Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Indelible Legacy of Space Invaders

Photo by NASA.
In 1977, programmer Tomohiro Nishikado began solo work on his eleventh video game. Inspired by the success of Breakout and its many imitators, his gameplay concept originated from utilizing the blocks of Breakout for a shooting game. For an industry still reeling from the phenomenon of PongDeath Race, and F-1, Nishikado's ideas were transgressively abstract; an endless wave of enemies would vertically descend on a horizontally-bound turret, and the player had to shoot them down to prevent these enemies from reaching the bottom of the screen. His first vision for the game called for aircraft as targets, but even using advanced hardware imported from the United States, the arcade board struggled to render his complex sprites. To simplify the spritework, Nishikado redesigned the enemies as extraterrestrials. After some deliberation, he would name this game Space Invaders.

While the bigger budget titles of the 1980s and 90s would be assembled by teams of disparate workers united under a director, Nishikado had no such support. He was a virtuoso by necessity, becoming the sole artist, sound engineer, hardware expert, and programmer until the final stages of Space Invaders' development. It was only when the game neared completion that another man was brought in to do the game's cabinet artwork. 

The exact origins of Space Invaders' trademark gameplay are of some dispute. Steven Kent's seminal History of Video Games (2001) points to Invaders originating as "a hexadecimal test used for evaluating computer programmers," then converted into a game that was hesitantly given the greenlight by Taito's executives. Leonard Herman's Phoenix IV (2016) states that Space Invaders was converted from the 1972 electro-mechanical game Space Monster.

According to the man himself, the defining rule of Space Invaders was a programming accident. The Invaders arcade board was made using an Intel 8080 8-bit microprocessor as the CPU and a TI SN76477 for its sound chip--the very same Texas Instruments today known for their calculators. What Nishikado uncovered in development was that the 8080 was able to render the aliens faster the fewer were present, causing the game to pick up speed as the player performed better. Later incarnations lacked the technical limitations of the 8080, but recreated this gameplay deliberately as one of Invaders' signature features.

Nishikado's original Invader illustrations, provided by Nikkei Trendy.
The titular "Invaders" began as illustrations Nishikado sketched out, then reimagined as sprites made by filling in blocks on graph paper. Those sprites were then recreated on PC, animated, and touched up with a light pen. The Invaders made iconic by the arcade game were based on sea life, reflecting the appearances of jellyfish, squids, and crabs.

While Nishikado had conceived of and tested Space Invaders as an upright cabinet game, Taito first distributed it to arcade operators as a table cabinet. The joystick and fire button were positioned inside the table itself, as if the player were reaching into a school desk. This sit-down experience facilitated both the game's alternating multiplayer, and its entry into the mainstream market.

After their 1978 debut in Japanese game centers, the Invaders tables quickly became a ubiquitous national phenomenon. The table cabinets began to move into other public spaces, appearing in cafés, bars, and even grocery stores. In some cases, arcades would convert into carrying only Space Invaders cabinets, becoming known as "Invader Houses." It was in such an environment that a young Shigeru Miyamoto would later find himself inspired to join the video game industry.

What Nishikado had launched into the world was not a static game, but an organic and evolving communal experience. This was one of the first games to codify skill and skill level as components of play in the arcade, allowing for players to become elevated based on skill level and develop complex peer groups. Those same players soon innovated techniques that Nishikado had not anticipated, discovering and taking advantage of holes in the Invaders program. The most innovative among these was probably the Nagoya Shot (名古屋撃ち Nagoya Uchi "Nagoya Attack," "Nagoya Shot," etc.) so named because it originated in the city of Nagoya, Japan. The Nagoya Shot entails rendering the entire bottom row of invaders helpless, by making the turret invulnerable to their shots. Because of how the invaders' shots are spaced, they do not actually spawn directly from the invaders, but instead some pixels below them; and so when a row of invaders is on the bottommost line of the screen, one march away from forcing a game over, their missiles spawn below the turret. By carving out a column of invaders in the center of the squadron early on in a match, the player can simply idle inside the space between rows of invaders while she waits for them to reach the bottom. Once they are on the bottom, those invaders are sitting ducks for the player to pick off.

The 1980 Space Invaders Tournament, won by Rebecca Heineman.
The game moved west by way of an official partnership between Taito and Midway Games, entering the American market in both the tabletop form factor desired by Taito, and in the upright cabinets envisioned by Nishikado. It was one of the early Japanese games to debut near-simultaneously around the world, and Space Invaders would come to codify the genre that westerners today call shmups (a contraction of shoot-'em-up) and that Japanese gamers call STG. (From shooting.) Invaders quickly became an international phenomenon, with (according to Kent) at least three hundred thousand units distributed worldwide, and arcade operators were eager to shell out the $1,700 price tag for the machines--each machine was earning between $300 and $400 weekly, returning the initial investment in a very short time frame. The game would also become the basis for Chuck E. Cheeses' mass success, as it was one of the few family-oriented locations guaranteed to carry the machine. In what was perhaps the crowning moment of its popularity, Atari hosted the 10,000-man Space Invaders Tournament in 1980, making this the first eSports title in gaming history. The winner was the world's first trans competitive gamer, Rebecca Heineman, and by extension the first woman to win a video game competition, although at the time she identified as male.

One year after its American debut, my father--then 27--was at a party in Cincinnati when he caught sight of an Atari 2600 running the recently-launched home version of Space Invaders. From that day forward, he recognized it as the greatest video game ever made. By 1980 he was spending every Friday night with his friends Rick and Jerry at a local bar, playing the cocktail cabinet edition of Space Invaders. Similar scenes were playing out across the world, and for a time the words "Space Invaders" came to be used to refer to "video games" in general. In that bar, my father learned everything from how to make fireworks appear at the end of a level, to how to squeeze out extra plays by slamming his quarter in just right. From the moment I first expressed an interest in video games, my father would seek to impress on me a deep appreciation for Invaders.

Space Invaders for the Nintendo 64.
In October 1999, the game was remade for the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Developed by Z-Axis and published by Activision, unlike the original game or its major remakes (Attack of the Lunar LooniesExtreme, et al.) this incarnation of Space Invaders was entirely American-made. While originally founded in 1994 with 3D game development in mind--hence Z-Axis--this studio's version of Space Invaders had entirely 2D gameplay, represented with 3D polygonal characters. Key artwork was produced by California artist Vincent Castillo, who would later go on to work with the Skylanders series as a design director, and the characters were designed by Carlos "CJ" Guzman, who would do work with the Rayman franchise. The game engine was created by a team of four programmers of eclectic talents, who would go on to work supportive roles in everything from Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness to Call of Duty: Ghosts. Perhaps most notably, the game's producer on the Activision end was Chris Archer, who also worked on Gex 3DTony Hawk's Pro Skater, and many Marvel games.

Space Invaders launched on PlayStation in October 1999, then arrived on the Nintendo 64 November 30th of that same year. It was the Nintendo 64 version of Space Invaders that first gave me familiarity with the series. To modernize the experience, this version of Invaders (often referred to by its Japanese title Space Invaders X) introduced twelve enemy types, each with their own patterned shots and associated power-ups. The game was structured around a tour of the solar system, fighting the invaders on nine different fronts spanning from Pluto to Earth, each planet dominated by a unique boss invader. The PlayStation version of the game used the expanded storage space afforded by CDs to feature prerendered cutscenes, which for the Nintendo 64 had to be translated into still shots. The 64 used anti-aliasing to smooth out the jagged polygons on the invaders, and its fast read times to eliminate the extensive between-level loading screens. Both versions ran at 60 frames per second, although the patented Nintendo directional pad gave the 64 a slight edge in gameplay. They also had their own unique sets of glitches, like the first boss in the 64 version being unable to hit the player while they were on the farthest sides of the screen.

While it was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that cemented my interest in games, Space Invaders X was the first game I ever owned. My Christmas gift console was somehow not bundled with Super Mario 64, and across my entire time with it I only owned five games--instead being a religious regular at Blockbuster--so until I first rented Kirby 64 and Rugrats: Scavenger HuntInvaders was the only game I had available. My family would spend long evenings huddled around our tiny white CRT, taking turns on the cooperative multiplayer mode and only pausing for dinner. We had no concept of memory cards or of the controller pack necessary to save, savagely throwing ourselves at level after level in the hopes of beating the game in one sitting. I was both amazed and disappointed to come home from second grade one day to discover that my father had made it to the final level, and I had missed it. He regaled me with stories of what the final boss was like, and that only spurred me to fight harder.

In 2007, Tomohiro Nishikado embraced Space Invaders Extreme as the true successor to Space Invaders, dismissing each of the game's other sequels as stagnant. Among countless others, X was orphaned. Perhaps this was a foregone conclusion, being a sequel created by a foreign team that was ultimately just one link in a long chain of corporate licensing. (Did anybody ever seriously expect Hideo Kojima to go to bat for Snake's Revenge?) Nishikado, being an old-school arcade developer, spent his career aggressively pitting himself against the conformist tide of the game industry. Ironically for the architect of one of the most-emulated games on Earth, Nishikado wanted to see gaming check its complacency at the door. At the same time he was speaking on behalf of Extreme, he was also issuing praise for Rhythm Heaven, Nintendo's abstract rhythm game. It was a tacit acknowledgment of another genre that Invaders was sometimes credited with pioneering. The four-note march of the Invaders in the original game made it easier on the player to line up their shots, if they fired in time to the beat. Extreme's emphasis on accurate consecutive shots and combos made it complementary to this rhythmic gameplay.

In one aspect, the defeatist nature of Space Invaders embodies the story of the human condition. You cannot win against the Invaders; they are, like death, something which can be cleverly and repeatedly forestalled yet never defeated. Inevitably, you will succumb to them. You are one against legion, and no matter how many of them you shoot down, eventually you will hit your mortal limits. This is not to say the battle is hopeless. While your individual life against the Invaders is finite, your score remains as an epitaph to all who follow you. Three letters represent a player in memoriam, stating a high score, challenging others to build on and surpass it. There is no outcome where you survive--but your battle is immortalized and compels others to fight ever harder.

My father was born in a world before Space Invaders. He loves the game; he will always love it. But I was raised on Space Invaders. There is no high score he can set that I cannot surpass. I in turn will be unable to overcome those that succeed me. This game has endowed us all with an indelible legacy.

In July 2014, French mosaic artist Invader transported one of his many Space Invaders-derived artworks to the International Space Station. The ambitious installation was the culmination of many years spent by the artist "invading" locations across the Earth. Nishikado once remarked in a 2008 interview that he didn't consider there to be anything revolutionary about what he did. Yet after more than three decades of being handed from person to person, his ideas made it into the very space his games once fantasized about. 2018 will see the 40th anniversary of his most influential work come to pass; and Tomohiro Nishikado, now in his 70s, will once more see the game that put Taito on the map celebrated as the bedrock on which so many genres have been built.


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  2. Sorry about the error, which has been corrected for the color version of Phoenix IV. Nishikado originally wanted to call his game Space Monsters. However, his manager wouldn't permit it because theree was already an Electromechanical game from Taito called Space Monster.