Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shooter Month: Space Invaders

Space Invaders
  • Publisher: Taito, Atari (Atari 2600) 
  • Developer: Taito, TOSE (NES) 
  • Release: 
    • Arcade, July 1978 (JP) / 31 December 1978 (NA) 
    • Atari 2600, 1980 
    • NES, 1985 (JP) 
    • Game Boy, October 1994 
    • Super NES, November 1997 
    • Wii*, 17 November 2008 
    • iPhone, 15 July 2010 
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up)
  • Players: 1-2 Alternating 
  • Save: N/A 
*Super NES version

In honour of my recent trip to Japan, I'm dedicating an entire month of reviews to that very Japanese of gaming genres... No, not visual novels; I'm talking shoot-em-ups! Yes, the Land of the Rising Sun has been a specialist in this genre, producing shooters of multiple settings (with airplanes, spacecraft, and even witches as characters) across a wide spectrum (okay, primarily on the hard side) of difficulty levels, from the simple yet skill-testing affairs of yesteryear to the "bullet-hells" of today. Yes, the field of shoot-em-ups is a crowded one, but if you keep your core interests in mind, some of them are bound to stick out. And enough titles have done so for me to kick off... Shooter Month! First on the menu is the one which kicked off the whole craze, not only the grand-daddy of shooter games, but the first great Japanese video game...** Space Invaders.

**Not the first Japanese video game, mind you. Tomohiro Nishikado, the designer of Space Invaders, had worked on several games before, including the Pong-like Davis Cup and Soccer, which he claims are the "Japan's first video game[s]".

Now, I know what you're thinking: "I know Space Invaders, everyone knows about Space Invaders! Its alien characters have become mascots for not only its studio Taito, but for gaming as a whole! Why bother reviewing it at all? And you call yourself alternative..." First of all, don't be so quick to hypothetically judge me, man. Second, you're right. We all know Space Invaders works. But... why? What makes it tick? And why did it catch on as well as it did? I started thinking thoughts like these whilst playing the Famicom port of SI, which I picked up over in Tokyo. And so, in a transparent attempt to fill up space, I shall endeavour to answer these very questions.

We'll start with a basic treatment of the gameplay. You control a moving gun turret shaped like the US Capitol building (huh). And in front of you is a phalanx of alien creatures, who will advance on your position and occasionally shoot laser bolts at you. Your objective is to shoot all of the on-screen beasties out of existence. Shooting the aliens scores you points, and you're awarded with extra lives at certain score milestones. Gotta love having an excuse for scoring points. When they're all gone, do it again, only a little bit faster, and so on. That's it. There's no backstory given to where these aliens come from and why they're invading... whichever territory your avatar represents. But, if you've been spoiled to need more incentive than that, then you're beyond my help Space Invaders is one of those games you play for the simple experience of playing it. It's a little hard to explain myself on that one, but sometimes you don't need an explanation.

Barriers don't offer much piece of mind when they can be broken so easily. (Arcade version.)
I'll be honest, whatever memories I have of playing Space Invaders when I was a wee little gamer were not entirely pleasant. I remember thinking the game to be hard, and even scary a little. See, as the aliens move side-to-side across the screen, when one of them hits the edge, they reverse course, and move a step down towards your position. This means that if given the chance, they will eventually collide with you. To make matters worse, the more aliens you take off the screen, the faster the rest of them move. Furthermore, the background music loop is a descending scale of four notes, which increases in tempo as more enemies are eliminated. (Fun fact: This was because the game's hardware could only run faster when fewer elements were drawn on-screen, but when Nishikado-san noticed it, he kept it in for the challenge.) Way to use multiple senses to put the player on edge, game. But far be it from me to condemn the game entirely based on those qualities. In fact, I have to give it credit for its ability to instill such strong emotions in the player with the bare minimum of artistic elements, and even a virtual absence of storytelling.

You may also notice that when you start out, there are four barriers between you and the aliens. Both your and their shots can damage these barriers, until eventually a hole or two gets cut through them. Admittedly, they're not much for protection. So, why even have them there in the first place? But tactics aside, their mere presence brings a very peculiar allegory to mind, at least my mind. Think about it: your avatar has the ability to move freely, at least along a one-dimensional line, and can dodge attacks or even hide behind objects for protection. Meanwhile, your opponents march lock-step in a fixed, gridlike pattern, never breaking ranks even as their peers are knocked out beside them. Sound familiar? If not, then you're not thinking of the American Revolutionary War, wherein the Native Americans and anti-British rebels came up with the genius idea of eschewing "conventional" warfare in favour of utilising the cover of their environment. To be fair, I'm not sure that's what Nishikado-san had in mind whilst designing Space Invaders, but it's a nice bonus thought to keep in mind and enhance the experience. Regardless, I guess it's true what they say: war never changes.
Later ports offer various colour and background options. (Super NES version shown.)
Home ports of Space Invaders are ubiquitous, given its early release and later influence, and are virtually too numerous to count. There's the Atari 2600 version (1980) which, despite its different looks, is credited as the first home port of an arcade game. There's the Famicom/NES version (1985) which was never released outside of Japan, likely due to Nintendo of America's restrictions which I may have discussed before. There's the Game Boy version (1994) which offers multiple background colour options when run in a Super Game Boy, and the Super NES version (1997) which has all that without the added fuss. And there's the iPhone version (2009) which is essentially arcade-perfect minus the control interface, but I find a tad overpriced at US$5. (Then again, I spent almost 800 yen for my copy of the Famicom version, so what should I care.) But really, you can't go wrong with any of them. Space Invaders is a shining example of how even the simplest of concepts can create the deepest of experiences.

+ Simple but straightforward shooter gameplay.
+ An effective increase of challenge.

- Bare-bones aesthetics.
- The stress of increasingly-speedy targets.

Control: 5 barriers out of 5
Design: 4 barriers out of 5
Graphics & Sound: 5 barriers out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

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