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The role of Space Invaders as the archetypal action videogame, and why its theme of ‘One Versus Many’ is so successful

This post attempts to uncover how and if the concept of a single protagonist confronting numerous adversaries alone in videogames was first set by Space Invaders (Taito, 1978), and investigate why the theme is successful.

Dean Smith, Blogger

June 20, 2016

12 Min Read

Twitter: @DigitalWeapons



“Had it been left up to me, Space Invaders would have been a far easier game”

Nishikado, 2013.

In 1978, Tomohiro Nishikado of Japan developed Space Invaders (Figure 1), one of the original action ‘Shoot ‘em up’ (referred to as ‘Shmup’) videogames. Although not the original game of its style, as it was preceded by Missile Radar (1974) and Guided Missile (1977) (Betters, 2013), the game was the first to ever include combat from both the player and enemy AI. The mechanics devised by Nishikado were built around the concept of a single, lone protagonist (the player) engaging multiple hostile opponents (the AI). Although initially, this would seem to put the player at a disadvantage, this would actually allow the player to experience immersion and emotional engagement, such as fear, resolve and ultimately achievement. This mechanic, coupled with its visual presentation brought Space Invaders to critical acclaim and global success, which it continues to profit from to this day. It is now heralded as the archetypal action videogame (Video Game Design/Archetypes, 2013) and has been listed as the highest rated arcade game in terms of technical, creative and cultural impact (Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records: Gamer’s Edition, 2008).

Space Invaders

Figure 1:  Space Invaders, Taito (1978)

This theme of the player as a single protagonist versus many, as a single player experience, is now an industry convention that is visible throughout the generations of action titles that followed. For example, this mechanic is clearly prevalent in the recent and critically acclaimed Bioshock series, where this simple premise is at the core of each of its current 3 titles (Irrational Games, 2007). The following sections shall attempt to critically analyze how and why this theme remains such a popular style in a videogame development context.

The Space Invaders Mechanic

The Origins of the Concept

In the original conceptualization of Space Invaders, its creator Tomohiro Nishikado had devised a prototype videogame combat mechanic, drawing inspiration from the 1976 classic Breakout by Atari (Patterson, 2011). Nishikado stated in the BBC documentary I love 1978 that the intention was to include a more stereotypical combat theme than the game we know today (Nishikado, BBC: I Love 1978, 2002). In this original concept, the player was tasked with shooting several targets, such as ‘human’ people and vehicles, in a one sided combat system.

When this design was pitched to Taito, the publisher of Space Invaders, the game was initially rejected due to the controversial nature of actively killing within a videogame at the time. In an interview with Nishikado he quotes Taito in this regard:

“You can’t shoot people! And you must not create the image of war” - (Nishikado quoting Taito, 2009)
With this criteria, and in successfully predicting the rise in popularity of extra-terrestrial themes within mainstream media at the time, Nishikado redesigned the game as a single protagonist’s struggle against an army of ‘Invaders’ from space (Nishikado, 2005). Interestingly the ‘invaders’ were redesigned using H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds as reference (Figure 2) (Loguidice & Barton, 2009).

Figure 2:  Invader Concepts

There is some controversy as to whether the design is the ‘original’ of its kind as Taito had released a similar game called Space Monster in 1972, albeit this was an electro-mechanical arcade (Figure 3) rather than video. Nishikado refutes all claims to this similarity (Crawford, 2009).



Figure 3:  Space Monsters, Taito (1972)

The Core Mechanic and its Psychological Impact

"The Pace of Space Invaders was beautiful" - (Molyneux, 2013)

Upon release, the game introduced several innovations to videogame development, such as tracking the ‘High Scores’ of players and the inclusion of a soundtrack (McMillan, 2013), yet it is the theme and mechanic of ‘one vs many’ which brings the game into the archetypal limelight.

It is a challenge which impacts the player on multiple levels, inducing a number of emotional responses akin to those which audiences experience during movies (Kohler, 2004). In a videogame environment, this is due to the player projecting these responses to an avatar (or laser cannon in this context) (Griebel, 2006). The following table details some of the emotions induced by Space Invaders and the mechanics responsible.





At the beginning of each stage in the game, the player is able to visualise the threat, adjust to the motion of the laser cannon and engage enemies. When coupled with the slow approach of the enemies this induces a sense of control within the player.

As each enemy is destroyed, the speed of the enemies increases, and therefore the threat increases. This creates a tense scenario which grips the player’s attention and focus. This feature alone unintentionally created the first difficulty curve within a videogame (Coates, 2011).



In the same scenario which causes tension within the player, when nearing the end of each stage the number of hostiles is low and so the enemy speed is at its highest. The additional tension yet minimal numbers of enemies creates a sense of hope within the player that he/she may complete the stage.

Space Invaders from the offset charges the player with the responsibility of eliminating numerous opponents in ranged combat. This situation causes the player to engage in a ‘fight or flight’ scenario, “a psychological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying” (Cherry, 2010) . Although this may be alarming to the player, this greatly enhances immersion.

Table 1: Emotions induced by the Space Invaders Design

Space Invaders was the first title to induce these kind of cinematic emotions in an action videogame (Kohler, 2004). Other notable innovations include the ability to hide from enemy fire and a destructible environment.

Why the Theme of ‘One Vs. Many’ is Successful

If for a moment we consider representation in cinema, and the action genre in particular, the majority of successful titles hint towards a single protagonist confronting an unequal number of opponents (The-Numbers, 2013). If this stereotype has seen so much success in action cinema, would it be logical to assume that if the same qualities exist in a videogame, such as Space Invaders, that there is a stronger chance that this game may be successful? And what would this mean with regards to the audience?

We can evaluate this by reviewing the study: Watching Aggressive, Attractive, Female Protagonists Shapes Roles for Women Among Male and Female Undergraduate Viewers by Leramie Tailor and Tiffany Setters at the University of California (Tailor & Setters, 2011). The study has shown that both male and female viewers prefer stronger and more stereotypically attractive females as lead protagonists in movies because they appear as better role models for women. Logically this would dictate that viewers value protagonists more if they appear as role models and also why the stereotype is successful in cinema, unless the results vary in a male equivalent of the same study.   

As the player actively projects their persona into videogame avatars (Griebel, 2006), and if a videogame portrays the conventions seen in action cinema, they are able to experience a simulation of these role models more personally. The sheer act of stepping into the shoes of a role model is vital to human development, as younger generations benefit from adult scaffolding on an inate level (Price-Mitchell, 2010). Therefore this natural requirement for aspiration is apeased in great depth by the ‘one vs many’ mechanic.

As a more ‘immersive’ activity, coupled with the evidence, this experience suggests that there is a heavy link between what is successful in mainstream media and what is successful in videogames. In Chris Kohler’s book Power Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, Kohler suggests that the Japanese videogame market of the late 70’s and early 80’s began to portray movie like qualities (Kohler, 2004), such as the emotional engagment and extra terrestrial theme in Space Invaders. In the BBC documentary Charlie Brooker: Videogames Changed the World it is stated that Space Invaders was the first video game to display such qualities.

“This was the first game to invoke a distinct mood and tone”

- Brooker, BBC: Videogames Changed the World, 2013         


“Every Element of the Invaders Template had such an instant iconic purity it still resonates today” - Brooker, 2013

In terms of success, one year following the release of Space Invaders as a coin operated machine, the game had become so successful that it caused a 100-Yen (single coin) shortage across Japan (Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records: Gamer’s Edition, 2008). It propelled the media type from existing solely in public houses into restaurants and other such family areas worldwide (Brooker, BBC: Videogames Changed the World, 2013), and inspired countless generations of clones (Loguidice & Barton, 2009).

If the statements and arguments here within are factually accurate then this would be definitive proof that Space Invaders was indeed the archetype in this regard. Perhaps also why videogame development as a whole has leaned more towards cinematic expression and idolising mascots, such as Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega, 1991) and Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985). Can the success of Mario portraying the role of a sterotypically hard working man saving a ‘damsel in distress’ be linked to Space Invaders?

But what is the main reason so many games have chosen to duplicate this ‘one vs many/role model’ theme? It could be that as technology expands, new developments are crafted using the preceding generations as a basis, which would mean that contemporary conventions simply could not exist without developments such as Space Invaders at their root. Or it could be in the fact that industries are built on the economy, and that developments flourish through mimicking the financial successes of others. Or it could simply be that Nishikado was the originator of a founding convention in action gaming.


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Figure 1. Space Invaders, Taito (1978). 4 Found on 03/12/2013 at: http://www.b2egroup.net/land-blog-space-invaders.

Figure 2. Invader Concepts. 5 Found on 03/12/2013 at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/essteex/60001858.

Figure 3. Space Monster Coin Operated Machine. Cut from Space Monster Flyer, 1972. Found on 03/12/2013.

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