History of Gaming

As someone who is roughly the same age as the first Space Invaders machine I feel as well-placed as anyone to write about what’s happened in the world of gaming over those 45 or so years. I wouldn’t say I’m a hard-core gamer or anything but I have kept loosely involved over the years — from my initial Commodore VIC-20 to the current(ish) generation of X-Box. If I had a ‘specialism’ it would probably be the late 8-bit / early-16-bit generation of computers and consoles but as part of this I’m going to go back and explore some of the things that I’ve missed along the way.

I’m not certain exactly how all this will flow but it will be roughly chronological, looking not just at the games but also the hardware that made all this possible. So what better place to start than the grandaddy of them all…

Space Invaders (Taito, 1978)

The one that started it all. Mostly. There were a few actual video games that did predate this but the idea of shooting swarms of aliens invading earth pretty much set the scene for 50% of classic games over the next decade and more. Those 8x8 pixel aliens are what comes to mind when you think ‘shoot em up’ to this day.

The timing of this release was fortunate — Star Wars had been released the previous year, and Alien was released a year later. Side-note: I don’t think those two have been bettered in terms of space or space / horror movies to this day.

Space Invaders was created by Tomohiro Nishikado at Taito. As well as the iconic design & concept, the game actually had a number of firsts that have set the standard for game design to this day. It was the first game to feature enemies that fired back, the first game to introduce the concept of lives (always 3!), and the first game to introduce a high score system. For info, the current record high score of 218,870 is held by John Tannahill of Brisbane.¹ This is a little bit higher than my personal high score of 850.

Hardware & Design

The hardware for the original arcade machine was based around the Intel 8080 microprocessor. This was an early 8-bit processor running at 2MHz, although instructions used between 4 and 11 cycles so the throughput was a few hundred thousand instructions per second.² One of the side-effects of the limited hardware was that as the number of aliens on screen were reduced, the speed of movement increased. Though this was not an intentional feature of the game, the developer decided to leave this in to increase the challenge.³

Computer Archeology⁴ has done a great job of analysing the code for Space Invaders. Alongside some bugs and easter eggs hidden in the code, it reveals some useful gameplay rules and patterns — for example:

  • The flying saucer uses the same interrupt as the ‘squiggly’ line bullet and the two will not appear on screen together.
  • When the squiggly line shot does fall it will drop in column 11, then 1, 6 and 3.
  • The score that you get for shooting the flying saucer varies with the amount of shots that you have fired. Every 15 shots, the flying saucer will be worth a maximum 300 points.

The Intel 8080 was utilised by a few other arcade machines at the time, including Ozma Wars (SNK) and Sheriff (Nintendo). Technically at least, Ozma Wars was more impressive than Space Invaders, with more going on in terms of movement & variety but I don’t think this one has aged too well.

Sheriff was slightly different. Before Nintendo came up with the ultimate damsel in distress game, they came up with this other damsel in distress game, but with shooting — just not the vertical kind. There weren’t any groundbreaking moments here other than the fact that you could shoot in a different direction to where you were moving. So, in a way maybe this is a precursor to Midnight Resistance. Which was awesome.

Legacy

Space Invaders sold hundreds of thousands of machines over that initial 3 year period and is the highest-grossing video game of all time. It’s legacy in terms of game design is bigger than anything else. By miles. It’s the daddy.

In Play

So how did it play? Like any game of this decade it was harder than I remember. Games just had a habit of being unforgiving back then. You take a bullet, ‘respawn’ and take a bullet straight away. But the simplicity of the thing brings you back for more. All you have to do is move out of the way of their bullets and shoot enough of your own. Plus you’ve got Missile Defence Shields to help you — what can go wrong?

Something, inevitably does go wrong — again and again. I’m still yet to knock off the first wave, though each time I replay it I think this is going to be the time when I do it. Then I fire a shot which just misses the column of invaders, and because you can only shoot one bullet at a time, you’re stuck for firing another bullet for what seems like an age. Add in the unpredictability (and impressive collision detection) of your bullets and the alien bullets cancelling each other out, plus the increasing speed of the onslaught and you’ve got something which is very simple but very challenging — it’s pretty much video game perfection essentially.

Next up — the early Z80 based systems.

[1] Beating Richie Knucklez: the making of a Space Invaders world champion, The Guardian (Sun 11 Nov) https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/nov/12/beating-richie-knucklez-the-making-of-a-space-invaders-world-champion

[2] Intel 8080, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intel_8080

[3] Space Invaders, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Invaders

[4] Space Invaders, Computer Archeology https://computerarcheology.com/Arcade/SpaceInvaders/

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