Monday 25 June 2018

Space Invaders (1978)

Space Invaders (Midway version)
Launched June 1978

Forty years ago this month, Japan saw the launch of a simple little arcade game called Space Invaders. The premise was simple – five rows of pixelated aliens marched slowly across the screen while a laser cannon at the bottom tries to pick them off, accompanied with a basic four-note soundtrack and some sound effects. Simple it may have been, but Space Invaders became an enormous success.

The game came at a point when the technology was just becoming good enough to produce a compelling game. The Space Invaders machine itself ran an Intel 8080 CPU (a predecessor of the 8086) with a Texas Instruments chip producing the sounds (this in the same month as the launch of the Speak & Spell). A monochrome monitor in portrait mode gave a graphics resolution of 224 x 256 pixels, and in some versions of the game coloured strips across the screen gave the impression of a colour display when it wasn’t.

As with many classic games of the era, Space Invaders embraced the technical limitations of the hardware. The blocky aliens became a design icon, the simple but hypnotic soundtrack attracted curious onlookers. The fact that the very last invader raced across the screen in an adrenaline-fueled finale was simply a side-effect of the processor having less work to do.

The gameplay was simple enough but compelling, and Space Invaders machine soon started to rake in the money. A lot of money. A machine could pay for itself in a month or even less, and they soon started to pop up in all sort of places worldwide that hadn’t previously dabbled in arcade games, such as supermarkets.

There were two basic formats – creator Taito turned the game into a table-top format and cabinet with a joystick, while US licensee Midway used a cabinet with buttons replacing the joystick. Between them, the arcade versions raked in hundreds of millions of dollars of profit… and from then on there were adaptations for games consoles, home computers and a raft of sequels and spin-offs spanning generations.

Today prices for reconditioned original Space Invader machines can be £4000 or more. Alternatively for a few pounds you can buy an authentic reproduction of the original to play on your smartphone.

Image credit: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

Video: Reconditioned Taito Space Invaders machine

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