Monday, July 7, 2008

The Backstory: Space Invaders

A comprehensive book on videogames wouldn’t be complete without a history of our favourite form of entertainment, and so the Rough Guide to Videogames kicks off with The Backstory.

Want to know how old you were when Pong came out? Which game caused a national coin shortage in Japan? Why we played Pac-Man not Puck-Man? How Sega lost the console war? And what’s this Red Ring of Death all about anyway?

The answers to these and many more questions can be found in a wide-ranging history that takes you from the earliest of mainframes to the Wii revolution. It’s roughly chronological (duh), but diverges enough to trace themes such as the birth of various game genres, and is packed with illustrations. Even better, it’s loaded with pithy writeups of all those games that deserve more than just a mention. Including probably the most famous game ever, the one that gave us the icon now used to symbolize videogaming (and not coincidentally, this blog):


Arcade; developed by Taito, published by Midway; 1978

Designer Tomokado Nishikado had initially envisioned his space invaders as airplanes, but found that would be too technically difficult, and so reached to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for inspiration – giving us the iconic, hallucinogenic flying jellyfish-cum-octopuses. Appearing first in Japan and licensed to Midway in the US, the invaders’ inexorable, malevolent descent from the sky towards humanity’s sole defender, sliding for cover beneath just three, disintegrating shields, set players’ hearts racing and caused many a sweaty palm to slip on the joystick. The game was alarmingly addictive, with Japan suffering coin shortages and US truancy rates sky-rocketing. Indeed, when no less a figure than Shigeru Miyamoto was asked in a 2007 Time magazine interview which single game had revolutionized the industry, he was unequivocal: Space Invaders, because it alone had made him want to design games.

Space Invaders
was many people’s first experience of games, but it wasn’t mine. Back in the 1970s my father was into gadgets, and each birthday he’d receive a new, cutting-edge toy. Believe it or not, a pocket calculator had been the most exciting so far. Until, that is, he got a TV tennis game. Being the youngest child, I was forbidden to play it unless supervised. But over the following months, if not years, long after my dad had tired of it, the joy of tennis, soccer and squash (all essentially the same game with slight variations in number and size of blocks onscreen), and especially shooting targets with a gun peripheral, never entirely subsided.

Next time: resisting the pull of nostalgia in choosing our top games.

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