Space Invaders the Alien Shooter for Atari 2600

Space invaders screenshot

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By the mid-'70s arcade games were starting to build a modest popularity thanks to the 1972 hit Pong, but at the pizza parlor and amusement arcades Pinball was still king; that was until 1978 when a Japanese space shooter came along that became such a pop-culture phenomenon it caused a coin shortage, turned arcades into "video arcades" and went on to save the Atari 2600 from bombing.

Basic Facts:

  • Title: Space Invaders
  • Release Date: June 1978
  • Publisher/Developer: Taito Corporation
  • Original Platform: Coin-Op Arcade (Cocktail Table and Cabinet)

The Game:

While it wasn’t the first space shooter (an honor that belongs to Spacewar!), Space Invaders is the first that most of the gaming public experienced when it released in 1978.

Instead of moving through space in a ship, players control a cannon that moves side-to-side along the bottom of the screen blasting away an oncoming fleet of alien invaders. Three different types of aliens are lined up in five rows of eleven ships which move in formation as they creep from one side of the screen to the other, dropping down when they reached the edge of the screen, then move back in the opposite direction. The more they progress downwards the faster they move until they are speeding across the screen. A fourth alien enemy called the “Mystery” ship intermittently flies across the top of the screen.

The cannon can only fire off one shot at a time as enemies return fire as they progress. To avoid getting blasted players must dodge the alien missiles or hide beneath shields, which can be broken down by both player and enemy fire.

Players initially receive three lives and can lose them by getting hit by enemy fire or allowing the invading aliens to reach the bottom of the screen.

The player wins the level if they destroy all of the oncoming enemies, which increase s speed with each subsequent level.

Origins of a Space Invader

There are many stories as to what inspired game developer Tomohiro Nishikado to create Space Invaders. Some claim it was a dream, others that it was H.G. Wells' War of the Words, and a few claim it came from a mechanical arcade game he saw in development at Taito Corporation. What specifically caused Nishikado to come up with the idea is incidental, what matters is that he made it...all of it.

From programming and design to the graphics, art, and technology, Nishikado spent a year crafting and building the game under it’s working title Space Monsters. Soon after starting he discovered that the arcade game technology of the time wasn’t powerful enough to handle the amount of graphics and complex animations necessary, so he had to build out entirely new hardware.

When launched in Japan Space Invaders was an instant hit. Arcades had lines around the block with customers waiting for hours to get a chance to play the new hit game in this golden age of arcade games. Arcades went from having one single Space Invaders cocktail table or cabinet to filling their floors with as many units of the game they could get their hands on, just to meet the demand. The game's popularity grew to the point that it literally caused a shortage of 100-yen coins.

Soon Space Invaders success across the ocean when Taito licensed the North America arcade rights to Midway Games, dominating the marketing in both the U.S. and Canada.

The public response to Space Invaders was so great that it rang in the age of the video arcade. Soon video games were flooding arcades, causing the number of pinball machines to diminish. Within two years Amusement Arcades would be renamed as "Video Arcades".

How Space Invaders Made the Atari 2600 A Success

When Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney released their first video game console with interchangeable cartridges in 1977, the Atari VCS aka Atari 2600, was meeting lackluster sales. Most folks had burnt out on home versions of Pong and it’s armies of rip-offs.

Learning of Space Invader’s arcade success, Atari signed exclusive home console rights to the game and released a simplified version for the Atari 2600 in 1980, and the Invaders obsessed public reacted. Getting the chance to come close to taking the arcade experience into their living room, the Atari 2600 became a must-have system, causing Space Invaders to become the first "Killer App" home video game. Thanks to Invaders, the Atari 2600 sales quadrupled over the next year.

The Clone Wars

Space Invaders also went on to become the second most ripped-off and cloned arcade game ever, the first being Pong (Tetris and Pong are tied as the most cloned home console game). Almost as soon as it released other companies were creating knock-off s of Space Invaders, many of which were identical games with just slightly different names, one of which was bold enough to call itself Space Invaders II.

The most infamous Invaders clone was actually developed by Atari for the 2600. In 1983, as a special gift for the attendees of their 1983 sales convention, Coca-Cola officially commissioned a version of Space Invaders with the aliens replaced by the letters P.E.P.S.I., titling the infamous game as Pepsi Invaders.

Space Invaders also paved the way for the future of video games by inspiring many of its future hits, including Galaxian and Galaga, which follow many of the concepts Space Invaders originated only with much faster-paced gameplay and colorful graphics.

Not only had Space Invaders solidified arcade games as an institution but also wrote it’s own name in pop-culture history. The actual alien invader icons are as iconic as Pac-Man and often represent the old-school gaming genre.