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Games Without Frontiers: 'Space Invaders' Remake Takes Retro Gaming to the Limit

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Games Without Frontiers: 'Space Invaders' Remake Takes Retro Gaming to the Limit
This is slightly embarrassing to admit, but I'm addicted to ... Space Invaders.
Not the 1978-issue game, mind you. No, I'm talking about Space Invaders Extreme -- a re-visioning of the original game, released this week for the Nintendo DS and PSP by Square Enix (which now owns Taito, creator of the original thud-thud-thudding arcade classic). The game is enormously fun, gorgeously rendered and -- other than the horrid use of extreme in the title -- a loving tribute to the Precambrian title that birthed the entire videogame industry.
But here's the really interesting thing. I think the new Space Invaders is the first "reissue" of a videogame that is completely successful.
This really has never been done before. This subgenre of gaming -- the classic remake -- is littered with failure. Defender, Asteroids, Galaga: You name the old-school game, and it's been ruined by some designer's misbegotten attempt to improve it. It's like a form of cultural taxidermy: They take a wonderful old game, surgically drain it of all joy, then leave the mounted corpse on your mantelpiece to glare at you with its creepy, glassy eyes.
But why? Why is it so hard to update a cool old game?
Usually because the designers get too fancy. They assume modern gamers will only play a game if it's 3-D, so they go to painful lengths to transform 2-D titles into full, "immersive" reality. Among other things, this inevitably screws up the control system. The playfully unmanageable chaos of the old-school Robotron 2084, for example, becomes the grindingly unmanageable chaos of the 1996 remake on the Nintendo 64.
Worse, by moving into 3-D, these games abandon the chunky, low-fi graphics that made those 1980s titles so vibrant and Jungian in their symbolic heft. In the original Battlezone, the world was rendered in green, rasterized geometric shapes. It was a perfect evocation of the ghostly quality of "surgical" Cold War combat: We fight amongst Platonic solids!
Then Atari redesigned the game in 2006 for the PSP -- transforming it into the sort of brown/beige 3-D sludge so omnipresent in today's gaming, with sundry powerups that promise "complexity" but only serve to ruin the Zen-like simplicity of the original.
This is what's so refreshing about the new Space Invaders. It avoids all these pitfalls. First off, it remains resolutely 2-D. Indeed, the aliens look precisely as they did in 1978 -- chunky, pixelated blots of Otherness dread. They still crawl across the screen, slowly at first and then faster as you eliminate their ranks. And as before, you can only zip back and forth along the ground and fire upward.
Yet Square Enix has also managed to insert clever new bits of gameplay. Some of the aliens carry shields that deflect missiles back toward you; others, once wounded, stagger downward in kamikaze attacks. Every once in a while, one of those mystery ships at the top of the screen will pause, fizz and unleash a searing, laserlike blast for a few seconds. Meanwhile, you've got new powerups: multiple missiles, cluster shots and a penetrating laser.
The upshot is that the game remains neatly balanced. The aliens have their new tricks, but so do you. In fact, as a whole, the game advances with the same sort of logarithmic difficulty: Around 10 minutes in, you'll feel precisely the same oh-****-oh-**** loss of control you experienced in the original arcade game. It's quite eerie.
What I'm trying to argue, ultimately, is that Square Enix has captured the spirit of the original game. The funky weapons, the zigzaggy attacks -- sure, they're new. But they also seem like part of the Space Invaders canon. In essence, Space Invaders Extreme feels like a game that Taito's designers would have wanted to produce if they'd had just slightly more processing power.
Square Enix's designers have deftly channeled the limitations that Taito's designers faced. And this, really, is the secret to their success -- because it's your choice of limitations, not freedoms, that makes for superb game design.
So yeah: It's 1978 again. Except, somehow, slightly better. Welcome back!
- - -
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to Wired and New York magazines. Look for more of Clive's observations on his blog, collision detection.

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