Thursday, February 14, 2019

Game 45: Asteroids

Buy Asteroids and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

Atari’s most successful game of all time is in many ways a throwback to their debut Computer Space. Once again, you control a space ship flying around a computer screen, and move by rotating freely and thrusting to move forward, with the inertia of space being a major factor that can help or hinder you depending on how well you master it.

This time, you’re mostly shooting at giant rocks to gradually smash them into smaller rocks, though occasionally the UFOs from Computer Space drop by to take pot shots at you, and you can score big points by shooting them first. Big UFOs are mostly harmless, but small ones are crack shots, smart enough to lead you when firing, and just unpredictable enough to prevent simple evasive maneuvers from working all the time. A hyperspace button will warp you to a random part of the screen, and is meant to be a panic button of sorts. In practice, I found that this had a very good chance of getting me immediately killed, and whenever I got into a situation where I realized only hyperspace could save my life, my reaction time was always a bit too slow.

My best score came from playing somewhat recklessly, firing into the thickest asteroid fields, causing the screen to overflow with small and fast moving debris. The smart approach would be to play cautiously, giving the smaller and more isolated rocks priority, so that the screen gets whittled down and more safe areas remain instead of less. The problem with this approach is that it’s boring, and I lost interest and focus before I could beat my best reckless score. Another problem is that by dragging the rounds out longer, the deadly UFOs will attack more often, but perhaps a player who got really good at fighting them could use it to their advantage and score even higher, by maximizing the UFO encounters per round.

Asteroids is a decent game. The vector graphics are put to good use, if not quite as atmospheric as the Lunar Lander game they were designed for, the controls and physics are relaxed and easy to get to grips with while still offering a challenge in mastering the inertia and making it work for you, the sound effects are satisfyingly crunchy, and the difficulty is surprisingly fair for an arcade game with no definite endpoint.

Addendum: The real thing 

On March, my friend "R" and I played this game at Funspot NH, on a real vector monitor. The difference has to be seen to be believed.

What really blows me away here isn’t the smoothness of the vectors, but the brightness effect. Those shots, which look like moving dots in MAME, look like brightly glowing photon torpedoes on a real vector monitor. The video doesn’t do it justice, and I doubt any flat panel or raster display could truly reproduce the effect. But they could certainly do a better job of approximating it. You’re probably watching this recording on a flat panel, and I’m sure you can tell from it that the bullets should be much brighter than the asteroids. Emulation just draws everything at uniform brightness, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t do better than that.


  1. A few months back my son wanted me to take him on in some Star Wars: Battlefront on the PS4. I don't play much and he easily killed me about 27 straight times (how the heck do you use the 16 buttons on that controller?). After a while I had him boot up our Atari 2600 collection and proceeded to toast him repeatedly on Asteroids.

    He asked me how I was beating him so badly and my only response was "old dogs know old tricks!" Glad to know those hours we spent on the 2600 back in the early 80s have finally paid off!

  2. Asteroids' "fair" (ie low) difficulty was actually quite a problem, since it led to good players being able to hog the machine for many many hours on a single quarter (with stories about people racking up so many extra lives they could run off and take bathroom breaks as the game tried and failed to eliminate all these lives for the couple of minutes the game was left alone). Not a very positive thing if you're trying to make money on the thing. The sequel, Asteroids Deluxe, was made much more difficult as a result.

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  4. I don't know if this will interest you at all, but a YouTuber named "Code Bullet" wrote an AI to play asteroids.

    What is interesting to me about this is that the AI found a completely new way to play the game by constantly spinning and precisely applying thrust. Here is a link:


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