Of all the arcade games released over the years, a mere handful have reached iconic status, games that if you lived in a particular generation, there was little chance that you had escaped their magnetism. The Atari mega-hit Asteroids is certainly deserving of this special status. Released in 1979, during the era of Star Wars, it utilized simple black and white vector graphics, an (at the time) impressive array of buttons, and a repeatability factor that was unparalleled.
Asteroids took players to the depths of space, smack-dab in the middle of a treacherous asteroid belt, where one wrong move meant disaster. Sitting in the center of the chaos was a lone triangle-shaped spaceship, surrounding by large, but thankfully slow-moving boulders. The ship could thrust, maneuver, fire missiles and even take the occasional excursion into hyperspace. So, just blast away at the boulders and be on your way. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, for each direct hit on an asteroid turned it into two medium sized asteroids that moved a little quicker. Hit them with a missile and they split again into two small and swift asteroids. Blast away haphazardly and a player would soon find themselves amidst a cluster of small moving obstacles ready to pelt the ship into oblivion.
One might suspect that use of the thrust button would offer an easy way to avoid such collisions but it was a double-edged sword as well. It might help the immediate situation; the problem was, the ship had no braking system and didn’t exactly stop on a dime. In fact, the only way to slow a moving ship was to turn 180 degrees and give just the right amount of thrust and that didn’t always work so well. Then there was the hyperspace button, which would immediately transport the ship out of its current location. Unfortunately, since it placed the ship randomly within another area, there was no guarantee that its new home was any safer.
If the steady bombardment of asteroids wasn’t enough, players also had to contend with the arrival of the occasional UFO. As they traveled across the screen they would fire blindly, sometimes giving a little assistance with taking out the rocks. Of course, that wasn’t always welcome help. Not only was the player in danger of being hit by their gunfire, but it often made eliminating the new smattering of smaller asteroids a much more daunting task. A carefully timed shot, however, could take out the UFO and rack up some impressive bonus points.
And that was pretty much the extent of the game. There were no special weapons to acquire, no special impervious asteroids to deal with in later stages of the game. It was simple and it was enormously addictive. Asteroids also introduced a new concept to the world of arcade games that lived long after Asteroids fell from popularity – the addition of a “High Score” chart, allowing players for the first time to assign their initials to their best scores and compete for bragging rights in arcades around the world. And until a little hungry orb called Pac-Man hit the scene, Asteroids was hands-down the most popular arcade game in existence.
Over the years, Atari built upon this simple game, offering new and exciting challenges to seasoned veterans. In 1981, they released Asteroids Deluxe, which had some interesting alterations. For one thing, the hyperspace button was no more, replaced with a handy protective shield that worked great until its power ran down. The ship was also able to move more quickly that before. Atari also opted to remove one of the favorite tricks of the game, which was to allow one asteroid to remain intact so that players could sit and blast endless UFO’s to help achieve high-score immortality. This was no longer possible with the increasingly nasty UFOs – that were best avoided at all costs.
In 1987. Atari unveiled Blasteroids, as well as a 3D version of the game for the home PC. While both of these had some interesting innovations in their own right, they didn’t manage to capture the charm of the original, which, to this day remains one of the most beloved games to ever have made its presence known in an arcade. A true classic.
If you felt the gravitational pull of this iconic game as kid, we welcome your Asteroids memories in our comments section. Did you achieve high-score bragging rights, or did your space adventures generally end in tragedy. Tell us all about it as we remember this beloved arcade game, here at Retroland.