Ozma Wars (1979)

  • DEVELOPER: SNK
  • PUBLISHER: SNK
  • RELEASE DATE: December 1979
  • PLATFORM: Arcade
  • PLAYED ON: Nintendo Switch (SNK 40th Anniversary Collection)
  • GAME #: 1

As a general rule of thumb, there are three types of vintage game players:

The first is the kind that play old games wearing a used pair of rose-tinted glasses while snuggling into a warm and comfy blanket made of nostalgia and love.

The second is that of the archivist; someone who’s playing a game for its historical relevance to the medium and its cultural impact on the world at large.

The last one is the player who finds themselves with a robust classic game compilation in their possession and an obligation to at the very least try each game out even if they don’t like it because hey, you spent money on the damn thing.

Thus, why I’m writing about Ozma Wars.

I got more out of researching Ozma Wars than I did playing it and that’s fine. It’s likely to happen when you experience something out of context and far removed from its relevancy. Adding to that is I’m not a big player of shoot ‘em ups in general nor fixed shooters (Galaga notwithstanding) in particular and I’m not surprised that I wasn’t, well, surprised by it. It plays well enough in an oddly janky kind of way, but at the end of the day it isn’t spoken about in reverent tones like Space Invaders, Pac-Man or Donkey Kong for a reason. It’s literally as old as I am yet I only first heard about it when SNK’s pre-Neo Geo works were bundled together.

Rather, the interesting things about Ozma Wars isn’t so much the game itself, but its contributions to the medium at large. According to the information provided in the bonus features of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection it wasn’t just a figurative clone of Space Invaders – it was a literal one. It was converted from an original Space Invaders board and given its own life. The biggest thing was that it had one of the first, if not the first, instance of a life bar. Most games wanted your money, so it was “one hit, one kill” and you lost a life. In Ozma Wars, you had this numeric representation of your health that would spiral downwards with each hit. In my experience you don’t last a whole lot longer than if you just get outright killed, but an extra hit or two is probably important for someone who actually has any skill in these types of game.

The game also has distinct stages beyond giving you the same waves of enemies at a higher speed or difficulty, with them being capped by a weird comet/boss battle (maybe?) before giving you an actual chance to recharge your energy at a mothership before tackling the next one. I also liked that the “color” within the game is just a recreated overlay where enemy ships would change color as they passed through various bars on the screen. I could see how this would pop at someone walking in an arcade in 1979 when most of what you know is black-and-white at the time.

I’m glad I played Ozma Wars, if only because it turned me from the “well, I bought it so I should play it” camp to the “huh, there’s a lot of neat things this game from forty years ago did” one. That’s kind of the thing with any medium; there’s this saturation point where things that have historical relevance get lost in the shuffle and we take it for granted. I didn’t know a lot about Ozma Wars, but I appreciate that we have it to thank for basically giving us life bars in games because only having one chance to make a mistake can be daunting. It’s kind of neat to know where such a key feature first came in to play and as they say “knowing is half the battle.”