Space Invaders Under the InfluenceS

In his third guest installment, the illustrious tech writer Steven Levy explains what it's like to play arcade Space Invaders while totally shitfaced.

When game historians recall the late '70s wave of video arcade games, they will correctly identify the major time-wasters, which include Asteroids, Breakout, Missile Defense Command and Space Invaders. (Pong was sort of a brain-damaged predecessor.) But the way it really was, at least in a certain central New Jersey bar, the correct way to describe the arcade video game craze was this way: Space Invaders. Period.

It was like the Beatles of video games. Maybe Space Invaders wasn't such big news to canonical hackers like those MIT Wizards who played Spacewar on a PDP-1 back in the sixties, but to people for whom computers still meant giant data-processing machines the game was a revelation, something totally different from the physical engagement of a pinball machine, yet icily futuristic. There was also the fact that these weird machines would just appear in a bar one day, without explanation. You'd go out for drinks and there in a dark corner was the future, standing head high in a cheesy enclosure with the monitor just below eye level.

I was hooked, of course, compelled to endure the humiliating learning curve where your laser cannon gets immolated by the relentlessly advancing rows of bug-like creatures. Without access to hints or cheat sheets-no, you couldn't Google stuff back then-you had to figure out strategy on your own. (Or hang around until someone really good played it, so you could learn his tricks.)

One key aspect of Space Invaders circa 1979: You played it in a bar. This affected game play, strategy and your liver. After playing it for a while, you got into a groove and could ditch your normal thought processes to become an alien-killing machine. Instead of the soundtrack of dread, the cardiac thumping that accompanied the advancing horde would energize you like a Led Zeppelin anthem, as you'd scoot behind the bunkers, wipe out rows of invaders and finally, in the frantic final stages, go into a ruthless, pixel-shredding melee mode. (Not that you knew what a pixel was.) But this Ender-like zone you were entering was counterbalanced by the fact that longer you were in the bar, the drunker you got.

You have to remember that this was new. Space Invaders was the population's first chance to develop the computer-game chops that are now second nature to a four-year-old. Believe it or not, the heart-stopping mix of bloodlust and panic that sprang up when the "mystery ship" with all its bonus points boogalooed across the top of the screen was a novel experience. (I was about to say that the mystery ship "randomly" appeared but after you played it a long time, you learned exactly when this would happen. Space Invaders might have been a twitchfest, but it was a puzzle as well.)

Should I expound upon the concept that the unforgiving menace of the space aliens tapped subconscious Cold War fears? Nah.

Later on, of course, reasonably faithful simulations of the original appeared first on the Atari 2600 and later on computer software. And now you can play it online, free. But that doesn't do justice to the original context—where you had one foot in the strange new world of digital simulation and the other foot in beer-soaked sawdust. You just can't, in this day and age, replicate the feeling when the last murderous wave finally wipes you out and you know that it's going to cost you another quarter to fight them back.

Steven Levy is a senior writer for Wired, most recently writing about Google's ad business and the secret of the CIA sculpture. He's written six books, including Hackers, Artificial Life and The Perfect Thing, about the iPod. In 1979, he had just left his first real job, at a regional magazine called New Jersey Monthly, to become a freelance writer, and had yet to touch a computer.

Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.