Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong: the video games that changed the world
The 1980s was a transformative time for video games.
Referred to by many as its ‘Golden Age’, it’s the decade where the industry began to find its feet after finally hitting the mainstream. Even today, among the latest Call of Duties, FIFAs and Legends of Zelda, there are still names we know and love from almost 40 years ago.
I have fond memories of grasping a grey, chunky handheld console circa 2000 while sitting in the corner and playing the miniature version of Pac-Man repeatedly until my eyeballs threw up. But beyond endlessly addictive gameplay, these early titles all have something else in common: they all bring their own revolution to a rapidly evolving industry.
These little guys are instantly recognisable even to non-gamers. Alongside Pac-Man, they are one of the most familiar symbols of the industry, and their iconic silhouettes have become synonymous with the concept of gaming. First released in 1978, the launch of Space Invaders has widely been hailed as one of the key moments of the Golden Age of video games.
Space was a common setting for games of the time, which had a lot to do with hardware limitations; a black, largely featureless backdrop of empty space freed up the hardware for the gameplay. You probably know the drill – as they fall, the eponymous invaders fire at the player, whose cover gradually depletes with each hit, eventually forcing them to rely purely on reflexes. This becomes trickier over time too, as the Space Invaders ramp up their speed and rate of fire as each wave falls. Take it from me, the final invaders are nimble and supremely deadly. Or rather don’t, because I never got that far, so I mostly take it on faith.
This scaling difficulty was revolutionary in the fledgling industry and, as it happens, a complete accident. The original software struggled to render the myriad waves of invaders, which were supposed to move towards the player at a constant, steady pace. During play-testing, creator Tomohiro Nishikado found that as he picked off wave after wave, the system managed to return the rest to their intended speed. He liked it so much that he kept it, and the difficulty curve was born. Today, Nishikado’s discovery is a large part of why almost all your favourite video games begin by asking whether you’d like to play on easy, normal or hard. Some of them – like the Wolfenstein: The New Order – even mock you if you attempt to play on the simplest setting.
Pac-Man is another globally recognised symbol, and for good reason. Not only has he had several video games to himself, there’s also a cartoon TV series and even a hit single (in case you’re wondering it’s called Pac-Man Fever and is surprisingly funky, albeit the lyrics are exactly what you’d expect). In many ways, the little round yellow guy is the very definition of 80s pop culture. One of the many reasons Pac-Man was immediately successful is because his game broke the pattern of the ubiquitous deep-space setting, and the public were eager for something a little different.
The player controls Pac-Man, navigating him around a maze filled with pac-dots – sometimes adorably called ‘biscuits’. Once he eats them all, he advances to the next level. But to do so, he must avoid Inky, Pinky, Binky and Clyde, four multi-coloured ghosts who pursue him across the level. If they touch him, Pac-Man loses a life, and when he’s out of lives, the level’s over.
But while their antics may seem erratic and random during gameplay, each of the ghosts are programmed with distinct personalities. The red ghost, Blinky, aggressively pursues Pac-Man throughout the level, always hot on his tail. Meanwhile, Pinky attempts to get out in front of the player – his AI tries to predict where Pac-Man is going, rather than where he is. Inky, the blue ghost, uses both Pac-Man’s position and Blinky’s to determine his own movements, making him unpredictable. Finally, Clyde, the orange ghost, switches between aggressive pursuit and quietly meandering around his own territory in the bottom right of the level. It’s a fitting pattern, given that his Japanese name roughly translates to ‘feigning ignorance’.
Part of what makes Pac-Man so continually appealing is its whimsy and, despite technically being antagonists, the ghosts captured the public’s hearts just as much as Pac-Man. Though the game might seem simple, the winning combination of quirky characters coupled with a hidden layer of complexity was enough to ensure its entry into the annals of video game history.
Three of the most enduring characters in video game history made their debut in this 1981 platformer, in which a humble plumber must ascend a structure of ladders and platforms to rescue a princess, all the while dodging the barrels hurled by her primate captor, the titular Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong set a lot of benchmarks, but the most interesting one was its use of graphics to define characters, not least of which was the introduction of Mario – the cheerful, heavily moustachioed and incredibly versatile tradesman we all know and love today. His moustache was in fact a carefully considered design choice; it was a good way of making the character look distinctive while working within some serious pixel limitations. It also saved them from having to design his mouth. He wasn’t called Mario to begin with but held the rather bland title ‘Jumpman’. Donkey Kong was named because the creator wanted to call him ‘stupid’ but eventually settled on the inoffensive Donkey. He also wanted the character not to be ‘too evil or repulsive’, so Donkey Kong was introduced as an escaped pet.
As well as breaking new ground in characterisation, Donkey Kong was one of the first video games to use a plot to tell a story, including the use of cutscenes. What’s more, it was an early pioneer of the platformer genre, which you can still see today in everything from Portal to Ratchet and Clank. Donkey Kong and Mario each went on to get their own franchise. To date, one of them has appeared in well over 200 games since his creation. Can you guess which one it was? (“It’s a-me!”)
These three games are just the tip of the iceberg. Games like Tetris, Moon Cresta and Pong all had huge impact. That’s not to say that revolutionary games aren’t being produced today, but it’s always going to be an uphill struggle to match the legacy these titans have left in their wake.
After all, the newer games can keep getting bigger and better, but the old-school video games have a unique charm all of their own.
By Jack Stocker
Freerange Comedy Festival at Brewery Arts Centre Kendal
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