CLOSE
iStock
iStock

10 Fascinating Facts About Space Invaders

iStock
iStock

by Ryan Lambie

With its seemingly endless army of aliens slowly marching down the screen, the thump-thump-thump of its sound effects, and its dodge-and-shoot action, Space Invaders was one of the earliest icons in video gaming.

Made at a time when the industry was still in its infancy, Space Invaders could easily have looked and sounded very different. It was a worldwide hit and sparked a moral panic, yet for years, its designer remained anonymous. Here's a look at some of the fascinating facts behind the story of Space Invaders.

1. ITS CREATOR HAD NO INTENTION OF ENTERING THE GAMING INDUSTRY.

Fascinated by science and electronics as a child, Tomohiro Nishikado studied engineering at Tokyo Denki University and graduated in 1968. Nishikado initially specialized in television circuitry, but a year after his graduation, he managed to get a job at Taito, an electronics company just moving into making video games.

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY BREAKOUT.

Nishikado created some of the earliest home-grown games in Japan, including Davis Cup and Soccer. These were both bat-and-ball games, inspired by the seminal Pong. By 1976, Nishikado became fascinated by Atari's Breakout, itself an evolution of the bat-and-ball mechanics of Pong.

“I was determined to come up with something that was even better than Breakout,” Nishikado told The New Yorker. What if, he thought, the bricks at the top of the screen didn't just wait to be struck by the player's bouncing ball, but actually moved and fired back?

3. EARLY VERSIONS OF THE GAME WERE MUCH DIFFERENT.

With this inspiration at the front of his mind, Nishikado began to devise a dynamic shooting game, with the player hunkered down at the bottom of the screen and an army of enemies slowly advancing from the top. The space theme didn't arrive until later in development.

Nishikado's initial idea had the player shooting down planes, tanks, and soldiers; the latter idea was rejected by Nishikado's bosses at Taito, who did not want a game featuring "the image of war." Nishikado was inspired to use a space setting once news of the popularity of Star Wars began to reach Japan. He also found the idea for the aquatic alien invaders from H.G. Wells's sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds. He modeled his sprite designs on various sea creatures, including squids, crabs, and octopuses.

4. IT FEATURED A NUMBER OF INNOVATIVE IDEAS.

At a time when game design was still in its nascent stages in Japan, Nishikado spent a year building what would become Space Invaders. But while he wrestled with the limitations of technology, he managed to work a number of innovations into his concept: Space Invaders's introduction of barriers which slowly dissolved under enemy fire had never been seen before. It also saved the previous highest score, thus daring the next player to try to beat it.

Even the game's technical limitations positively affected the gameplay: As the invaders are destroyed, the load on the microprocessor decreases and the aliens' movement—and accompanying soundtrack—speed up. For perhaps the first time, a video game didn't just feel challenging—it felt intimidating.

5. SALES WERE INITIALLY SLOW.

Space Invaders's success was by no means assured from day one. Within Taito, management was unconvinced by it; when the game was shown to arcade operators, their response was similarly muted. "The feedback was almost entirely negative," Nishikado recalled. "Very few orders were placed."

6. IT REVERSED A SLUMP IN THE VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY.

Players, as we now know, responded ecstatically to Space Invaders. Popular within months, some 100,000 Space Invaders cabinets were installed in arcades and Pachinko parlors up and down Japan by the end of 1978. An industry which had begun to slump under the weight of Pong and Breakout clones was suddenly revived by Space Invaders, and the game grossed $600 million in 1978.

7. IT SPARKED A MINOR MORAL PANIC.

With any phenomenon comes a backlash. While oft-repeated tales of a coin shortage in Japan are a myth, it was but one story attached to the game at the height of Space Invaders mania. Soon after the arcade game came out, a 12-year-old boy in Japan, armed with a shotgun, tried to relieve a bank of its coins so that he could spend them on Space Invaders. The moral panic spread to the UK, where Space Invaders was blamed for an increase in burglaries. In 1981, Labour MP George Foulkes put a bill through parliament called Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games).

8. MARTIN AMIS WROTE A BOOK ON THE GAME.

While some politicians and newspaper columnists got in a lather over Space Invaders, the game was championed by Martin Amis, author of Time's Arrow and London Fields.

Published in 1982, Invasion Of The Space Invaders offered an essay on video gaming's cultural impact, and also tips on how to get high scores in Taito's hit and other arcade machines. "Advice: position your tank under the eave of a defensive and keep your eye on the aliens," Amis wrote, "not on the bombs."

Now out of print, the book is a sought-after collector's item.

9. FOR YEARS, ITS CREATOR REMAINED ANONYMOUS.

Although Space Invaders was a phenomenon, Nishikado was far from a celebrity as a result. His name was never put on the game, and for many years, he was contractually obliged not to reveal that he'd even made Space Invaders. The New Yorker reported that, sadly, Nishikado's promotion after Space Invaders was released took him away from creating games. "I spent most of my time managing other employees," he said.

10. ITS CREATOR WAS NEVER ANY GOOD AT THE GAME.

While Tomohiro Nishikado was responsible for making one of the most influential games ever, he admits to never being able to make it much further than the first screen. "Had it been up to me," he says, "Space Invaders would have been a far easier game."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
John P. Johnson, HBO
arrow
literature
Charles Dickens Wrote His Own Version of Westworld in the 1830s
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

Charles Dickens never fully devoted himself to science fiction, but if he had, his work might have looked something like the present-day HBO series Westworld. As The Conversation reports, the author explored a very similar premise to the show in The Mudfrog Papers, a collection of sketches that originally appeared in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1838.

In the story "Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything," a scientist describes his plan for a park where rich young men can take out their aggression on "automaton figures." In Dickens's story, the opportunity to pursue those cruel urges is the park's main appeal. The theme park in Westworld may have been founded with a slightly less cynical vision, but it has a similar outcome. Guests can live out their heroic fantasies, but if they have darker impulses, they can act on those as well.

Instead of sending guests back in time, Dickens's attraction presents visitors with a place very similar to their own home. According to the scientist's pitch, the idyllic, Victorian scene contains roads, bridges, and small villages in a walled-off space at least 10 miles wide. Each feature is designed for destruction, including cheap gas lamps made of real glass. It's populated with robot cops, cab drivers, and elderly women who, when beaten, produce “groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect.”

There are no consequences for harming the hosts in Westworld, but the guests at Dickens's park are at least sent to a mock trial for their crimes. However, rather than paying for their misbehavior, the hooligans always earn the mercy of an automated judge—Dickens's allegory for how the law favors the rich and privileged in the real world.

As for the Victorian-era automatons gaining sentience and overthrowing their tormenters? Dickens never got that far. But who knows where he would have taken it given a two-season HBO deal.

[h/t The Conversation]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
entertainment
10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios