A memory of a moment in video game history.
It was sometime between the Fall of 1978 and Spring 1979. We were living in the house that is sort of a “before/after” location for me. We only lived there for one school year, from one summer to the next, and so it is like a mile marker on my memories, helping me to cement certain events in time.
And we were living in that house when this occurred, so that pins down the time.
The house was conveniently located near the Meridian Quad, a shopping center and office complex that included a theater (where I recall seeing Westworld and Futureworld double feature among other classics) and a Time Zone arcade. (By which I mean the US arcade chain that died off in the 80s, not the Australian chain of the same name which was founded a bit later and which still lives.)
Video games were something of a big deal for my step-brother and I, in the way anything new and shiny is to a young boy. We were of just the right age to have seen Pong (down at the Old Spaghetti Factory in San Jose), Tank, Space Wars, and the like.
That made them both new and interesting to us. But they also became part of the landscape fairly soon. We liked them, but they were not something you got really excited about in 1978, all of maybe four years into the whole video game era.
The first blush of enthusiasm was gone.
It was a time of stagnation.
The thrill of Pong wears off surprisingly quickly, and Breakout was only a mild panacea, giving some life (and solo play) to the Pong genre. By this point I had an Atari 2600 so could even play a pretty decent version of Tank at home. (Not to mention invisible Tank Pong!)
And then the day came.
My step-brother came in the door, having been at the arcade on his way home from school.
He found me and started telling me about this new game up at the arcade. It was obviously very important for him to pass on this urgent information to me.
I wish I had a recording of him at that moment.
He spoke of aliens descending from the sky, dropping bombs as they approached the ground in a zig-zag patter. He told me how the player was the lone defender who had to shoot down these aliens. He described three forts behind which you could hide to protect yourself from the aliens. But these forts could be broken down by the alien bombs, so you had to keep moving, shooting alien after alien until you cleared the sky of their menace.
(Though I am pretty sure he never said, “clear the sky of their menace.” That is how I spoke, something he would make fun of in an idle moment.)
And the sounds! The increasing tempo of both sound and motion as the alien numbers were thinned! The siren-like announcement of a flying saucer’s approach. The drums! The jungle drums driving us mad!
And, of course, his impassioned speech, his near recruiting drive to save humanity, was all in reference to this:
It was Space Invaders!
Which, honestly, more than 30 years down the road, doesn’t seem like all that big of a deal.
I do not think I have even bothered to load this up on MAME in all the years I have had it.
Well, maybe once or twice….
But at the time, at the moment, it was huge. My step-brother practically dragged me back down to the arcade to see this new miracle. And even after the mild let-down when reality failed to match his hyperbole (another word of which he would make fun), it was still the most interesting game in the arcade.
I do not think I even got to play it for a week or so. When we showed up there was a line of quarters along the glass, the traditional method of staking out who was next. (Though, in hindsight, how did we even know which quarter belonged to which kid?)
This was the video game that rivaled Star Wars in revenue, the game caused a shortage of 100 Yen coins in Japan, the game that was destined to be ported to every gaming platform known to man in some way shape or form, the game that was the father of an entire genre of arcade game and whose influence is still felt today. (Hey, is that a heart beat “hey, I’m close to death” sound I hear in Rift?)
Eclipsed by Pac-Man in the media within a couple of years, few things say “retro gaming” to this day like the image of one of the Space Invader aliens.
And there I was, the day (or close to) it showed up in San Jose and took our local arcade by storm.