Space Invaders (Atari VCS, 1980)
According to Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames by Leonard Herman (a book every classic gamer should own, soon to come out in its fourth edition!), Space Invaders came out in January of 1980 and is considered to be the first "Killer App" for a home videogame console. In addition, it was the first time a videogame company licensed another videogame company's arcade game for port to a home system.
Okay, history portion over, I'll leave it to real historians to discuss such things (i.e. go get that Phoenix book); let's talk about this cart.
We've seen versions of Space Invaders before on the Bally Pro Arcade (Space Invaders, later known as Astro Invaders) and on the APF MP1000 (Space Destroyers). Of the versions we've looked at so far, Space Destroyers wins for looking closest to the Arcade version of Space Invaders.
Atari's version isn't much to see at first glance. The Invaders are yellow and blocky looking. There's only 36 of them. There's three protective bunkers instead of four. The cannon looks different from the cannon in the arcade. The scores are different looking, etc...
One could go on about how it looks, but like so many will tell you: it hasn't always been about the looks. Good videogames can have a "groove" that you can get into while you're playing, a sort of zone that is enjoyable and addictive. This home port has that groove. I enjoy playing it as much now as I did during Xmas vacation of 1980.
Of course, back then, I only had two standard Atari Joysticks. Today, I've got multiple joysticks with which to defend the planet, including a Wico bat, a fit-to-hand-form clicky Epyx joystick and my favorite to use now: a three button Genesis controller. I don't know how I used to play this game for such long periods with the standard joystick -- these days, my left thumb starts to hurt after only five minutes!
Anyway, I should describe the actual game, though I doubt there's a single one of you out there that's never played Space Invaders.
A 6x6 grid of space aliens stomp from left to right, right to left, getting a little lower each time they hit a side edge of the playfield. You control a cannon that can move right or left that fires up from the bottom of the screen. You can fire one missile at a time, and you cannot fire again until the previous missile either destroys an invader or disappears into space. The idea is to kill them all before they reach the bottom of the screen, i.e. "Earth". While firing at them, they are firing at you and you must dodge and utilize the cover of the three protective shields when needed. The shields are destructible, so if you or the invaders shoot the shields, they are eaten away, pixel by pixel. At some point the invaders will get close enough so that the shields disappear altogether which means it's only a couple of times left and right before they are literally "on" you. Periodically, a Command Alien Ship, will traverse the top of the screen. You should also try to destroy this ship, not only because it, too, is the enemy, but because it yields bonus points and helps your score. What's the point in saving the world if nobody is keeping score?
The most notable sound effects are of the invaders marching side to side. It's a steady, tension building "tromp, tromp, tromp" which speeds up as the number of invaders becomes fewer and fewer. If you manage to survive by dodging the unceasing "laser bombs", you can see and hear the "tromp, tromp, tromp" get progressively faster. Finally, you have a lone invader zipping across the screen like some insane bunny. If you are able to kill the last one, the next attack wave will begin again shortly, and this time they'll start even closer. After a few attack waves, the invaders start so close to the bottom of the screen that they just have to go across the screen once before it is "game over".
This is one of those games that can only end in your on-screen death. There's no way around it. You may get good enough so that you can keep playing without dying, but eventually you'll need to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. Your biological imperatives are what will lead to the inevitable invasion and, we assume, the tragic destruction of your planet -- containing everyone you've ever known and loved. This isn't to imply a special effect laden ending, but you should die knowing that your failure has doomed the Earth.
What is amazing about the home port of this game for the Atari VCS, is not only the fact that they've managed to capture the spirit and addictive qualities of the arcade game (to me at least) but they've included 112 variations of the game. It's four variations of playfield behavior (moving shields, fast laser bombs, zig zig laser bombs and invisible invaders) spread out in every iteration over 16 games. Then those sixteen different combinations of those four effects are distributed over seven different player variations: Single player, alternating turns for two-players, simultaneous competing two-player, simultaneous competing two-player with alternating shots, one cannon with two controllers - one moves left the other moves right, alternating fire & control between controllers and, finally, one player moves the cannon the other player fires it. 112 games in all. How the hell did they fit that on one cart?
The two-player games can be fun but it's interesting to note that the "one cannon-two players variant where one moves left the other right" idea was first used in the Channel F game: Video Pinball -- which is version of Breakout. Space Invaders is sort of a re-skinned version of Breakout, but instead of deflecting a ball at bricks which disappear, you fire a missile at aliens which disappear. Breakout is kind of a single player version of Pong. So really Space Invaders is a logical evolution from Pong, but I digress...
The simultaneous competing two-player is my favorite two player variation. You're playing your own game, but you need to make every shot count. If a shot misses, then that's points your opponent can take from you as you wait for your missile to disappear off the top of the screen. I also like the scramble when the alien control ship comes out. Only one can hit it! It's a chance to get ahead of your co-planet saver. Seriously, if the world is going to end regardless, the only thing you have left to enjoy is to try to score higher than your equally doomed friend! As you lay, barely conscious, watching your alien captors continue to destroy all you ever knew, wouldn't you rather be thinking "Well, at least I scored higher then my also-dying buddy!" instead of "Crap, the world is ending, AND I just lost to my friend, this day sucks!"
I didn't play through every variation of every game for this. I did play through all 16 single player games and more than one of each of the two player variations with a carefully chosen co-player (who was a little annoyed that there were no power-ups and no way to beat the invaders). While it was fun to play the two player games, I still think I prefer the single player, "vanilla" variation the most. I must admit that I think there's a nostalgic factor at play here.
Of all the games I've looked at so far, I confess nostalgia for playing Atari Space Invaders. Back in 1980, this cart represented an actual arcade game in my home. I only had to play it something like 200 times (four times for every dollar spent in the purchase of the $50 cart) and every game after that is gravy... like going to the arcade and playing for free!!
Nostalgia isn't why I do this, but I can't escape the nostalgia for the next entry either: Adventure aka My favorite Atari game of all time.