From a slow start in 1978 Space Invaders experienced a meteoric ascension to become a true icon as it is today. The mere image of one of the ‘aliens’ instantly brings to mind video games as a whole. Its sudden rise in popularity after its initial 2 months was on a scale never seen before. In Japan, the home of video games, it became so popular that it managed to cause a thankfully temporary 100 yen shortage, a feat so notable that it was recorded in the 2008 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. It also forced the Japanese to further increase the amount of 100 yen coins they were producing each year.
Within 2 years of release the game was making some serious ground. Arcades with nothing but Space Invaders machines opened up, and it was seen by many as the first case where games came even close to competing with major forms of entertainment such as Film. Video games were much more marginalised in the 1980’s, but Space Invaders came to the fore, its success was a precursor to the position video games now occupy in the 21st Century, the largest of all the entertainment forms.
So how did it manage to achieve it all? It was the slow arcade machines, and the accidental invention of the difficulty curve. Space Invaders was a very intensive Arcade game for its time – so demanding in fact that the creator had to design a custom platform and make a new arcade board using the latest microcomputers from the United States. Even then the game was too much. Nishikado, the creator, set a speed he wanted the aliens to move at but to start with the hardware simply couldn’t move all of the aliens that quickly. Until things changed.
When players shot the slow-moving aliens that meant the hardware had to deal with fewer simultaneous aliens onscreen, and so would speed up all of the remaining aliens. With every alien one struck, the harder the next one was to attack. This act of serendipity gave the industry the difficulty curve, and all in one level. It was new and it was compelling, people chased in vain after the last alien. Then they chased after the times. Replaying it tens, and in some cases, hundreds of times; and so it grew into that yen-consuming colossus.
After over 30 years of blasting aliens it still makes compelling play to thousands of players to this day. Many versions have been released but none have achieved the same success as the original. To this day the arcade game has resulted in millions of wasted hours, and billions of dead aliens. Perhaps it is only right that Space Invaders Get Even, a game letting you be an alien and fight humans, was recently released. Who knows, things have moved rapidly in the video games industry, from barely being able to animate some aliens to posing us with moral choices, people are soon going to have to consider the original question they asked with Space Invaders.
Can games be an art form?