They’re here! You’re next!
Taito Corporation is a struggling Japanese manufacturer of jukeboxes and Pachinko games (players drop balls down into a colourful playfield and try to direct them into holes for points). They also dabble in the videogame market, with entries such as Western Gun. In 1978 one of their engineers, Tomohiro Nishikado, inspired by Atari’s Breakout and the 50’s classic SF movie War of the Worlds, designs and programs a video game. Utilizing the microprocessor design created by Taito’s U.S. partners Midway for the game Gun Fight, Nishikado wants to portray animated human characters involved in a war-time setting, but the idea of shooting people is nixed by upper management. He changes things to a cosmic venue and so Space Invaders is born. In the game, players are charged with protecting the planet from relentless hoards of aliens marching single-file down the screen, with just a single-shot moving gun and four shot-blocking bunkers as protection. The more aliens you shoot, the faster they move, accompanied by an ominous, thudding marching sound that ratchets up speed as you progress. Once you clear a screen, another block of 55 aliens appear, this time starting one row closer to the bottom and the player’s ship. Once three of your rolling gun platforms are destroyed, or even one of the invaders reaches the bottom of the screen, it’s game over. The game’s display is black and white, with screen overlays giving the appearance of colour. Adding to the festivities is an entertaining attract mode, featuring the little critters fixing on screen typos like running out to replace an inverted “Y” in “PLAY SPACE INVADERS” or shooting away the extra “C” in the game’s request to “INSERT CCOIN”. The competitive spirit is promoted heartily in Space Invaders, as it is the first game to display a high score, although it doesn’t allow the victorious player to save their initials with it.
Upon release Space Invaders practically causes riots across Japan, as well as being responsible for a nationwide coin shortage that forces the Bank of Japan to triple the production of 100-yen coins to keep up. To cash in on the craze, shop owners clear out their merchandise and set up all-Space Invaders arcades overnight; some establishments line the walls with up to 200 of the machines. A thriving black-market of stolen game cabinets surfaces just as quickly. By the end of 1978, there are 100,000 arcade units installed in Japan, pulling in over $600 million for Taito. The immense popularity of the game inspires Japanese school boards to attempt to ban the machines from their districts, claiming that the game causes students to skip school to play Space Invaders, and bankroll their addiction by stealing money from their parents.
Midway, licensing the game for North America soon finds itself in possession of the biggest arcade video game hit in America up to that point. The game transcends the regular video game ghettos of pool halls and bars, popping up in department stores, restaurants, and other mainstream venues; within the year, 60,000 units have been installed in the U.S. Arcade operators scramble for the machines, aware that within one month, income from the game will have paid off its $1,700 price tag.
Taito follows up Space Invaders with Space Invaders Part II in 1980, licensed again by Midway who sell it as Space Invaders Deluxe the same year. The sequel hews closely to the original in gameplay, with a few twists: there are two flying saucers worth different points, as well as Invaders who are dropped from a UFO as reinforcements during a round, and ones who split into two when hit. Numerous other imitators and sequels such as and Invaders Revenge are released in the original’s wake, and Space Invaders becomes a huge force in the home videogame market in 1980 as the first arcade game licensed for a home console, the Atari VCS. This home version of the game, complete with 112 variations of gameplay, moves over one million cartridges in its first year of release and develops into a huge system-seller for Atari’s console. Other companies eventually release their own Space Invader clones for their home consoles, when it becomes apparent to lawyers at Mattel that the original copyright for the game has not been properly protected, with only a change of the trademarked “Space Invaders” name required to avoid litigation. This allows the company to release Space Armada in 1981, which becomes a big hit on the Intellivision with 931,000 copies sold.
It’s In the Wrist
Space Invaders also creates a new physical ailment. Discovered by University of Arkansas College of Medicine student Timothy McCowan, the symptom is a stiff and pained wrist, due to the “large number of rapid, repetitive arm movements” required in playing the game. Called Space Invader Wrist, it is written up in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1981.
In spite of our tortured wrists, in its various official incarnations, Space Invaders has pulled in billions in revenue over the years. By 1980, there are 360,000 units installed world-wide… a global record broken only by that year’s Pac-Man phenomena. And what would a classic arcade game be if it wasn’t the target of a seemingly superfluous modern updating? In Space Invader‘s case, it comes at the hands of game developer Z-Axis and distributor Activision, releasing their revamped Space Invaders on the Nintendo N64, Sony PlayStation and Windows gaming platforms for Christmas 1999. Along with the obligatory graphics enhancement, the new game throws power-ups, multiple weapons and end-level bosses into the mix.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Creative Computing, “Random Ramblings – The Consumer Electronics Show – Electronic Games and Craziness” by David H. Ahl, pgs. 16-18, Sep 1980. “Space Invaders was introduced in 1978 in Japan by Taito Inc. Within one year there were over 100,000 Space Invaders coin operated games which pulled in over $600 million. The Bank of Japan had to triple its production of 100 yen pieces to meet the demand of Space Invaders players.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Oct 21 2015.
Space Invaders Shrine – www.spaceinvaders.de/
Gamearchive – www.gamearchive.com
Electronic Games, “Can Asteroids Conquer Space Invaders?”, pgs. 30-33, Winter 1981. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
“Can Asteroids Conquer Space Invaders?” Editorial. Electronic Games Winter 1981: 31-33. Electronic Games – Volume 01 Number 01 (1981-12)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. …the Bank of Japan had tripled production of 100-yen pieces…Adilman, Glenn. “Videogames: Knowing the Score.” Creative Computing Dec. 1983: 224-31. Creative Computing Magazine (December 1983) Volume 09 Number 12. Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. Midway’s Space Invaders, the first massively popular video game, sold more than one million cartridges in its first year. Videotopia – Arcade Games – www.videotopia.com/games.htm
KLOV: Space Invaders – www.klov.com/S/Space_Invaders.html”
Intellivision Lives! – intellivisiongames.com/gamepage.php?gameId=88
The Old Computer – www.theoldcomputer.com/index.php
Taito Corporation Official Homepage – Corporate Profile – www.taito.com/company/info/history.html
Pacific Stars and Stripes, “‘Space Invaders’ capture Japanese coffee sippers”, by John Needham, pg. 12, Jul. 20, 1979
Activision: Corporate Info: Press Releases: Space Invaders N64 Ships – www.calltopower.com/investor/pressreleases/147.html
Marks, Michael N. “Van Halen’s Michael Anthony is a Vidiot!” Vidiot Oct. 1982: 11. Print. Image of Michael Anthony
Space Invaders [Taito 1979] – article @ Retro Trauma – www.zx.ru/www.fortunecity.com/victorian/delacroix/184/mm012.htm
Winnipeg Free Press, “Adventure galore – with no risk – for 25 cents”, by Dave Haynes, pg. 28, Nov. 15, 1979
Hutchinson News (UPI), “Newest electronic game craze: ‘Space Invaders’, pg. 5, Sept. 21, 1979
The Montreal Gazette (Gazette News Services), “Those video invaders can so be disarming”, pg. 2e, May 23, 1981