Missing in Action: Space Games

Shaggy February 6, 2008 15


Over the next little while I am going to run a feature every now and then where I discuss genres which have been “lost” to arcades. Where these genres were once a proud part of an arcade line-up, they have all taken a back seat to the current primary genres of the arcade industry (and in some cases they’ve been all but forgotten in the console world) which include: 1-on-1 fighters, light gun games, racers and dancing titles. Sure those are all great genres that work great in arcades but to think that they are the only ones that can do well on the arcade scene is ridiculous.

UPDATE (12/4/10): We’ve had a lot of people looking this article up lately so I’ve decided to go back and expand greatly upon what I wrote originally. Unfortunately not much has changed with space games since I wrote this in 2008 (there still is a dearth of good space games in the console arena as well) but I still hold out some hope. I may still update this article a little more over the next day or so but for the most part it’s complete.

UPDATE#2 (6/13/11): I realized that there were some big gaps in the history so I updated that. In the coming days I may add a little bit more to this as well.

Ready for some history first?

Why even bring up space games? I suppose they hold a special place for me as I grew up playing so many of them; on top of that I enjoy shows like Star Trek so personally my interest in such things hasn’t waned although it has in public. Perhaps the decline of interest in space games can coincide with a general decline of interest in space overall but it’s really hard to nail that down without solid polling.

The very first coin-operated arcade game carried the theme in both it’scompspace.jpg name and the game itself: Computer Space(pictured right, KLOV image). Computer Space was essentially Space War, which would later become the first vector arcade game available to the public in 1976 (which also was one of the best selling arcade titles that year). Computer Space didn’t start a revolution in video games – it would take Pong to achieve that the next year. After Atari produced Pong they gave the space genre another shot with Space Race. It was a big flop, even more so than Computer Space and has been all but forgotten to the gaming community. Space games wouldn’t start making waves until 1976 when Atari gave it another shot with Starship 1. Starship 1 was a straightforward, first person shooter that was loosely based upon Star Trek that would employ a couple of ideas that were used in later Atari space titles. It used a yoke controller (which would later be improved for Star Wars) and it reflected the screen off of an angled piece of glass to create a depth effect(used in Asteroids Deluxe).  Shortly after that another company jumped into the realm with Space War (Cinematronics/Vectorbeam). Space War marked the introduction of the vector monitor into the coin-op marketplace of the time; different games had used vector monitors previously but they were generally experimental games that saw very little publicity and this also was a new design. Space War was reportedly the best selling game of the year and the technology behind would eventually create a subset of vector based arcade machines.

The space craze was just getting started around this time as the public found more entertainment in space with big movies like Star Wars. The interest would continue to hold benefits for both movies and video games and the fever expanded when in 1978 Taito released Space Invaders. The game quickly became a quarter-cruncher as it introduced a new kind of game to the public where enemies fought back and they were animated.  Once introduced to the public, the game became a gigantic hit in both Japan and the US(Midway handled the game on the US side), drawing in people who had never played video games before. In some areas, if a venue didn’t have a Space Invaders machine they were shunned by customers and the huge demand caused Taito to temporarily stop producing anything but SI machines. In some ways, this marks the time where the “Golden Age” of arcade gaming really started as people became captivated by a title they could only find in those venues and the amount of attention generated for arcades by this game alone boosted everything else. Later Atari would port the game over to their Atari 2600 console where that game alone propelled the system to heights well above the competitors.

As expected the success of Space Invaders meant that arcades would also be hit with a deluge of clones, bootlegs and other similar alien shooting games. While there were plenty of “me-too” games to gloss over, other companies created some unique twists on the concept and that gave us some additionally famous games such as Galaxian and Galaga (Namco, 1979 and 1981).  Gremlin’s Moon Cresta, Midway’s Gorf, Taito’s Stratovox (this and Gorf are the first games to feature voice) and Phoenix (all 1980),  all tried to make their mark in the top-down space shooter sector but failed to obtain the same level of popularity as what Space Invaders or Galaga managed to do. Konami changed things up in the genre by doing a horizontal shooter with Scramble (1981) and they also tried something different (and unusual) for Stern called Dark Planet (1982). Konami would take a little different route again in this area with Juno First and Gyruss (1983).

Other kinds of space games that followed a different formula than SI also found wide success in the market.  Williams released a breakout hit of their own in 1980 with Defender which ended up generating earnings on par with Pac-Man. It’s fascinating to note that while Pac-Man’s success can certainly be attributed to its simplicity, Defender managed to be just as successful while being one of the more complex games of it’s time. Stargate (1981) was Defender’s sequel. Midway/Williams created some other very memorable and successful space games with titles like Space Zap (1980),  Sinistar(1982) and Blaster (1983). They also brought Namco’s Bosconian over to the US in 1981.  Some other companies that found success in space included SNK/Centuri who created a popular shooter called Vanguard (1982) where you pilot a ship that can fire in four directions; Sega had several space games out around this time, the popular Zaxxon (1982) and several vector games I’ll get into in a moment. Taito had plenty of overhead shooters to talk about although none of them recreated the same effect as Space Invaders. One worth mentioning would be Space Dungeon (1981), a difficult but addicting shooting game that is like Robotron. Cinematronics had Star Castle (1980) a cool game where the player pilots a ship around the screen like you see in Asteroids but you have a boss-type character shooting at you and the only way to kill him is to blast away the moving walls around him.

Speaking of Asteroids, this 1979 hit by Atari was the next big thing after Space Invaders. It sold thousands of units and was so successful in arcades that it caused operators to create larger coin boxes to hold all of the coins the machines were gathering. A larger coin box was even a feature in the sequel, Asteroids Deluxe where the manual touted all of the extra cash the box could hold. It proved once again the value in vector games in the early market – games that often took a trip down space lane. For example, Atari’s Lunar Lander(1979), Tempest (1980, one of the first color vector games), Gravitar (1982), Space Duel (1982) and the excellent Major Havoc (1984, one of my favorite games of all time); Midway’s sole vector title Omega Race (1981); Cinematronics also had Solar Quest(1981), the super rare and strange Sundance (1979) and another rare title called Cosmic Chasm (1983); Centuri had Aztarac in 1983 which had solid objects, an unusual effect for a vector game. All of Sega’s vector efforts were space combat games: Space Ship (1978), Eliminator (1981), Space Fury (1981), Tac-Scan (1982) Zektor(1982), and Star Trek (1982). Sega’s version of Star Trek also happens to be one of the best Star Trek video games ever created, even though it has nothing to do with exploring space. Here’s a nice little video tribute to the vector games of the time:

One aspect many space games shared was the influence of movie Star Wars. Elements from the space combat scenes from that movie would be found spiced throughout many video games thereafter. Cinematronics created an interesting first person space shooter with vector graphics called Tail Gunner (1979) that is reminiscent of the scene where Luke and Han had to jump into some turrets on the Millennium Falcon and gun down a wave of TIE Fighters while someone else piloted the ship. At least you weren’t shooting down TIE fighters in this game as you would find in several other arcade titles of the time. They also created a game called Starhawk (1977) where the player flew over something that was a lot like a Death Star with a trench. Exidy released a 1st person space shooter called Star Fire where they essentially had the player piloting an X-Wing shooting down TIE Fighters (this also was the first full cockpit style game). Centuri also produced a game where you shot down TIE Fighter-like craft called Tunnel Hunt(1982).  Space Encounters (Midway, 1980) had the player piloting a TIE Fighter-like vehicle down a trench shooting enemies.   And of course Atari released the licensed Star Wars (1980) to arcades to great success that incorporated elements from the aforementioned games but did it officially. The game also sported a color vector monitor which was still a novelty and a sweet yoke controller. Atari released a kit upgrade to Star Wars called The Empire Strikes Back in 1985. Since we’re on the subject of Star Wars we should jump ahead a little and mention a few other Star Wars arcade titles: Sega grabbed the rights to make such titles in the 90’s and they made two great entries for the series: Star Wars Arcade (1993) and Star Wars Arcade Trilogy (1998). The first one featured full 3D graphics which in 1993 was still a novelty but it was made primarily for the Japanese market – the cabinet was huge and allowed for a pilot and a gunner. The latter SW title was only for one player but was an incredible entry into arcade gaming as you played through key sequences found in the first trilogy of movies. You can still find this game in a number of locations today.

Pretty much everything we have discussed up to this point is from the pre-Crash era. After the great video game market crash in 1983-84, space games like everything else took a dive but they didn’t go away completely. There are certainly some notable titles from the 1985-’89 era – games like Konami’s Gradius (1985), Irem’s R-Type (1987) and Taito’s impressive ultra-wide screen game Darius (1986) would create a standard for sidescrolling shooters for a long time to come. It was also around this time where you began to see space/sci-fi shooters being made where you weren’t a spaceship but a character running around (probably influence the movie Aliens) with games like Sega’s Alien Syndrome (1986), Midway’s Xenophobe (1987) or Atari Game’s Xybots (1987). Simulators became a cool thing in the latter half of the 80’s as well where Exidy’s Vertigo(1985) and Sega’s Galaxy Force(1988) made simulation games for outer space.

Before completely leaving the 80’s it’s worth noting that the first attempts to create 3D games involved space in some form. Atari released the quirky I, Robot in 1983 and would shelve The Last Starfighter not long after that. Unfortunately for both of those games it wasn’t time for 3D yet as the technology was quite expensive to produce.

Footage from the unreleased The Last Starfighter Arcade game

The 1990’s

The 70’s and 80’s were chock full of space games as we have seen but when the 90’s rolled around, that started to slow down a bit. Perhaps developers and players were beginning to felt burned out by the genre or the advances in 3D graphics meant there were too many other things to focus on (as it would turn out, mostly racers, fighters and light-gun games).

Namco at least started off the decade with a bang with their interactive theater game Galaxian 3 – a concept that was innovative for the time and which is starting to see a rise once again with so called 4D and 5D theaters that a number of companies are beginning to produce. Up to 6 players sat down in a mini-theater and using their own yoke controller could blast enemies away along with their friends. In 1994 Namco also released a conversion kit for these theaters called Attack of the Zolgear, which also had a space theme to it.

Also among the first space titles to find their way to arcades this decade would be Starblade (Namco, 1991). Starblade was an on-rails space fighter game that used a yoke and an interesting technique with a curved screen to make the image appear larger than it was, in addition to giving it a sort of holographic effect. The cockpit design was huge spacelords.jpgbut that was an advantage to the player who could feel like a space fighter. Also that year Namco would release Solvalou which would be a first-person, 3D rendition of Xevious in a cockpit cabinet.  Namco would continue to expand on Xevious after this with Xevious 3DG (1996). Jumping back a little bit,  Space Lords(Atari Games 1992,pictured) allowed up to eight players battle in space like a first person Space Wars. Taito introduced Galactic Storm which was similar to Sega’s Galaxy Force from a couple of years earlier.  Konami brought their popular Gradius into the 3D realm with Solar Assault, (1997). As I mentioned previously, two Star Wars titles made their way to arcades this decade to varied success, Trilogy is still found in many locations today.


In 1995, everybody’s favorite genre, the racer, went into space with Konami’s Vic Viper and a couple of years later in 1998 with Midway’s Hyperdrive.

Taito would return to their Space Invaders franchise a few different times in the 90’s – first with Super Space Invaders ’91; Space Invaders DX in 1993 and the overtly cute Space Invaders ’95. None of these titles set off a firestorm of excitement in arcades like the original did but for anyone who wanted a more recent update to the franchise, they were a good way to go.

The light-gun game really started to gain steam in the 90’s and in more than one instance space was the influence behind the game in one degree or another (usually with aliens from outer space being the bad guys). Taito had Space Gun in 1990, a great mounted gun shooter that in addition to being violent and gooey, also maintains an intense atomsphere about it through the game. American Laser Games brought it’s cheesy full-motion video to the genre with Space Pirates (1992). Sega had a sort of answer to Taito’s Space Gun in 1993 based upon Alien 3 called Alien 3: The Gun which had mounted guns and digitized graphics. In 1995 Atari Games released Area 51, which quickly gained popularity in arcades and in pop culture (although other than aliens it’s a little bit of a stretch to call it a space game). They would follow-up to this with Area 51: Site 4 in 1998. Konami would release a sci-fi/space shooter called Teraburst in ’97. For more alien-themed light-gun shooters, game makers obliged in that area, Game Room made Host Invaders in 1998, Midway came along with Invasion in 99.

With fighters gaining wide attention in arcades in the 90’s, on occasion there was a space-themed fighter of sorts such as with Galaxy Fight (Sun, 1995), Star Gladiator 1 & 2 (Capcom, 96 & 98). Not much to speak of, but it was something.

One area that certainly didn’t shy away from space was the shmup, both vertical and horizontal based. These include but aren’t limited to: Air Buster (Namco, 90), Aleste 2 (Compile, 90), Bio Ship Paladin (UPL, 90), Raiden (Fabtek), Thunder Force AC (Sega, 90), Metal Black (Taito, 91), Pollux (Dooyong, ’91), Rezon (Taito, 91), Strato Fighter (Tecmo, 91), Thunder Blaster (Irem, 91), Thunder Cross II (Konami, 91), Xexex (Konami, 91), Truxton II (Toaplan, 1992), Viewpoint (Sammy, 1992),  Blazeon (Atlus, 92), Andro Dunos (Visco, 92), Galmedes (Visco, 92), Last Resort (SNK, 92) Rayforce (Taito, 93), Nostradamus (Face, 93), Nebulasray (Namco, 94), R-Shark (Dooyong, ’94), Zed Blade (NMK, 94), Gekirindan (Taito, 95), Terra Driver (Raizing, 96), Cosmic Cop (Irem, 96), Salamander 2 (Konami, 96), RayStorm (Taito, 96), G Darius (Taito, 97) Gradius IV (Konami, 98), Blazing Star (Yumekobo, 98), Dangun Feveron (Cave, 98), Fever On (Cave, 98), RayCrisis (Taito, 98), Star Soldier Vanishing Earth (Seta, 98), Giga Wing (Capcom, 99) – just to name a few. Some of these are generic shooters, others tried to innovate a little, such as G Darius with the Capture Ball function. Many were quite fun to play, despite the wide selection of choices on the market and most found success in Japan as opposed to elsewhere.


Like with many other genres in the arcade, space combat games of any type have practically disappeared in the 21st century so far, although there have been a few games to pick from. In 2000 the shmups kept the space spirit alive with the likes of Ikaruga(Treasure, 2000) and Mars Matrix(Capcom, 2000) and the strange Mission Craft by Sun, which took the popular RTS Starcraft and made an arcade shooter out of it. There have been some sci-fi space themed games such as Sega’s Alien Front and Planet Harriers. In regards to first or third person space combat titles, Star Wars Starfighter (Tsunami Visual, 2003) happens to be the only one in recent memory. In light-gun titles there was Star Trek Voyager in 2002. Namco was going to release a couple of space combat games a few years ago: a StarBlade sequel called Starblade: Operation Blue Planet and Star Fox (here’s the proof) but for various, unfortunate reasons those games were canceled. One other space game I almost forgot to mention was New Space Order, a Japan-only RTS(!) game by Namco that came out in 2007.  So does that mean that space games are done for? I don’t think so and let me tell you why.

Video of the unreleased Starblade: Operation Blue Planet from 2002

Why space games in the arcade?

You don’t see many space shooters on consoles these days – only the PC seems to attract most of these games but they tend to be too complex for the arcade environment but that doesn’t mean that every space game has to be Wing Commander to be successful. As always I believe that the arcade is capable of providing a fun experience that if done right can bring something unique to a genre – a good example from recent memory would be Blazing Angels, which with it’s unique control scheme and seat force-feedback technology puts it into a different category than it’s console counterparts. It would be excellent to see a new space title take advantage of a cockpit cabinet with a force-feedback control scheme and surround sound but beyond that with the right artspaceinter.jpg direction a space title can look amazing (check Metroid Prime 3′s space scenes or the graphics in games like Space Force or EVE Online; pictured is a PC game called Space Interceptor), especially if you use an HD monitor. What has to set apart an arcade-style combat game from something you would typically find on a PC of course is the flow of the game – in an arcade you can’t spend time traveling to different star systems or several minutes hunting down another ship that just looks like a minuscule speck on your display – it has to be fast and action-packed. Many times battles happen in waves but obviously that doesn’t mean it has to be that way as designers can always come up with new ideas in familiar settings. Not every space-game has to be a shooter persay; one of Midway’s last titles was a space racer (HyperDrive) but space racing games never seemed to work out terribly well. One game that would have given the space genre a swift jump start in the arcades would have been the aforementioned StarFox – between the built-in popularity of that series and it being thrown into an arcade setting it’s easy to see that it would have been a winner. Overall I believe that space games set in the arcade can do very well and in some instances they are only worth it if they feature arcade-style gameplay. From what I have played in recent memory on the PC, a lot of stuff is still trying to do something along the lines of Wing Commander but they up the notch on complexity. I played one game not long ago where it used so many keys on the keyboard that many were used multiple times for different functions and it’s not terribly fun to keep having to check the manual to see what does what in the middle of a dogfight. It also makes it very difficult to return to the game after any length of time.

And that brings me to my final point – we need new blood on the arcade scene in terms of what kind of games we’re seeing. I have been pleased to see some developers innovating design in some recent games such as 2Spicy, Primeval Hunt, Action Cop and a few others but it would be great to see us move away from the light-gun/racer/fighter/dancer merry-go-round. Of course inventing entirely new genres at this stage in video game history is pretty difficult so why not come up with some new ideas in some other familiar settings, whether that be a space-action title, a beat ’em up (or scrolling fighter, not 1-on-1), a puzzle title or something else. And later on we’ll discuss those genres as well (or anything else you’d like to talk about).

UPDATE: Since I first wrote the paragraphs above we’ve seen little in the way of returning to space in the arcade although that will soon change with Taito’s Darius Burst Another Chronicle, which will be released on Dec. 17th 2010. Konami also has a space-themed light-gun shooter that they’ve tested in Japan called Space Agent but we have heard very little about it since the initial location test. I’ll be keeping my hopes up for more.

If you liked this then you can also read:

Missing In Action: Puzzle Games

Missing In Action: Scrolling Fighters

Missing In Action: Tanks, Planes, Mechs and More

Missing In Action: Adventure/RPGs

Missing In Action: On the Defense



  1. Brian Deuel February 7, 2008 at 7:45 am - Reply

    My favorite games to this day are 1977-1984 space shooters. After 1982, they became few and far between, but some great ones were made in those last two years. I was never into the cutesy games (Pac-Man, etc) that partially led shooters into their decline (an overabundance of me-too shooters helped too), but I will always remember those first five years as the greatest era of the golden age of arcades. There’s just something about the action of blasting aliens in abstract space that can’t be duplicated by running from ghosts or fingering 5 button combos. At least in my mind…

    I’ll never forget walking into Someplace Else arcade in 1981 and seeing the row of Tempest machines that were just put in that day. Same thing in the same arcade in 1982 and the Galaga cocktails. Great times…

    As far as Hyperdrive goes, I could never figure out why that damn machine kept resetting when it was in my arcade. I ended up trading it for a second Rush the Rock 🙂

    Great article!

  2. Shaggy February 7, 2008 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Thanks! I have to agree that most of the great space shooters are from the era you mention although I do have a place in my heart for Star Wars Trilogy Arcade since I sunk so many tokens into that game. But it has more ground combat than space combat to be honest. I’d like to see a game similar to SWTA’s space combat scenes but have nothing but those, maybe randomize the waves a little bit and it wouldn’t have to be Star Wars. That’d be fun.

    I know of one developer that was working on a 3D version of Gorf but I am not sure if it will see the light of day due to legal issues (it might under a different name). I think that would be nice proof of how an arcade-style space game from the 80’s could be done in today’s world.

    Personally I don’t think the arcade I worked for ever had problems with HyperDrive because no one ever played it! If they did it was only for one round – I don’t know how that game ever got past field testing to be honest(as employees we’d go around and play everything and compete on the games, I’m sure you’ve seen or done that). Now if it had been a combat game in a free-space arena then it might have had a better chance.

  3. Brian Deuel February 8, 2008 at 2:24 am - Reply

    Unfortunately, Jamie Fenton (Gorf’s creator) doesn’t own the rights to Gorf, else I think she’d give her blessings to a 3D version. She was very cool about giving out the Robby Roto ROM images for MAME and other emulator users. 3D Gorf would definitely be a blast!

    SWTA was very cool. I never actually played it, but I got to check it out at Atlas Distributing when it was new and marvel at how AM-Annex really captured the essence of the movie. Plus the fact that it was the last Model 3 game (*sniff*) proved that that board went before its time. A comic book store owner who owned one told me that it was quite popular with his customers and a ton of fun to play. Wish I would have tried it when i had the chance.

    I had plenty of plays on my Hyperdrive, but the damn thing would reset in the middle of a game! I could never figure out what caused it, and I tried a ton of “fixes”; i.e. power supply, fan on the processor, fan blowing on the board, etc. Nothing worked. I think the RAM was bad, but I never got that far with it. But I got it at a steal to begin with ($999), plus I got to trade it for a piece that was more popular and could be linked to another unit.

    Good luck with your arcade!

  4. Shaggy February 8, 2008 at 3:09 am - Reply

    I know Jamie actually did give her blessing to the project but unfortunately things didn’t go well when the developers went to Midway and they could give it approval but the problem lies with the fact that Gorf took from Namco properties as well. It’s really too bad. but I think they are just going to rename it and release it on the Atari Jaguar. They also had a Dreamcast version planned but it won’t go forward until the Jaguar version does. But the Jag version is being held up due to some piracy concerns at the moment that hopefully will be resolved soon.

    I play SWTA a lot in part because we held competitions as employees. I memorized the entire game and could beat it on one credit without getting hit and on the hardest difficulty. I don’t think I’d do so well on it anymore though. AFAIK it still makes money on location and I played it not long ago and it’s so well done that it’s really aged well. I think it’s graphics are still really good too.

  5. jon nichols March 15, 2009 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    in 1981 i became obsessed with an arcade game called cosmic wars unfortunately i cant find any info on it can anyone give me any info as to how i can get my hands on a download

  6. DarkTetsuya December 4, 2010 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    I think the space shooter I had the fondest memories of was Galaxian3: Attack of the Zolgear (and the massive two-screened, six seater cockpit.)

    Played it once in Santa Cruz years ago, was one of the most amazing games I’d ever played…

    • arcadehero December 4, 2010 at 5:51 pm - Reply

      I was thinking about Galaxian 3 when I started writing but I forgot to add it – I will a little later!

  7. Peter Finnegan August 6, 2017 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Hi does anyone remember the name of a game I played in the UK in Blackpool in the late 80’s or early 90’s. It was set in space was a shooter first person I think. It had a cabinet you sat it. I think I remember flying over a planet surface shooting lots of things. But what stood out was I don’t think the background was graphics. Looked live video footage or something so seemed more realistic.

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