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Compendium: Space Invaders

Space InvadersThe industry was in freefall by the late seventies, the success of Atari’s Pong home systems caused a plethora of clones to flood the market. Manufacturers were forced to sell their consoles at a loss in order to clear stock and many analyst saw this as the end to the video game fad. It fell to a Japanese arcade manufacturer Taito to save the industry, with their first major success in the video game market. 

The game was Space Invaders created by Toshihiro Nishikado and was released into the arcades in 1978. Like many other early adopters of video games, the Taito Trading Company as it was known started out with vending machines and jukeboxes. The company was founded in 1953 by Jewish-Russian business man Michael Kogan who had fled Odessa during the revolution and settled in Tokyo. The company moved over to the video game arcade sector in 1973 with their first game Astro Race which also coincided with the change of the company name to the Taito Corporation. The company produced several games before their breakout hit of Space Invaders, including Western Gun (Gun Fight in US) which saw the company expand into the American market. It was also the first video game to include human to human combat and the depiction of an on screen gun. Nishikado was the designer for the game and many others while he worked at Taito, in fact one of the first games that he built for the company was a clone of Pong called Elepong. Atari’s sequel to PongBreakout was the game that influence Nishikado to create Space Invaders.

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“Space Invaders was the game that established the shooting game genre that would eventually lead to modern FPS games like Call of Duty”

Development for the game started in 1977, with Nishikado designing and programming the game. He also created the artwork, sounds and built the cabinet’s mechanical components from scratch. Originally he had attempted to design the game with aircraft and battleships but due to the graphical limitation decide to animate humans instead. However the moral implications of shooting down a series of humans didn’t seem right. After seeing Star Wars and taking inspiration from HG Wells War of the Worlds Nishikado settled on alien spaceships as the games protagonist. The squid and crustacean like spaceships gave rise to the games original name Space Monsters. There was no colour graphics for the original machines with cellophane overlays being used instead. Due to the limited specifications of the processor unit that was used to build the game, only a limited amount of enemies could be displayed on screen before their movement slowed down too much. As more and more enemies where destroyed the CPU could increase the speed at which they moved. Nishikado decided not to compensate for this but instead turned it into one of the game’s most notable gameplay mechanics.

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“The game has even influenced art, with Paris based urban artist Invader using it as the subject for his work”

The game was released in the summer of 1978 and by the end of that same year Taito had installed over 100,000 machines and grossed nearly $600 in Japan alone. The game was so popular dedicated arcades were opened that just featured Space Invaders cabinets to cater to demand. A demand so high that it created an urban legend that Japans treasury had to increase its production of Yen coins to fulfil the depleted circulation of coinage. Although untrue there is no doubt that Space Invaders was a massive hit for Taito and revitalized the flagging video game industry, ushering in the golden age of the video game arcade. Within less than five years the game had generated a net profit of over $450 million making it the best-selling video game at the time, a record that it would hold until another Japanese company would upstage it with their own major hit Pac-Man. The game has become engrained in the culture of video games with the pixelated aliens becoming instantly recognisable symbols for the video game industry, with many companies and websites using them in their logos. Like Pong and a few others Space Invaders broke out from the small time video game market and into the wider popular culture with even those not familiar with the medium easily able to identify the game, its artwork and even its unique sounds. Space Invaders was followed up by numerous sequels and ports to other machines, one of which was for Atari’s new console the Atari 2600. The game would help Atari to establish a dominance in the home console market over the next few years and bringing continued success to Taito themselves. From T-Shirts to Movie & TV references Space Invaders has well earned its place in annals of video game history.

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