Anyone who has read my feature on importing a classic cabinet from the US won’t be surprised by this being on my list of 4 perfect games. The original Asteroids in the arcade was a unique experience with its needle sharp graphics and forboding powerful bass sound effects. It was a technical tour de force with its simulated gravity and particle effects – all in 1979.
Dropping a coin into an Asteroids cabinet was a thrilling but short lived affair due to the difficulty and for a teen on a budget that was something that resulted in me limiting my plays and admiring skilful players instead (an arcade pleasure that today’s Twitch streams are a sorry substitute for). And to be brutally honest, more colourful and attractive looking games that were not as difficult, and gave me better value for money, were appearing all the time.
Despite the brutally simple look as demonstrated in the screenshots, original Asteroids is a strong candidate as one of the very few perfect games. It remains impervious to attempts at improving the formula. It’s a pity that no proper home version or attempt at emulation of the game has really done it justice. Clumsy updates such as that attempted by Activision on the Playstation 1 were dull and formulaic, tinkering with the purity of the original and breaking it.
Asteroids is also one of those rare games where no two levels are the same. It’s like when you break the pack of reds in snooker or pool – it allows for an apparent infinite variety of situations. Start breaking up rocks and the randomness and physics rules combine to create a constantly changing playfield as you interact with it. So right from level 1 you are in the thick of gameplay – no early easy repetitive engagements to endure. The screenshots here simply cannot convey the feeling of playing this game, which is a joy.
Asteroids does have one imperfection though. Lurking. This was a tactic whereby players could sit with one rock left on the screen and just keep taking out the ufos the game would keep generating. Players could compile huge scores, gaining dozens of extra lives in the process. Then there is the luck factor of hyperspace – activated by a panic button you could hit to warp to a random location – it was an enjoyable feature but it reduced the amount of skill in the game.
Along comes the sequel – Asteroids Deluxe which appeared in 1980 – largely to address arcade owners’ complaints about players lurking and hogging the game thus reducing the income it generated. Deluxe adds a new enemy – killer satellites. These benign snowflakes drift onto the screen one at a time toward the end of a wave. Their arrival is announced by an audio fanfare but they just float around until hit by your shots when they break up into a barrage of rather nasty homing missiles.
Deluxe’s ufos are smarter, more accurate and aggressive too. While taking potshots at your ship will they also take out any stray rocks at the end of a wave and hit the snowflake to release the homing missiles thus creating some stressful end of wave situations. These game changes deal with the design flaw of lurking in the original game – in fact you are glad to get a wave over to face the relative safety of a full screen of asteroids.
To counter balance this, hyperspace was replaced with a finite forcefield. You have several seconds worth of shield use per life; how much is left is cleverly indicated by its brightness when activated. It will absorb bullets from ufos and if you hit a rock your ship with bounce off it in a beautifully consistent way, allowing you to survive some seemingly impossible situations.
This sequel added just enough variation and complexity to the beautiful pure concept of the original without breaking it. The old 5 digit score is replaced with a 6 figure score raising the score required to claim mastery from 100,000 to 1 million, and the number of lives a player can amass is capped at 10. All of these changes elevated the inspired original game to become a perfect one.
The rock busting is truly satisfying, as is the “screen clearing” nature of the game. Mastering the controls of your ship enables highly accurate movement which adds to the sense of satisfaction as your skills grow. I’ve been playing this game in the arcade and via inferior home ports and emulation for over 30 years and I can’t ever see me tiring of it. It has certainly outlived those colourful rivals for my coins back in the days of the arcade.
Today the proper way to experience the game is still via an original cabinet. Emulation has improved a great deal but it delivers a shadow of the experience. I am lucky enough to be in a position to own such a thing. An expensive indulgence for one game perhaps and the full story of how I went about doing that can be found elsewhere on this website.