Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Space Invaders 30 years young

Space Invaders is my favourite game by a long, long, long way and I don't even want to know how many hours I've clocked up playing the game and I even went as far as to theme the first night I ever promoted some 13 or 14 years ago around imagery based on the game everywhere from the t-shirts we made to the images we projected. Obsessed is a word but I prefer otaku. With it being the 30th anniversary of the game and quite a few clothing companies such as 55DSL releasing special edition t-shirts to commemorate the anniversary. For those of you too young to remember the magic of Space Invaders here is a brief history of the game.

Space Invaders was designed and programmed by Toshihiro Nishikado for Taito, Japan in 1978 and remains one of the most popular arcade games ever made.

Space Invaders was originally going to be called something completely different as the aliens were originally soldiers which you had to shoot down. They decided that it was politically unwise to encourage killing humans so changed the people into aliens.

The game was licensed from Taito by Midway for production in the US. In 1980, the game was licensed by Atari for the 2600 game system and was the first arcade game ever adapted for Atari's home system. The Space Invaders franchise has flourished for more than 20 years and according to Taito, the game has generated more than $500 million in revenues over multiple platforms including coin-op, the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo. It was based on a 8080 CPU, had muffled analog audio, and simulated color by putting a transparent overlay on top of a monochrome display.

Space Invaders was the first arcade game to work it's way out of seedy arcades and into pizza parlors and ice cream shops. The Space Invaders phenomenon stuned conservative adults who were certain the games soured the minds of their youngsters. Residents of Mesquite, Texas pushed the issue all the way to the Supreme Court in their efforts to ban the illicit machines from their Bible-belt community. The game was so amazingly popular in Japan that it caused a coin shortage until the country's Yen supply was quadrupled. Entire arcades were opened in Japan specifically for this game. Space Inavders was released in Japan for the Super Famicom, to my knowledge its the same thing as Space Invaders for Super Gameboy. Many incidents of juvenile crime surrounded the release of this game. A girl was caught stealing $5000 from her parents and gangs of youths were reported to have robbed grocery stores just so they would have money to play the game.

Space Invaders was followed by several sequels as Space Invaders - Part II, Space Invaders Deluxe, Super Space Invaders 91 (Super Space Invaders has also another name... Majestic Twelve Space Invaders Part IV. Everything is the same as in SSI '91 except for the title screen. It was released in the US and Japan under this name, and I think SSI '91 was only released in Japan under as SSI '91), Space Invaders DX followed up in 1993 (a modern and 100 percent faithful JAMMA version of Taito's classic Space Invaders, but with a twist. There are several different games available to choose from: the upright and cocktail versions of the original plus the "colour overlay" versions) and in 1999 Space Invaders attacked once again from Activision.

Another man who quite clearly is as enamored by the game as I am is French street artist Space Invader whose work can be seen everywhere from Manchester to Varanasi. This interview that first appeared in Swindle Magazine probably best sums the man's work up.

The classic arcade game Space Invaders was named as such because it featured aliens from outer space invading Earth. Space Invader chose his name because he very literally invades space—public space, to be more specific. For close to 10 years, Space Invader has been infiltrating cities and subtly altering their landscapes.

Whether you call it public art, street art, or graffiti, Space Invader’s art is smart. I first saw Invader’s work in London, where he had skillfully integrated one of his mosaics into a pillar of a historical building. The mosaic didn’t seem out of place in that location, only the subject matter. I had played Space Invaders obsessively as a kid, so I immediately recognized that Space Invader had converted the game’s crude, square-pixel iconic characters into square tiles. I’ve always admired those who turn limitations into assets, and Space Invader’s translation of pixel/screen to tile/street is a perfect example of this. The decorative aspect of the tile mosaic lends itself perfectly to architecture. The installed invaders become counterculture surveillance drones, reminding people that government and monolithic corporations aren’t the only ones watching. What I like most about street art is that it’s a defiant act of expression circumventing bureaucracy. The street artist’s goal has always been to find spots that provide the ideal balance of visibility and longevity. As cities have become more vigilant and sophisticated in their graffiti removal, most street art is cleaned immediately. Space Invader’s mosaics are rarely removed, because they’re visible to the right people yet under the radar of the “wrong” people. Space Invader may not be dropping the biggest bombs in the most dramatic battle, but he is winning the war by not bringing the wrath of the authorities, while still reminding people that underground expression is alive.

After I noticed that first invader, I started spotting them in many cities. I was constantly amazed at how thoroughly thought-out Space Invader’s techniques and placements were. Eventually, I met Space Invader when he was visiting L.A. He was only in town for a few days but managed to hit great spots all over town, including some daring spots at LAX airport. Dominated by signage and billboards, L.A. is a tough city to bomb with mosaics that are generally only about a foot wide. It appears that Invader thrives on finding solutions to the limitations of his medium, and not only found spots that worked well from cars, but in some mosaics used tiles that reflected car headlights. On Melrose Ave., he constructed a 15-foot mosaic out of one-foot-by-one-foot tiles.

It wasn’t until I traveled to Paris that the full scope and scale of Invader’s work hit me. He started his project in Paris in 1996, and most of his 589-plus installations there remain. Everywhere I went, there were invaders, either jumping or peeking out. Some older, lower mosaics were partially removed, not by building owners but by fans hoping to collect a piece; to combat this problem, Invader devised an elaborate hanging system to place the invaders out of reach.

I also noticed that no two invaders were identical, though many were similar. Space Invader was using repetition to familiarize people, but also evolving the images to expand his visual vocabulary within constraints most artists would find very limiting. Whether or not he intended it, Space Invader’s work mirrors the video game culture it references, acknowledging the sensory-overloaded public’s need for immediately digestable symbols. Invader’s pop art may seem shallow, but by taking the risk of illegally re-contextualizing video game characters in an urban environment that provides more chaotic social interaction than a gamer’s bedroom, he makes a statement about the desensitizing nature of video games and consumer culture. In a postmodern paradox, a game like Grand Theft Auto takes the danger of the streets and puts it in a safe video game, while Invader takes a safe video game icon and inserts it into the danger of the streets.

Beyond his diligent street bombing, Invader documents his placements very thoroughly. For each city he invades, Invader creates a map of all his mosaics. An interested party can then tour the city and see the mosaics firsthand. The maps are meticulously designed pieces of art themselves. For Paris and L.A., Invader has published books with photographs of his installations, maps, and other bits of ephemera and inspiration from those cities. Invader looks at culture globally, and views the whole of his project as the sum of every mosaic, sticker, T-shirt, and footprint (he has made shoes with the Invader print on the sole) he has left around the world, combined with the collective experiences of every person who has ever wondered, “Why is this Space Invaders character here?

Space Invader is one of the most thoughtful and focused artists I’ve ever met. A perfectionist, Invader always puts forth the extra effort to make sure his work makes the maximum impact and endures. His work is subversive, but it isn’t anti-social vandalism. He considers his work a “gift” to the city. One day, cities will come to appreciate this gift, as many of their inhabitants already have, and will pay to preserve his additions to their landscapes as art landmarks.

Space Inavders - they don't make them like they used to. Happy 30th.

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