BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 24 September, 2001, 08:15 GMT 09:15 UK
A blast from the past
Space Invaders
Space Invaders: Hugely popular at the time
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

If you spent your youth battling invaders from space in game arcades, then a new book will stir up fond memories.

Supercade lavishly documents the history, legacy and visual language of a phenomenon that has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Van Burnham, a self-confessed games junkie, wrote the book as a tribute to the technology, games and visionaries who were behind one of the most influential period in computer science.

"People lose sight of the rich history of this industry, especially because it is really new and there hasn't been a lot of books and articles written about it," she told the BBC's Go Digital programme.

Simple tennis

Tennis for Two: Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory
Tennis for Two: Where it all began
The book takes you back to the origins of the video game industry, with a journey to the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US, where scientists built the first video game.

It was a simple tennis simulator called Tennis for Two.

"In essence, it was the first interactive game," says Van Burnham. "It started the $20bn interactive entertainment industry".

The tennis game came about from efforts by scientists at the labs to improve relations with the local community, who regarded the nuclear research facility with suspicion.

Click here to tell us your memories of classic video games

In 1958, the game was designed by William Higinbotham, to entertain visitors to the lab.

Queues round the block

It was a big success, as one of the Brookhaven scientists recalls.

Van Burnham
Burnham: Self-confessed games junkie
"The first time they had the game up and running at visitors day, the line went out the door and round the building with people waiting to play this," said Peter Takacs of Brookhaven's instrument division.

He was one of the scientists who rebuilt the game in 1997, seeing it as a way of connecting the present with the past.

"It's all built around analogue technology, which not many people know about today, so it is a lost art, a lost technology superceded by digital technology," he says.

"It's more like a pinball game, because it has relays and the relays go click. And we put little lights on there to tell when the relays were flashing, so it makes a lot of noise when you're playing."

From Pong to Space Invaders

Space invaders was really the first game that had such a profound success that it shifted the course of the industry

Van Burnham
The book traces the milestones in the evolution of gaming, and recalls games that will resonate with millions.

"Pong was very important for a lot of people," says Burnham. "Not only was it the first arcade video game but it was the first successful one.

"It was the start the start of a commercial industry as people stood back and realised they could make money out of this."

But it was not until the arrival of rows and rows of blocky animated invaders from space that video gaming captured the public's imagination.

Pac Man: Burnham's favourite
Pac Man: Burnham's favourite
"Space invaders was really the first game that had such a profound success that it shifted the course of the industry," says Burnham.

"Space Invaders and Asteroids and games like these started to generate so much income," she says.

"That's when video games started to play such a major role in our culture as well as the business side of the entertainment industry."

But for Burnham, there was one other game that defined her childhood.

"The first game I got really obsessed with was Pac Man," she says.

"There was a little corner candy store near my house that had a Pac Man machine and I would stop there on my way back from school and play a few games and I got to the point that I was very good.

"That game got me obsessed with arcade games".

Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971 - 1984 is published by MIT Press


I used to love Frogger and Donkey Kong. I always had the highest score for a girl, at our local youth club

Sharon Brigden, England
Our primary school in London was obsessed with a hand-held Pac Man clone called Mini Munchman. Of course, we could all 'clock' it, but the competition came not in high-scores, but in how long it took to get back to the beginning!
Dan Hall, UK

I used to love Frogger and Donkey Kong. I always had the highest score for a girl, at our local youth club.
Sharon Brigden, England

I used to play space invaders on the Atari 2600. The only problem I had with it was that the high-score didn't go high enough, and eventually it cycled back round to 00000! I'm glad that I didn't just play games on computer however, since from starting to write a few programs in Basic on the TRS-80, I'm now a professional software developer. I think it's a shame although inevitable that no modern games can be written by one person. The requirements of the industry have gone beyond that. We'll probably never see the likes of games like Elite again, since large teams struggle with the clarity and vision that one or two people can achieve.
Richard Godivala, UK

Who says these games are a thing of the past? I still play them on my PC at work - in lunchtime of course.

John Ludlam, UK
I have to admit that on the whole I find old arcade games much more entertaining than the recent bunch. As soon as manufacturers started to assume that if a game wasn't in 3D it wouldn't sell, I switched off. It seemed that the whizziness of the game seemed to overshadow gameplay, and making sure you got a few minutes for your money regardless of your skill replaced the learning curve. There's still the occasional game that sparks my interest, but when I find myself returning to games that happily entertained me nearly 20 years ago, you have to question if progress is always such a good thing.
Kev Beeley, UK

Who says these games are a thing of the past? I still play them on my PC at work - in lunchtime of course.
John Ludlam, UK

My first experience of video gaming was with a good old "TV Game" with tennis, squash on it. And a two-tone beep sound. It was great. More fun can be had with that than a lot of the new big lumbering PC games of today. Keep it simple and look to the old days for real enjoyment in gaming. More action per square inch of screen is what it's about.
Ty, UK

I remember being particularly prone to "Atari Finger" as I would spend hour upon hour glued to the TV blasting Space Invaders. The joysticks used to get hidden from time to time to allow the callouses between my thumb and first finger to heal.
Matt Smith, UK

I will never forget the first arcade machine I saw; Donkey Kong when I lived in Zimbabwe. I was about 6 years old and there was loads of grown-ups there. One of them took the toy guns out of my holsters and put them on top of the cabinet. Being so small I couldn't reach them. Nowadays technology makes things so small, I've got a clone of the same game on my PDA!
Keith Wilson, UK

Games programmers today have almost limitless computer power, and also call on software as an aid to creating their games. Let's now think back to the days of the Sinclair Spectrum with only 16 or 48K of memory. Some of the games for such machines were remarkable. The Hobbitt for example.
Dudley Piggott, Georgia

The first game we played was Horace Goes Skiing. It was like the Final Fantasy of its day. Awesome, when you're seven.

Chris Merriman, England
I still remember the giddy thrill of Christmas morning 1984. Our first computer - a ZX Spectrum with "typing on dead flesh" rubber keyboard. The first game we played was Horace Goes Skiing. It was like the Final Fantasy of its day. Awesome, when you're seven.
Chris Merriman, England

It was Atari who brought the game of Pong to the masses in 1972. Anyone remember the Grandstand home video games from the mid 70's? Video gaming took on a new dimension with the introduction of Vectorbeam graphics in 1977 when Atari introduced Space Wars to the arcades. Vector beam produced straight lines on the screen without the low res block effect of other games graphics. This format was also used for Asteroids. When Space Invaders was introduced to the arcades by Taito in 1978, it took the world by storm. My personal favourite came from Williams, the pinball specialists who dipped their toe into video gaming with Defender in 1981. Smooth multi-coloured graphics in a fast 'fly your spaceship and shoot everything' format, you needed all your fingers to play it. A clever piece of programming as the whole game runs in 26K. How things have changed.
David, UK

Donkey Kong and Galaxian were favourites of mine and I still enjoy playing them today on my PC, the theme tune to Galaxian sticks in every kids mind if they are in their early to mid-thirties. Excellent fun because of their simplicity.
Mike, UK

For me it all started with the BBC machines where our science teacher in junior school used organise computer game playing sessions after school. A really competitive and at sometimes, hostile, atmosphere built up especially when playing the all time classic Elite from David Braben and Ian Bell, or even the less demanding games such as Snapper, a Pac Man clone and Killer Gorilla. Several of us, due to our games addiction and the schools respect for the Acorn computers as a learning tool persuaded our parents to buy a BBC Micro Model B or in my case the budget "Acorn Electron".
Dave Norman, England

We played Pac Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids. You could never get us off it. We even wrote our own games. It was so easy to understand in the those days, nice and simple

Samantha Norris, London, UK
I remember the first computer we had at home. It was the old BBC Micro Model B. We played Pac Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids. You could never get us off it. We even wrote our own games. It was so easy to understand in the those days, nice and simple. The old ones will always be the best!
Samantha Norris, London, UK

I remember the first games coming out on a Sinclair ZX81 (remember them?). The games used to use characters of the ASCII code to represent an object on a screen, it was also limited to 2 colours, black and white ! It was more fun in them days programming in machine code. My favourite game from this era was Asteroids, simply black and white wireframe graphics.
David Whyte, Britain

Like myself, I think many console owners and games players of today were children when video games first took off. I have fond memories of those early days - Asteroids, Defender, Missile Command were all very simple games but, at the same time, truly absorbing. That may be why we are keen to be reminded of where it all began.
Dave Wright, Oxford, UK

I loved Pac Man when I was younger. Play an online flash version here: . This will bring back a few memories.
Paul, England

I must say, that looking back to the very early days of gaming, I still clearly remember the first console my parents bought for me and my brothers. It was the good old tennis game, and I remember it so clearly, for us this was a time back in 1975/76. It snowballed from there on. The almighty Atari, Space Invaders, Missile Attack. Oh those were the days. For that was when you were really surprised at what you saw, where as today, nothing really surprises anymore, we expect reality in a game, we expect to be engulfed in storyline and colours and shapes of all kinds. I remember two games that my brother was nothing short of a true master - Defender and Pac Man. This kid back in 79/80 was a legend in my whole town and somewhat in surrounding towns for his ability and shear skilled he showed.
Darren Tracey, United Kingdom

There were two superb games I grew up with: 1942 an arcade shoot-em up and Harrier Attack a fantastic yet simple game on the Amstrad. I have yet to find an emulator for either of those, can anybody help??
David , UK

During the year of my Inter Cert (O Level exams) (1983) some friends and I would spend almost every lunch time in the back room of a local pub where they had a Pac Man game in a coffee table machine. We discovered it was emptied of money each Wednesday during this time. The game owner (not the bar owner) would arrive take out the money box, go behind the bar to empty it, and then return the money box to the machine. However during this time we would put the same 10p piece into the machine over and over catching it as it fell out each time. This built up lots of credit, and usually we would spend the rest of the day playing, skipping class to play for free.
Larry O'Brien, Ireland

Click here to return

Send us your comments:

Your E-mail Address:



Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

Van Burnham
People lose sight of the rich history of this industry
See also:

25 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Your say on classic video games
26 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Fight fans get real
04 Jun 01 | New Media
Sales of computer games rising
27 Jul 01 | Business
Sony punished for profit slump
30 Jul 01 | dot life
Happy 40th, computer games
17 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Return of the computer dinosaurs
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories