Is it possible? Are there gamers who have never played Space Invaders? Or even *GASP* never heard of it?
Forming the second part of my Holy Trinity of early arcade shooters alongside Asteroids and Defender, Space Invaders will go down in history as one of the most important and influential games ever to be released. Its combination of simple and yet compelling gameplay, increasing difficulty and heart-pumping score made Space Invaders one of the earliest arcade smashes, helping to kick-start the golden age of videogames and inspiring countless imitators and successors.
My own memories of the game are from the oft-mentioned grotty seaside arcade where I grew up in Hastings. After paying a flat fee, all games were free to play to your heart’s content and whilst by 1986 there was plenty else to keep me occupied, my 8 year old self continued to come back to this classic.
Most games, both then and now, were made in the traditional cabinet format. And whilst Space Invaders followed suit, it also came in a sit down ‘cocktail-cabinet’ model, which is the version my arcade stocked. It didn’t make any difference to the gameplay but there was something unique about sitting in a booth to play your game rather than standing at the cabinet like everyone else. Years later, as the game inevitably became retro, I came back to it via a cool t-shirt, white with the famous alien crawl in black, the game’s enduring popularity reinforced to me as even the elderly lady who ran the local corner shop stopped me to ask, ‘Is that Space Invaders?’ It sure is, lady.
By today’s standards, Space Invaders is of course ludicrously simple. There is only one screen. When you’ve seen the first level, you’ve seen them all. You can only move left and right. Enemies come at you at an inexorable crawl, shuffling this way then that like a sloth trying to shake off a leaf. You have one weapon, that fires one bullet at a time and can’t be upgraded. Each enemy takes one hit, as does your ship. Basic, in the extreme.
And by god, it was brilliant.
The beauty of classics like this is that the developers had so little to work with that they had to maximise every scrap of data. Those alien scum that seem to move oh so slowly in their hey-this-is-easy swagger? Sure, the first few are taken out at a canter but suddenly the horde starts to inch its way ever downward, panic slowly starting to tingle its way down your spine as you frantically move across the bottom of the screen, desperately trying to reach that one cling-on from the first row that you can never seem to hit. Wiping sweat from your brow, you manage to pick them off one by one until just a handful remain. But wait! Now they’re moving quicker, each enemy destroyed seeing the pace of movement increase, the simplistic four note musical score, so easy to ignore in the early stages, now front and centre, increasing its own pace to match the attack pattern, the sense of urgency locked in a duel with the need for calm as you line up your final, agonising, last ditch shot.
That single-fire weapon? You can take out enemies in a single shot but its all too common to see it fly harmlessly between a column of enemies, your craft now prone to incoming attack until the blast completes its journey. But time your shot just right and you can often take out the enemy fire that’s coming towards you, something of a double edged sword though, any shot that doesn’t take out an enemy feeling like a wasted effort.
You’re not completely defenceless though. A series of barriers offer a form of protection from the alien wave, quickly degrading as they take incoming fire, making them no more than a temporary shelter. They help to offer an element of strategy though; your own shots will also tear through them, allowing you to open up a passage of fiery death whilst retaining a semblance of cover.
Having cleared the screen of enemies, the whole thing loops over to present you with more of the same. But then variety was never the aim with arcade games, the thrill coming from racking up the biggest score whilst the eagle-eyed can land bonus points for blasting the UFOs that occasionally zip along the top of the screen.
Of course Space Invaders has long since been surpassed any number of games since it was released and playing it in 2020, it naturally shows its age. And yet despite that, despite its simplicity and its limitations, it still retains a certain charm that makes it a fun, albeit brief, trip down memory lane.
As the new fangled kid on the gaming block, conversions to the burgeoning home console market were inevitable, Space Invaders seen as something of a killer app and helping to boost sales of the Atari 2600. Sequels, remakes and straight up copies inevitably followed before the market came tumbling down with the video game crash of 1983.
But the legacy of Space Invaders would be more enduring. Aside from the popularity of the game itself and the direct sequels it generated, its alien tentacles continue to reach into the games we play today. In some cases, the influence is seen immediately – Phoenix and Galaxians spring to mind – whereas in other cases, its impact is longer lasting. Whilst the mechanics may have altered, the vertically scrolling shooter evolved from these humble beginnings, be it 1942, SWIV, Last Duel or Banshee. Flip the screen on its side and the legacy continues, the very concept of a lone ship fighting incoming attack waves driven forward with R-Type, Project-X and countless others.
Jump out of the ship and hit the ground with Ikari Warriors, or jump forward 7 years to Doom, then take a left down Time Splitters avenue before pulling up outside Call of Duty dive. All were influenced by Space Invaders. Not convinced? Where do you think the idea of lone ranger battling hordes of incoming alien threats came from? The attack waves may have become more intricate. The scenario may be completely different. The mechanics may have evolved almost beyond recognition. And yet each and every game in the shooter genre must pay homage to the game that paved the way for all that followed.
If we want to know where we’re going, we sometimes have to look back at where we came from. Sure, the shooter genre has evolved in myriad ways in the last three decades, but this is where it started. To modern eyes, Space Invaders looks quaint, antiquated. Simple, even. But we should never take for granted what it gave us.
And do you know what? It’s still bloody good fun.