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Coin-Op History 101
Space Invaders

by Michael Thomasson

A barrage of heavily armed military soldiers march towards you in formation, with rifles pointed and gunning for you while trying to cross the screen. Sound familiar? Well, in 1978 this was the initial idea designed and programmed by engineer Toshihiro Nishikado which evolved into one of the most influential videogames of all-time, Space Invaders. Since it was politically discouraged to harm humans at the time, the army onslaught was replaced with alien aggressors looking for global domination.

Space Invaders was the first arcade game released by the popular Pachinko manufacturer, Taito. Interestingly, Space Invaders originated from an evaluation tool to test computer programmers' skill with hexadecimal mathematics. Despite a lukewarm response from company executives, the game emerged and was released to little fanfare... for the first three months.

Many coin-operated games had already been circulated prior to its release in Japan in 1978, it is with Space Invaders that many truly remember the entire globe initially going video game crazy.

In fact, Space Invaders was so popular in Japan that it caused a shortage of the 100-Yen coin, the coin needed to play the game. This shortage affected several other aspects of Japanese life including the heavy disruption of the primary form of transportation, the Subway. Space Invaders had brought Japan to its knees and the government was literally forced to quadruple the production of the Yen coin to meet the new demand.

Due to its intensifying popularity, entire arcades were opened in Japan specifically for Space Invaders, many of which held dozens of Space Invader coin-ops and no others! As hysteria concerning the game mounted, shop owners of all trades abandoned their goods and converted their stores to video arcades, some complete with booming audio systems broadcasting the "thumping march" of the invaders into the streets. With the ever-growing demand, other venues starting hosting coin-operated machines, and Space Invaders had found a habitat everywhere from pizza parlors, restaurants, and bars, to drug stores, laundry mats, roller rinks, grocery stores and even such unlikely locales as funeral homes.

Prior to Space Invaders, a good run for a coin-op release was a few thousand machines. To give you an idea of the massive popularity of Space Invaders, a staggering 500,000 plus coin-op machines were sold worldwide in the first year, seventy percent of which remained in Japan. In time, more than 100,000 Space Invaders games had been distributed, and over 300,000 built if counterfeit versions are calculated. Billions of coins were pumped into the machines for the first few years amassing more than $500 million in revenue for Taito, making the entire entertainment industry sit up and take notice.

The majority of these coins came from frenzied teenagers eager to play. Unfortunately, many of them engaged in crimes of theft, robbery, and panhandling to acquire coins to fill their fix. As a result, these inappropriate actions led to the first of what would become a trend of public outcries against the video game industry. Led by groups of concerned parents and government organizations that feared that games tainted the minds of their school children, Texas residents worked their case to ban the machines all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

The concept behind Space Invaders was simple in design. It was an adaptation of carnival shooting galleries. The player would guide a laser cannon located on the bottom of the screen from left to right in order to shoot down wave after wave of marching alien raiders. The laser cannon could hide behind four buildings that served as obstructions, defending the laser cannon from the aliens' rays and bombs. These buildings, and the player controlled laser cannon, would eventually be destroyed by the relentless alien invasion that slowly advanced from top to bottom of the screen. On occasion an alien spaceship, which could be shot down for bonus points, would fly across the top of the screen.

One factor that added to the hopeless tension created while playing the game was the increasing speed of the game as more invaders were destroyed. The aliens would move faster and faster and the audio, reminiscent of the thumping sound of a beating heart, became more rapid during their descent. While many identify this rapid increase as one of the greatest game design scenarios of all time, they might be surprised to learn that it was a result of hardware technicalities and not of intentional devise or fancy programming. The truth is that the processor was able to update the screen more frequently as the number of enemies decreased. This resulted in the ramped up speed of the aliens and the soundtrack.

Midway licensed Space Invaders from Taito and released the game within the United States. While it did not create a quarter shortage, it was unparalleled in popularity. The coin-op, in a good location, could pay for itself in less than a month making videogames the most lucrative equipment a merchant could possess.

Atari, the American company with the Japanese name, recognized the opportunity and licensed the game for release on the Atari 2600 console. Space Invaders was the first video arcade game to be adapted to a home console, and expanded upon the coin-op version by offering a massive 255 different game play variations. Atari even focused their advertising budget and marketing efforts to sell Space Invaders the game, instead of the VCS console itself. As a result, sales of the VCS spiked, and Space Invaders became the first killer application!

The Atari console had been released back in 1977, but it wasn't until consumers starting to purchase it with a copy of Space Invaders that Atari unit sales skyrocketed and the company began to empty their warehouse and excess stock of the 400,000 units. Demand had become so high that the VCS had to be rationed out to retailers, and manufacturing production had to be stepped up. Atari's gross income more than doubled leading its operating income to rocket to a third of its parent company Warner Communications. This in turn caused the stock to rise 35 percent resulting in Atari becoming the fastest growing company in history.

The crude sprite graphics of Space Invaders, although simplistic when compared to today's standards, were ground breaking at the time. The alien aggressors were the first characters to have individual animation while at the same time moving horizontally and vertically within the playing field. The creatures have also become icons for the industry and are widely recognized symbols of the gaming hobby. Space Invaders is perhaps the most influential videogame ever created and took the world by storm sparking a videogame craze that continues to this day!


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