The Most Important Videogame Ever Exists Outside of the History It Helped Create

Games Features Space Invaders
The Most Important Videogame Ever Exists Outside of the History It Helped Create

If Space Invaders isn’t the most important videogame ever, then it’s at least in the discussion. While Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. might have powered the early popularity of the NES and rescued home game consoles from an industry-wide crash and near demise, Space Invaders was at the center of that transition from arcade to the living room in the first place, thanks to its dominance of arcades and entertainment media at large. And it had ended its own videogame crash by putting a stop to the proliferation of Pong clones and kicking off what’s referred to as “the golden age of arcade games.” Maybe you don’t even get Super Mario Bros. without Space Invaders, and not just because Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of that game, claimed his introduction to Space Invaders gave him an interest in videogames and a desire to make his own.

Space Invaders, from 1978 through 1982, grossed $3.8 billion in revenue. Nothing could come close to that, not even Star Wars, the highest-grossing film of the day that had been released one year earlier: the entire original Star Wars trilogy grossed around $1.4 billion in its original theatrical run. Taito, after all the costs involved in building the 750,000 custom arcade cabinets that housed Space Invaders, the overseas licensing with Midway, and the cut of the venues with the machines in them, still made a net profit of nearly half-a-billion dollars on Space Invaders. And none of this is adjusted for inflation, either, of which there was plenty of over the last 45 years. Space Invaders isn’t the top grossing game ever anymore, but it’s still third after adjusting for inflation, and the lone game from the ‘70s anywhere near the top of that list. Space Invaders was so popular that an urban legend came from it, in which it was claimed that the game caused a shortage of 100-yen coins in Japan. While untrue, the game did earn $1 billion from quarters alone in its first year, so you can see where the idea came from.

Money isn’t the only thing that Space Invaders produced. As said, Miyamoto was drawn to videogames and the creation of them by Space Invaders, but so were countless others in the industry. Love DOOM? Both John Romero and John Carmack cite Space Invaders as an early videogame experience (although Romero gave credit to Pac-Man for being the first to get him thinking about game design). It was also the first game that “pulled” Metal Gear’s creator, Hideo Kojima, in. Galaxian, which heralded the far more popular Galaga and Namco’s arcade empire, itself one of the most absurdly influential runs any developer has ever had, was influenced by and a reaction to Space Invaders: Namco’s then-president told designer Kazunori Sawana that Galaxian had to be “the post-Invaders game. And there were many attempts at a “post-Invaders” shoot ‘em up that didn’t have nearly the pull of Space Invaders even years after its initial release, until Namco’s 1982 hit Xevious redefined the genre that Space Invaders had initially set the rules for. 

Many vital videogames in the industry’s history are so obviously fun, so clearly influential even decades after their release, that you can understand why they became popular in the first place, and that they could be popular releases today, too, if they didn’t already exist. That’s not the case with Space Invaders, however. This isn’t a knock on the Taito classic from 1978, which celebrates 45 years of protecting Earth from a slowly descending alien invasion this summer, either. It’s just that understanding the context that made Space Invaders the highest-grossing videogame ever in its day, what made it so influential and important not just within its genre, but to games as a whole, is difficult. The things you can say about it, and the time period in which it was released, are even more alien to those who weren’t there for it than the creatures you’re firing shots at in-game. One of the most vital videogames in the industry’s history essentially sits outside of the history it helped create.

“But 1978 wasn’t that long ago, how much could have possibly changed,” you ask. Listen, I don’t mean to ruin your day when I point out that I recently saw someone on social media say that they don’t bother with “old” videogames, which they then explained meant pre-Playstation 2, but that was over two decades and three Playstations ago: 1978 isn’t just another century, but basically a different planet when it comes to where videogames as an industry, as a hobby, and as an art form were in their life. And so much of what made Space Invaders so tremendously successful and innovative and different at the time are simply things that we take for granted at this point. 

Take music, for instance. videogames didn’t have continuous in-game music before Space Invaders. Whatever music and sound effects were contained in games at this point were used to attract players to an arcade cabinet, so they’d spend their money on that one instead of another one: you’d hear them when a game or level began, and when either of those things ended. Music was so relatively unimportant to videogames in 1978 that arcade cabinets didn’t actually come equipped with programmable sound chips at this point, with any included music programmed instead on the same tech that allowed for sound effects. As early years Nintendo composer Hirokazu “Chip” Tanaka explained it to Game Developer (née Gamasutra), “Most music and sound in the arcade era (Donkey Kong and Mario Brothers) was designed little by little, by combining transistors, condensers, and resistance. And sometimes, music and sound were even created directly into the CPU port by writing 1s and 0s, and outputting the wave that becomes sound at the end.” There’s a reason programmable sound chips would arrive on the scene shortly after megahits like Donkey Kong had to make do without: that process sounds exhausting, and all to make just a little bit of music, too.

Space Invaders had the same limited technology of everyone else in the era, and it was used to create a four-note song. It’s not much—as Karen Collins wrote in Game Sound, the tune is made up of four descending chromatic bass notes that sound a lot more like effects than something with the tonality of music—but it’s a song. A continuous, in-game one, the first of its kind, and dynamic to boot: the song would speed up depending on how many enemies remained on-screen, which fit the movements of those enemies, since they sped up the fewer of them there were on-screen, as well.

“What if enemies attacked the player?” Seems like a pretty basic question in 2023, but in 1978, it was anything but. As development supervisor Takao Ueno told it, Space Invaders was originally conceived as a Breakout-style game, only with the blocks left to be destroyed descending the longer it took the player to break them. That idea seemed “boring” on its own, however, which is where this idea of attacking the player and making them consider defense as well came in. Now, Space Invaders would be a dynamic action game, a shoot ‘em up, asking more of you than Pong or Breakout did, and opening the doors that would eventually lead to not just Galaga or Xevious or DOOM, but any action in videogames that went beyond the scope of one-on-one duels like in Midway’s 1975 release, Gun Fight. 

Space Invaders was the first-ever arcade game to be licensed for a home console. With clones being rampant at the time to the point of industry collapse and licensing laws basically nonexistent in the early days of the videogame industry, Space Invaders couldn’t be the first-ever port from arcades to consoles, but still, the first official one ever is no small thing. That’s the start of something new for the industry that would help begin the process of gaining trust, growing strong roots, whatever you want to call it, and also ended up being roughly 90 percent of Sega’s entire business plan in its early console days, as they ported their own arcade games to their home platforms. By the time of Nintendo and the NES, the arcade was still considered the primary place for games as well as a bellwether of future success: Nintendo released the Vs. arcade cabinet in North America before the NES, as a way to drum up excitement for their coming home console. Can you imagine Sony hyping people up for the Playstation 6 by releasing it in arcades first? Arcades were far different then, and so much of what ended up on consoles began their lives in that space instead, where the tech was superior and the money was, for a time, better. 

So, Space Invaders receiving an officially licensed port to the Atari 2600 in 1980 ended up being a literal gamechanger. Being able to play Space Invaders at home was tantalizing, and it drove sales of the Atari 2600; per Steve Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games in 2001, Space Invaders’ availability on the system quadrupled sales of Atari’s home console. By the time the cartridge stopped production, it had sold over six million copies. That might not sound like many at all now, but again, the arcade was the dominant force in the videogame industry at this time, and home consoles wouldn’t fully wrest that mantle from them for a few years yet. And even when the scales began to tip in the other direction, as the NES became a powerhouse and made it so consoles were here to stay, well, just six NES games outsold Space Invaders’ Atari edition, and two of those (Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt) were pack-in games. 

Even among classic arcade game aficionados, Space Invaders  can be difficult to understand. As the game that kicked off the golden age of arcade games, it wasn’t designed with some of the same score-chasing concepts in mind as those that followed it. Donkey Kong’s high score attempts have been the subject of a documentary; entire communities spring up around the idea of setting high scores in classic arcade titles, or devote themselves to creating elaborate guides that explain just how you’d go about doing so. Space Invaders’ situation is a little more curious, as by the kind of standards we consider these things by, there are basically just two Space Invaders players who are any good at the game: Jon Tannahill is the world-record holder, at 218,870 points, which topped Richie Knucklez’ mark of 184,870. And third place? Just 55,160 points. As The Guardian wrote in a 2018 profile of Tannahill and the scene, “Most competitive gamers are happy to achieve 5,000 points. It’s a difficult game. Even its creator, [Tomohiro] Nishikado, has apologised for its difficulty.”

Competitive players tend to stay away from Space Invaders: it’s too “gruelling” of a game, as The Guardian put it, not designed with this kind of play in mind. Which basically just left Tannahill and Knucklez, who faced off in 2018 (with neither besting Tannahill’s score from earlier in the year). It can’t even get competitive love from the kind of people who obsess over the era it spawned, and it was almost immediately left behind in the console space it helped to foster success in. Videogames changed rapidly following the release and success of Space Invaders, and in the process, how Space Invaders became an industry-shaping hit in the first place became more difficult to comprehend. While there have been sequels to Space Invaders over the years, none of them had the juice of the original, and none of them captured their respective zeitgeist in the way that ‘78 edition did. Taito seemed happy enough to take their profits and move onto other genres—other than the countless bags of money Space Invaders made Taito getting in your way, you could argue pretty easily that their own golden age of shoot ‘em ups wouldn’t come for years and years after the release of their first. Series like Super Mario Bros. have done a better job of recapturing that magic, or repackaging the magic of the original, than Taito’s attempts with Space Invaders have. And yes, replicating anything Mario has done is a big ask, but the same could be said about Space Invaders in comparison to a different contemporary such as Donkey Kong, which branched out, lived on, and thrived while doing it.

And much of that is because Space Invaders, as a game, exists outside of the history it helped create: trying to bring it into the present is difficult, because the present is always going to have more in common with videogames in 1986 or what have you than videogames from 1978, more in common with those “post-Invaders” games Namco was concerned with making. More conceptually speaking, though? Space Invaders hasn’t actually been left behind or outside of videogames history: it is everywhere. It is videogame history. The direction of music in videogames changed after Space Invaders, and has become an industry unto itself. Space Invaders launched a genre, and its success placed further emphasis on action in games. Its enemy aliens have become a symbol for videogames themselves; that’s where Discord, a platform with nearly 200 million active users, got its logo from. Consoles got a major boost from Space Invaders’ existence on them, the first brushstroke of a new landscape so unrecognizable from that of ‘78’s. Space Invaders might be “gruelling” to play, and it’s from so long ago that it was first released only in black-and-white, but its influence is everywhere, as it’s the genesis of so much of what would come after. There’s only so many games you can say that about.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

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