Space Invaders – 30th Anniversary Developer Interview
with creator Tomohiro Nishikado and Taito President Yoichi Wada
—Wada, I understand you played a lot of Space Invaders in college?
Wada: When I was a student, all my friends played it. Any coffee shop you went to, you’d see a bunch of Invaders tables—though they weren’t only Taito-made tables. (laughs) But we tried the knock-offs and their controls were inferior, so we would look for stores that had the real thing. Back then there were many simple “game centers” that were basically just cafes with nothing but Invaders tables in them, and we would play there all night.
—That’s amazing—you actually walked around looking for the official Taito tables?
Wada: We did. (laughs) Also, in those cafes there were many other devotees like us who played Invaders nonstop, and the joysticks on the tables would get totally worn down, so there was also the matter of finding a table that worked right. (laughs)
Nishikado: The controls on the non-Taito knockoffs were a little different too, I remember hearing sometime back.
Wada: In real game centers they had more upright cabinets, while cafes used table style cabinets. Most of the “Invaders Houses” were the latter.
—Was the table-style cabinet developed at the same time as Space Invaders?
Nishikado: No, it existed before that. My memory is that Taito was the first to make them, for their Breakout-style games. The idea for them came from elsewhere in the company though, not from us developers. As game developers, our idea of a video game was something in an upright cab, and that’s what we aimed for. We had our doubts whether anyone would want to play a video game on a table. But it turned out to be a really good business idea: the table format fits into a smaller space, and the table could be used for other things too.
Wada: Yeah, you could find one of those table cabinets just about anywhere back then.
Nishikado: The table cabinets first appeared in game centers, actually. In the Breakout-era there weren’t that many table cabs in cafes. It was Space Invaders that really opened the gates and brought table cabinets into the cafes.
Wada: Switching from upright to table cabinets allowed arcade games to be played in new places, and from a marketing standpoint that was an entirely novel, revolutionary move. Being so small, you could fit them practically anywhere.
—Please tell us what led up to the initial creation of Space Invaders.
Nishikado: It all started for me with an interest in hardware and technology. Back then, you see, “games” weren’t software you programmed—it was all controlled by the hardware. Each time you wanted to make a game, you had to physically create the specific circuits for it. That was one of the funnest things about it, to me, but it also meant that planning a game took an inordinate amount of time and was a bottleneck in production. Around that time the microprocessor was invented in America, and I remember thinking, “now, the era of software begins.”
America’s technology was ahead of Japan, but when it came to using the microprocessor for games, the path ahead was not clear. At first the microprocessors were just used in things like pinball machines. I believe it was Space Invaders that first hit upon the idea of using them for video games.
—And there was no such job as “game programmer” then either.
Nishikado: I don’t think anyone called themselves that. In those days a “programmer” would be someone who used the large, room-sized computers for making scientific or work-related calculations.
—Did you begin the development of Space Invaders totally from zero, then?
Nishikado: I had several books and bits of documentation from America, and using my crude English, I translated what I needed from them as I went. Professional development tools back then cost 10 million yen (roughly $100,000). The microprocessor was something we acquired when we got the memory and other hardware parts, but a development workstation was too expensive, so we did not get one. We had to create all our development tools by ourselves.
—Did you do it all alone?
Nishikado: Yes, by myself. In those days that was standard, for games to be made by one person. You saved on personnel costs that way, and with the tools being made by hand, it cost next to nothing.
—Can you share some details about your work on Space Invaders?
Nishikado: When it came time for planning the game, the first thing I thought is that I wanted to make a game that would surpass the Breakout style games, which were a big hit then. At this point it was resolved that I’d use a computer for Space Invaders, so I figured I’d be able to create graphics and movement patterns that had never been seen before. Using Breakout as a base, my first, rough idea was to use the blocks in a different way, for some kind of shooting game.
—So you also designed Space Invaders, too.
Nishikado: Yeah. I drew the sprites using the limited pixels available. Then I created a tool that allowed me test out 2-pattern animations, and used a light-pen to adjust their design on-screen to my liking.
—That kind of process seems almost unthinkable today.
Nishikado: Yeah, because today the work in a development is so divided and specialized that one person can’t really see the whole picture. In that sense, I think developers need to go back to the beginning.
—Wada, as someone who enjoyed Space Invaders, what drew you to it then?
Wada: It was far ahead of anything else for its time. You couldn’t even compare it. There had been fun games before that, but none of them had the superior game design that Space Invaders had. And none of them had multiple enemies attack you. Also, although this wasn’t really announced officially or anything, the game felt like it had some kind of story and world behind it.
Actually, there had been a game released before this called Western Gun (Taito, 1975) which took place in a western setting. That game made a big impression on me too. When I talked to Nishikado earlier I mentioned Western Gun, and he told me “Actually, I made that one too.” Suddenly it all made sense. (laughs)
Nishikado: First there was Pong, and there were many games at that time which used rectangular or square shapes to build their characters. I thought it would look better if the graphics had some definite form, and I experimented with a variety of things to that end.
Wada: Your games were wonderful because they featured things in them that no other games had. Where did you get your ideas form?
Nishikado: Well, personally I don’t think there was anything particularly revolutionary about what I did. (laughs) It was a time that was overflowing with ideas: you could make a game out of any theme. Today it feels like they’re running out of new themes for games, but back then not much had been made yet, so you could do anything. For example, take a typical pong game—if you simply rearranged the shapes you could make it look like a basketball hoop, and that felt fresh and new. For me, I was always trying to make something different from what had come before.
Wada: And I think that fact accounts for Space Invaders’ popularity the world over.
Yoichi Wada (L) and Tomohiro Nishikado (R)
—Players came up with techniques like the “nagoya shot” and the “rainbow.” Were those new techniques unexpected to you?
Nishikado: Hah, they were something of a problem for me, all those tricks players found from what were basically programming bugs. (laughs)
Wada: Players were always trying new things out back then. It was revolutionary in the sense that it was the first time friends were talking about games with each other like that. I remember Kumori talked about Space Invaders on a late-night broadcast, and the next day everyone was talking about it and trying out those strategies to see if they worked.
—Space Invaders became a social phenomenon in Japan; how did it change the landscape of the game centers?
Wada: As a player the fact that there were now games in cafes was a big thing. When I went to college, I could use my own money and drink as much coffee as I liked. Back then just being in a coffee shop made you feel more “adult”, and we’d all gather there for study and reading groups. Of course, if we had been really serious we would have just meet in one of the seminar halls or conference rooms on campus. (laughs)
Nishikado: As a developer, I didn’t really pay much mind. In my mind, once I had released something it became something in my past; I was already looking ahead and thinking about what was next. To be honest, I didn’t go to the game centers after it was released either, so I never directly saw this amazing boom everyone tells me about. (laughs)
Wada: You are truly the model developer. (laughs)
Nishikado: Hah, actually our director at the time told me right after Space Invaders was released “Nishikado, you can take a break for awhile now”, but once the boom started to wane, he suddenly changed his tune and ordered me back to work: “you’ve got some new great ideas, right?!” It was horrible. (laughs)
A game center dedicated to Space Invaders, aka an “Invader House.”
—Please give a final message to all the people who still have fond memories of Space Invaders in their hearts.
Wada: For Taito, Space Invaders can be seen as the place where it all began. We were trying all sorts of new things at the time: new game content, new marketing strategies, and it all took off, leading to the boom. I want to carry forward that image for Taito in the future too.
Also, one more thing. We always hope that our games will become a part of player’s memories and experiences. In that sense, Space Invaders was the first game to establish that kind of communication between people, where people are talking about games. Space Invaders remains a goal for us to strive for at Taito with our new content.
Nishikado: A great deal of time has passed since the release of Space Invaders. Even now, when I do interviews about it, I can’t help but feel “wow, I made something that was a big deal.” (laughs) This may sound a little too objective, but starting with the Famicom, every time I’d see Space Invaders ported somewhere and see it contributing to Taito’s sales, it would rekindle in me that feeling of satisfaction and happiness that engineers know: I made something people have been enjoying for a long time.
Nowadays every kind of game has already been made, and its hard to make a game that can surprise people. However, as someone still involved in game development, I hope to continue making games that children and adults alike can enjoy playing.