Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Video Game Myth Busters - The Space Invaders Yen Shortage


Space Invaders was one of the most influential arcade video games in history. So huge was its impact that I consider its release to be the incident that separated the bronze age of video games from the golden age.
 
 

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Over the years, a number of stories have appeared about the game’s history and impact, especially in Japan. For some, these stories seem a bit too good to be true and some have been dismissed as nothing more than video game urban myths. Some examples:

·         What was the primary inspiration for the game? Atari’s Breakout? Atari’s Avalanche? The US space program? The 1953 film War of the Worlds? The release of Star Wars? The 1972 Taito EM game Space Monster? All have been suggested at one time or another.

·         How many copies did it sell? Figures range from 55,000-65,000 for the US and 200,000-400,000 worldwide.

·         Did the game really cause a wave of juvenile delinquency in Japan? Did kids steal yen from their parents? Or run away from home to play the game? Or pump upwards of $80,000 in to the game? Or extort other kids for game money?

·         And finally, probably the most controversial story of all (if there even is such a thing as a video game history controversy). Did the game cause a national shortage of the 100 yen coin in Japan, forcing the government to triple production?

 

In this post, I’ll take a brief look at the last two questions, especially the fourth one.

I should say up front, however, that I will not be able to give a definitive answer here, primarily because I don’t have access to the contemporary Japanese sources that would be required to find one. Nonetheless, I will summarize what I was able to find in US sources.

The story of SI causing a 100-yen coin shortage has been repeated in almost every major history of video games, including Tristan Donovan’s Replay, Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games, and Russel DeMaria’s High Score. But is it true?

Wikipedia

The Talk section for the Wikipedia article on the game includes a brief discussion of the issue, but it is short on supporting evidence. One person (Alistair Rae) even claims that the game “…didn’t cost 100 Yen to play. At the time in Japan 100 yen bought what about $10 buys today.”  Rae apparently didn’t do his homework on this, because his claim doesn’t stand up to even five minutes of scrutiny. Exchange rates in 1978 averaged about 200 yen per American dollar. Not to mention that I have found a number of contemporary articles confirming that the game cost 100 yen to play.

Even is SI did cost 100-yen, did it cause a national shortage?

Recent Articles

Charles Paradis – circa 2013

A recent article by Charles Paradis of the Currency Museum of the Bank of Canada titled “Insert Coin to Play, Space Invaders and the 100 Yen Myth” dismisses the whole thing as a myth.


 While Paradis may be right in his conclusion, his article seems at bit wanting, particularly in identifying the original source of the story. I think his biggest contribution to the whole issue is that he actually contacted the Japanese Mint’s PR office and the Bank of Japan. The latter could find no evidence confirming the story. The former claimed that the increased yen production of the late 1970s (which I discuss below) had nothing to do with Space Invaders and cited an interview with Toshiro Nishikado (the game’s designer) in which he “indicated he believed it all to be a wild rumour.” Is this the last word on the issue? Maybe, but he is relying on a current claim about an event that happened 35 years ago and doesn’t mention how the mint concluded that the shortage had nothing to do with SI.

As an aside, note that the article also claims that the story of the original Pong overflowing its cash box is a myth because (he claims) Nolan Bushnell debunked it and was in Chicago at the time. I suppose I can’t fault him for taking Bushnell’s word, but IIRC Al Alcorn (who was there) confirms the story and Nolan’s version of the facts is often disputable, (though Paradis may have misunderstood him). He also quotes from All Your Bases Are Belong to Us, which makes the dubious claim that the whole Pong story was a fake (a story the author got from e-mails he pilfered from Ralph Baer’s computer and which the alleged source has admitted was unsubstantiated). I have already discussed my own qualms about the Pong story elsewhere, but I think Paradis dismisses it too easily.

 But back to the yen story. There are actually at least two claims in dispute here: whether or not Space Invaders caused a yen shortage and whether or not the government had to increase production to counter it.

Let’s start with the last question. Finding out the government’s reasons for increasing yen production might not be easy but we should be able to find out if there was an increase at all. If not, then we can consider this part of the myth busted.
 
World Coin News – February, 2012

In regards to this question, Paradis cites another article from the February, 2012 issue of World Coin News by Mark Fox titled “Space Invaders Targets Coins”


First of all, I have to say that it warms my heart to see that a numismatic journal would publish a whole article on the subject. The article includes a summary of production of the 100 yen coin in Japan (the source is the 1995 Krause coin guide). In 1977 Japan minted 440 million 100-yen coins. In 1978 the figure dropped to 292 million, in 1979 it rose to 382 million, and in 1980 it rose again to 588 million. Space Invaders was released in Japan in June, 1978. The numbers show that there was an increase in yen production from 1978 to 1980, though nowhere near a threefold increase. However, a glance at the chart reveals that the 1978 figure was atypically low.

NOTE – I should mention here that it appears that Fox was not the first one to come across this info. The same chart appeared in a 2009 LiveJournal post by The Eidolon;


In his article, Fox dismisses Space Invaders as a factor in the increase. Instead he offers another reason (suggested by a coin dealer who had lived in Japan for 40 years). In 1967, in response to rising silver prices, Japan had begun making 100-yen coins out of copper and nickel (they had previously included small amounts of silver). In response, people began hoarding the older coins, sometimes melting them down to extract the increasingly valuable silver. The Fox article speculates that the increase in yen production was an effort to counter this hoarding. As for the shortage, Fox cites a quote from Chris Kohler of Game Life who said that his ““…understanding of [the shortage] was always that there had not been an increased production of coins, but that certain Tokyo newspapers had simply reported on spot shortages of coins.” Is Kohler correct?

Tracking the Source of the Legend

So where did the yen-shortage story come from?

Scott Cohen’s Zap?

When you are dealing with potential video game history myths, one source that always comes to mind is Scott Cohen’s Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari. I did a quick search of my digital copy and Cohen does indeed repeat the story:

“When Taito first introduced the game in Japan a year earlier, the reaction was so phenomenal it caused a coin shortage. The Japanese government had to quadruple the yen supply, just so kids could feed the machines”

In this case, however, Cohen is not the original source of the claim. Zap was published in June of 1984 and the story goes back much farther than that.

(typically, however, Cohen exaggerates the claim saying that Japan quadrupled rather than tripled production)

Martin Amis?

 

In his article Paradis decries the lack of a reliable source for the yen shortage claim, noting “The rare instances where these examples give any citation, they tend to reference Martin Amis’ Invasion of the Space Invaders.”

I don’t have time to go into Amis’ book here (suffice it to say that it is one of the more interesting books in video game history) but I doubt if he was the first to make the claim. Amazon reports that Invasion of the Space Invaders was published on November 1, 1982. There were at least two other books published the same year that also included the story, and at least one was published before Amis' magnum opus.
Steve Bloom and Craig Kubey

Both Craig Kubey’s The Winner’s Book of Video Games and Steven Bloom’s Video Invaders mention the 100-yen story. Amazon lists Video Invaders as being published on September 1, 1982 (predating Amis). It does not list an exact publication date for Kubey's book (other than "1982"), but if Amis’ book was published in November, it seems likely that Kubey also predated him.

Newspapers and Magazines
In any event, the three books mentioned above are likely irrelevant since it is unlikely they got their info directly from a firsthand source. It seems more likely that they repeated a story they heard elsewhere. But where?

New Scientist, December, 1980

Pardis mentions an article in the December 18-25, 1980 issue of New Scientist titled “The games that aliens play”.

Luckily, the magazine is available on Google books:


The relevant sentence reads:

“The Japanese company Taito developed the original Space Invaders for coin-operated machines – they became such a craze in Japan that the mint had to treble its supply of 100-yen coins.”

Can we find an earlier source? Yep.

Various Sources, November, 1980

 
 
 

 

In early November of 1980, a number of stories appeared making nearly identical claims about the 100-yen rumor.

Two of them were reports on the national Space Invaders tournament.
One was by UPI reporter Ed Lion (the earliest version I found of this story was from the November 10 issue of the Springfield (IL) Morning Union). It claimed that Space Invaders:
“…caused an immediate sensation and the Bank of Japan had to triple its production of 100-yen pieces – the coin used for the game in pinball arcades – just to meet the demands of Space Invaders-crazed players. One Japanese man poured $80,000 into the machines."

Another from the November 9 New York Times  by Dudley Clendenen (since they sell articles, I only posted a portion of it) reported

"Last year it is said to have caused the Bank of Japan to triple its production of 100-yen coins to satisfy the demand"

A third from the November 7 Youngston (OH) Vinidcator says

"The Bank of Japan had to triple its production of 100-yen pieces to meet the demand of Space Invaders players."

Note that the article quotes Tom Halfhill of Cleveland Magazine. - a possible source for the quote.

The fact that three different articles made the same claim within three days of one another indicates that the source of the quote came from somewhere else.

Gannett, October, 1980



 

Going back another month, I found a story from the October 19, 1980 Rockford (IL) Register by Evelyn Short of Gannett News Service.

“When it was unveiled in Japan in 1978, Space Invaders nearly caused `economic chaos. A government investigation into an unusual shortage of 100-yen coins found that the money was lying in limbo inside thousands of Space Invaders machines.”

Aha, not only does this article mention the increased yen production, but now there was a “government investigation”. Note, however, that there is no mention of tripling the supply.
On an interesting side note, the article also mentions the 23rd UFO trick and claims that it was discovered in December, 1979 by a group of (MIT?) students

Sydney Morning Herald, September 9, 1980


 
This one's on Google News.
From Sydney (Australia), September 9, 1980

"The craze reached such heights there at one time the country faced a serious shortage of 100-yen coins. A Government inquiry found that people were pouring all their coins into the Space Invaders."

Again we have a mention of a "government inquiry" and no mention of trebling the supply.
Sadly, no source is given for any of this info and before September, 1980 my trail runs cold. I found a number of articles on the game from early 1980 and 1979 but none directly mentioned the yen story.

However, I did find one other article that might be relevant

Pacific Stars and Stripes, July, 1979


 

This article (another UPI article) from the July 20, 1979 Pacific Stars and Strips has a number of interesting claims in regards to delinquency that we will discuss below. For purposes of the yen question, however, note the following intriguing quote from a Japanese hotel clerk:
“We’ve got plenty of bills but we often run out of the coins and have to wait for the machine to be emptied.”

It doesn’t say anything about a national shortage, but it does show that individual locations often ran short of 100-yen coins, lending credence to Kohler’s speculation that these local shortages were reported by the Japanese media and got blown out of proportion. Of course, that still doesn’t explain the whole “government investigation” business. One possibility (and this is pure, unsubstantiated speculation) is that the story (assuming it’s not true, and I’m not saying that’s the case) resulted from a combination of reports of local shortages and a government effort to curtail the hoarding of coins containing silver (though the last claim is also speculative).
 Delinquency?

What about the claims of the delinquency caused by the game? This story hasn’t been as widely disseminated but it may be even more interesting.

Among the claims I found were the following

Invasion of the Space Invaders

·         This one is second hand, since I haven’t read the book (it costs over $100 used on Amazon) but Amis supposedly wrote that a 12-year old in Japan held up a bank with a shotgun demanding his loot in coins so he could play the game.

Play Meter – August, 1979



·         Police concerned by juvenile delinquency caused by the game “…have ordered an investigation”

·         “The education Ministry has asked local teaching authorities to do what they can to stop children playing the game”

·         “Japanese newspapers have been carrying reports on cases of delinquency related to SI and state that in the past three months about 250 school children were placed under protecting police guidance and custody in Tokyo alone.”

·         In March a 10-year old boy was arrested for stealing 230,000 yen from his neighbor’s house to play the game,

·         Later a 9-year-old girl ran away from home with 300,000 and traveled several hundred miles to Okinawa to feed her Space Invaders habit

·         The NAIA restricted access to the game for those under 15 unaccompanied by an adult

·         (My favorite) The most common offense was stealing cigarette lighters, which could be used to rack up free credits on the game


 Pacific Stars and Stripes, July, 1979

·         Students cutting class to play the game

·         “two workers from the Japanese National Railways stole cameras, wristwatches, and other valuables from fellow railway workers at a dormitory, and pawned them to get money to play ‘Space Invaders’

·         “12-year old children in one school terrorized a group of 8- and 9-year olds, extorting 100-yen (U.S. 50 cents) coins to feed the game”


Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 1979

 
 
 
 
 
·         The story of the 9-year old runaway appears again (this time in US dollars)
·         The story of wrapping a 5-yen coin also appears again
      ·         Could the 8 and 12 year olds here be the same story as the 10-year-old in the Play Meter story? The amount of money is about right.

So many details of this story almost match what is in the Play Meter story that I wonder if this was their source. If so, they made a number of subtle changes, which could be a sign of a legend in the making.
 
 
Finally, here’s one of the earliest articles I could find, from the April, 1979 RePlay. It mentions nothing about a yen shortage or any delinquency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 comments:

  1. In this case, however, Cohen is not the original source of the claim. Zap was published in June of 1984 and the story goes back much farther than that.

    On the video front, there has been several mentions of the yen shortage in passing you can hear below...
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqyKpJwk29o
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waPwi0GXu0E

    ReplyDelete
  2. Charles Paradis made some oft-repeated mistakes of his own in his article. For one, Bushnell was not the founder of Atari but a co-founder (1 of 3). 2nd, the story regarding Pong at Andy Capp's is most certainly true. Allan Alcorn has stated on numerous occasions that he personally went to find out why the Pong machine stopped working, and it was because the coin "box" (a sawed-off milk jug) was jammed full of quarters. Some of his other statements don't make much sense, such as, "In 1977 the first major crash in the video gaming industry resulted when companies were forced to sell their obsolete systems." Since when were companies "forced" to sell their own products? Isn't that the goal with any company trying to sell something? lol No, companies were forced to dump their systems at a fraction of their value, which is exactly what happened 6 years later.

    ReplyDelete
  3. An article in the March 1981 issue of Creative Computing about the 1980 Atari VCS Space Invaders championship has some info about the arcade game. The article mentions some 350,000 machines were made in Japan, which replaced pachinko as the most popular game, and drove Howagiken Ltd (the largest pachinko manufacturer) into bankruptcy and forced other manufacturers to make "Invader Pachinko" machines. It also says Bally made 60,000 machines in the U.S.

    There's a link to the magazine article on my site, with my interview of the winner of that contest:

    http://www.ataricompendium.com/archives/interviews/rebecca_heineman/interview_rebecca_heineman.html

    ReplyDelete
  4. Finding the best custom playstation 4 controllers is never easy. Sure, you can get the regular ones, but the reality is that sometimes they may not work that great.

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