40 years on, the Space Invaders finally conquer Tokyo

A new interactive exhibition at the Mori Art Museum celebrates four decades of shooting space squids.

Space Invaders turns 40 this year. To celebrate the occasion, Tokyo City View, located at the Mori Art Museum in the Roppongi Hills ward of Tokyo, is hosting Play! Space Invaders. This special anniversary exhibition allows fans to take in Invader history and play some new variations on the classic game.

The most notable part of the exhibition is, without question, Space Invaders Gigamax. After sunset, a giant-sized version of the classic game is projected onto the windows of the museum. Up to 10 players can work together to blast away the sea creature-inspired baddies. After laying waste to an army of regular-sized invaders, the players have to do battle with a massive alien invader who takes up about a quarter of the screen. 

Located 52 stories above the city, Tokyo City View overlooks an amazing view of Tokyo (hence the name). With the game projected on the windows themselves, it creates the illusion that the aliens are descending onto Tokyo itself, and that’s pretty cool. The game is more or less still just Space Invaders, and it seems impossible to lose. The only penalty for death is a few seconds of immobility. So you’re not playing this for the challenge —its more about the experience. However, you can compete for high score if you want. (I came in second… so damn close.)

As fun as Gigamax was, there are other games at the exhibition that are, in some ways, even better. All offer their own unique spin on the Space Invaders formula, and all do it with some form of interactive projection. Ark Invaders, a mash-up of Space Invaders and Arkanoid, projects the game on the floor. Players (up to several at a time) use their feet like Arkanoid paddles, kicking the balls into the invading alien onslaught. I never felt like the angle of my feet affected how the balls traveled, but it was still a fun experience. The act of physically kicking to annihilate alien crabs felt great.

The most physically demanding of the bunch was probably Noborinvaders, which combines bouldering (quite the fad in Tokyo these days) with classic arcade game. Again using projection mapping, players have to move their hands and feet to the boulder maker that an invader has perched themselves on. Successfully navigating to a boulder with an alien destroys it. Sadly, as I am nursing a rather severe back injury at this time, I had to skip out on this one. But it looked like fun.

Of the three side games, my personal favorite was Bahamut Disco featuring Space Invaders. This was an entirely immersive experience where up to four players are put in a small room featuring a 360-degree projection of the gaming area. Using Vive VR controllers, players swipe at the invaders approaching the screen, which each player assigned a color to attack. It started out simple enough, but within a minute or so, the action became so frantic that we all had to run around the room in circles to keep up with the ever-increasing hordes of alien crabs. With great music, simple gameplay, and outstanding visuals, this might be the surprise highlight of the event, especially if you like rhythm games. And I won this one, but that probably had to do more with the fact that two of the people I was competing against were engaging in selfies the entire time, and that my boyfriend is very bad at video games.

Fun sidenote about this one: at one point this game crashed, and interestingly enough, it dumped the players into a giant Steam page, which makes me wonder if an adapted version of this isn’t headed to VR proper at some point in the near future.

There is also an on-site cafe with Space Invaders memorabilia of the edible kind. Visitors can eat a pita sandwich with a Space Invader branded onto it; a waffle dish with Invader sugar décor; or some seafood curry with dyed red rice made in the shape of the game’s ship. I opted for the curry while my boyfriend had the waffles. Both were fine, albeit nothing special outside of their appearance. The fruit punch with invader-adorned straws was much better, if incredibly sweet. The cafe has a slightly smaller version of Gigamax that’s playable during the daytime, as well as some vintage cocktail cabinets each sporting different editions of the classic game. Too bad they didn’t have any booze. I would loved to have actually drank a cocktail on a cocktail cabinet. 

Between the games and food is the actual museum part of the exhibition, featuring various displays of Space Invaders ephemera and memorabilia, as well as some recreations of the original design documents. It was all fun to look at, but unfortunately it’s all only in Japanese. So anyone not fluent in Japanese coming to learn more about the development of the game will be out of luck. I know I live in Japan, and it’s not entirely fair to expect everything to be translated into perfect English, but English translations at museum exhibits are fairly common these days. And not seeing any English at an event with such international appeal as this seemed a bit odd.

Another big letdown was the gift shop. I was hoping for invader toys and electronics, maybe even some Zuntata CDs. But the only game-related goods for sale are a few buttons, a necklace, and some clothes. Seemed like a real wasted opportunity for them to get all of my money.

The lack of English translation and a sub-par gift shop are both bummers for sure, but anyone in Tokyo with even a passing interest in Space Invaders would do well to check it out. Where the hell else are you going to play a version of the game where the ships are nearly life-size? And even if the other games make their way to home platforms or VR at some point, it won’t be the same as playing them in their fully projected, immersive glory.

Play! Space Invaders runs through January 31st at Tokyo City View, located at Tokyo City View in the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. Admission is 1,800 yen for adults, with also includes admission to the Mori Art Museum as well. For more information you can visit their site.

Photos courtesy of Taito