How Space Invaders Became a Gaming Phenomenon

Space Invaders is one of the most popular arcade games of all time. Here's how it became a gaming phenomenon!

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Space Invaders. Designed by Taito employee Tomohiro Nishikado in Japan, Space Invaders hit arcades in 1978 and was licensed by Midway for the United States. By 1982, Taito had sold over 400,000 cabinets and grossed over $3.8 billion in revenue (more than $13 billion today), making it the highest grossing video game of all time. 

As if that weren’t enough, this fast-paced alien shooter is arguably responsible for the first video game arcade boom and has remained one of the most influential titles of all time. In honor of Space Invaders 40th birthday, Den of Geek is taking a look at this monumental game’s creation and development.

Here’s how Space Invaders created an arcade explosion that transformed the video game industry from a novelty hobby into a worldwide phenomenon:

Special Thanks to George Lucas

When Tomohiro Nishikado, fresh from the release of his combat flight simulator Interceptor, set out to make a new game, his design featured tanks and planes shooting at attacking soldiers instead of spaceships and aliens. But his early prototype just didn’t feel right. Many of the vehicles were deemed too hard to maneuver, for instance. Another problem was that Taito had decided to ban the shooting of human targets as the company felt that would send a problematic message. Nishikado knew he needed to go back to the drawing board and so he gradually arrived at the idea of changing the game to aliens and spaceships.

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Given that the year was 1977, it’s pretty easy to see where the inspiration for Space Invaders came from. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind both hit theaters while Nishikado was working on his alien game and it soon became clear that there was a large audience hungry for anything related to science fiction and outer space. In an interview with The Guardian, Nishikado said that Star Wars isn’t directly responsible for the space theme, but added that the George Lucas film did help him solve that problem about shooting humans.

“It wasn’t Star Wars that led to the outer space theme,” he told The Guardian. “Initially, I started with tanks, then tried warships and warplanes – but the movement and animation didn’t match the game. After much trial and error, by far the best match were soldiers, but shooting people was frowned upon. It was at this time, while I was stuck for an alternative, I chanced upon Star Wars and realized I could use aliens because no one would complain about shooting them. For the actual design of the aliens, I took inspiration from HG Wells’ octopus-like Martian design.”

Space Invaders gameplay was heavily influenced by Breakout, but Nishikado added his own twist. Instead of shooting a ball at static objects, Nishikado’s game would fire projectiles at moving objects. It was a change that would require special hardware to be developed as the existing tech of the day couldn’t handle the descending aliens. Nishikado originally called the game “Space Monsters” before the executives at Taito intervened and went with “Invaders” instead.

The game released only in Japan at first and was not an immediate success. But after a few months in arcades, the advanced graphics and new kind of gameplay became a sensation and Japanese gamers were soon waiting in line for hours for a chance to play. The reason they had to wait so long is that Taito was caught unprepared and couldn’t make the machines fast enough to keep up with demand. The game’s massive success caught the attention of Midway, which secured a license to release the game in the United States. And with that, the worldwide revolution had begun.

From the Arcade to Your Living Room

Space Invaders soon established domination over every arcade it was installed in. So in-demand was the title that many arcades opened featuring nothing but this one cabinet. It’s not surprising then that, by the middle of 1981, Space Invaders had crossed $1 billion dollars in revenue worldwide from its arcade machines, all of it earned one quarter at a time.

Along the way to its great success in the arcade, the game would also prove to be exactly the shot in the arm that the home console market needed to come back from the brink of death in 1977 (yes, an earlier sales downturn before the infamous 1983 crash that became the kiss of death for many console manufacturers). Home console makers were struggling badly prior to Space Invaders‘ release due to a glut of Pong clones that left gamers feeling bored and uninspired. Manufacturers were slashing prices and selling their boxes at a loss or leaving the market entirely. The fresh take on gameplay offered by Space Invaders was a godsend for the industry and for Atari, in particular, one of the only major console makers that managed to keep its lights on through the crash.

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1980 would see Atari land the first home console license for Space Invaders, the first time an arcade game was licensed for a console. Sales of the Atari 2600 quadrupled after the game’s release, and over two million Space Invaders cartridges were sold in its first year. Needless to say, the game was a system seller.

Space Invaders had a “revolutionary impact,” Taito told the BBC in 2013. “It helped lay the foundation for modern video games.” That impact led to a video game boom that would soon inspire some of the best-known developers in the business today.

A Lasting Legacy

Besides introducing a new type of gameplay, Space Invaders was also highly influential in a number of other ways. For Space Invaders, Nishikado decided to link the player’s score or points with their in-game progression and shepherded the idea of permanently saving high scores to the arcade cabinet for display. All of a sudden, video games were no longer just a fun waste of time. They were a competition.

Sure, you could play Pong and plenty of other titles against a second player, but Space Invaders let you compete against every gamer on the high score list, even long after they had left the arcade. Other game developers took quick note of the eager fans lined up around the block for a chance at entering their initials and achieve gaming glory.

In short, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that every high score list or speed run record you see today can trace its roots all the way back to Space Invaders. Gamers didn’t want to just play a game, they wanted to be better at it than the guy next to them.

Nishikado’s game also influenced some of the industry’s greatest creators. Gaming industry titans like Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear), Shigeru Miyamoto (The Legend of Zelda), and John Carmack (Doom) have all credited Space Invaders with getting them interested in making their own games.

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“About a year or two after I joined Nintendo, Space Invaders came out and became a huge hit,” Miyamoto told Glixel in 2016. “And so Nintendo decided to go into the video game business, and that’s how I got my start, designing graphics.”

For Kojima’s part, Space Invaders was the foundation for what would become Metal Gear, the first installment in his stealth action series.

He told IGN in 2001 (just months before the release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty), “In any game you have an enemy coming at yourself that you have to shoot, if you go back to Space Invaders they shoot at you when they come at you, so how are you going to protect yourself? You’re going to shoot and that is a typical video game. In my game I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to make a game where you could avoid the enemy. That is when Konami told me to come up with a war game so I decided to take these two elements and make Metal Gear.”

Space Invaders‘ influence has extended beyond gaming innovations, too. It’s not uncommon to see the Space Invaders alien icon in works of art. For example, French urban artist Invader (he took his pseudonym from the game to hide his true identity) began using the icon for his mosaics in the 1990s and has gone on to create other pieces inspired by the pixelated sprites of the arcade scene of the ’70s and ’80s. He has tagged 65 cities in 33 countries with his mosaics and refers to his pieces as “Invasions,” which is indicative of just how deeply the game has invaded our cultural zeitgeist. 

Forty years strong, will the spirit of Space Invaders live on forever? That depends on whether future generations of gamers will continue to embrace the title for decades to come. If you’ve never played Space Invaders but are interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, Taito recently released an updated version of the game, Space Invaders Extreme, on Steam for $19.99. Or you could just visit your local arcade for a fix. It’s bound to have a cabinet front and center.