The Game: Those pesky invaders from space are back, and this time they’ve devised a handy delivery system that drops entire columns of kamikaze invaders and motherships through a series of airborne chutes from an orbiting Stern command ship. Players can try to intercept invaders as they plummet toward Earth, but as their impact sends a cloud of debris spreading outward which can also destroy the player’s cannon, avoidance is a perfectly acceptable (if not exactly high-scoring) survival strategy. (Stern [under license from Union Denshi Kogyo Company], 1980)
Memories: As with numerous other big names in the industry at the end of the 1970s and the dawn of 1980, pinball maker Stern‘s angle of entry into the burgeoning video game business was a remix of Taito‘s Space Invaders. Yes, even the company who brought us Berzerk and Frenzy – as well as numerous licensed imports from Konami, among others – rode Taito’s coattails into the video game business.
Astro Invader is a decent reworking of the basics of Space Invaders, reformatting the game significantly enough that one might not think it’s a knockoff until the telltale unchanged Space Invaders sound effects kick in. It’s essentially Space Invaders reshaped into a literal shooting gallery, with new targets emerging through chutes and waiting patiently to be destroyed until then. Stern gets credit for bashing together a custom mothership graphic, sitting at the top of the screen, emblazoned with the company’s name throughout.
Stern would make a much larger dent in the industry with original fare, starting with Berzerk, though it also found a lucrative sideline in bringing imports such as Scramble and Super Cobra from Japan to the U.S.; by not insisting on basing its entire catalogue on either imports or in-house originals, Stern was able to thrive in the unfamiliar new industry that threatened to dislodge pinball from its throne.
But perhaps Stern has had the last laugh after all. Astro Invader smacks of a reluctant step into a video game industry that the pinball makers might otherwise have avoided. As of 2014, Stern is the only American pinball maker still in business (its web page boasts that it is the only remaining manufacturer of new pinball machines in the world), having outlasted most of its pinball-table-making rivals and much of its 1980 video game industry competition as well.