Space Invaders: A Noxious Assembly Line

Killing idols isn’t really about the idols themselves, but rather what we've made of them.  In 1978,  Space Invaders descended on a video game market still in possession of its innocence.  Gaming was a growing phenomenon, but not the obsession it was soon to become, and the small community of devoted gamers already frequenting arcades were about to see their hobby go mainstream.

At first appearance, the game might have reminded arcade-goers of Breakout, with a “wall” of aliens descending on a lone avatar at the bottom of the screen.  Unlike the Breakout paddle, however, this avatar was armed.  The player’s task is to use their firepower to take out as many aliens as possible before it either gets shot (the aliens are also armed) or before the aliens reach the bottom of the screen.  There are shields that the player can use for cover, but the aliens’ shots gradually eat away at them as the game progresses.
Visually, the game leaves a lot to be desired.  For some reason, the designers saw fit to decorate the aliens with elaborate tendril patterns that make the hardware’s graphical limitations painfully obvious.  What’s worse, some of the aliens look like they’ve been forcefully distorted to fit into a rectangular grid, increasing the sense of artificiality in the game.

But however grating the appearance, it’s nothing compared to the gameplay.  Even on the off-chance that picking off pixellated jellyfish in a slowly descending rectangular grid was one of my hero fantasies, it’s hard to maintain that illusion when they just randomly fire in my general direction like a pack of drunk stormtroopers.  Playing this game, I feel affixed to the controls like Syssyphus to his boulder, cursed to repeat the same monotonous exercise over and over and over...

The arguments in favor of canonizing Space Invaders are compelling on the surface.  First of all, the game was ridiculously successful at the arcades, earning Taito some $500 million in profits.  For comparison, the film Star Wars only earned $175 million in profits.  There's no denying that the game was addictive, but is that really a good way to judge the quality of the game?  We get so used to the word "addictive" being thrown around in gushy game reviews that it's easy to forget that it refers to something bad in just about any other context.  Other things that are addictive include Tapped Out, Farmville, slot machines, and heroin.  And however successful Space Invaders was in its time, its current popularity pales in comparison to many other arcade classics, including both Pong and Breakout.

Another common argument in favor of the game is its influence on the industry.  It started the shooter genre and pioneered a number of techniques that are now standard in gaming, including the use of dynamic music to create tension.  But does that really mean it was good, or is it possible for a game to invent successful design techniques and then use them in a bad way?  When it comes to impact and timing, the closest analog to Space Invaders in the film industry is probably Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffiths' opus released in 1915.  The film is often credited with mainstreaming the film industry and pioneered a wide range of film-making techniques still in use today.  Unfortunately, a lot of its popularity at the box office also stemmed from its racist rewrite of Civil War history and its glorification of the Klu Klux Klan.  If you can make your way through that aesthetic nightmare without cringing every time a person of color appears on the screen, you're stronger (or more racist) than I am.

The point is, something can be both popular and influential, and yet still be awful.  If gaming is going to reach its full artistic potential, it must move beyond being a vehicle for addiction and nostalgia, and we should all consider the difference between immersion and compulsion.


  1. Harsh!

    I think so much of the magic of Space Invaders is lost unless it's played on a well looked after Taito (ideally) or Bally upright machine. With the volume cranked up, and ideally in a close two-player battle, or battle against a high-score that you feel you can beat.

    The entire cabinet is part of the display to my mind. The floating glowing aliens against the deep blue starry sky and moonscape, black-lit, still can mesmerise. You've lost all of that on an emulator.

    Once you're past the beginners first sheet of aliens or two, it can get stressful. The sound adds so much to this, which if set to common arcade levels of the time, you can feel in your chest cavity.

    I'd also swear (I could be wrong) that the alien firing is not random. If you're picking off a column of aliens, the closest alien to you seems to focus more on firing than the other aliens.

    Of course, some of the magic is nostalgia, and if you remember if first time around, it's hard to unpick that. I still think it's a challenging game, worth coming back to. Far more enjoyable (for me) than Super Breakout and Pac-Man.


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