Game 28: Astro Invader (Stern, 1980)

Playing rules:

Difficulty: Factory default. Start: 3 lives. Bonus: 1 life at 10,000 points.
Current Record holders

1st: 56,330 - Fred Pastore - 2006
2nd: 41,680 - Donald Hayes - 2006
3rd: 39,880 - Brian Miller - 1983

Right that’s it SEGA, to bed with you without any tea – I’ve told you before about this astro obsession and now it’s gone TOO far. Oh wait, what? Stern? oh. Ok SEGA, you were lucky this time.

Ahem.

So 1980 and we have another Astro game to play, this time “Astro Invader”. Now, this game is a funny bugger and no mistake – I don’t think I have ever seen a game that offers so much originality and yet copies so blatantly all at the same time. You see, the “Invader” in the title isn’t an accident, oh no. We’re back in the wonderful days of “everything goes” game development, whenever a game is released that proves to be successful it’s a mass bundle for every other bugger to try and cash in and make a copy.

Stern HQ:
“Space Invaders selling like hot cakes? We need to make an Invader game and quick!”
“Let’s call it “Space Invaders”
“Don’t be stupid. Firstly we can’t completely copy the name, secondly its 1980, every other fucker is making a game with astro in the title we need us some of that”
“Deal! We’re going to be bloody loaded, I’m off to buy a yacht.”

Funny thing is, as derivative as the naming goes, it seems that nobody told the game’s programmers as this game is *nothing* like space invaders when you actually play it. Well I say that, taking a look at the MAME roms you find that the game uses the same sound effects as Space Invaders. I don’t mean similar ones, it actually uses the *exact* same files. Madness I tells you. Also you do control a space ship shooting invaders, but apart from all those things it’s nowt like it honest. Ok I can see you don’t believe me; that’s fine, at first I was just like you – but mark my words I shall prevail.

First though, the scores. Well, score wise we don’t have much to write home about; only the three scores listed with the top two being recent funspot efforts (interestingly Mr Pastore also holds the record for the last game Astro Fighter) and the bottom score being the original record from back in the day. However, again I get a sinking feeling as my chances are knocked into a cocked hat before we start as all three of those scores look a bit meaty for my liking, especially when you consider how points are typically hard to come by from this era of gaming.

No point crying about it though, so let’s get on with it – here comes another bloody version of space Invaders and all that.

Pretty much immediately the game throws my cruel initial dismissal right back in my face. As if by way of punishment, the game goes out of it’s way to throw a whole array of foreign game ideas at you from the off – this would be jarring for even the most open minded player, but as someone who clearly expected a simple shooter it’s a right old carry on. First thing that strikes you is the enemy formation. If you thought Space Invaders or even Galaxian were a bit “rigid” in their enemy formations, you ain’t seen nothing yet. As the game starts a massive blue mothership rolls onto the screen and before you can say “ah, look at that they’ve even written STERN on the ship, bless ’em” it starts spitting out Invaders left right and centre.

Invaders! Invading our very own earth! Panic! Batten the hatches! PANIC!!!……….right?

Well no actually. These are truly the most polite invaders you ever will see. There is no shooting, no swooping, no flying about giving it all the big – no, slowly the invaders drop down individually and in order into the tube like rack above you where they proceed to have a bit of a sit down and possibly even a nice cup of Earl Grey tea. How very civil. This of course leaves me rather confused, so after what felt like cruelly shooting the first few I just sat there watching them fill the tubes. Now, the invaders must be English as when the first row is full up they simply start up small little queues behind them (us English love a good queue you see). Still no aggression at all and it all becomes rather surreal. I thought these guys were supposed to be invading for goodness sake and unless they consider queueing up in front of us a an act of downright hostility, they aren’t really doing a great job.

Hold on though, maybe that’s exactly what they *want* us to think, the clever buggers –  soon they will all break free of their queueing tubes and before we know it swarms will be upon us as we are well and truly invaded. I’ve got your number pal and I’ll be ready. But what’s this? Almost apologetically a small pink flying saucer flies down the opposite side of the screen making a silly shrill noise as it goes. At last an attack! Ok it’s absolutely no threat as I’m nowhere near it, but still it’s a start. Choosing to ignore the fact that after the game made all that effort with the mothership, this pink fucker appeared out of bloody nowhere, I watch as the ship slowly moves down the screen on its wasted and wildly inaccurate attack.

And then I die.

What? Hang on, WHAT? As the ship reached the bottom of the screen, rather than disappear and regroup for the next attack it crashes into the line behind me, creating what I assume is a massive aftershock which kills me stone dead even though I am nowhere near the bloody thing. What makes it worse is that not only do you die but the whole screen flashes red, whilst all the time letting out a shrill noise that I’m man enough to tell you made me shit my very pants. Not cricket, AT ALL.

It’s fair to say that the death display won’t be appearing in anyone’s “scariest moments in gaming” lists, but as with all good horror it was the absolute contrast that scared me titless. Best comparison I can make are those extremely annoying animations that went round the internet a few years ago – “look really closely at this picture to see if you can find the kitten or whatever…. closer…. closer….. GRAAAAARGHHHHHHH Big scary screaming face fills the screen!” (ok it doesn’t work so well in text form I admit but you know the ones I mean). All in all most unexpected.

And it only gets worse. Resuming my next life and the invaders that were already queued up are still there and the mothership continues on it’s merry way shitting new invaders out willy nilly. Still nothing happening with the invaders, but I’m on the watchout for those pink fuckers that’s for sure. Not a moment too soon another pink ship starts coming down the screen, this time on the far left – I’m after you ya shit and off I go to shoot him before he makes me change my pants again.

And then the whole world goes to bits.

It just so happens that while the second pink ship starts it’s decent, the queueing invaders on the left hand set of tubes decide that enough is enough and nigh on simultaneously all five of the lowest fuckers stream town towards me. All too much for me this and besides I am already halfway on my way to stop the pink doombringer so I’m right in the middle of it all. BOOM. Last life is more of the same as if you remember the invaders don’t reset so within seconds I’m blanketed by another assault and it’s game over.

Score: 560

Ok, time to work out what the bloody hell is going on – and soon enough I begin to get an idea of how the game works. While it is true that the invaders sit there all nicely queued up, there is only a very finite queue length (of five) before the first in line gets pushed out and makes a bid towards the bottom of the screen. Thankfully though it turns out that it is nowhere near as bad as I feared as if you let one of these invaders reach the bottom of the screen you don’t die regardless of where you are – no, you only get killed if you are within a rather small, yet hard to define “splash zone” around each one at the time of impact. The pink ships that appear every now and then are still instant death if they reach the bottom so the challenge seems to be thus: Keep the invaders trimmed down and make sure you don’t miss any pink buggers. Sounds easy, let’s crack on.

Second go and it’s a completely different story. As each invader calmly slots in to its little tube I follow soon after and shoot the fucker. Granted, even though I know the horrors to come they do look kind of serene and calm, but I know now that they should be afforded no mercy at all costs. The tactic seems to work as well and by the time the first pink ship appears most of the tubes are still empty – nice and easy, what a contrast! Even though I miss a few it really is quite organised even now, as the invaders continue to stream forward in a nice orderly manner – from left to right and then back again, meaning I can simply follow the line picking them off as they drop. The only time this rhythm is broken is when a pink ship appears, usually on the opposite side of the screen and I have to break off from the invaders and stop him getting to the bottom. A few invaders get loose but nothing I can’t keep away from and it’s a whole new ball game.

It’s only now that I have wrestled some sort of control back from the game that I notice that the mothership has a counter on it signifying how many invaders are left until it is empty. I can’t remember exactly but I’m sure it started off on about 200 or so, but it isn’t long before it gets to 0. i wonder what happens now? Maybe it’s the next level? is it balls. Once the mothership is skint the whole screen freezes, bullets in mid-air the lot, while we watch the empty ship slowly trundle off the screen only to be replaced with a new full up one, which we now watch come back to the middle, still frozen like a tit in a trance. Once it’s slow journey ends the game resumes rather abruptly without warning – so much so that I actually lose a life before I get the chance to move as I was in the middle of dodging an invader at the time, the slags. Yeah, don’t mind us Mr Important Mothership, you pop off for a refill, we’ll wait. Wanker.

Anyway, all of my cockiness soon disappears with this new ship as they obviously cotton on to the major flaw in their battle plan. Rather than fill the tubes in order making it easy for the dirty earthship to follow us about, why don’t we fill up randomly? That’ll learn ’em – and learn me it certainly does as I am very soon overwhelmed.

Score: 2,180

A better score but still comically far off even last place in the records. For some reason I’m really struggling with this game, it is just so easy to get overwhelmed as the filling of the invader tubes is rather swift and completely relentless. I have a few other goes but they are pretty much the same – as soon as the second mothership load appears and they start coming randomly I’m simply buggered. Scratch this down as “one of those games” that I just can’t get on with then? Maybe.

But wait, a few further goes and I spot a pattern. From the second mothership onwards the invaders are not actually random – they purposely filter to which ever side of the screen you are on at the time. This may not seem like much of a revelation but believe me it is. While before I always found myself overwhelmed by falling ships, blocking my route to the all important pink ships more often than not, now I have an element of control meaning I can actually start to find safe routes when I need them. Pink ship appearing on the right hand side of the screen? No problem – I simply move left of centre and the invaders start pouring that way leaving a free route for me to rush over to the right, slap pinkie and get back to the middle again (which invariably seems to be the safest place to hang around most of the time). It starts to make sense!

This changes the game as I now get past the second load and indeed the third. The method stays the same as well, but the speed increases each time. At last I have a method for playing the game that sort of works and my third score is much better.

Score: 7,610

Still nowhere near the records but considering how it was looking at one stage it’s a vast improvement that’s for sure. Still, I don’t think this game is for me. Even though at first you fall into the trap of thinking the strict formation and tube like mechanic is an advantage, each and every game soon descends into a situation where all queues are full and every single invader unloaded is one that will stream down the screen at you. It really is quite a job keeping the fuckers weeded out and one that I think causes some inner child to panic all too often where a calm methodical head is needed.

So Astro Invaders, I doff my cap to you sir! In an era where all shooting games were starting to get a bit samey you dared to do something a little bit different. Ok, so the name is a cop-out (although interestingly it is called Kamikaze in some places which makes a lot of sense game wise, if not politically across the eastern world) but the game truly is unique. I don’t want to say I told you so at the beginning of this post, so I won’t.

No, I won’t – you trusted me anyway right?

4 thoughts on “Game 28: Astro Invader (Stern, 1980)

  1. You made me try Astro Invaders and for that I’m not sure whether to thank you or hunt you down and strap you in front of that death effect. 1800ish points and that was enough for me – it did dare to be a bit different but never again. . .

  2. Is it just me or do most of your shots manage to slip into the single pixel gap between the invaders and the tube edge?! 2030 on my second go of three. I can see myself giving it another shot later – though I’m not sure why as I can’t say I enjoyed it all the much :-/

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