Origins of the Arcade Games in the ‘Pixels’ Movie

By Vince Matthews

It’s known as the Golden Age of Video Games. From 1978 to 1983, games like Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pac-Man were introduced as coin-operated arcade games.


These video game classics are still around today – some as popular apps, others with new games on new systems, like the Wii U. In the new movie Pixels, aliens use these electronic game icons to attack earth. Everyone from Q-Bert to Donkey Kong gets in on the action and does some pretty serious damage.

In this article we’ll take a look back at the origins of the games and show you where they appear in Pixels. So when you do see the movie, you can impress your friends as an expert on classic arcade games…

Space Invaders
Look for tiny Space Invaders in the sequence when aliens are attacking the Washington Monument. The granddaddy of shooters, Space Invaders practically invented the genre. (Image: Sony Pictures/Taito)

Space Invaders rekindled interest in video arcades when it was released in June 1978. The premise was simple: Keep aliens from landing on earth. Created and developed by Tomohiro Nishikado, who was inspired by the game Breakout (which was developed by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs).

Nishikado worked on the game for years, going so far to create an arcade board that would power it – because, up until that point, the technology didn’t exist to make Space Invaders possible.

Little Known Fact: The invading aliens on upright arcade machines were colored using a film overlay on the video screen.

When it was released in 1981, Galaga ruled arcades. A popular arcade cocktail-table version of the game is still sold. (Image: Sony Pictures/Bally Midway)

As the sequel to the popular Galaxian, Galaga was released in 1981. Galaga took the popular Space Invader mechanic and significantly expanded on it.

In addition to introducing a “Challenging Stage,” the shooter introduced a tractor-beam feature that allowed players to double their firepower if they recovered their tractor-beamed ship from the aliens.

Little Known Fact: The game found new life when it was used to hide the loading time for Tekken, a 1995 PlayStation fighting game.

Accounting for inflation, Pac-Man has generated more revenue than any other arcade game before or since. (Image: Sony Pictures/Namco)

An icon of the Golden Age of Video Games, Pac-Man (introduced in 1980) is the most successful arcade coin-op of all time. Pac-Man has gobbled literally billions of quarters. Midway sold almost half a million of the cabinets to arcades and by 1990, the game had grossed $3.5 billion.

Created by Tori Iwatani (who appears in Pixels), who borrowed the power-up concept from Nintendo’s arcade game Popeye. In an era when most games were violent shooters, Pac-Man did something that was unheard of at the time: It attracted female gamers.

Pac-Man is also considered the very first video game character to be massively licensed with t-shirts, lunch boxes, cartoons and drinking glasses featuring the round yellow icon. A popular sequel called Ms. Pac-Man was introduced in 1982.

Little Known Fact: The game spawned a top-ten single called Pac-Man Fever.

A mind-numbingly difficult game, Centipede took a more down-to-earth approach to shooting games. (Image: Sony Pictures/Atari)

Designed by Ed Logg and Dona Bailey (it was the first arcade game programmed by a woman), Centipede was released in 1981.

Both programmers were focused on how to develop a video game that attracted female players…and they succeeded. Centipede was so popular a sequel called Millipede was released less than a year after.

Little Known Fact: Centipede was the second-most-popular trackball game of its era. Missile Command takes the top spot.

Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong returns to his roots in Pixels. (Image: Sony Pictures/Nintendo)

Created by video game legend Shigeru Miyamoto and released by Nintendo in 1981, Donkey Kong was the start of a game franchise that’s still going strong today.

Miyamoto had been tasked by his bosses to convert the arcade game Radar Scope into something that was more successful and Donkey Kong was the result.

Little Known Fact: This game featured the first appearance of Mario. Super Mario Bros. released four years later.

Blink and you may miss them. The flapping birds featured in Pixel‘s attack on Washington D.C. are from the arcade classic Joust. (Image: Sony Pictures/Williams Ent.)

Released in 1982, Joust combined platform action with co-op gameplay. The game received high praise for its unique gameplay; players rode buzzards that flapped their wings when pressing the action button. By attacking other players or enemies you could unseat other knights.

Little Known Fact: Joust was programmed using Assembly language. It was not the first game to feature two-player cooperative play but because of its success, it helped popularize that concept.

Creating Video Game Classics
When video arcades started to pop up outside of bowling alleys and bars, Americans poured quarters into coin-op machines. Those days may be gone, but they’re certainly not forgotten. Video games are still a thriving industry with people that make video games while earning six figures and more.

Get started with your career in the games business at one of Digital Media Academy’s video game camps.