Space Invaders

A re-post, slightly reworked, from the Preserving Games blog, June 2, 2009. In retrospect, I wish I’d compared two version of the game with significant gameplay differences. There are any number of versions with alterations in speed, enemies’ health, scoring, etc. Ah well.

Space Invaders Unit Art
Space Invaders Unit Art

Space Invaders is iconic. You need only look at UT’s own Videogame Archive logo to get a feel for the pervasiveness of its visuals and the sort of shorthand it’s become for videogames in general. Back in 1977 game developer Toshihiro Nishikado began work on Space Invaders, creating by hand the hardware necessary to program the game. What happened after its release in 1978 is now gaming history, so I decided to take some time to find and play the most “original” version of Space Invaders I could find.

Of course here we enter shaky grounds. The most original version (earliest version?) might be a Japanese black-and-white cocktail table unit with woodgrain sides, largely unadorned, with a two-way joystick for control. But likely any American audience will consider an upright unit with movement buttons and two cellophane strips (for coloring sections of the screen) to be original enough. A bibliography of Space Invaders‘ complete gamut of ports, bootlegs and revisions would be a very considerable undertaking.

I suppose some empirical metric can be brought to the discussion by insisting that the item is more original if it is earlier than another iteration of that object. But here (if not for Space Invaders specifically, than for many other games) it can be difficult to distinguish between a prototype of the game and the first complete version of a game, especially when games are not published per se, but just iterated upon. The software may hit version 1.0, but this is not necessarily a more complete or even more accomplished version of the game. Adventure‘s most favored and most familiar version is one which came after Will Crowther’s initial solo release.

In any case, back to Space Invaders. For the curious person not willing to seek out original units, emulation is the natural way to go. The best general site I’ve located for getting a handle on the multiple versions of the game is CAESAR, which will often sport all kinds of image captures (logos, units, screenshots) of various versions of a game. The best general emulator for arcade games is MAME. Though presently only a 0.138u3 release, it’s very functional and well-polished, and is available for Windows and Linux users. I used an OS X port of the project, MAME OS X.

The other bit of shaky ground are the images, or ROMs, themselves. ROMs are full data captures of read-only memory chips, in our case arcade memory chips. Theses files are what emulators read to generate a copy of the game on a personal computer. Arcade ROMs are available at many sites like ROM World, but it should be noted that copyright restrictions are still in affect for most properties.

To sum up: search for the ROM you want at ROM World or a similar site, run MAME and load this ROM, and if you like, go to CAESAR to try and determine exactly which version you’re playing.

A word of caution: playing ROMs with emulators is presently in the realm of the hobbyist, and as such all the technical kinks are not ironed out. You may run into problems trying to play certain ROMs. The ROM, which contains several different files, may be missing some critical ones needed by the emulator. This is because another version of the game, or another game entirely that uses some of the same instructions as the ROM you’re attempting to load, will have those files instead. In that case you’ll need to download those files as well. If you encounter this problem you may consider downloading all the versions of the game, or go to an emulation forum to try and determine which ROM package will have the files you need. Aracde@Home, an excellent resource itself, has very active forums.

Space Invaders, Logitec Version
Space Invaders, CV Version
Space Invaders, CV Version

On to Space Invaders. I played two different versions: Logitec’s 1978 bootleg of the title, and the “CV” version (though I still haven’t found what that stands for), also 1978. Both versions use actually-colored pixels to emulate the cellophane-colored screens of the original units, and as you can see, the CV version emulates more strips of cellophane than the bootleg, though I prefer Logitec’s sparser color scheme. I imagine it to be closer to the real thing.

Gameplay has been described as simplistic by today’s standard, though I don’t find this to be entirely true. While Space Invaders certainly features simple dynamics and play, these aren’t necessarily any simpler than other shoot ‘em ups or first-person shooters today. There’s strategic use of cover, nimble placement of your fighter to hit the sides of the invaders rather than the center (opposing shots cancel each other), and careful picking off of invaders at the extreme left and right to increase across-screen travel time for the invaders.

It’s the slower pace and lower visual stimulation, as well as the less frequent positive reinforcement Space Invaders provides, that elicits the simplistic descriptor. Witness the debilitating addiction afforded by PopCap’s recent release Plants vs. Zombies to see how keenly some game developers understand the elemental appeal of well-polished and finely honed reward systems. In comparison, Space Invaders is sparse in the extreme.

But along with the pleasant explosion-graphic of the aliens, Space Invaders has the high score reward, the only indication you have that you were ever there, and the only way to “win” the game. Space Invaders tugs at what must be a basic need to hold out as long as possible against impossible odds. The story ends the same way every time: the invasion is a success, and you’ve perished in a futile struggle. But for the few seconds that Space Invaders captures your attention and you’re still alive, you are wholly in its web.

Developer Harvey Smith noted in a talk that the arcade genre distills games to the most basic and demanding mechanics. In place of compelling characters, story, writing, acting, and perhaps graphics as well, are the fundamental draws of satisfying character control and play incentives. An arcade game’s world, its limitations and the role the player has within it must be intuitively grasped. Space Invaders still succeeds on all these points, and its 30+ year-old mechanics are still solid, cohesive and rewarding.

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