Coaster Kingdom

 
Space Invader 2, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Sunday, February 25, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

Anyone who remembers the early days of video games will undoubtedly recall Space Invaders. There was a time when every arcade, every pub, and every chip shop had a copy of the game, and people would eagerly queue up to feed 10p coins into the machine for a few minutes of saving the Earth from intergalactic interlopers. Jumping on the bandwagon, Pleasure Beach Blackpool opened the Space Invader ride in 1984, a fairly simple enclosed coaster themed around space travel.

Although it seems hard to believe now, the opening of the Space Invader was a huge event. A memorable TV campaign was run in which a family of excited Americans would drive their Cadillac past a series of signs pointing to "THE WORLD'S MOST THRILLING RIDE", only to arrive on a deserted beach, where the final sign pointed across the Atlantic to Blackpool. Elsewhere, countless television and newspaper features promoted the ride as the last word in thrills, and as Blackpool's first step toward the 21st Century. The hype certainly worked, and like the arcade game before it, the ride generated epic queues of eager astronauts, all willing to hand over their pound notes for what was, in fact, a basic Zierer Four Man Bob coaster in the dark.

But things inevitably move on, and eventually the ride became stale. For a ride that was meant to offer a taste of the 21st Century, it is ironic that when the fabled Y2K actually dawned, the Space Invader was by far the most outdated ride in the park. Through the intervening years, the ride cars had been regularly butchered, beginning with a 4-seat Log-Flume-style arrangement, then going down to 3 seats and car-like seatbelts, and finally to 2 seats with diabolical overhead restraints. In its final days, the ride still generated massive queues, but for all the wrong reasons, namely its chronically low capacity, rather than any particular enthusiasm from the riders.

Coaster Kingdom's review of the original Space Invader was an almost entirely negative affair. The indoor queue system came in for a particular kicking, due to being horrendously claustrophobic and tedious; while the overhead restraints were slated for turning a decent little family coaster into an uncomfortable and quite brutal ordeal. Thankfully, as the stardate approached 2004, the park announced that the ride would be refurbished, and renamed "Space Invader 2". Although this was welcome news, it has to be said that re-vamped rides can sometimes turn out worse than the original, and so it is now time for us to go back and discover whether Space Invader 2 is a star attraction or a waste of deep space.

The exterior of the ride is themed as a giant cube-shaped blue meteorite that has apparently crashed to Earth in the middle of the Pleasure Beach. For the re-vamp, this has had a new lick of paint, and is now a much brighter shade of blue, neatly bringing out some of the finer details that weren't particularly noticeable before. Up above, the name signs have had a big red "2" unceremoniously cobbled onto them, while the wreckage of a spacecraft sticks out of the upper parts of the rock, the remnants of a valiant but doomed attempt to deter this great celestial body from burying itself into the Flyde coast. In an almost surreal touch, the entrance is now in the shadow of a huge new thruster-unit, which periodically plops a dense cloud of water vapour onto the crowds below. You're probably wondering possible purpose this could serve - well, if you work it out, do please share it with the rest of us.

In keeping with the park's desperate need to save space, the coaster is actually upstairs, with the ground floor being used as a tunnel for various amenities, including King Cotton, an authentic Lancashire pub (although how many real Lancashire pubs are built into the side of meteorites, I'm not sure). If you have ever seen a Four Man Bob in the open-air, you'll know that they are actually tiny, and so the fact that this one sits in such a large building is a convenient way to increase the intimidation factor of the ride.

From the front doorway, the path takes us straight onto the flight deck of our mothership. A bizarre alien creature is quarantined behind a window, while all around are panels full of flashing lights, dials, and buttons, all do doubt vital to the mission. Above, an astronaut can be seen taking a space-walk, and ahead we see a figure scanning the readings on the master control panel. This whole scene is almost exactly as it was on Space Invader 1, although it is nice to see the astronauts moving again, after many years in what I'll generously call suspended animation.

Having looked around the mothership, it is seemingly time to board our own craft, as a sign urges us forward to the launchpad. The walkway narrows into a single-file, upward sloped, corrugated iron corridor. This may well be an authentic recreation of the corridors that Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin used to reach their crafts, but that doesn't alter the fact that it is a truly horrible place in which to stand and queue. In fact, if the queue stretches this far back, it is seriously worth re-thinking whether you really want to explore the galaxy in the first place, as the whole setting is so desperately dull as to be not so much the "Gateway to the Heavens" as "The Bore of the Worlds".

For those who do decide to boldly go on, we turn a corner, and find another corridor, absolutely identical to the first, only longer. After negotiating this second mind-numbingly dull thoroughfare, we turn another corner, and there is yet another corridor. Of course, first time riders will have no idea how many more of these corridors they will have to negotiate, and so there is the added frustration of thinking you are about to reach the loading platform, only to be confronted with yet another long section of queue.

I know what you're thinking: Is this third corridor identical to the first two? If only. As with Space Invader 1, this final part of the queue consists of a long staircase, just as narrow as the previous ramps, but with the walls and ceiling covered with endless arches of lights. From the sensory deprivation of the previous corridors, this goes too far in the opposite direction, and this many bright lights in such a cramped environment is too much for the average human to endure. In the background, we over hear the radio transmissions from mission control, who are obsessed with ensuring we get our "Warp protection injections", which hopefully will cure us of the feeling of chronic claustrophobia. For those not lucky enough to have such immunity, the whole affair is close encounter of the unpreferred kind.

Although the final section of queue is undoubtedly hideous, it is still a vast improvement on the Space Invader 1 era. Not only did you spend much much longer here, due to the lower capacity of the coaster, but these endless arches of lights flashed and flickered and flashed in such a way as to make the whole ordeal utterly vomit-inducing. Those of us who were forced through the ordeal as a child still have nightmares about it, and often find ourselves waking up in the night, screaming out loud.

Finally, the test of psychological strength and determination is over, and it is time to board the ride. The station is largely unchanged from Space Invader 1's high-kitsch B-movie image of a space station, complete with soothing orchestral music, not dissimilar to that used in 2001 or Star Wars, which helps to establish the idea of the intrepid space explorers preparing for their latest mission.

As you head through the turnstile, your spacecraft glides into view from the right. After some of the horrors that Space Invader 1 used for cars, Space Invader 2's sleek pods are a genuine triumph. Like the Apollo missions, Space Invader 2 is a three-man voyage, and is taken in a craft that resemble miniature Schwarzkopf Jet Star cars. These cars are very modern and minimalistic, but still fit in beautifully with the kitsch surroundings.

Taking your seat, a simple and very comfortable T-shaped lap bar holds each crewmember snugly but securely in their place, instantly readying them for blast-off. By any standards, the new cars offer a very welcome sense of freedom and exposure, but for anyone who endured Space Invader 1's intrusive overhead restraints, they will be a particular revelation. In fact, whereas I struggled to think of a good thing to say about Space Invader 1's cars, I am similarly stumped to find anything bad about these shiny new shuttles.

As before, the lift hill is enclosed within a metallic tunnel, with a tracer light that reflects all around, in what is a surprisingly spectacular effect. This is followed by a turn through a black and white tunnel that features a monstrously psychedelic red strobe light. Emerging from the tunnel, we are released into what looks like a very busy district of outer space, full of brightly coloured spacecraft, satellites, and planets. Included in this new scenery are the bodyshells of the Space Invader 1 cars, which can be seen ferrying astronauts around the galaxy, and looking lovely in their luminous lunar livery.

Around the course, the track is shadowed by new boards showing luminous painted scenery, helping to fill riders' vision with all manner of spacecraft, planets and galaxies. This has a surprisingly positive effect, and does a great deal to help make the whole ride far more visually fulfilling than the sparse odyssey that was Space Invader 1. The only criticism is that the majority of the scenery is static, whereas a few special effects, such as dramatic lighting or sounds, might help to boost the spectacle of the ride.

The coaster itself, as you'd expect from a Four Man Bob ride, consists of a series of curved swoops linked by sharp turnarounds, with a grand finale of a long fast helix before the brakes. Most impressively, the new cars negotiate this entire course with a wonderful new-found smoothness. Indeed, Space Invader 1 gave new meaning to the phrase "Big Bang Theory", as there were several points around the course that were painfully rough, but these are now a distant memory, but these sections are now taken with such grace and elegance that it is hard to imagine how they could ever have seemed so agonisingly abrasive. In fact, what was once a truly appalling coaster has now become highly enjoyable. As the car hits the brakes, it is difficult to believe that this is the same ride as before.

As you may have gathered, Space Invader 1 was a ride I hated with a true passion. I did not expect to like Space Invader 2, but against all odds, it has emerged as a decent little ride. Almost all of the criticisms of Space Invader 1 no longer apply, with the exception of the overly-claustrophobic queue line. Even this is less significant than before however, as the improved capacity of the ride means you spend much less time cooped up, and always feel like you are at least making progress.

The ride itself is now a very pleasant little family ride. As smooth as you could ever want it to be, the ride has lost every trace of the roughness that once made it so atrocious. Dark coasters have a greater need to be smooth than outdoor ones, as you don't have the luxury of seeing what's coming and preparing accordingly, and Space Invader 2 is a perfect example of how a dark family coaster should be. It is difficult to believe that this is the ride that beat its passenger black and blue for the previous twenty years.

Outside the ride, a pre-recorded spiel, dating back to the ride's 1984 premiere, rabbits on about how good the ride is, "This ride is fantastic. Unbelievable. Out of this world. We dare you to ride it". Well, I certainly wouldn't go that far, but I suppose a more honest "This ride is not bad. Fairly reasonable. We think you'll probably enjoy it" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. In other words, Space Invader 2 is not going to be the most enduring memory of your trip to Blackpool, but will be a good memory nonetheless.

The Pleasure Beach is home to some truly superb coasters, and so to say that Space Invader 2 is "good" still means that it retains the title of the park's weakest coaster. The difference is that the difference can no longer be measured in light years. If you expect Space Invader 2 to be a giant leap for coaster-kind, you will be disappointed, but if you avoid such stratospheric expectations, you will not be disappointed.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • Excellent new cars mean a smoother ride than before
  • They also mean that visuals are far-improved

Bad points:

  • The queue line is still poor
  • It is still the park's weakest coaster and the potential for great special effects remains untapped

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