As a child of the 80s, I was first introduced to video games in arcade parlours. They were dark, seedy places which were often associated with the downfall of what the older generation would term “the youth of today.” And it’s true, they were often pretty grim; filled with a chorus of random 8-bit noises from every direction, fluorescent lighting, and a carpet scheme that wouldn’t seem out of place in a haunted rest-home.
It was joined by a chorus of clattering 20 cent coins and the faint smell of onions. But amidst all the gloom and visible pubescent haze were works of art that deserved so much more than minimal mood lighting and greasy-fingered groping.
Space World, Auckland, 1982. Kerryn Pollock, "Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand."
Before my time (I was more a kid of the late 80’s), the gaming industry was revolutionised by a game called Space Invaders. It burst onto the scene in 1978, designed by Tomohiro Nishikado for Taito games in Japan. Inspired by other media at the time, like The War of the Worlds, and Star Wars: A New Hope, Space Invaders was a pioneer that transformed the video game market from a novelty, into a global industry.
There were a handful of games before Space Invaders of course, like the legendary Pong. But Pong lacked any sense of world building, or any real purpose to the gameplay - instead it was a primitive tennis game. Meanwhile a lesser known game called Gun Fight offered some more excitement by essentially swapping the Pong bats out for two cowboys who could shoot each other. But it was set in the Wild West, which wasn’t very compelling for kids in the mid-70’s.
Meanwhile, Space Invaders latched onto the massive science fiction craze of the late 70’s. It gave players a challengingly addictive premise of defending a moon armed with nothing but a laser cannon against repeating waves of aliens. Originally, the aliens were intended to be human soldiers, but Taito quite rightly thought that they didn’t want to send the message that shooting humans was okay, especially when dealing with an “impressionable youth” who were just coming to terms with interactive video game violence.
The graphics were certainly a product of their time. Simple pixelated shapes which jerked awkwardly across and down the screen, like an old typewriter punching out letters. Everything was monochromatic, with white blocks on black representing every spaceship and alien.
Because of technological limitations, game designers simply couldn’t depict what they had in their imaginations – which is where illustrators stepped in. Every arcade cabinet, which was essentially the “packaging” that helped sell the game, was adorned with full colour renders of fantastic worlds. Many were almost unrecognisable when compared to the game depicted on screen.
These illustrations helped lure potential gamers over, and helped to sell a much bigger picture than what the game’s graphical limitations ever could. Not only did they breathe some life into the jagged shapes (it turns out the aliens are more like electric yetis throwing down missiles), they paint a picture of the sci-fi world that you’re trying to defend. It’s an alien moon-like setting, and the design of your vehicle isn’t just a brick with a nipple on top - but a daunting death ray as reimagined by the artist.
The Space Invaders cabinets of the late 70’s were particularly ingenious. One of the most creative aspects is the way they superimposed the white game graphics onto a picture of a moon. It was achieved by reflecting the game graphics with a mirror onto a painted backdrop, complete with a starry background, giving the game an illusion of semi-transparent visuals with an unparalleled sense of depth for its time.
Later editions even added colour to the game, but not through new graphics chips which were too expensive to manufacture. Instead they used coloured cellophane strips, green along the bottom for the barrier blocks, and then orange along the top. The white shapes on black meant only the sprites picked up the colour, but the illusion of colour graphics was mind-blowing for its time. Later editions took this concept further and added in more coloured strips, with blues and reds helping to distinguish the rows as they get closer to your base, and ultimate demise.
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