How things have changed in the videogame industry. In a decade where the Dreamcast gets canned after barely two years, it's shocking to remember that the Atari VCS - released back in 1977 - took three years to really get going commercially. The seemingly innocent idea of licensing Taito's Space Invaders instead of creating the usual unofficial clone created a monster that changed the industry forever. Atari knew pay dirt when they saw it, and a plethora of arcade conversions resulted, putting the VCS in an unassailable position until 1982 when a lazy conversion of Pac-Man smashed consumer confidence. For two glorious years though, Atari ruled the gaming world, and it was all down to Space Invaders. As Nirvana's Nevermind did to grunge, Space Invaders did to shoot 'em ups: virtually everything derives from it.
Since nobody is asking for another straight-faced Space Invaders copy, it's nice to see programmer Silvio Mogno trying something a bit different. Regrettably, Rainbow Invaders doesn't do this by including Zippy and Bungle Bonce, but by adding an elaborate power-up (and power down) system which affects the strengths of both your ship and the ruthless aliens. There are sixteen in all of these "special shoots" (the manual is not written in the best English), and they fall down the screen from the aliens like normal electric bolts, the only difference being they are twice as wide. Catch them as they fall and you will obtain its effect. This could be a doubling of your craft's speed, super powerful bullets or a paralyzing effect on the aliens. On the down side, it can also mean a doubling of the aliens' movement and countless other nasty surprises. When each of the special bullets fall, a small symbol appears signifying what it does. Don't get the symbols mixed up, because if you do, you've got yourself a funeral in the year 3006!
Rainbow Invaders reminds us just how bright and vivid the VCS' palette can be with its multi-coloured aliens across all six rows having very little flicker. Apart from the colourful sprites, this looks and sounds like any other Space Invaders clone in the universe, with the only clue to the extra ingredients being the funny hieroglyphics flashing up at the bottom of the screen. You will need to look at the manual before playing, because there's no way you'll guess what the symbols mean just by their shapes.
INCREASE SPEED, DROP DOWN AND REVERSE DIRECTION!
Those very symbols turn out to be the main undoing of the whole concept. When you're in the zone, trying to get the old rhythmic "zig-zag" technique going, the last thing you want to do is stop and think "hmm, what does that green arrow with a diagonal line represent again..." I doubt anyone could remember what the symbols are for all the power ups, and as it turns out, closer inspection of the "special shoots" makes you realise that only one or two are really worth getting in the first place. The rest are either negative or offer no major advantage to the player (like the randomly moving bullets, for example). Just as big a turn off with Rainbow Invaders however is the speed - it's as slow as a rhinoceros going through a mud pit backwards. For example, when the double speed icon is collected, your ship moves at roughly the same pace as in Space Instigators, an Atari 2600 homebrew from about five years ago. So in effect, you're chasing a power up that merely makes the game go at normal speed! With that in mind, God only knows what the 17.5% slower PAL version is like...
At this point I want to stress how big a fan I am of the original Space Invaders. Several attempts have been made to dismiss it as an unplayable relic that just happened to be there first (even though it wasn't), yet its continued popularity in the 21st Century proves that at its core lies blood, not glitter. In an admirable attempt to update the format however, Rainbow Invaders has sucked out the very blood that made the genre so endearing in the first place. It plays too slowly and the power up system- though a nice idea- is complicated and unrewarding.
There's no shortage of Space Invaders variants on the 2600, and a few, such as Space Instigators and INV+ (the only conversion to have the same amount of enemy sprites as the arcade) are impressive. Up against these homebrews, it's hard to recommend Rainbow Invaders merely on the strength of its impressive use of colour. The original 1980 licence is far better, and for me still stands as the best version on the machine. Even after all these years, programmers still make the mistake of adding new elements to a simple concept, and in the process of doing so break it. Maybe the videogame industry hasn't changed that much after all...