Space Invaders: Birth of the SHMUP

Matt Barton's picture

Okay, folks. This damn book was due like a week ago, so ante up with your thoughts on Space Invaders. I know Mark has posted some great stuff on shmups that I intend to look at for this chapter, but if you have any "YOU GOTTA MENTION THIS" type crap, type it up. What I'm probably going to focus on is how the game was so appealing to the general public (instead of "hardcore" gamers), the importance of the high score, and a bit about how it inspired a whole genre of games that is still around today. Just to let you know now, though, there is no way in hell this is going to be a comprehensive look at all shmups, or even all the really good ones. I'll be lucky to get in the top five, so help me out with that if you will.

I'm kinda curious, too, about the psychological aspects of the game. Some things I've read suggest that there's something deep about the way the aliens just keep on coming, and our need to "clean up" by eradicating them one-by-one. It's like maintaining order or the status quo against the relentless forces of progress or revolution. In short, WHY was/is this game so damn addictive?

All ideas welcome. Just do it quick.

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Bill Loguidice
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Differentiation

I kind of inferred that Space Invaders was an offensive evolution of the defensive Breakout paradigm in the Pong chapter. Like Pong and the later Pac-Man, Space Invaders was one of those historical games that for whatever reason (design, timing, intangibles) took off with EVERYONE, and then inspired a butt-load of clones and inspired-bys. Space Invaders is just an enduring, simple concept - avoid their shots as you shoot at them. From that basic concept, so much evolved.

Keep in mind too that we're pretty much restricting this to top-down shooters, rather than side-scrolling, which were touched upon in the more appropriate Defender. Games like Galaga, Galaxian, 1942, Ikaruga, etc., are all fair game. Thanks, guys!



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Matt Barton
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I thought about the breakout

I thought about the breakout connection...But it seems like more than just a "spin-off" of that, at least IMO. The guy definitely deserves more credit--it definitely seems like a, forgive the pun, breakthrough.

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Bill Loguidice
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Thoughts
Matt Barton wrote:

I thought about the breakout connection...But it seems like more than just a "spin-off" of that, at least IMO. The guy definitely deserves more credit--it definitely seems like a, forgive the pun, breakthrough.

Absolutely, which is why I hedged it at the end of the Pong chapter, but, in thinking it through, I can't help but see the connection. It's almost like if there was no Breakout the logical next step to a Space Invaders might not have happened. I think a lot of game creation back then was building off one or two breakthroughs. Pong begat clones that added more paddles and balls, Breakout changed Pong into a vertical single player game, once that was changed the top-down perspective was established, which led to more profound ways to utilize the perspective and basic concepts, a la Space Invaders. Regardless, some of our theories in the book can be crazy or fun, if not necessarily 100% right... ;-)

But again, I do agree that Space Invaders was no knock-off, it was its own original creation, but certainly Breakout being there years earlier helped in the building block sense. It's like if there was no Space Invaders there would be no Galaxian/Galaga with scrolling starfield, which then led to top-down games with actual scrolling.



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yakumo9275
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What I remember more than

What I remember more than anything, is two things.

the cabinet graphics (the big alien guy thing on the side)
and the sound effects!

I also fondly remember pumping quarters into pleiades + phoenix + centipede...

getting your ship sucked up in galaxian.. that was strategy changing!

-- Stu --

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Bill Loguidice
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Other games
yakumo9275 wrote:

What I remember more than anything, is two things.

the cabinet graphics (the big alien guy thing on the side)
and the sound effects!

I also fondly remember pumping quarters into pleiades + phoenix + centipede...

getting your ship sucked up in galaxian.. that was strategy changing!

-- Stu --

Galaga is legendary as well, perfecting the Galaxian formula. There's a reason why it's combined with Ms. Pac-Man in a single cabinet in the arcade version these days, one of the only two classic games to still be out there. The ship capture, the stat tracking, etc. To my mind it's the perfection of Space Invaders, though there's something to be said for Space Invaders' shields...

Centipede/Millipede and even Slither, I'd love to include in the book, but I didn't quite think of them fitting the Space Invaders mold until you mentioned. Certainly they play like it to a degree, so they'll probably worthy of inclusion there.



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Matt Barton
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They might fit into a

They might fit into a discussion about innovations...AS I recall, both used as a trackball instead of a joystick.

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Bill Loguidice
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Tough, but yeah, they should be mentioned
Matt Barton wrote:

They might fit into a discussion about innovations...AS I recall, both used as a trackball instead of a joystick.

You mean games like Centipede/Millipede and Slither? Not so sure I'd call their use of a trackball an innovation since Atari was using them in the 70's with football, but certainly the relatively extreme mobility was interesting. In Centipede/Millipede you could move about the entire bottom 1/4 of the screen, whereas with Slither you could move pretty much about the entire playfield and fire alternately in front of (top) and behind you (bottom).



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Rowdy Rob
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It was the sound FX, maybe?

I think a lot of the attraction of "Space Invaders" was the "thumping" soundtrack. I'm not sure you can classify it as "music," but I'll call it "music" for lack of a better word. I think that the "Space Invaders" phenomenon cannot be understood without examining the role the "music" had in the game.

It was that thumping, deep bass "music" that quickened your pulse as the invaders slowly descended on you that gave the game its "drama." As the pace of the invaders quickened, so did the "thumping," until the whole game goes crazy and you're frantically trying to shoot those last few invaders! The throbbing soundtrack was so ominous and infectious, and I think it really added tremendously to the "breathless" excitement!

A few thoughts and anecdotes on the "Space Invaders" phenomenon, perhaps inspiring something useful for the book:

Space Invaders might have been the first "dramatic" game! (I can't think of anything before it that fits the "drama" motif!) There was actually a "plot" to the game, and you had a dramatic role to play. Rather than ping a few pongs, blast a few objects, or compete with another player, "WE'RE UNDER ATTACK!" It was a very exciting game, perhaps like no game before it!

Some of the previous comments mentioned the "cabinet" artwork, but I don't think the "cab" had much to do with the appeal. I say this because in Japan (where the "Space Invaders" craze was legendary; the government actually had to mint more coins!), "cabinet-style" upright games were very rare; videogames were almost exclusively played on "cocktail" machines. Arcades in Japan (in the early 80's) were basically just rows and rows of "cocktail" machines, and there was little to differentiate one game from another. You actually had to walk up to a "cocktail" machine to see what game was playing on it. When I came to America, I missed the "cocktails," considering the upright cabinets to be a waste of space!

The pace in "Space Invaders" quickened as the aliens were blasted. If you can recall the boredom and frustration of trying to hit that last "block" in "Breakout," which could go on forever (it seemed), I think the "pacing" of SI was an innovation.

Also, it didn't matter how many "lives" you had left; if the invaders reached the "ground," that's it, GAME OVER! That added to the frantic tension.

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Bill Loguidice
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Agreed
Rowdy Rob wrote:

I think a lot of the attraction of "Space Invaders" was the "thumping" soundtrack. I'm not sure you can classify it as "music," but I'll call it "music" for lack of a better word. I think that the "Space Invaders" phenomenon cannot be understood without examining the role the "music" had in the game.

That was one of my exact key notes for the chapter, the thumping soundtrack and the quickened pace, almost like a heartbeat, which was a concept used in several later games, including Dungeons of Daggorath on the CoCo and 2010: The Text Adventure on the Coleco Adam. That combination with the relentless downward trajectory of the invaders creates some genuine tension, something probably missing from all other games up to that point (at least in the arcade).

Your other points are good too.



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Calibrator
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Irritating aspect

What I find quite irritating is that in most Invaders versions the aliens get increasingle faster the fewer there are.
The last one can be a PITA and I often lost a life because I couldn't shoot him in time.
I'm not sure if the reason is a design choice or the result of system constraints (more capable modern systems may have intentionally adapted to this).

I can't speak for the arcade hardware but simpler systems like the early Apple II's for example have to
a) draw each enemy indivually (keyword: "block shapes")
and
b) don't synchronize their CPU calculations with the screen, which would make precise timing possible (keyword: "VSYNC")

This leads to the CPU having a huge load of work when there are many enemies to draw on screen. This results in a low speed.
When more and more enemies are shot down there is less to do per time span, as there are fewer enemies to draw. The result is that the speed gets bumped up automatically when it isn't artificially slowed down by synchronizing it with a fixed clock (VSYNC).

From what I've read the Atari 400/800 version is even more clever:
It doesn't move the enemies indivually but simply modifies the screen address pointer of the respective row (the Ataris use a thing called display list which controls the screens layout) which is lightningly fast, of course!
Because of this and the capability to synchronize the action with the screen's timing the movement is smooth and every speed bump you see in this version is intentional.
The missiles of the player's ship and the enemies and most importantly the big alien mother ship on the left screen side are "player/missile graphics" (sprites) which exist and move individually from the playfield area - making the illusion perfect.

take care,
Calibrator

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