Saturday, August 25, 2018

Games 17-18: Gun Fight & Space Invaders

Space Invaders, designed by Taito engineer Tomohiro Nishikado, is the next whale, and it’s the first one made in Japan. Taito had produced a number of arcade games prior to Space Invaders, some of which were distributed in the US by Midway. In turn, a few of Midway’s games from this period were also distributed in Japan by Taito. None of these early Taito games from before Space Invaders are playable anymore, but one’s legacy lives on through its Midway adaptation.

Unplayed: Western Gun

In 1975, Nishikado designed Western Gun, a two-player arcade game about cowboys shooting at each other in the desert. Like all of Taito’s games before Space Invaders, it ran on discrete CPU-less circuitry, and isn’t emulated on MAME or anything else.

Its Midway adaptation Gun Fight, on the other hand, runs on a CPU by Intel, is among the first arcade video games ever to use a CPU (and is often claimed to be the first, but this has been disputed), and is emulated in MAME.

Game 17: Gun Fight

I played a few rounds with a friend. The game has an unusual control scheme:
  • Digital 8-direction joystick for moving the cowboy
  • Analog 2-way joystick for aiming the gun, with a trigger for firing

This mapped pretty well to a modern gamepad, with a D-pad for moving, the right analog stick’s vertical axis for aiming, and a shoulder button for firing. Aiming is a bit fiddly and probably works better with the original 2-way joystick, but this setup works.

The cowboys each occupy one half of the screen, separated by an invisible barrier, and have 70 seconds to try to outscore the other by shooting them. Each round adds more cactus obstacles to the arena, which can block one bullet but then disappear, and eventually a stagecoach starts patrolling the center of the screen, blocking all shots. Bullets can be ricocheted off the top and bottom edges of the screen. Each cowboy gets no more than six shots per round, and if both run out, the round is a draw.

This was a fun game, with fast and immediately accessible action, a good mix of skill and strategy, and amusing visuals and sound. In a way, with two horizontally opposed cowboys on either side of the screen, projectiles flying left and right and bouncing up and down, it’s like a violent Pong.

It makes me wish we could play the original Western Gun. From the scant footage available, we can see that it played differently, and that Gun Fight isn't a straight port. Western Gun's arena seems to be more complex and more free-roaming. In addition to shot-blocking cactuses, there are shot-deflecting rocks. Nishikado felt his version was more fun,  but was impressed with Gun Fight's animation and graphics, and was inspired to develop subsequent games with a programmable CPU too, starting with Space Invaders.

Game 18: Space Invaders

Space Invaders is the earliest game that I would call a genuine classic without reservations. Sure, there were earlier games with entertainment value, but none have the enduring popularity and veneration of Space Invaders. And there have been earlier games that were popular and are still well known, but I don’t think they’re a lot of fun. A lot of early 70’s arcade games have become obscure thanks to their unportability (is that a word?).  They weren’t just bound to the hardware, they were the hardware, with no code that could be ported to run on newer systems. Only Pong and Breakout remain in the collective memory, thanks to being remade and often ported.

If Gun Fight is like a violent Pong, then Space Invaders is like a violent Breakout. There were earlier games about shooting rows of targets, but Space Invaders alone arranges the targets into a grid-like phalanx, has them advance, shoot back, and eventually invade.

There’s a joke in the attract screen that most players probably won’t see playing in MAME. Just as in Gun Fight, where a cowboy shoots the “INSERT COIN” display…

…so does a Space Invader here.

As a singleplayer game – two-player mode simply alternates players – I could play Space Invaders any time, for as long as I wanted. As there’s no ending, my goal was simply to play until I was fairly confident that my performance would not improve.

My best attempt took me to the fourth round. I found my best strategy was to eliminate the invaders one column at a time, taking out the outermost column ASAP, which required shooting through my own barriers. After that, the rest of the columns were a lot easier, until the last few invaders go into panic mode and become fast and tricky to hit. The mystery ship was a target of opportunity, but I’d only try to get it if it was convenient, and after the first round this wasn’t often. I got good enough that I could consistently survive the first round, but each subsequent round starts the invaders off lower to the surface, giving you less time to finish them off before they invade, and less reaction time to dodge their fire.

This is actually the earliest game I’ve played where rounds get incrementally more difficult. It’s not the first time that the game gets incrementally harder over time; Pong accelerates the ball when it’s been in play long enough, and Breakout gets downright unfair once the ball hits the top of the screen by shrinking the already tiny paddle. Gun Fight got more complex in subsequent rounds, but difficulty was up to your opponent. Space Invaders seems to be the game that codified the ubiquitous concept that later levels get harder.

I understand that really good players use tricks I haven’t tried, such as predicting when the mystery ship will appear, and manipulating the pseudo-RNG to maximize its point value. And exploiting a trick; that when the invaders reach the lowest possible row, their shots won’t harm you, and you can pick them off one row at a time. The downside is that a single missed shot means they’ll land and end your game, but it’s probably the only way to survive later rounds. These tricks don’t seem like they’re in the spirit of the game, which really just expects you to plunk in a token and then not occupy the machine for too long.

Space Invaders set the template for shoot’em ups, though it lacks several elements that would be crucial to the genre. Movement is only horizontal, and a bit slow. There are no stages, just the same formation of invaders repeating, forever. And you shoot one bullet at a time, which at times can make it seem like an eternity of waiting for the next shot, even more so when you miss. But the game is carefully balanced around these elements. Space Invaders would be much too easy if you could flood the screen with your own bullets as in later shmups, where the challenge is often in dodging bullets, and firing blindly will whittle down the enemies as long as you can avoid their shots. Here, dodging enemy fire wouldn’t be too much of a challenge, even with your slow movement, except that you really need to make every one of your own shots count. You simply don’t have time to be inefficient, and it’s difficult to focus on the invaders’ positions while also ducking their fire, and you can’t easily zip in and out of a shooting position without very careful timing.

For all Space Invaders did for the industry, I think it may get too much credit. Wikipedia states Space Invaders is the first video game existing as a video game, as opposed to a “digital representation” of something else. Really? What’s Breakout a simulation of, then? How about Gotcha, or the infamous Death Race? Or Computer Space? It also claims that Space Invaders has continuing influence on the first person shooter genre, which I really don’t see. One citation there claims Space Invaders introduced “surviving while shooting everything that moves” as a gameplay concept, but that strikes me as clearly specious considering Computer Space had players shooting at hostile AI targets so much earlier. I think “survive while shooting everything that moves” as a gameplay concept is self-evident and innate to the DNA of arcade video games. It wasn’t introduced by Space Invaders, but has been part of the format since the literal beginning of it.

It’s also been the source of quite a few urban legends. The most widely heard of them are that it caused a 100-yen coin shortage in Japan, and that the accelerating descent of the invaders as you thin their numbers is a CPU timing glitch. The former is probably not true. The latter may or may not have been true in early development, but the final ROM code contains a routine that deliberately counts the remaining invaders and increases their speed at specific thresholds, so it’s clearly not a glitch in the final product.

In spite of some exaggerations and urban legends, Space Invaders is a fine game, and deserves plenty of credit for legitimizing video games. It’s designed well, feels elegant rather than austere in its simplicity, has a distinct and recognizable sci-fi theme and aesthetic, plays fair for the first round or two, invites strategy as well as skill, and numerous famous developers from both the US and Japan have cited Space Invaders as a major influence on their careers.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if there's an equivalent for Data Driven Gamer for movies on IMDB, hmmm...


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