DragonCon 2023: Arcade Things

More low-effort posts about game things spotted at Atlanta’s pop culture mega-convention.

A Cosmic Smash cabinet!

That recent arcade port of NES obscurity Mr. Gimmick!

A 2007 arcade version of Rhythm Heaven, completely in Japanese! This was perhaps the coolest game at the convention.

Sadly blurry in this shot, but: Space Invaders! Without the color overlay though. The monitor didn’t work for like two entire days, too.

Twilight Zone pinball, this picture being of the time I nearly completed the door but lost my last ball before collecting that hated Question Mark! (Don’t worry though, the next day I came back and did it, and played Lost In The Zone. I left with the #2 score on the machine–although oddly, it seems someone else who plays these games also has my initials? JWH? Their Terminator 2 machine’s scoreboard is full of JWH but I’ve never played it!)

The games were brought this year by Save Point, who mostly provided Japanese games and some pinballs, and Joystick Gamebar, which provided a good number or retro arcade machines and more pinball, including that Twilight Zone.

Two of the people who helped bring us the games from Joystick Gamebar this year, Winston (left) and Brian (right)

I’ve got hundreds of pictures that I’ve yet to sift through. More tomorrow!

Alien Invaders Plus for the Commodore 64

Last year we put a spotlight on a Commodore 64 remake of possibly the most popular Odyssey2 game, K.C. Munchkin. Well, here’s another, of Space Monster, a.k.a. Alien Invaders – Plus! I assure you, the exclamation point there belongs to Magnavox.

The Odyssey has gotten more talk on this site than its much-more-powerful successor, which was still kinda weak compared to its competition. People still talk about the Atari VCS/2600 even now 45 years after its introduction; the Intellivision still gets some love; but who talks about the third place system, the Odyssey2? Fourth if you count the Colecovision, but that machine, released in August 1982, was only on the scene for a relative instant, the Crash already fomenting by that time.

Alien Invaders – Plus (I’m going to leave off the bang now thanks) was Magnavox’s attempt to capitalize on the gigantic success of Space Invaders. The box didn’t hide its inspiration, outright saying: A fiendish new dimension comes to one of the most popular arcade games of all time! By that time, the market had already determined that Atari’s miraculous licensed version of Space Invaders was probably the best, a game that, while subtly different, actually improved on the original in some ways. Similarly, while everyone now can play the original Space Invaders in MAME if they’re inclined, Alien Invaders – Plus (which Craig Kubey in The Winner’s Book of Video Games derided as Space Invaders – Minus!) is more interesting for the interesting departures from the arcade game, and the Commodore 64 remake mimics them faithfully.

At first it looks vaguely similar to Taito’s arcade hit. There’s rows of aliens in the sky, there’s a roundish alien going back and forth above them, you have a base at the bottom that can move back and forth and shoot up at the enemy, and there’s even shields above it that can be dodged behind for safety.

Loading screen for C64 version of Alien Invaders Plus.

The first difference comes from the aliens themselves. In Space Invaders, while they looked different and were worth different amounts of points, they all behaved exactly the same. Here, each of the three rows of foes plays by different rules. The bottom-most are just barriers, they can’t be destroyed but they don’t shoot at you either. Any shot that hopes to hit targets higher up on the screen must get through them. The middle row are yellow laser cannons, and they shoot down at you. The top row are red humanoid robots that operate the cannons. The wandering eye-like alien at the top is called the “Merciless Monstroth,” but I’m sure its mother loves it just the same.

Like Space Invaders, the alien formation rains down bombs on you, and it’s easy to get hit. Unlike Space Invaders, there’s a limit to how far the aliens can descend, right above the shields, and you’ve never in danger of being overrun. If you wait beneath a shield you cannot be shot, but neither can you shoot the enemies. Also, in each row, all you have to do is hit either the robot or the cannon in order to stop them from shooting down at you.

To finish a level, you have to shoot all the robots and cannons on the screen. This will cause the Merciless Monstroth to get serious about you, swoop down from the top of the screen and hover just above your shields, trying to bomb you. At that range dodging its shots is very difficult, and it’s evasive of your shots, but you can still zap it safely with a well-timed shot as it reaches your base’s horizontal position.

Your reward for doing all of that is one single point. Your score is just how many boards you’ve cleared. No bonus points or anything like that are awarded.

If your ship gets hit you don’t perish immediately. A little person is revealed to have been moving it. If you can move it to beneath one of your shields and press the fire button, you’ll be given a new base! This, however, costs you that shield. The shields are basically your lives; if you run out of them, and your base gets destroyed again leaving your guy, then you’re essentially screwed. Your little base-inhabiting person has no weapons of their own. If you get down to no shields left before destroying all the aliens, M.M. will sense its opportunity and swoop down at you early. Destroying it at this time, or while its at the top of the screen, before all the other aliens are obliterated doesn’t clear the wave; the game will just send another one out, again and again, until you’ve finished the job.

If your base person is shot while outside of a base, you don’t quite die. Instead, the enemy gets a point. While you’re trying to get to ten points yourself, the enemy is also trying to get to 10, and the side that gets there first “wins the game.”

Despite all the chances the game gives you, it’s really hard! You’ll find the green circles block most of your shots, and the cannons are really good at predicting where you’ll be and aiming a shot there, and the enemy shots move quickly. Since reforming your base costs you the shield you’re beneath, often you’ll get your base back and lose it again immediately as the barrier disappears.

The Commodore version was created by demo group Second Dimension. It’s worth playing in preference to the Odyssey2 version if only because C64 emulation is understood than Odyssey2 emulation. There’s multiple Commodore emulators, at least, while only one Odyssey2 emulator that I know of.

Here is the Commodore 64 version is action, from the channel C64 Masters on Youtube.

Here is the game’s page on CSDb. Prepare be humbled!

From WIRED: Space Invaders’ Creator 45 Years Later

Back on April 12th, WIRED Magazine published an article about Space Invaders 45 years after its original production. In it they spoke with the creator of iconic arcade game, Tomohiro Nishikado, who now considers it the best game he ever made.

A screenshot of actual arcade Space Invaders, although admittedly without its color overlay.

Despite them including the Atari 2600 version as if it were the original (the two games are similar but ultimately rather different), it’s a nice look back.

The arcade industry existed for six years before Space Invaders, a period that is often forgotten. Two games in particular I think kicked off the meteoric, and short-lived, rise of arcade gaming as a cultural force: Atari’s Asteroids, and Taito’s Space Invaders. Asteroids was actually more popular in the U.S., but Space Invaders was still one of the most successful arcade games ever sold in the States. In Japan, its success was, and I believe still is, unequaled.

Video games at that time were tied to their hardware in a way they almost never are now. Gaming is now mostly done with graphics hardware that is mostly replaceable. Back then, arcade hardware was usually purpose-built, with the capabilities the design required. Space Invaders is an example where the hardware constraints really made the game. It was one of the few games at the time to use framebuffer hardware: a bank of memory that corresponded directly to the display, in Space Invaders’ case, every pixel on screen echoing the state of a dot in memory.

There were a number of reasons that this wasn’t used by most games. Memory was expensive, and a screen-sized bitmapped display needed a lot of it. More colors requires even more memory to be able to depict all the possible states, so Space Invaders’ screen was monochrome with a color overlay.

Possibly the biggest reason of all: it takes a CPU a lot of time to shuffle around all those bits. Computers are fast, but they still have their limits. Space Invaders uses an Intel 8080, the chip they made before the 8086 which was the foundation for the x86 line, but still only an 8-bit processor.

Space Invaders, ingeniously, uses the 8080’s slowness at updating the framebuffer as a strength. As the armada of aliens moves across the screen, the processor is updating them as rapidly as it is able, erasing and drawing each into its new position one at a time. As the player shoots them, there are fewer ships to draw, and so it can get its updating done faster. This naturally causes the fleet to progress across the screen faster and faster as they’re wiped out, with the last alien rushing across with all that CPU power freed up by the destruction of its comrades.

Space Invaders had even more clever ideas in its design than that. It was an early example of a game using a life system, borrowed from the limited balls players were allowed in pinball games. But also, the game had a sudden loss condition: if any alien managed to make it all the way down the screen to the ground, the game instantly ended.

There was considerable strategy in deciding which aliens to shoot first. Wiping out rows from the bottom of the formation delayed the whole armada from reaching the bottom by one pass across the screen, but if the player destroyed a column off one of the sides, all of those aliens would have to travel further before they could descend a level. Or, if the player was prepared to take a bit more of a risk, they could wipe out columns in the middle of the formation, which means the aliens would descend more rapidly, but leaving a hole in the ranks through which to shoot the Mystery Ship that passed by at the top of the screen.

The “trail” bug in action.
(image from Digital Press)

The game even has a couple of secret features, which is pretty interesting considering the game was released in 1978. The points awarded by the Mystery Ship appeared random at first, but was in fact went through a cycle that advanced every time the player fired a shot. And, as documented in Craig Kubey’s The Winner’s Book of Video Games, if a skilled player could annihilate a whole rack of aliens while leaving one of them from the two lowest rows of the board, it would leave a trail behind it. digipress.com reveals that this was caused by a bug in the code, but later versions of Space Invaders promoted this trick to a legitimate secret.

Space Invaders has inspired many remakes and revivals through the years, the first, Space Invaders Part II, also known as Space Invaders Deluxe, introduced new kinds of aliens that split in two when shot. That’s not to be confused with the later Space Invaders DX, released in 1993. Before that came Return of the Invaders in 1985, and Space Invaders Part IV: The Majestic 12 in 1991. A while after there were Space Invaders Extreme, which got its own sequel, and other games I can’t be bothered to look up right now. Recently, in 2016, arcades have even seen a fairly interesting Space Invaders lightgun game from Raw Thrills, called Space Invaders Frenzy. (I tend to be harsh on Raw Thrills here, but it’s actually pretty interesting!)

45 years. Not bad for an ancient 8-bit arcade game that struggled to shift black-and-white pixels around.

The ‘Space Invaders’ Creator Reveals The Game’s Origin Story (WIRED)

Video: Atari Archive

Atari Archive is one of those projects that seeks to document every game released for some platform. In this case, it’s for the Atari VCS. That’s the original one, the real one, CX2600, not the one made by the company that currently wears the skin of the old Atari like a gruesome shroud.

The Atari VCS/2600 wasn’t the first programmable video game console, but it was certainly the most popular early console. (I had my own look at a few interesting examples of its software in a book of my own.)

Atari Archive is currently up to Episode 57, on Kaboom! Episodes tend to be in the 10-15 minute range, making it easy to find out about specific games in a timely fashion. Here are a few popular games to get you started:

#56: Warlords#54: Missile Command#33: Adventure#32: Space Invaders – and, of course, #1: Combat