Nearly everyone recognises the pixelated alien figure from Space Invaders. The 8-bit creature continues to invade today’s pop culture decades after it first landed, appearing on city walls and blockbuster films. It’s the emoji for video games on smartphones. But its parent company, Taito, has long faded from the public’s radar.
Some 40 years ago, Taito was one of the largest, most prolific arcade game developers around. The company has released hundreds of games. Space Invaders, is the highest grossing game of all time.
But Taito’s meteor-sized impact on the industry goes beyond the influence of Space Invaders, large as it is. Many of their games popularised mechanics that are staples of games today. Below we trace Taito’s journey to becoming an arcade and video gaming icon.
Taito didn’t start as a developer. The legendary arcade games maker found its start in somewhere entirely different–vodka. Founded in 1953, the company was known for being the first one to distil the liquor in Japan.
Its first steps towards arcade games was in jukeboxes, which it imported and eventually started making sometime around the 60s. From there, the leap to arcade machines seemed natural, even a bit late. The coin-operated entertainment industry was already in full swing in America, where pinball machines were taking up floor space in amusement parlours as early as the 30s.
Taito had its sights on the stars from the very beginning. In 1973 the company released its first game, Astro Race, a full five years before Space Invaders. The title had players racing against an opposing ship while dodging meteors, which back then were little more than white dots on the screen.
Astro Race was a fairly obvious clone of competitor Atari’s Space Race. Other games released in the same year were also derivative of more popular titles. But it wouldn’t take the company long to start gaining momentum and producing completely original work of its own.
Taito released Speed Race in 1974, making it one of the earliest tabletop arcade driving games. The title introduced mechanics such as vertical scrolling and recognisable car sprites. But perhaps most importantly, it used racing game peripherals like a steering wheel, gas pedal, and a gear shift. Side-by-side with machines using dials for controllers, the system was groundbreaking.
The game hit critical success in North America, which was released under the name Wheels by Midway. It became the second-highest grossing game of that year, just behind Atari’s Tank. In just a short while, the newcomer had become a solid competitor and driving influence in arcade gaming.
Taito would continue to shape the industry in the decade that would follow with new gameplay and concepts. Western Gun is the first shooter to show human-to-human combat. Qix, which looks like a desktop screensaver, introduced an odd and fresh concept amidst a gaming catalogue full of platformers and space shooters. Parallax scrolling, which is a trademark feature of many iconic retro games, was popularised by Jungle Hunt. Many players were first pitted against bosses in Phoenix, long before “boss fight” made its way into gaming’s vernacular.
Of course, there’s the game that forever cemented Taito’s place in the arcade world’s hall of greats: Space Invaders. The game found incredible commercial success, one that blew older, more established competitors away. “It was a long year for us,” shares Frank Ballouz, Atari’s then head of marketing. Space Invaders’ success would eventually end up helping Atari–it’s credited with quadrupling the sales of the Atari 2600 when it released in 1980.
The reason for the game’s explosive popularity was evident–it was a relief for an industry groaning and stagnating under the weight of Pong clones. It was different. And people went crazy for different. Mike Blanchet, who was 19 when the game released, would drive for miles in the wee hours of the morning hunting for open arcades with Space Invader machines. It was so popular that for decades people easily believed it shorted Japan’s supply of 100-yen coins after it was released (it did not).
Today, the Space Invaders is still one of Taito’s biggest moneymakers, even decades after its release. The game is treated as an important historic artifact. “Space Invaders and games like it represent the roots of everything we see today in gaming,” says Deus Ex designer Warren Spector in an interview with the BBC.
As the golden age of arcade gaming came to a natural decline, so did Taito, despite the publisher’s legendary status. Ultimately, the company was bought by Square Enix in 2005, and has quietly been releasing titles that piggyback on the popularity of its arcade titles, such as Space Invaders Get Even. They also still own hundreds of arcades in Japan, where the coin-op industry is alive and thriving. Bright red and sporting the ever popular pixelated alien, Taito Game Stations are colourful, loud love letters to the arcades of the past.
Taito is also one of the publishers behind the hugely successful sim game Cooking Mama. Although seemingly worlds away from the games they’re known for, the franchise represents a return to form that made Taito’s earlier work era-defining classics: “Cooking Mama is really simple, easy, and fast. It's just like the old Taito arcade games to me,” says Keiji Fujita, a senior producer at Taito.
Taito’s heyday has long since passed. Yet the publisher’s footprint lives on in the very DNA of modern games. And the enduring commercial appeal of spinoffs from their retro franchises shows the company still knows how to create what first drove gamers en masse to their arcade games–a good time.