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Space Invaders: five unknown facts.


Space Invaders: five unknown facts.

Five surprising things you didn't know about Japan's first true blockbuster game.

Arjan Terpstra

09 Mar 2022 ⋅ 6 min read

Space Invaders, Taito's incredibly successful 1978 title, needs no introduction. Or does it? Here's 5 facts you didn't know about the Japanese blockbuster game.

1. Before aliens there were…boats?

Tomohiro Nishikado, the electro engineer responsible for Space Invaders, famously tested several themes for his game before he landed on the fight between humans and aliens. He first imagined a tank battle, but early tests didn't make them look "realistically tanky" in his eyes, so he tried humanoid characters, fighter planes and warships instead. Planes were tried first, but the technology of the time (we're talking 1977) did not allow him to properly suggest continuous movement across the screen: Nishikado's plane sprites were hopping from position to position.

A 1979 flyer for the US version of Space Invaders. The game popularised the table or "cocktail" version of arcade games, especially in Japan. Designed to be played in café's and restaurants, one Space Invaders cocktail machine generated daily revenues between 20,000 and 30,000 yen. Sold for 460,000 yen, bar owners quickly recouped their investment.

The humanoids worked much better graphically as 11x8 pixels sprites, but had to go after management (notably Taito's founder and President Michael Kogan) expressed concerns about killing humans in games.

Which left Nishikado with…boats. A cannon at the bottom of the screen would take on an invasion fleet of warships coming in from the top screen that looked rather believable, moving towards you on the tides (or so one imagined), dropping mines down as they approached the shore. For a while, Nishikado toyed with the prototype, before discarding the warship idea altogether, replacing it with the alien invasion theme we all know and love.

2. The first alien was an octopus

Often, people insist the Space Invaders theme of a fight between humans and aliens was inspired by the first Star Wars movie. It's not entirely untrue (Nishikado must have heard about the 1977 US box office hit), but he did not see the movie before Space Invaders was finished, as it wasn't released in Japan at the time.

And yet sci-fi stories did play a huge part, especially the inspiration that flowed from a film Nishikado had seen as a youngster: The War of the Worlds (1953), based on HG Wells' famous book on an Martian invasion, directed by Byron Haskin. "The Martians who appeared on the screen had an appearance close to octopuses," Nishikado was quoted as saying, and he chose to honor HG Wells' classic sci-fi novel by giving the first alien he designed an octopus silhouette.

Nishikado's original drawings for the iconic aliens and flying saucer, and early paper designs on an 8x16 grid, that served as the basis for the digitised designs.

Happy with the results on-screen, but knowing his five rows of eleven aliens needed a little more diversity, Nishikado looked into other marine shapes to inspire his extraterrestrials, and chose squid and crabs. In the end, the three nautical designs made the game, plus one for a flying saucer.

3. Space Invaders wasn't made at Taito

Space Invaders may be the reason Westerners know the brand name Taito, but it was not Taito proper where the game was developed. Pacific Kôgyô was a full subsidiary of the Taito Trading Company, the business started by Michael Kogan in 1953. In the first two decades of its existence, Taito was involved in anything from Vodka distillery to distributing perfume or peanut vending machines. Later, the import of jukeboxes from the US was added to the mix, followed by Gottlieb pinball machines.

Over time, Taito would focus more and more on what was called the coin-operated amusement business. As this the amusement market grew hand over hand (as the Japanese economy flourished from the 1960s onwards, meaning the Japanese could spend more on leisure), it made sense to switch out imported US electro-mechanical games with games developed and manufactured in Japan. For this, Kogan started Pacific Amusements Limited/Pacific Kôgyô as a subsidiary in 1963, which would soon churn out original games.

Nishikado joined Pacific Kôgyô in 1968, where he worked on the assembly line and in quality control of electro-mechanical games before joining the development division. Here, he would study new microprocessor technology in the early seventies, and develop Pong-style games Soccer and Davis Cup (two of the earliest examples of Japanese-made arcade video games) before starting on the development of Space Invaders.

4. Space Invaders was almost named Space Monster

Nishikado did most of the development of Space Invaders by himself, as he was the only one at Pacific with an intimate knowledge of computer programming. Thus he had the creative liberty to work on the game's theme for pretty much the whole time during the 10-month development cycle in which Space Invaders was born.

At the start of the process, the project only had an internal code name, KX79, but Nishikado knew the importance of finding a strong and exciting game name. Working on the humans vs aliens theme, he came up with "Space Monster," a title that played to the popularity of the English word "monster" in Japan at that time.

Internally, the title would be challenged from time to time, as his peers informed him of a recently failed electro-mechanical game with a space theme, Space Docking (1977), or the fact that Taito had released a little-known mechanical game named Space Monster before. But despite these challenges, the name stuck.

Space Invaders' aliens, together with Pac-Man, Super Mario, and Sonic the Hedgehog, are among the biggest icons of video gaming. Here, Dutch shoe brand Floris van Bommel advertises running shoes branded with alien icons.

It wasn't until the very last hour of production, when Taito's export division suggested a new name that, in their eyes, would work better internationally. Over more than a hundred potential new names, they had picked Space Invaders, they told Nishikado, and all but ordered him to change the game accordingly. It disappointed Nishikado, and it also surprised the artists responsible for the cabinet art: the space monsters they designed with the old name in mind would forever adorn the Space Invaders cabinets.

5. The movie Jaws inspired the game audio

The game sounds from Space Invaders are truly iconic. The high pitched "pwew" from the missiles offset by the repetitive background hum of four bass tones seared themselves into gamers' minds worldwide. These four tones play at increasing speed, keeping pace with the rhythm of the aliens descending, to great effect: the faster the game, the faster the music plays, increasing the tension.

Responsible for the game audio was Michiyuki Kamei, who joined Pacific Kôgyô at age 22, a hire straight out of electronics school. Kamei was given instructions by Nishikado, who knew what he wanted from the background music, he told his biographer Florent Gorges: "The only detail for which I gave (Kamei) a firm direction was for the sound the enemies emitted when they moved. I wanted it to be a low sound, almost reminiscent of the beating of a heart. So I took up my guitar and played the four notes I wanted."

Kamei went to work and instinctively knew what other inspiration he needed to finalize the background sounds: the music from the movie Jaws, with its classic two-tone theme. Kamei: "The aliens (in Space Invaders) came from the top of the screen and descended little by little, going faster and faster. The player therefore had to feel their threat, with the help of sound effects. And so I knew the sounds had to be heavy, eerie and pressure-boosting, just like the title theme of Jaws…”

Marquee art for the American Space Invaders upright arcade. Licensed by Taito to Midway Manufacturing co for the US, Midway's American designers used elements from the Japanese cabinet and marketing art to develop their own cabinet art. Note the monsters characters on the right, remnants of the time the game was called Space Monsters.

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