Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Retro Plug And Play: Space Invaders

In 1977, a young Japanese engineering student turned video game developer was given an honor reserved for only a few. The Taito Corporation of Japan asked Tomohiro Nishikado to design a game on his own.

Nishikado took the challenge seriously. Still unsatisfied with the pace of development, he started from the ground up. Not only did he design, program, illustrate, and engineer the sound, Nishikado developed an entirely new microcomputer to serve as a platform for his game. In 1978, Taito put it on the market.

Space Invaders was such a success it caused a coin shortage in Japan.

Inspired by War Of The Worlds, Space Invaders pitted players against several columns of alien enemies that would descend from the top of the screen toward four fortifications at the bottom. The only thing that stood in the way of this endless wave of aliens was a single laser cannon behind the first destructible barricades.

Destructible barricades was not the only innovation of Space Invaders. It was also the first game to introduce "lives," set high scores, employ a continuous soundtrack, and revolutionize the industry as an early first person shooter. The game was so successful that the 360,000 arcade cabinets sent around the world made $1 billion (in quarters) in just three years, $2 billion in four.

Some even speculate that had it not been for Space Invaders (and Pac-Man), the home video market might have crashed. Instead, this roll-of-the-dice development sparked a renaissance that would usher in a golden age. The next wave of innovative games would include Galaxian and Asteroids. Pac-Man earned $1 billion in one year.

Space Invaders is one of several highlights at The Smithsonian this year.

The novelty of Space Invaders still hasn't come to a close. The Smithsonian Art Museum recently launched an interactive exhibit to explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium. The exhibit opened in March and will run through September 30. Following its stay in Washington D.C., it will visit ten major cities in the United States, ending at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami.

The exhibit is rekindling novelty interest in the Space Invaders plug and play joystick with ten video games from the early era. Manufactured by Just Plug It In And Play, the two-button and single joystick controller connects directly into any television set with audio and video jacks. There is no console.

While Space Invaders is the primary game (with its art decorating the controller), nine other less popular games are included. Some of the vintage games include Alpine Ski, Legend of Kage, Bubble Bobble, and Crack n' Pop (the latter two being predecessors to early adventure maze games).

The best known, of course, is Space Invaders. And although there have been many updates to the game in several years, this controller carries something similar to the original art. Its starkness shines.

For those who don't know, the game is incredibly straightforward. Once the five rows of aliens appear, you shoot them while avoiding their three types of missiles: slow, fast, and wiggly. Each alien type is worth 10 to 30 points (990 points per screen), with mystery ships carrying a value up to 300.

During the golden era of video games, masters developed several strategies, including becoming one with the cadence of the game, shooting the outer layers before the aliens can descend, and blowing small holes in a barrier in order to benefit from protective fire. Some even know that the value of the mystery ships is determined how many times you have fired (seriously.)

Space Invaders Plug And Play Shoots 6.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While playing Space Invaders today carries some campiness, there is something cool about preserving the game as it was meant to be played. If not in an arcade cabinet, then absolutely for television.

You can find the retro Space Invaders game at The Smithsonian Art Museum (about $35-$40, down from $50). The Smithsonian Art Museum has other discounted gifts as well. A similar plug and play Space Invaders controller is available at Amazon. If you aren't sure about purchasing a controller, there is vintage Space Invaders for the iPhone.

In recent years, other plug and play vintage controllers have also appeared for Atari and another for Super Pac-Man and an Atari collection.  Depending on the manufacturer, some controller games have already become collector items.
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