almost entirely negative," Nishikado recalled. "Very few orders were placed."
6. IT REVERSED A SLUMP IN THE VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY.
Players, as we now know, responded ecstatically to Space Invaders. Popular within months, some 100,000 Space Invaders cabinets were installed in arcades and Pachinko parlors up and down Japan by the end of 1978. An industry which had begun to slump under the weight of Pong and Breakout clones was suddenly revived by Space Invaders, and the game grossed $600 million in 1978.
7. IT SPARKED A MINOR MORAL PANIC.
With any phenomenon comes a backlash. While oft-repeated tales of a coin shortage in Japan are a myth, it was but one story attached to the game at the height of Space Invaders mania. Soon after the arcade game came out, a 12-year-old boy in Japan, armed with a shotgun, tried to relieve a bank of its coins so that he could spend them on Space Invaders. The moral panic spread to the UK, where Space Invaders was blamed for an increase in burglaries. In 1981, Labour MP George Foulkes put a bill through parliament called Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games).
8. MARTIN AMIS WROTE A BOOK ON THE GAME.
While some politicians and newspaper columnists got in a lather over Space Invaders, the game was championed by Martin Amis, author of Time's Arrow and London Fields.
Published in 1982, Invasion Of The Space Invaders offered an essay on video gaming's cultural impact, and also tips on how to get high scores in Taito's hit and other arcade machines. "Advice: position your tank under the eave of a defensive and keep your eye on the aliens," Amis wrote, "not on the bombs."
Now out of print, the book is a sought-after collector's item.
9. FOR YEARS, ITS CREATOR REMAINED ANONYMOUS.
Although Space Invaders was a phenomenon, Nishikado was far from a celebrity as a result. His name was never put on the game, and for many years, he was contractually obliged not to reveal that he'd even made Space Invaders. The New Yorker reported that, sadly, Nishikado's promotion after Space Invaders was released took him away from creating games. "I spent most of my time managing other employees," he said.
10. ITS CREATOR WAS NEVER ANY GOOD AT THE GAME.
While Tomohiro Nishikado was responsible for making one of the most influential games ever, he admits to never being able to make it much further than the first screen. "Had it been up to me," he says, "Space Invaders would have been a far easier game."