Space Invaders: Invasion Day (PS2) and the lost art of cutscenes

Revivals of classic franchises are a useful means of reading the temperature of the video game industry: Pacman Championship Edition channeled Peggle’s neon, crack-addled aesthetic in 2007 while Elevator Action Returns channeled Contra and Metal Slug’s run ‘n’ gun conventions in 1994. That’s why today’s post is going to probe Space Invaders: Invasion Day (aka Space Raiders in the US) on PS2, which is less interesting for its gameplay than what it reveals about trends in videogame storytelling in 2002.

I have to say, the screenshot of a CG-rendered busty woman on the game’s back cover is what piqued my interest in this game, so to speak. So much that I bought it right then and there on the spot. (Admittedly, at £1 it was hardly a big investment.) “How low would Taito go to try and make Space Invaders hip with the kids?”, I wondered. Very low, it turns out. Let’s get the gameplay out of the way: thoroughly uninspiring all round, a (very) poor man’s Sin and Punishment. The game’s presentation, on the other hand, is fascinating. It’s so telling of its era you really have to laugh.

It’s the same era that added a story mode to the F-Zero series, with F-Zero GX in 2003. Space Invaders: Invasion Day recalls those bizarre cutscenes of Captain Falcon and the gang stopping off for a few pints at a local bar. No genres – not even the most mindless, classic, simple blasty-shoot-my-space-laser types – were safe from cinematic pretensions, so it seemed. At least GX had the gameplay chops to fall back on. Space Invaders: Invasion Day feels like more care and devotion was given to the opening cutscene than to the game itself.

Naji, Ashley

Meet the team: Naji, Ashley, and Justin. Let’s get this party started.

To start with, this particular Space Invaders revival felt the need to offer players a total of three playable characters, each with their own personal motivations for fighting against the dastardly Invaders from Space. What’s more, unlike older actions games which would typically relegate the backstory elements to the manual or perhaps some scrolling text in the intro sequence, the characters in Invasion Day have their backstories told via a CG cutscene which clocks in at a little under six minutes. If that isn’t indicative of the direction gaming has moved in, I don’t know what is. But it doesn’t end there. We need to get closer and look at the characters.

Naji is a black Captain Falcon. He is a physical anomaly, with manboobs on his chest and an extra two where his shoulders should be. Only slightly better proportioned is Ashley, whose over-sized mammaries would render anyone else utterly incapable of walking. Last up is the teenage Justin who, out of the whole bunch, best represents the target audience for this game. He also has rather effeminate facial features which makes it easy to confuse him with Ashley – in headshots only, of course.

Here’s a step-by-step break down of the opening cutscene, which I can only assume wasn’t submitted for Oscars consideration otherwise had it been it would’ve won every category.

space invaders invasion day 2

Disaster movie opening: by-stander points at the sky, is joined by a crowd, city crumbles instantaneously, alien ship flies overhead, and predictable masses flee.

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SWAT team headed by Captain Falcon- sorry, Naji, attempts to fend off the alien hordes. Naji watches on as his squad-mates are torn limb from limb.

space invaders invasion day 4

Slo-mo grenade attack! Naji fends off the buggers with a handy grenade – if only the other squad members had thought to use one of those! Post-explosion, Naji turns in a fine performance as an injured badass. There’s sweat on his furrowed brow and revenge on his mind.

Yes, this is what I typically look like midair on a bike.

This is also my typical “midair on a motorbike twenty feet off the ground” face.

Cut to Ashley on a motorcycle, weaving between alien baddies on the rubble coated streets. Big jump! Sassy look back at alien bastards mid-air. Nice landing, 10 out of 10 for style.

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Ashley parks bike outside of apartment building and dashes in. Seems she’s dual-wielding some oversized mammaries. Cut to wrecked apartment interior, and more gratuitous camera work that focuses more on pristine Ashley than the ruined room. She picks up a leather jacket and cradles it to (where else?) her bosom.

space invaders invasion day 8

And we’re with kiddywinks now – Justin and a few other hoodlums wielding tire irons are running down an alley, aliens in hot pursuit. Intense shaky-cam fight! Justin is knocked semi-unconscious. Through haze filters and other post-production effects he sees his buddy getting devoured by starving aliens, who are totally oblivious to the Justin-flavoured meal mere metres away.

space invaders invasion day 9

A cemetery in harsh winter sunlight. Captain Falcon- sorry, Naji kneels at the foot of a grave. Turns out he has dug a set of shallow graves and buried his comrades – at least seven of them – all on his lonesome! But not even this off-camera display of strength and speed is as impressive as Naji’s cleavage.

space invaders invasion day 10

A determined look to camera and he’s off (in slow motion, of course, since that’s how Naji rolls). Costume in full view here reveals the extent of Naji’s debt to Captain Falcon. The only original part of the costume is Naji’s enormous shin pads, and even those look like they’re borrowed from Brian Lara’s wardrobe.

space invaders invasion day 11

Shower scene! And it’s not Naji, I’m afraid, but Ashley. Absurdly gratuitous, unnecessary and out of place you say? Not true, it was important for the narrative to establish that Ashley isn’t one of those bra-stuffers. Now we know we can trust her.

space invaders invasion day 14

Out of the shower and back into the same clothes. Defeating the purpose perhaps? No matter. Now there’s a love interest in the picture, Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, copping a feel in this photo by the looks of things. It was his leather jacket she was cuddling earlier! Does Rinoa know anything about this…? No time to worry about it, our girl’s putting on said leather jacket and heading out of the door. What…no more showers…?!

space invaders invasion day 12

Girly girl drives off on her bike, so cut to Justin, who has just awoken with a confused look. As he stands up, we see he has a classic Space Invaders enemy printed on the back of his jacket. Got to look slick for the alien invasion – just ask the other characters, they all seem to know it. It would be a cool moment except right then, uh oh, Justin finds his mate’s corpse. It’s a typical “NOOOOOOooooooo” action film moment, except Justin is silent and it comes off more constipated than anything else as a result. Once he’s relieved himself of his burden, Justin steels himself to kick some alien tail – walking to almost certain death in yet more stylish slo-mo.

Kids, pick up a gun and get going! A message we can all get behind.

Kids, grab a gun and get blasting! At last, a message in a videogame we can all get behind.

Here’s the full video for anyone interested, although of course since my commentary skills are unmatched there should be no difference between the experience of reading and watching, but feel free to fact check. I may have left out a few minor details – some reindeers smoking crack here, a parrot quoting Flaubert while killing aliens with its oversized beak there – but I think I got in the important bits.

Perhaps the funniest thing is that the developer went to so much effort and expense to explain who these characters are. I think I can sum up what this game is trying to get across. Naji = tough-guy. Ashley = woman. Justin = teenage boy. Seriously, I spent almost six minutes watching a cutscene just to learn this? Who cares?! The developer wanted a varied cast of characters, but it didn’t need to go to such extreme lengths to justify everyone’s presence in the game!

The real issue is that the cutscene doesn’t sit right with the rest of the game AT ALL. It’s completely alien to the gameplay, you might say. It doesn’t resonate, as Shigeru Miyamoto put it once. I leave you now with the ultimate example of an opening cutscene that does resonate, the intro movie to 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. Here is a fantastic game intro that doesn’t feel the need to over-explain or over-justify the presence of all these characters. (Incidentally, that’s exactly where the Subspace Emissary in Brawl went wrong in my opinion.) Instead Melee’s intro is unapologetically badass all the way. It sums up in two short minutes what Melee is all about, and prepares you for the gameplay experience that is to come – nostalgic, exciting and fast-paced. What more can you ask for?

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