Monday, June 27, 2011

At Random: Alien Invaders - Plus! (Odyssey^2, 1980)

It was an unwritten rule back in the day that every console and home computer had to have at least one ripoff of Taito's classic arcade game Space Invaders in its library.  Video game copyright law was still in its formative stages when this simple and addictive game made its debut; in Japan there were numerous bootlegs and imitators in the arcades, and in the US at least one home computer version blatantly used Taito's name without official licensing.  So the only surprise about my latest random pick for the Odyssey^2 is that it took so long for Alien Invaders - Plus! to turn up.

Magnavox published this game in 1980, a few years after the console's debut, and to the company's credit this cartridge does several new and innovative things with the venerable alien armada formula.  But it still takes a single screenshot to depict all the basic, familiar elements of gameplay:

Here are the key differences from Taito's original space invasion game -- some make this game quite a bit more intense and playable than its inspiration:

  • The aliens are protected by a shield -- the green spheres at the bottom of the formation block the player's shots quite effectively, and cannot be destroyed.

  • The aliens are armed with mushroom shaped weapons treated as separate sprites -- if the player can take out the gun and/or the alien manning it, that column will cease firing for the remainder of the battle.
  • The alien overlord, the Merciless Monstroth, is a Lovecraftian tentacled beast with a single huge eye -- and it participates in the action much more than Space Invaders' mothership, moving back and forth to take potshots at the player, and occasionally diving down below the formation to fire at close range.

  • The aliens do not advance down the screen, but just move left and right; their aggressive attacks and the player's dwindling reserves provide the time pressure here. 
  • The player's base can be destroyed, but the pilot will survive, running around naked until he parks under one of the defensive shields and hits the fire button to turn it into a new base.
  • Magnavox's aliens fire much, MUCH faster than Taito's, and it's quite difficult to see their shots coming in time to evade them.  So it's wise to take out as many guns or aliens as possible, and stretch the pilot's life out by using all 4 available bases, although once the defenses start to disappear it's even harder to avoid taking hits.

Once again, Magnavox is officially squeamish about violence -- the manual takes pains to indicate that the human-like figures visible onscreen are actually robots, and claims that when the player's last pilot is "stunned by enemy laser fire, it will be captured by the aliens."  But it's so much more dramatic to see the last surviving human running around shieldless, dodging alien lasers in an attempt to prolong his pathetic life for a few more precious seconds.

What makes Alien Invaders - Plus! more fun than Space Invaders, especially with practice, is the change in the strategic elements -- once we grasp that we can disarm each column individually, buying some safe room to maneuver, we can finesse our way through each wave, conserving our shots and placing them precisely to achieve the most benefit.  It's still difficult to win, and to beat the aliens for good we must win 10 battles before they do.  But the grueling, pitched-conflict feel of the game is a lot more intense than Space Invaders, and the sight of the human robot pilot running for his life against overwhelming odds is briefly, surprisingly poignant.

I was prepared for a generic Space Invaders clone, so maybe I went in with low expectations, but having spent some time with this cartridge, I think Magnavox did a genuinely nice job with Alien Invaders - Plus!  It's a pleasant surprise, the rare console alien invasion game unwilling to be a simple approximation of the classic original.  And I'd say it's one of the better arcade-style games in the O^2 library.  Good stuff!  (Even the exclamation point in the unwieldy title seems justified in this case!)


  1. The real question about Alien Invaders Plus is can you only have one shot in play at a time? That was so frustrating to me with Space Invaders. You had to either hit a target or wait for the shot to reach the top of the screen and disappear before you could fire another shot.

    This does indeed sound like a worthy entry into the invaders genre. :)

  2. It's not really an issue, because the shots move fairly quickly in both directions. Space Invaders is in slow motion compared to this game.