Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dunt Dunt Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt Dunt

At a dramatic juncture in the almost completely missable Alien 3, Ellen Ripley tells the film's dog-like alien creature, "You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else."

I have some aliens in my life. While I certainly can remember other things—unlike Ellen Ripley, I do not suffer from suspended animation-induced selective memory, you see—it is true that there really is not a time in my life that I can remember when these particular aliens were unfamiliar to me.

The aliens I'm talking about, though, are almost the opposite of the nasty horrors from the Alien franchise, which are menacing, unpredictable, decidedly uncute engines of destruction. My aliens are—well, I guess they are little engines of destruction, after all, but the similarities extend no further. My aliens try to be menacing, and I'm sure there's no cuteness in their intentions for us earthlings, especially when you're talking about those creepy arcade cabinet versions of my aliens:

But in their real (by which I mean digital) representations, darn it, my aliens are adorable! And it's this form of my aliens that's important, because nowadays the images that live on aren't those hulking brutes from the cabinet but the little guys on the actual game screen. Rather than awful little eating machines, they look like wonderful little machines for eating. Hello, lemon juice!

And man, are they ever predictable! But they're predictable in the best possible sense. You know, methodical. Witness Threadless' brilliant "A Simple Plan" t-shirt:

I'm talking about the Space Invaders, of course, the ones from the eponymous arcade game and its many sequels and reworkings, the video game characters I came to know earliest in life. My first introduction to them was in the lovely Atari 2600 port, but their classic arcade look is the one burned indelibly into my otherwise non-eidetic memory.

And if you've read this blog at all, you can imagine that I can't wait to ramble on nostalgically about the game, but I do have an ulterior motive in bringing up Space Invaders. If you read this blog regularly, first of all, God bless you, but secondly, you've noticed that I've been away for some time. Well, the reason for that is that three weeks ago, my wife and I had a son, Alan Roberts.

Since Alan was born, my sleep has suffered quite a bit, but my gaming hasn't, really. It's not too difficult to spend some time with the DS or GBA while he's asleep, so I've been playing several times a day. Specifically, the first bit of gaming I managed to get in came on the day after Alan was born, when I finally recovered from the previous day's excitement and exhaustion enough to turn on the DS and play a new game I hadn't previously had the chance to try out. The second day I was at the hospital, while his mom took a much-needed nap and Alan did the same in his little hospital basinet, I pulled out Space Invaders Extreme 2, the excellent follow up to last year's Extreme, both of which I recommend highly. And I got to thinking about how the old Atari port of the original had been one of my first games and certainly my first favorite game (its competition was basically Combat and the misbegotten 2600 port of Pac-Man).

Space Invaders was a great game for a little kid. It's easy to pick up and play, what with its one axis of movement and its single attack button. I can remember quite clearly how befuddled I was by the controls to Combat, which are not bad at all in retrospect but also not perhaps entirely intuitive, particularly not for a three-year-old. "My" 2600 was at my grandparents' house, a thing bequeathed from necessity by my aunt to my grandparents when the former left for college the year I was born. Grandma and Papa weren't really too good at diagnosing my Atari problems, so I could only really play Combat when my mom was around to orient the controller correctly in my little hands and remind me how to make the tanks move.

That Atari joystick used to give me fits. Since my earliest video game experiences preceded my earliest reading experiences, I wasn't aware that the arcane symbol on the top of the joystick was actually the word "UP," and anyway, there were arrows on each of the other three edges of the joystick—so which way was supposed to point towards the TV?

But Space Invaders was blessedly simple: so simple, in fact, that its original arcade cabinet employed not a joystick but a pair of buttons for movement. Current iterations on the Nintendo DS can be controlled with Taito's dial-looking paddle controller, a Japan-only throwback to the old NES Arkanoid controller.

Sometimes simplicity in a video game is just the first step on the path to monotony. But simplicity is often at the heart of elegance, and I think elegant is exactly the right descriptor for Space Invaders' deceptively simple gameplay, actually. A few stages into the game, after all, the player's focus shifts from shooting any old Invaders at all and just dodging their shots to shooting particular Invaders and avoiding being crushed by the lowest row of their attack formation! This charmingly vintage how-to video illustrates my point perfectly. Space Invaders is the kind of game that shifts quickly from leisurely to frantic, forcing the player to give up the freedom she's enjoyed so far in the game and adhere really to one specific pattern of attack that presents her with her only hope for survival as the game wears on.

Oh, yes, those aliens are still with me, twenty-five years or so on now. And though no one else was aware it was happening at the time, I truly treasured the chance to share, in a way, my favorite hobby with my new son. I'm glad Space Invaders got to be there.

Space Invaders screen shot from Laura Berry's blog, musings (; Space Invaders bezel art from the Arcade Art Library at; Taito paddle controller from

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