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"Asteroids" by Atari: Classic Arcade Game Review

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In Roly's spare time (what little there is with a full-time job and four kids), he loves to collect and write about classic games.

Asteroids Arcade Screenshot

Asteroids Arcade Screenshot

Background of the Asteroids Arcade Game

Asteroids is a classic arcade game that was released by Atari in 1979. Using the same basic hardware as Atari's earlier Lunar Lander game, it took the arcade world by storm, going on to be one of the best selling arcade games of all time. It spawned a host of home conversions, including a classic for the Atari 2600, ensuring that the console found its way into millions of homes across the world.

The game is one of a small number of early arcade machines that used Vector graphics, the same technology used in oscilloscopes, where electrons are fired directly at the screen to draw the images like a pencil. This differs from every video game and TV screen since, which use horizontal scanlines to progressively build up a picture.

In comparison with current video games it was very simple, pilot your ship through a field of asteroids, destroying them with your laser whilst avoiding a collision. This description does not do justice to the gameplay, which was incredibly addictive, with players seeking to improve on their high scores as well as those of other players.

For anyone around in the arcades of the late '70s and early '80s, Asteroids is a fantastic retro memory, and for many the first introduction to video games.

Cabinets

The Asteroids game came in two configurations: the traditional upright cabinet and a sit-down two-player cocktail cabinet. The upright cabinet was the more distinctive of the pair, with colourful side art and lightbox above the screen.

The game was controlled entirely via buttons rather than making use of a joystick, with inputs for left and right rotation, thrust, fire, and hyperspace. The control panel itself featured a distinctive red, white and blue pattern of blocks that are often used today in replica arcade machines.

The sounds in the game were also very distinctive, with the similar two-tone effect used in space invaders, increasing in speed as the level progresses. This helps to increase tension as the action on the screen becomes more frantic. The arrival of a saucer is accompanied by a loud siren, alerting you to the imminent danger.

The sit-down cocktail cabinet included controls on both side of the machine, and in common with many of games using this format, the screen flipped to face the current player. The cocktail cabinet was otherwise fairly unremarkable, with very little to advertise the great game therein.

How to Play Atari

Asteroids is a very simple game but one that allowed for a huge amount of variability in play based on the open nature of the playing field.

Starting in the centre of the screen, your ship is surrounded by Asteroids heading in multiple directions, which will destroy your vessel on contact. To complicate matters, the Asteroids will wrap around the screen, so when moving off to the left will appear on the right in a constant trajectory.

You can use rotate and thrust to avoid them, or your laser to destroy them by breaking them into ever smaller Asteroids which increase in speed the smaller they get. The behaviour of the game allows for varied tactics, ranging from random blasting through to targeted destruction.

In addition to the Asteroids, you will also be attacked by alien saucers, which must be destroyed before they hit you with their own lasers. Experienced players will take out all but one or two of the Asteroids, whilst scoring points from saucers which will appear as long as the stage is incomplete.

Once the last Asteroid is destroyed, the game resets with a full complement of space rocks in place and a slightly increased difficulty level. Like many early arcade games, there is no "end state," you continue until you use up all of your lives, and therefore the battle is to get the highest score, which can be recorded on a high score table along with your initials.

Sequels

A deluxe version of the game was released which was virtually identical to the original, apart from a new enemy ship which would break into smaller "homing" missiles that would chase your vessel. The game also replaced the Hyperspace feature with a shield which could be operated to momentarily protect you from damage.

The first true sequel was released in 1982 by Atari, entitled Space Duel, which took the Asteroids and replaced them with geometric shapes, as well as adding a novel two-player mode, with 2 ships on the screen at the same time. The game featured multi-coloured vector graphics, and whilst not as popular as the original, is a unique gaming experience if you can find one still in operation.

In 1987, Atari released the last official Asteroids sequel in the arcades, a game called Blasteroids. This game extended the features of the 1979 original and added detailed graphics, power-ups, and end of level boss battles. The game, however, used raster graphics, losing the unique look of the first 3 games, and did not stand out against other more interesting games in the arcades at that time.

Space Duel Screenshot

Space Duel Screenshot

Home Conversions

Given the huge reception that Asteroids received in the arcades, it was no surprise that Atari would want to release the game on their home platform, the Atari 2600. The challenge for Atari was the huge gulf in the graphical capabilities of the arcade machine and the 2600, with the former using a crisp vector display and the latter very blocky raster graphics.

Rather than trying to replicate the vector "wireframe" look of the original, Atari went for a more colourful "solid" rendition and managed to pull off the feat of creating a game that looked completely different but played just as well.

Everything was there, even the control of the ship using rotate and thrust inputs from the classic orange button Atari joystick, as well as the Hyperspace option. There were also alien ships which attacked you, and in certain variations of the game, a shield feature which appeared in the deluxe version of the arcade cabinet.

If you are looking for an authentic Asteroid experience at home, with the original vector graphics, then there really is only one option, and that's the Vectrex console, which has a built-in Asteroids clone called Minestorm.

The Vectrex, from MB games, was the only home console ever produced with its own built-in vector display, allowing it to more faithfully replicate games such as Asteroids. I am lucky enough to have one of these units, and it is a great way to play this classic game. Good luck tracking one these down though, they are pretty rare and therefore not cheap.

Asteroids for the Atari 2600

Asteroids for the Atari 2600

Playing Asteroids Today

There is no end of browser-based versions of Asteroids available on the internet, but I would recommend the game found on Atari's official website, which works in Internet Explorer or any Windows 8 tablet. There are also downloadable versions available for the XBOX 360.

But if you are hankering after that authentic retro experience you could buy an Atari 2600 for less than the cost of a new XBOX or PS3 game, and play the original home conversion. With this option, you can also play Space Invaders, Defender, Missile Command, Pac Man just the way they were played at home in the early 1980s.

With such a classic game it deserves to be played on classic hardware, and if you don't have access to an original cabinet, the Atari 2600 is the next best thing.

Atari 2600 with Joystick

Atari 2600 with Joystick

Asteroids Rating

Comments

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on December 16, 2018:

I used to enjoy playing on the 2600. :D

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on December 15, 2017:

I love this game!

Jacobb9205 on August 22, 2015:

Ahh classic game!

RolyRetro (author) from Brentwood, Essex, UK on February 21, 2013:

Space Duel is underrated, the idea of the linked player pods is great, reminding me of Thrust and Lunar Lander in terms of the use of real world physics.

Cheers and keep it retro!

Roly

Martin Allan from Sunny Scotland on February 20, 2013:

An all time classic, and I am a big fan of Space Duel too.

Nice write up.