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The Definitive Space Invaders (part 1)

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So… Space Invaders. The game that started the whole thing...

Published on Jan 19, 2009

So… Space Invaders. The game that started the whole thing. Not the first videogame of course – not by a long way – but certainly the one that sent a minor novelty soaring into the stratosphere, gripped the public’s imagination and emptied their wallets one coin at a time, giving birth to the multi-billion-pound global industry we know today and therefore directly responsible for the existence of the Gran Turismo, Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy series. You complete bastard, Space Invaders.

It’s a measure of the game’s epochdefining influence that, even now, your granny probably still refers to all videogames as ‘Space Invaders’. The funny thing (within certain restricted parameters of ‘funny’) is that it wasn’t even supposed to be called Space Invaders at all – the original title of the game was the more technically accurate ‘Space Monsters.’ After all, they’re not invading space, are they?

They’re invading from space. It’s sometimes alleged that this is because it was inspired by a 1972 electro-mechanical arcade game by Taito called Space Monster, but an American journalist who interviewed Invaders creator Toshihiro Nishikado for EGM magazine in 2001 claims that this is “in no way” true, though oddly he failed to actually quote Nishikado on the subject in the published article.

(The name confusion, incidentally, extends to Nishikado himself. If you believe Space Invaders Revolution on DS, the developer’s first name is Tomohiro. On the other hand, the Taito Legends retro compilation gives his pre-moniker as Toshihiro, while the early-Nineties home computer releases of Super Space Invaders by Domark reckon it’s Toshiro. Personally, we like to call him ‘Tom-Tosh’.)

According to Nishikado, the game was actually inspired by Breakout (it’s not hard to see the invaders’ rectangular formation in Breakout’s brick wall, and swap the bat and ball for a ‘Laser Base’), and the invaders themselves were designed after the descriptions of ‘octopus-like’ aliens in the HG Wells classic The War Of The Worlds, having originally been depicted as tanks.

But, anyway, we have almost 30 years of Space Invaders to get through and a limited space to do it in, so enough with the background. You all know what Space Invaders is about, so let’s see what we can tell you that you don’t already know. Welcome to the Fantasy Zone. [That’s Space Harrier, you buffoon. – Ed]

1978 SPACE INVADERS (ARCADE)

Confusion starts early with Space Invaders. Even the first game in the series came in a variety of versions – the version most Retro Gamer readers will be familiar with is the ‘reflector’ version produced by Midway for the Western market, where the graphics were reflected through a mirror onto a painted backdrop of a lunar surface, making them appear semi-transparent.

The monitor also had strips of coloured cellophane overlaid on it to make the graphics appear green toward the bottom of the screen, white in the middle and orange at the top. The original Japanese sit-down cocktail-table version, however, had a purely black-and-white display with no backdrop (because you were looking directly at the monitor instead of a reflection), and most Japanese versions of the ‘reflector’ model lacked the green and orange cellophane strips, presenting the graphics all in white.

Later revisions in Japan added rainbow-coloured cellophane strips in a variety of reds and blues and purples, and an even later revision displayed the game in full colour. (You can identify this one over the cellophane-colour edition by the way the entire screen washes red when your Laser Base is destroyed.)

Surprisingly, Space Invaders was converted to very few home formats in the Seventies and Eighties. Atari had bought the licence for home use, initially on the all-conquering VCS, but while it was happy to allow even the biggest of licensed and original IP to be produced for other formats (like Centipede, Pac-Man, Defender and Pole Position, which all saw multi-format releases under the Atarisoft label), Space Invaders never appeared on rival consoles like the Colecovision or Intellivision, and not even on home micros like the Apple 2, C64 or Spectrum.

Not until midway through the Eighties did an official Space Invaders finally show up on a non-Atari platform, and even then it was usually treated abominably – the 1985 NES game, for example, has awful, tiny graphics and sounds like someone throwing a plastic bucket full of canaries down some metal stairs.

1978 SPACE INVADERS (ATARI VCS)

The VCS version of Space Invaders was the first ever killer app, quadrupling the console’s sales when it was released at the height of the coin-op’s popularity (by which time the VCS was already three years old). Also the first official arcade game to home conversion (not counting dedicated Pong machines), it actually bears only the most basic of similarities to its arcade parent. With just 36 invaders instead of 55, three defence bunkers instead of four, several simplifications to the gameplay and crude, ugly graphics, it had to do something to compensate, and it did so by offering a breathtaking 112 variations on the core game design. You could have moving bunkers, zigzagging shots, invisible invaders who only briefly revealed their position when you shot one, and all manner of other options, including a wide and highly inventive range of competitive and co-operative two-player modes. There was even a secret cheat mode (hold down the Reset button when you switch the console on to get a double shot), plus two difficulty settings which effectively increased the number of variations to 224 (or a ludicrous 448 including the double-shot). It might not have looked much like the Space Invaders everyone knew and loved (see Attack Of The Space Mutants, page 26), but the VCS version had so many great qualities of its own that it sold millions, and is still a challenging and exciting game today.

1979 SPACE INVADERS PART II (ARCADE)

As obsessed gamers mastered the original, Taito wasted no time in rushing out an arcade sequel. Space Invaders Part II. Derived from the full-colour cocktail version (although curiously it simulated the cellophane model, with shots changing colour as they moved up or down the screen), it had no backdrop even on the stand-up version, and a modest collection of new features, both cosmetic (little animated skits at the start and end of each stage) and gameplay-related. There was a new UFO in addition to the classic ‘Mystery Ship’ – a flashing saucer worth a whopping 500 points (for reference, an entire original wave of invaders nets you just 990) – and both craft drop reinforcements into the invader battalions from Level 3 onwards, filling in any gaps in the top row once per wave. (Pro tip: if you shoot the reinforcements as they drop, they fall to the bottom of the screen and their lifeless bodies serve as auxiliary defence bunkers.) Starting on Level 4, the alien formations also feature ‘Splitter’ invaders, normal-looking invaders identifiable because they appear in the wrong rows, which divide into two ‘Breathers’ when shot, who grow larger and smaller in time with the machine’s ‘heartbeat’ sound effects. (‘Breathers’ appear in their own right from Level 6.) Score whores were also catered for by a knowing little nod to a bug in the original game, whereby if the last invader left in a level was one from the bottom two rows, it would leave and then erase a trail as it zoomed left and right. In Space Invaders Part II, if you managed to trigger this ‘bug’, you’d net a hefty points bonus (500 or 1,000 points depending on the invader’s starting position) and be rewarded with a pretty little ‘rainbow’ display. And for the first time in an Invaders game, if you did net a monster score (now you could display up to 99,990 points rather than the original’s absurdly conservative 9,990) you could actually sign your name on the high-score table.

1980 DELUXE SPACE INVADERS (ARCADE)

This Western variant on Part II is the great ‘lost’ Space Invaders game. Never released on a retro compilation (Taito always uses Part II, and Midway presumably no longer has the rights) and never converted to a home format at the time, there’s no legal way to play Space Invaders Deluxe short of owning an original cabinet. The differences between SID and Part II are largely superficial – the graphics are yellow and green rather than full colour, there’s a lunar-city backdrop, the ‘Flasher’ is worth 200 points instead of 500, and ‘Splitters’ appear from Level 2 rather than Level 4, but it’s a nicer sequel than Part II (more atmospheric, harder, and with more balanced scoring) and it’s a shame that it’s been overlooked for posterity. Incidentally, although it’s called ‘Deluxe Space Invaders’ on the cabinet, advertising flyers, and so on, for some reason the game has historically been universally referred to as ‘Space Invaders Deluxe.’ Weirder still, the game’s title screen actually still refers to itself as ‘Space Invaders Part II.’

1980 SPACE INVADERS (ATARI 400/800)

The third Invaders of the Eighties is clearly of the VCS family. The most striking change is the rocket ship on the left-hand side, out of which the attacking invaders emerge in columns of six. After clearing a wave, the rocket ship descends a few pixels, and when it reaches the bottom, there’s an odd scene where a flashing red Mystery Ship comes down and carries off your Laser Base – from then on the rocket ship remains at its lowest level till the end. You get no defence bunkers, but you do have an auto-firing laser, which can take out a column of invaders in a flash – the invaders have one bomb between them, taking the colour of the invader that dropped it. Scoring is weird, with all invaders worth two until they drop a level, after which they’re worth four, with the Mystery Ship notching 18 points. There are 12 variations compared to the 112 of its VCS predecessor (bomb speed, number of lives and straight or diagonal bombs), but it’s a fascinating twist on the original.

1980 SPACE INVADERS II (ARCADE)

This extremely odd, little-documented US-only Midway release is an even more lost version of Space Invaders than Deluxe; it’s just slightly less great. Only released in cocktail-table format, it’s designed as a two-player head-to-head battle (though there is a CPU-opponent option). Each player has their own formation of 33 invaders (each side is assailed by different kinds of invader) which attack as normal, but the object of the game isn’t to defeat the invaders, but to score higher than your opponent. The best way of doing that, of course, is to cut a path through the invaders, use it to destroy your opponent’s Laser Bases, and then safely rack up the points while he sits there helpless with no lives left. Mystery Ships criss-cross the screen leaving trails of reinforcements in their wake (two complete rows per player, per level, restoring the original’s complement of 55 invaders to a wave), and it’s a game of relentless fast action which is generally over in a minute or two. Strangely, in versus CPU mode the enemy player has no invaders to worry about, shooting at you from an empty screen, and the game basically becomes a more intense version of normal Invaders with an extra source of incoming fire to worry about.

1982 SPACE INVADERS (ATARI 5200)

At first glance, Space Invaders on the next-generation VCS follow-up, the Atari 5200, looks a lot like a port of the Atari 400/800 computer version (to whose internal hardware the 5200 was largely identical). However, Eighties’ Atari wasn’t anything like that predictable. Offering 12 variations again, this was another radical remix, which started off by taking away the rocketship and restoring your defence bunkers (of which you got three, as with the VCS game), with the catch that the bunkers no longer got rebuilt at the start of each level. The invaders marched slowly onto the empty screen from the left-hand edge, and at first the game plays much like its immediate predecessor, with the invaders again only permitted a single bomb at a time. After the first two waves, though, things start to get crazy.

Level 3 changes the graphics of all the invaders, and introduces bottom-row invaders which dodge rhythmically from side to side. Level five removes them again, but makes the two middle rows so dark they’re almost invisible (bombs are once more the colours of the invader that dropped them, so they can also be near invisible). Level 7 makes all invaders shades of the same colour, and they intermittently change colour and form, including to the very dark, barely visible colours. (Scores for these invaders change with their form, and appear to be variously 10, 15 or 20.) After Level 7 there is yet another flashing red Mystery Ship kidnap, but after this one your bunkers are rebuilt and the invaders go back to their highest point for the beginning of Level 8.

The invaders never change form again after Level 7, but they do get lower each wave and are reset to the high point again after Level 14. Scoring is like the 400/800 version, in that invaders’ scores double during the level (this time it’s when you’ve shot half of the invaders in a wave), but scores also double with each change of invader form. So for example, on Level 1 invaders are two and then four points, on Level 3 they’re four and eight points, and on Level 5 they’re eight and 16 points. (The Mystery Ship gets some of its mystery back, and can be 10, 20, 30 or 60 points, depending on which number of shot you hit it on. It appears much more frequently than in the 800 game, and always in a cycle of once from the left then twice from the right for some reason.)

Working around the limitations imposed by the hardware, the 5200 game is an imaginative and extremely challenging Invaders, and a very different experience from any of its predecessors. It’s well worth hunting down.

1985 RETURN OF THE INVADERS (ARCADE)

After a frenzy of activity and invention in its first four years, Space Invaders took 1984 off to go InterRailing around Europe, and returned afresh to the arcades the following summer, with a release that would signpost the future of the series. Now clearly identifiable as the missing link between the 1979 original and the 1991 sequel that would finally bring the Invaders name back to prominence (more on that one later), Return Of The Invaders is a garishlooking but subtly honed evolution that frees the invaders from their rigid 90- degree movement patterns and thereby opens up worlds of new possibilities. (Interestingly, apart from the name, the only acknowledgement that Return Of The Invaders is part of the Space Invaders canon is the appearance of the original invaders on the high-score entry screen.) Despite the introduction of some basic power-ups dropped when you shoot the Mystery Ship (multiple shots, fireball shots) it’s still quite a limited game in itself and it gets very hard, very quickly (although almost uniquely, the arcade board has a dipswitch enabling an invincibility cheat, which turns it into an intriguing battle against invasion). Therefore, its curiosity value holds up rather better today than its gameplay qualities. It’s fascinating, though, to observe the elements that Taito decided to carry forward and those it decided to throw away.

1990 SPACE INVADERS FUKKATSU NO HI [TRANS: DAY OF RESURRECTION] (PC ENGINE)

The first sequel to include both ‘classic’ and remake versions, the port of original SI here is almost as terrible as the 1985 NES port, but you also get ‘Space Invaders Plus Version’, which is clearly the other parent (along with Return Of The Invaders) of Super Space Invaders 91. In fact, Day Of Resurrection marked a pivotal point in SI history because it was the first time since Deluxe a decade previously – and the first time ever in a homeformat sequel – that Taito had woken up to the iconic value of the original invader designs, bringing them back for the opening waves. As with the Atari 400/800 game you get no bunkers to protect you from them, although later levels feature indestructible obstacles, which block shots in both directions (the invaders themselves can pass over the obstacles). The Mystery Ship sometimes drops power-ups, including homing shots and a high airbursting missile attack that can wipe out half a wave. While the invaders are restricted to left-right-down manoeuvres again, many other features from later games debuted in Day Of Resurrection, including the ‘Buster Laser’ and ‘Time Stop’ power-ups, and the ship designs that would be later seen in SSI91. The game rapidly becomes very intense (not least due to the invaders’ new 45-degree two-way bombs supplementing their normal fire, assailing you from three directions at once), and your six continues will disappear alarmingly quickly, but you’ll come back for more of this fast, exciting update.

1990 SPACE INVADERS 90 AKA SPACE INVADERS 91 (MEGA DRIVE)

In a messy bit of naming, the Western releases of this sequel came out so much later that the name was changed from the Japanese original title of Space Invaders 90 to one that would shortly cause considerable confusion with a completely different game. Despite several similarities to Day Of Resurrection (pairs-of-levels structure, no bunkers, three-way invader fire), this is a whole new game again with all-new levels, and even though it ran on more advanced hardware it’s an uglier one, with some inappropriately jaunty music. It has lots of imaginative features (like an invader that mimics the Mystery Ship’s movement along the top of the screen, but if shot, drops to ground level and exerts a tractor beam on you for the rest of the wave, defence bunkers which fall to the ground and block your movement if you shoot them, and stages with craters that affect the angle of your shots), but basically it’s the same concept as the PC-Engine game but executed slightly less well.

1990 PRIZE SPACE INVADERS (ARCADE)

Around the start of the Nineties there was a brief vogue for ‘Skill With Prizes’ versions of some classic videogames, where good scores actually won you money (Prize Space Invaders had a maximum £20 jackpot, for example). The only two to enjoy anything approaching success were Tetris and Space Invaders which were released by well-known UK fruit machine company BWB. The games were extremely hard, ramping up the speed and difficulty quickly in order to relieve punters of their cash before they could win a prize (in PSI you could only collect your winnings at the end of a wave, and if you decided to play on to win more and died, you lost the lot), but interestingly you could also choose to play just for fun (which cost 30p rather than the 50p for a prize game). Either way, you’d encounter a game based on Part II, complete with ‘Splitters’ and ‘Breathers’ and reinforcements, but with the addition of invaders requiring multiple hits and a whole bunch of new UFOs that were the main point source. A truly hardcore, collector’s item.

1990 SPACE INVADERS (GAME BOY)

The first version of Space Invaders for the mono-GB, released only in Japan, is a rotten port with inverted colours (black invaders on a yellow background – ick) and particularly dreadful sound. It wouldn’t merit a mention here if it weren’t for Versus mode. Played across the GB link cable, Versus mode is basically Space Invaders II with a few tweaks (no bunkers, and your opponent’s invaders let your shots through), and gives the game some merit if both you and a friend were daft enough to fork out money for it.

1990 MINIVADER (ARCADE)

Minivader is a really cute little obscurity. It’s a test board which was sold – apparently as a legal requirement – with arcade cabinets sold in Japan. It has no sound or scoring, but is a very fast and difficult eight-round Invaders game that’s alarmingly addictive as you fight to see what the next unique formation will be, and to clear all the levels before the speedy, non-firing invaders get to the bottom of the screen and end the game. The Mystery Ship says ‘bomb’ when you hit it, for no apparent reason.

 

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