Tomohiro Nishikado Revisits His 1978 Game Space Invaders
The 79-year-old Tomohiro Nishikado finds himself living in a world where reminders of the video game he created in 1978, Space Invaders, keep popping up.
“Over the years, I’ve seen how Space Invaders helped grow the video-game industry and inspire younger designers,” Nishikado told the New Yorker in 2013, adding “I’m proud of its huge impact.” (Though ironically, that was also the interview where Nishikado finally admitted that “I am terrible at video games.”)
Pieces of his fascinating and inspiring story are scattered across the internet — along with glimpses of many strange new artistic creations the universally-known Space Invaders has inspired.
Just for example, one 2008 viral video shows two hooded young men breaching a skyscraper’s lighting system to jerry-rig an enormous game of Space Invaders on the side of the building. Though compelling, the video is a hoax, Wired reported in 2009 — the work of a Munich-based film collective called the Brainstormclub.
This month, in a new profile in Wired, Nishikado joked that he’d try to score higher on a new officially-licensed miniature replica of the Space Invaders arcade cabinet, created especially for the “Quarter Arcades” series from Numskull Designs. The company is selling a tiny battery-operated — but fully playable — recreation that’s just 17 inches tall. And Nishikado himself has personally autographed 78 of them.
They’re not the only ones interested in Space Invaders memorabilia. Last year an Arduino hobbyist decided to build their own homegrown super-miniature cabinet that was just 3.1 inches tall. But Numskull Designs is cranking our their larger scaled-down cabinets in higher quantities. And they’re also selling miniature replicas of the 1979 sequel game Space Invaders Deluxe (marketed in Japan as Space Invaders Part II). Nearly identical to the previous game, it included minor variations like some aliens splitting in two when shot — and a mystery ship that could replenish the aliens in the invading army.
Nishikado has also autographed 79 of the miniature Space Invaders II cabinets…
Remembering a Revolution
Wired argues that Nishikado’s 1978 game “reimagined and elevated an industry.” Netflix’s 2020 documentary series High Scores remembered that Space Invaders became such a phenomenon that arcades started renaming themselves “Space Invader houses.” By 1982 the game had attracted a whopping $3.8 billion in change, according to the book Game On! Video Game History From Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft and More.
The birth of the phenomenon is a story that Nishikado has told many times. After studying circuitry design in Tokyo, he’d joined Taito as a game designer, where he eventually began work on what would become the first Japanese game using a microprocessor. But Nishikado reminded the New Yorker that his main focus was always on the technology — specifically, the new use of microprocessors. “I spent most of my time familiarizing myself with the technology and building game-development tools. I was too preoccupied to concern myself with the game’s future.”
More specific details appeared on a 2005 CD compiling Taito’s videogames which included an interview with Nishikado (which a fan has uploaded to YouTube). “Microcomputers were hardly used at that time in Japan,” Nishikado remembers in the interview, “so we had to create one from scratch. I could almost say developing the microcomputer was harder than developing the game itself.”
In a later 2017 interview on YouTube, Nishikado says he had to create his own RAM for storing instructions, and also program each of the firmware-running ROM storage units separately. “It took close to one and a half years, and half of that time was used to develop the hardware and development tools.”
In that interview Nishikado also expressed admiration for the smooth movement of alien invaders in the 1979 game Galaxian, saying he’d originally wanted that for Space Invaders but couldn’t achieve it with his limited hardware.
And he reveals another feature he’d had to scrap because of hardware imitations: “I also wanted to have the invaders light up red and flash.”
Nishikado’s contract prevented him from revealing he created the game for years, according to the New Yorker. Although he was promoted to a position he describes as mostly “managing other employees,” Nishikado said he was no longer directly involved in design games, and “I regretted the promotion.”
He’d wanted to work on new game technology, but says that instead Taito was “flooded” with requests for new games that could run on the hardware for Space Invaders, and this distraction let competitors catch up. So he ends up telling the New Yorker he “wasn’t very attached” to the game at the time, though over the years he now takes some pride in the impact of his creation.
“Even if I still can’t clear the first stage.”
An Arty ‘Invader’
But with all the memorabilia that followed in the decades to come, the video game’s impact was probably largest on a French street artist who calls himself “Invader.” Since 1998 he’s been recreating the pixels of the videogame (and other recognizable artworks) using ceramic tiles in unexpected real-world locations — everywhere from apartment buildings to the top of a ski lift and (more than once) on the letters of Los Angeles’ famous “Hollywood” sign.
Two are installed below sea level in Cancun Bay, Mexico, and can only be seen by scuba divers. And in 2012 Invader attached one to a helium balloon (equipped with a camera and GPS tracker) which lofted his artwork up 22 miles into the stratosphere before returning by parachute to an abandoned field in Florida, a nearly four-hour journey which Invader claims marks the first artwork to reach space.
And then in 2015 one of Invader’s mosaics was carried by an astronaut to the International Space Station, according to the European Space Agency’s website…
For more than a quarter of a century, Space Invaders (and other pixelated artworks) have literally transformed his life, according to the artist’s website. “Since the beginnings, there has been hardly any week that goes by without me installing a new piece.” He’s now placed 4,114 works all around the world — in 83 different countries and territories — carefully tracking their locations in a long-maintained database.
In December Invader even published 4000: the Complete Guide to the Space Invaders, 1998 – 2021, noting that the triumphant 4,000th work was installed in the Bolivian city of Potosí on New Year’s Eve of 2021 (according to a press release for a recent exhibit).
“By drawing attention to the increasing role of technology in our daily lives, Invader encourages the public to reflect on the implications of this digital invasion,” the press release continues. Invader describes the project as a combination of street art, graffiti, a game — and contemporary art. (“Some might even call it a lifestyle,” Invader added in a recent press release.)
The work has its hazards. (“There are some countries where I cannot travel anymore as I may be prosecuted,” explains the artist’s website — adding that one gallery owner accused of supporting the work “had to spend two weeks in jail.”) But it’s also helped further his artistic career. Invader promises to sell art collectors exactly one replica of each piece that is installed out in the world. (Forty of them were recently exhibited in Paris). And Invader has even created a phone app that lets you score points by spotting the artworks out in the wild.
So what’s the final message hidden behind it all? Characters from the Space Invaders game were the artist’s central figure, his site explains, because “In my own eyes, they are the perfect icons of our time, a time where digital technologies are the heartbeat of our world.” (And of course, “space invader” perfectly encapsulates the project, which the artist admits is illegal about 99% of the time.) Over the years the artist has moved on to other inspirations — everything from the Mona Lisa to the Pink Panther.
But Invader’s website argues the project is still accomplishing its liberating ultimate goals: not just freeing art museums, but also — finally — “freeing the Space Invaders from their video games TV screens… to bring them in our physical world!”
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