The ‘Space Invaders’ Creator Reveals the Game’s Origin Story

The ‘Space Invaders’ Creator Reveals the Game’s Origin Story
Written by Techbot

The titular space invaders in Taito’s 1978 arcade classic have a look that’s among the most iconic in video games. During development, they almost took forms as mundane as human figures or tanks. But chance occurrences gave them designs that became synonymous with video games.

Invaders today adorn T-shirts and posters. Open your emoji keyboard and an approximation lurks within, dubbed “alien monster.” An iPhone will suggest said critter when you type in “game.” It’s a tacit understanding of the unbreakable link between those few pixels and the entire games industry, even for people who’ve never played Space Invaders.

Tomohiro Nishikado, creator of Space Invaders.

Photograph: Taito

But the fact that the game exists at all is down to the remarkable achievements of creator Tomohiro Nishikado. His work reimagined and elevated an industry, defined and popularized key concepts that are still used decades later, and spawned a cultural and technological phenomenon.

It all started with Atari’s Breakout. “I was hooked on it,” Nishikado told WIRED. When Taito management asked him to make something that would surpass Atari’s brick-basher, Nishikado was already deep in thought about how to achieve this. “I decided to plan a shooting game, which was my forte. But until then, shooting games were mainly time-based—players defeated as many targets as possible within a set period. So I decided to make a game with a lives system, and interactive gameplay in which multiple enemies would attack the player.”

His initial design had you shoot at tanks, but Nishikado remembers that their shape and movement “didn’t feel right.” The team tried fighter planes and battleships, but those didn’t work any better with the limited technology of the day. “I then tried a solider and was satisfied with the movement, but there was an opinion that shooting people was not a good idea, and so I gave up on that,” says Nishikado.

Send in the Squids!

A solution arrived in the form of War of the Worlds. Nishikado remembered the 1953 film from his childhood and became inspired by various media depictions of the invaders, which often resembled sea life. “I based a new target on an octopus, and since it was now an alien, there was no problem shooting it,” he says. And with the shape not having to be specifically recognizable, any issues with realism went away. Nishikado set about creating further enemies, abstracted from marine creatures like crabs and squids.

As all of this was happening, Nishikado was reimagining how video games were created in Japan. “Unlike conventional games in Japan at the time, Space Invaders was a software-controlled game that used a microcomputer,” he says. Such games already existed in the US, but there was scant information about them in Japan, and no existing development hardware. So Nishikado built his own.

“I studied American games to learn how to make games with microcomputers. It took me about half a year to master that,” he says. “And because I didn’t have satisfactory equipment for game development, I made my own by referring to American game boards. Parallel to this, I was working on game planning, characters, and programming—almost all by myself. Little by little, I improved the functions of my hardware, and by the time Space Invaders was completed, I was satisfied.”

The technological limitations of the day were also responsible for a key gameplay component of Space Invaders—shooting enemies caused the remainder to move faster, palpably ramping up tension. “This was the result of the game board’s low processing power,” says Nishikado. “It was designed to draw one invader every 60th of a second, instead of all the invaders at once. At the start of the game, it takes about a second for all the invaders to take a step. As their number decreases, the time to draw them all becomes shorter, and so their speed of movement increases. This makes the game more interesting and effective—and compensated for the board’s lack of capacity.”

Shields … Shields!!! 

A screenshot of the original game.

Courtesy of Craig Grannell

Beyond the hardware, Nishikado was busy making Space Invaders a pioneer in other ways, introducing video game features we now take for granted. It gave you destructible shields to lurk behind, enemies that fired back, and even in-game music—an ominous looping four-note riff that felt akin to a heartbeat and quickened as more invaders were downed. Nishikado calls out as highlights the attract sequence, the ability to battle multiple foes, and those shields. “They were effective because the player could use them to dodge enemy bullets, shoot through gaps, or inadvertently get shot through gaps,” he says. These elements were subsequently (and swiftly) explored and remixed by countless other games that used Space Invaders as the foundation for a new wave of titles in Japan.

Considering how influential Space Invaders became, it’s surprising to learn it initially received a cool reception. “It got low marks from vendors at the product launch because it was viewed as difficult to play,” remembers Nishikado. But once it was in front of players, everything changed. “A couple of weeks after the game went on sale, I went on location to investigate a bug,” he says. “I was told by the person in charge of the site that customers would not leave the game alone. I knew then it would be a hit, which was a relief. Later, I heard production sites had to work through the night because supply could not keep up with demand.”

Enthusiasm for Space Invaders never really went away. Ports of the original appeared on home systems, some innovating beyond Nishikado’s design—most notably an Atari 2600 take with its dozens of gameplay variations. Sequels arrived in arcades and homes, building on Nishikado’s foundations and drawing from titles Space Invaders inspired, adding gigantic bosses (Super Space Invaders ’91), frenetic high-octane gameplay (Space Invaders Extreme), and artsy explorations of how Nishikado’s work evolved into an entire genre (Space Invaders Infinity Gene).

Modern Miniature Monsters

A miniature arcade cabinet version of Space Invaders

Photograph: Numskull Designs

The latest take on Space Invaders, though, is more literal. Numskull Designs is bringing it to the Quarter Arcades line, with a miniaturized cabinet based on Taito’s original hardware. “As one of the most innovative, beloved games of all time, which helped popularize video games and establish the arcade industry, it was an obvious choice,” says creative director Karl Mizen. In 2008, Guinness World Records listed the title as the top-rated arcade game in technical, creative, and cultural impact.

Numskull Designs worked closely with Taito to ensure the new version did justice to the game, and to recreate everything as closely as possible. This includes the Pepper’s ghost effect, which uses a reflective screen to make the invaders appear to float in front of a moon and star field. “It’s an extraordinary cabinet—by far the most challenging we’ve done,” says Mizen. “Considering the original came out in 1978, you’d think it would be easy to replicate with modern technology, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Photograph: Numskull Designs

Mizen is happy with the finished result and understandably hopes it will “introduce a new generation to the game while also satisfying existing fans.” But what of its creator? Nishikado thinks the diminutive machine should feel similar to the original and looks forward to aficionados and newcomers alike being able to play it. Although he let slip that he’s “not very good at playing games” and has “hardly surpassed level two of Space Invaders,” he added that he’ll try to finally do so with the Quarter Arcade (£249, or about $309, available for preorder now).

From trailblazing arcade hit to miniaturized desktop machine, Nishikado’s classic has had quite a journey—and 45 years in, it doesn’t look close to ending. 

Those years have also changed how Nishikado reflects on his most famous creation. “I didn’t have much attachment to Space Invaders for 20 years after its release,” he says. “But especially during the past 10 years, I’ve discovered how many people still play and appreciate the game, and that even children know it. It’s a wonder how we were able to make it in that environment. But I now recognize Space Invaders was the best game I ever made.”

Thanks to WIRED Japan’s Naoya Raita for translation assistance.

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