Quick, who’s the man who started the golden age of arcade video games? Who created gaming’s first killer app? Who created a new genre of games, and inspired the Mario-making Miyamoto and Konami’s Kojima? Do you give up, or did your eyes just skim ahead to the next sentence, inadvertently ruining the surprise? Tomohiro Nishikado is his name, and industry changing is his game. How’d he manage this achievement, this gold trophy of gaming? I’ll give you two dramatic, single word sentences. Space. Invaders.
The Early Years: Back in My Day, We Had Pong!
But let’s back up to the proverbial top of the screen. Tomohiro Nishikado graduated from Tokyo Denki University in 1968 with a degree in engineering. The following year, he joined up with Taito Corporation (known as Taito Trading Company at the time), and worked on the company’s electro-mechanical games, the precursor to arcade video games. By 1972 he was working on video games, starting with Elepong, a serious contender for the titles of both Japan’s First Video Game and Most Honest Pong Clone. Other early games include Davis Cup, a Pong-clone with four paddles, and Soccer, a Pong-clone with four paddles and a green background.
1974 saw the release of Speed Race, a personal favorite of Nishikado’s, which, after being licensed by Midway, went on to become the first Japanese game released in America. This relationship continued with Nishikado’s next game, Western Gun. When Midway released the game in America, it was adapted to use a microprocessor, a first for video games, giving it better graphics and smoother animation. Although preferring his original version, Nishikado was so impressed with the technological upgrade that he decided to use microprocessors for all of his future games.
Space: The Next Frontier
Next, we’ll fast forward, or for those using DVD, mash the next chapter button to 1977. Nishikado was inspired by the gameplay of Atari’s Breakout, but, realizing that Taito wouldn’t be making a Breakout clone until 1986’s Arkanoid, set out to make a game with a similar feel. He originally designed the game around shooting planes and tanks, but felt that moving sideways was decidedly un-plane-and-tank-like. Plus, Taito forbade him from using human targets, leaving him with pretty much nothing on Earth to use.
Luckily, Nishikado heard about an American movie coming out (a mostly unknown knock-off of Message From Space, that goes by the name of “Star Wars”), and decided on a sci-fi theme. The enemy aliens were based off of the invaders from War of the Worlds, which presumably means that at least one person has mistaken them for actual invading aliens. The foundation for one of the most influential games of all time had been laid. Nishikado called it Space Monsters. And then Taito renamed it Space Invaders.
I Accidentally an Entirely New Gameplay Concept
Unfortunately, the hardware running games at the time wasn’t quite up to par with the technology of the game’s sci-fi influences. Nishikado would have to create his own hardware for the game to run on, along with the tools to develop it. This would end up being the longest part of development, taking a grueling six months to complete. In contrast, the actual game only took three months to complete, making it one of those rare times when the easiest part of single-handedly creating an entire video game was single-handedly creating an entire video game.
Even with custom hardware, the game was too demanding. There were too many enemies on screen for the processor to handle, and they couldn’t move at the speed Nishikado wanted them to. But, while testing the game, he noticed that as the player destroys the enemies, they would speed up, as there were less of them for the processor to render. He decided to keep it that way, creating the concept of the difficulty curve that is now standard in nearly every game in existence. At any rate, Nishikado pressed on, and in 1978, Japan got their first taste of Space Invaders. And we all know how that went.
Poorly. It went poorly. The game flopped. At least, for the first three months, anyways. The success of Space Invaders began to turn around thanks to word of mouth, and possibly an 80’s training montage (it was ahead of its time, after all). People soon fell in love the little space crabs for the innovative gameplay and competitive value, being the first game that saved player’s high scores. By the end of the year, there were over 100,000 Space Invaders machines in Japan alone.
Space Sushi Crosses Pond, Invades People’s Hearts
In 1979, it was released in America, which was already in its second year of the video game crash of ’77, with the country burned out on years of Pong clones. The space crab invaders from Japan would turn out to be the industry’s saviors, and helped propel gaming into the mainstream. The game was so successful that the cost of buying a Space Invaders cabinet was offset within a month. The 1980 Atari 2600 release quadrupled the sales of the system, and the game, not content with being the first home console game to sell one million copies, would go on to sell over two million.
Space Invaders would go on to inspire the entire genre of shoot ’em ups, and is the game that got both Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima interested in making games. The video game that was inspired by Star Wars had become the Star Wars of video games.
But what happened to Nishikado? Well, not a whole lot, really. He continued working for Taito until 1996, when he left to form his own game company, Dreams. The company occasionally does development on Taito titles, and Nishikado oversaw development of Space Invaders Revolution for the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable. He was also credited in the most recent Space Invaders game, Space Invaders Infinity Gene, published by Square Enix, Taito’s current owner. Whatever he does, we’ll always remember him for his contribution that helped shape an industry. Who knows where it would be without him. Pong with six paddles?