In the years after Star Wars (1977), anything involving outer space, zippy interstellar craft and dangerous battles was golden. Into this arena of sci-fi fantasy came Atari’s Asteroids, one of the most enduring hits in video game history.
Atari’s recipe for addiction consisted of the following: one screen, five buttons, one ship, a few UFO’s, and several ship-smashing asteroids.
Smack dab in the centre of the action was your triangle-shaped spacecraft, adrift in a sea of space rocks. The button controls allowed you to rotate left and right, thrust, warp into hyperspace, and most importantly, to fire your blaster at the rocky menaces.
Blasting large, slow-moving asteroids turned them into two medium-sized, speedier asteroids. Another blast at the medium asteroids split them into small, fast-moving asteroids, which could be vaporised with one more shot.
Thus, if you started firing wildly into fields of big asteroids, you would likely end up in an even bigger mess than you started with, facing a swarm of tiny, zippy asteroids.
Thrusting was no easy way out either. The lack of gravity and friction meant that the only way to slow your ship down was to rotate 180° and reverse thrust – no easy feat in the middle of an asteroid field. Jumping into hyperspace was always an escape option, but since that transported you to a random location, you ran the risk of landing right in front of an asteroid.
Later levels brought the visitation of unfriendly UFO’s, which fired blindly as they made their way across the screen. If you were lucky, they’d take out a few asteroids for you, but you were better off trying to blast the UFO itself, earning some hefty bonus points.
And that was pretty much it. There were no ‘boss’ asteroids waiting at the end of stages, no ‘power-up’ weapons falling from the sky. Like its most successful contemporaries, Asteroids was sleek, streamlined and impossible to walk away from.
The game was also helped by the presence of a High Score chart – the first of its kind to allow players to input their initials. With gamers now able to prove their mastery to the world and have it etched in vector graphics for posterity (at least until the machine was unplugged), the competition grew even more intense.
It was the biggest thing yet to hit the arcade world, though the torch would soon be passed to a little yellow chomper named Pac-Man.
Asteroids remained an arcade fixture for years, and Atari responded to the success in 1981 with Asteroids Deluxe, a more difficult version designed for experts.
The hyperspace button was replaced with a protective shield, which only had a limited lifespan before it ran out of energy.
The ship accelerated more quickly, and the UFO’s were a bit nastier (designed to keep players from using the infamous ‘UFO hunting’ technique – blasting all asteroids except one, then picking off high-scoring UFO’s as they entered the screen), but gameplay remained the same.
In the decades since the initial release of Asteroids, the game has become legendary. Atari delivered many new variations, from 1987’s Blasteroids in the arcade to a 3-D PC version of Asteroids in 1998 (which did, in fact, include several ‘power up’ weapons).
But for a generation of video game addicts, Asteroids will always mean black-and-white vector graphics, more than twice as many buttons as you had hands, and dreams of high-scoring glory.