Space Invaders History

Space Invaders History

Space Invaders goes way way back to the Atari days. Japanese game designer, Tomohiro Nishikado, designed Space Invaders back in 1978 where the game was released in Japan. In 1980, Space Invaders made its way to the Atari system and became a legend. It was one of the first shooter games to be developed and many more games have found their inspiration through Space Invaders.
It turns out the simplistic graphics and even simpler interface for Space Invaders were actually considered quite complex for its time. Keep in mind that most games used shapes like lines and bars and nothing more (Think of Pong). To actually draw space aliens, Nishikado had to design special hardware to run the game. While working, Nishikado found it very difficult to get the hardware to perform to the games demanding standards. In the end, the game used rasterization for its graphics (something still used today) along with monaural sound for its sound effects. It was an instant hit in Japan.
The success of Space Invaders led to many sequels and re-releases. The game today features sharper graphics, music, and better sound effects but the concept and main game play remain the same proving that Nishikado’s original formula was indeed perfection.


Inspired by Taito’s earlier electromechanical machine Space Monsters and Tomohiro’s interpretation of alien descriptions in The War of the Worlds, the game itself resembled an adaptation of the two. In this video game version of the game, the player controlled the motions of a movable laser cannon that moved back and forth across the bottom of the video screen. Rows and rows of video aliens marched back and forth across the screen, slowly advancing down from the top to the bottom of the screen. If any of the aliens successfully landed on the bottom of the screen, the game would end. Although the player’s laser cannon had an unlimited supply of ammunition, it could only fire one shot at a time.
Meanwhile, the aliens would shoot back at the player, raining deadly rays and bombs that the player would have to dodge lest the cannon be destroyed. Players could also move the laser cannon under one of the shelter blocks, so that they could absorb the enemy shots until they are worn through. The player’s cannon could be destroyed up to three times (the player had three lives), and the game would end after the player’s last life was lost. Occasionally a bonus spaceship would fly across the top of the screen which the player could shoot for extra points.
As the player destroyed an increasing number of aliens, the aliens would begin marching faster and faster, with the lone remaining alien zooming rapidly across the screen. The player’s cannon cannot be harmed by an invader firing a missile from the lowest line on the screen before the invader lands. Shooting the last alien in the formation rewarded the player with a new screen of aliens, which began their march one row lower than the previous round.


Mirrored holographic display and cardboard background of a Midway Space Invaders Deluxe arcade cabinet. Note the monitor on the bottom.One key feature of Space Invaders was the fact that as more and more of the aliens were shot, the remaining aliens would move faster and faster. The change in speed was minor at the beginning of a wave, but dramatic near the end. This action was originally an unintentional result of the way the game was written as the program had to move fewer and fewer aliens, it could update the display faster but the development team decided to retain this feature rather than implementing busy waiting when there were few invaders on the screen.
Space Invaders used an Intel 8080 as its processor, running at 2 MHz. Graphics were implemented through a 1 bpp frame buffer mapped from the main CPU address space. All sound effects were implemented individually with discrete electronics.
In the upright version the actual output of the game was displayed mirror-image on a black and white monitor which sat recessed in the game’s cabinet. The image was reflected on a plastic panel which the player saw. Behind the reflective panel was a lunar landscape which gave the game an impressive background setting. It is interesting to note that there were two major uprights. There was the original Taito upright which utilized joystick control, but most people in America are familiar with the Midway licensed version which used directional buttons and arguably had inferior artwork on its bezel, side art, and moon backgrounds.
The Japanese version of the Space Invaders arcade cabinet. (Note Joystick) Since the actual video game console itself had a monochrome video image, Taito added color by coating the reflective screen with colored bands. It should be noted however, that the very first version of the game in Japan (“T.T.”, or “Table Top” Space Invaders) was a cocktail table with purely black and white graphics (i.e., no color overlay). There was also a version of the game in which the graphics were converted to actual RGB color.
Space Invaders had no hardware for the generation of random numbers, so the seemingly random point values awarded by the flying saucer actually utilized a hash function based on the number of shots that the player had fired in the current invasion wave. It did not take long for experimenters to determine that the maximum 300-point value could be achieved every time if the player shot the wave’s first Flying Saucer on the 23rd shot, and subsequent Flying Saucers at 15-shot intervals thereafter.


In October 2005, Nishikado commented in an interview with English based video games magazine Edge that the look of the aliens had been based on the description of the alien invaders in H. G. Wells’ classic science fiction story, The War of the Worlds: “In the story, the alien looked like an octopus. I drew a bitmap image based on the idea. Then I created several other aliens that look like sea creatures such as squid or crab.” Nishikado also noted that his original intention in designing a shooting game had been to make the enemies airplanes, but that this had been too technically difficult to render. He was opposed to depicting the enemies as human beings (which would have been technically easier) as he believed the idea of depicting the shooting of humans to be morally wrong.