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Asteroids (Arcade) artwork

Asteroids (Arcade) review

"Pong is lionized. Space Invaders is romanticized. Asteroids is marginalized. "

Pong is lionized. Space Invaders is romanticized. Asteroids is marginalized.

This shouldn’t be.

Listen to your elders, but some people never do. History has been rewritten – or maybe it not being written at all is the problem – as if Asteroids wasn’t third in the line of sweeping arcade crazes that took the US audience by storm. The progression seems too obvious, from Pong’s vertical catching to Invaders’ horizontal dodging to finally Asteroids, which allowed its player-controlled shuttle to free roam through the dead of space. Games were simple then. But even if the direction to Asteroids was obvious, the technology that did it was not.

Asteroids was not the first game to use vector graphics as nice a feather for the hat it would have been. That distinction goes to 1977’s Space Wars, and even Atari’s own attempt, Lunar Landing, preceded its release. Are you noticing the pervading theme of outer space? That’s called making the best of a technological constraint, aspiring engineers. There was no escaping the black background in the early days of gaming.

Asteroids is the first ‘killer app’ if you will though, at least until 1980 brought BattleZone and Tempest. It is a showcase of mathematical might – a thumb of the nose to the one-to-one representation of raster displays – as your space shuttle, each asteroid, and even the high score tally is a real-time plotting of an equation under the hood. They are calculated coldly and scaled by constants; they collide and break apart into smaller fragments of identical shape; they soar about the screen like the chaos of an asteroid field. Mathematical equations. That’s what just exploded your spacecraft, not the UFO that dogged you around the crowded field spitting bullets.

It is a feat accomplished by the smart delegation of processing power, the common MOS-6502 CPU writing graphics commands to RAM in Atari-developed vector-processing circuitry. This freed the MOS unit to process user inputs, perform calculations and activate sound effect circuitry quickly while costly display subroutines for drawing to the screen existed in a separate interacting piece. It would be for not if Asteroids wasn’t so smooth and fast because of it, but stood next to the crawling Space Invaders’ armies it runs circles and never slows. The hectic playing field that ensues after just a few minutes of successful evading is bustling and the novice will have a tough time keeping up.

For that you can blame the controls. A joystick to guide and boost button for oomph would be the ideal implementation, but instead the player has awkward ‘left’ and ‘right’ spin buttons and another that accelerates. It takes time to learn. Yet part of the appeal is that this set-up is grounded in actual physics, where an object in motion will stay in motion (and continuously wrap around the screen thanks to Asteroids’ toroidal topology) until struck by another object (or it chooses to accelerate). A ship at rest can stay at rest, spinning in circles and defending its turf as strategy. And it is the unlimited motion that it opens up to the player, often bound by planar movement before, that makes it stand out.

Two additional buttons, one for shattering space rock and destroying pesky enemy saucers and another to escape into hyperspace, reappearing on screen at random, complete the scheme. The five-button set-up is manageable, but it shouldn’t have to be. It should work instinctively. If you were to pick one area where Asteroids shows its age the most (and this is a game where anything with dimension is an outline of a polygon), it would be here. It’s not that it’s non-negotiable; it’s just out-of-place for a game pioneering in many respects to be quickly lapped by more intuitive design here.

And maybe Asteroids is just a dated old game about a shuttle clambering around busting rocks. We can forget it. Vector graphics never really made it out of the early 1980s, after all, and while its figures are well defined they no doubt leave something to the imagination. There’s just no room for it these days when referencing the classics.

Or maybe Asteroids is still pulsing like the reverberant heartbeat that quickens as its cluttered fields are cleared of debris. Maybe we simply forgot how clever it was in becoming a classic.


Leroux's avatar
Community review by Leroux (July 15, 2010)

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EmP posted July 20, 2010:

Now that the results are in....

Stuff like this and Pong are the reasons I miss you so much when you vanish for months on end. Let's never fight again.
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Leroux posted July 20, 2010:

Haha. Thanks. I'll try to hang around more. I sometimes think of starting my own arcade site, but it's so much easier to keep making Venter run and pay for it.

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