Game 24: Asteroids (Atari, 1979)

Playing rules:

Difficulty: Factory Default. Start: 3 lives. Bonus: 1 life every 10,000 points.
Dip-switch:8 Toggle: 1-2=ON; 4-6=Coin Mech; 7=ON; 8=OFF. Dip-switch:4 Toggle: 1-2=ON; 3-4=OFF/Unused

Current Record holders

1st: 41,336,440 - Scott Safran - 1982
23rd: 1,137,050 - Ron Corcoran - 1981
24th: 313,780 - Donald Hayes - 2001

Ok, here it is – one of the daddies, but with it we now have a problem. See, any self respecting retro arcade “fan” feels obliged, nay compelled to be good at games that are the very pillars of gaming as we know it. That’s not to say you have to master all of the founding father games, just have a level of competence that you are happy with, a level of ability that will allow you to hold your head high and feel qualified on such matters. Bearing all that in mind, I have to wonder why I bothered with such a grandeur intro, because this is Asteroids, a game that I have never got with. Every attempt ends in tears as I play like a thumbless wonder, floundering all over the place crashing into this, missing that and generally making a mess of things. In short, I am complete dogshit at this game. – and it gets worse.

Asteroids is such a well know game that it also takes away the voyage of discovery that these rambling blog entries tend to enjoy at great length. You control a ship that rotates and shoot rocks, we know already. Balls. Hang on though, occasionally a flying saucer comes and…….oh, you know already. But but but, there is this hyperspace key that…….what’s that? shut up ya mook – we know already? Oh ok. So….what are we left with? Essentially we’re left with a game that everybody knows, with the added bonus that I’m proper pump at it. Looking at the records it is very clear that this will prove an embarrassment to all involved, so lets just skip it shall we? yeah? marvellous………..Don’t be soppy, of course we won’t skip it – come back! This quest may be about becoming an arcade champion, but we don’t have to be good at *every* game do we? No, of course we don’t  – I mean why start now eh? Alright alright, settle down now.

I haven’t seen an actual Asteroids arcade cab for many many years, in fact I can’t imagine that there are that many knocking about these days. So, when I wandered up to one at FUNSPOT earlier in the year it was a nice surprise. Most surprising was just how beautiful the vector graphics were – I seriously don’t remember them being that striking. You read and hear many things about Asteroids, but I bet you’d be hard pushed to hear much praise for the graphics, I mean its in crudely shaped black and white after all. Well that’s true to an extent, but you can’t ignore a certain romance with vector games – I mean just look at how popular the Vectrex is on the retro scene.

What clearly helped in this case is that the FUNSPOT arcade has just the right ambience about it, the sounds, the smells and just the right level of lighting (i.e quite low). Actually all that is missing is the small layer of cigarette smoke just above head height – for obvious reasons of course (although in a weird way, even as a non smoker I *miss* this small detail as well). Considering all of this, clean vector graphics are truly at their best and I strode towards the arcade cab with true admiration in my eyes. Not thirty seconds later and the bubble had popped, I called the game a “complete cunt” for hyperspacing me to death again and my 25cents was gone, never to be seen again. My score was something in the teens at best, maybe a few thousand – happy days.

So, here we are again – this time in the comfort of my own home and things don’t start well as sadly the graphics look dull and knackered without the sharp beam of light behind them. That and the fact that I felt the need to try and have the artwork switched on (after it being absolutely necessary for Armor Attack a few games back) – I soon remembered why I had it switched off in the first place.

Not only does it look like the screen now has haemorrhoids (or for the fainter of stomach imagine them as curry Nick Nack crisps perhaps) but it actually covers nearly a quarter of the playing screen! I mean, I’m all for making the emulation experience as authentic as possible, but this is just dopey surely? While the arcade cabinet did indeed have this artwork, it was printed a few inches in front of the actual gaming screen so you could see past the obstruction with little problem – not so here; It’s not as if I need more of a challenge either for goodness sakes. Oh and did I mention how dull the graphics looked? sob…..

Right that’s quite enough of that. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty, let’s look at the scores and get our professional head on. What we have here by the looks of it is what they call a “marathonable game”. This is another one of the small scoring games, so to even begin to get near the millions you surely have to start measuring the gameplay time in days rather than hours. Either that, or there is an exploit somewhere that has been deemed legal as far as scoring is concerned. My hunch is that it’s a little from pile A, a little from pile B.

We’ll come back to that, let’s get straight into a game and get a benchmark score on the board.

Score: 5,900

Yes, that was quick wasn’t it? Promising though, now all I need to do is multiply that score by about TEN MILLION and I’m in record territory. If you weren’t aware of the job on our hands before, you are now.

Only one thing for it, I’m clearly playing it wrongly – time for Science to get involved, more specifically, Trial and Error science!

Let’s look at the cold hard facts first. You control a small ship which is able to rotate left and right using a key for each. As well as this you also are able to enable the thrusters and “boost” yourself about in the direction you are facing. Simple enough, no fuel gauge or overheating or any of that business – boost all day long if you like. To enable you to become the fighting machine that you so clearly are you also have a “fire” button. Again, no ammo limits here so a slow steady stream of bullets are constantly available if you so desire. Finally we have the desperation “hyperspace” button – theory here is to press this bugger when a collision would appear to be inevitable and randomly teleport somewhere else on the screen – not without risk mind you as you can be teleported into danger and die immediately.

Your opponents are the aforementioned asteroids themselves that float about, breaking into smaller and smaller parts when shot. You shoot all of the bits and its on to the next level where it all starts again only faster and stuff. Aside from the rocks themselves you’ll occasionally find a small flying saucer will float on the screen and try and rough you up a bit, just to keep the game fruity and flowing. That’s it! Sound simple? Good – cock on.

Technique 1: Stand the fuck still and shoot stuff
It makes sense to start with this one because this is my default way of playing the game. Thing is, what with all of these pieces of asteroid flying about, especially the smaller fast ones, I just can’t concentrate on shooting, steering AND thrusting all at the same time(careful there carry on fans). Steering and shooting? No problem. Steering and thrusting? Again, easy (although bloody useless). All three? forget it. Now before you all point it out, YES this is why I am shit at the game. Still maybe this is the secret that all the kids are talking about. let’s try a game where I don’t move at all and just concentrate on shooting.

Score: 8140

That didn’t actually go as bad as I’d thought it would. What it did tell me though was that I obviously *do* move about a bit usually as it was really quite tricky to resist moving when a massive rock is on it’s way. There is definitely some advantage to solely concentrating on just shooting stuff though – although of one of the flying saucers manages to fling a shot your way then you’re shafted. Not a record breaking technique clearly.

Technique 2: Fly around like an idiot and try and shoot stuff on the move
So we’ve tried standing still, let’s try moving about like a loony and seeing how that works out. That’s not to say that the technique is all about moving and nothing else, but lets be a fully mobile killing machine, keep ’em guessing and all that.

Score: 5100

Nadgers. That was really rather tricky. What really hinders you when you play this way are the wraparound nature of the screens. Everything, including your bullets, wraps around the screen whenever it reaches an edge, so if a rock leaves the right hand of the screen it re-appears almost immediately on the exact opposite side still travelling the way it was. With that in mind you soon find that anywhere but the central area of the screen is a bad place to be as it is really hard to know what is going to appear right on top of you if you stray near an edge. Of course, flying around like a spacker means that most of the time you find yourself being killed by something appearing pretty much right on top of you. While you have the advantage of your shots reaching across the screen, it just isn’t enough to be worthwhile in itself.

Technique 3: Stay in the middle pretty much and use the Hyperspace to your advantage
Ok, this could be the winner. Don’t limit yourself to staying in one spot, but don’t stray too far from the centre. If anything comes too close slap that hyperspace button to win and profit. Easy.

Score: 13,630

That’s more like it – although the hyperspace button was an absolute mess. Not only is it hard to keep poised over the button, being able to press it in time is pretty tricky. Many a time I pressed it in a panic when it was actually no danger at all. ITS COMING STRAIGHT FOR US! no it’s no…….ZZZZzzzap! Considering the dangers in hyperspacing this isn’t advisable if you can really help it – and OH, what danger! Several times I died immediately after coming out of hyperspace for what appeared to be no reason at all. Either it killed me for shits and giggles or there *was* a rock there but it blew up with me. I can’t be sure but I’m convinced it was more the former. The score was a lot better though, but I reckon that’s more to do with the moving subtlety thing. Sooooooo

Technique 4: Ignore the fucking hyperspace button and concentrate on staying away from danger without leaving the centre
It’s with the last attempt that I have an idea. With the rocks flowing on and off the screen you can sort of see their movement as “waves”. Rather than my usual focus on moving and shooting, maybe I should try spotting the next “wave” – making sure my ship isn’t on collision course with anything and then shooting all I can before the next “wave”. Does that make sense? Well I think it does to me, I suppose we’ll see.

Score: 24,400

Fuck my old boots, it actually worked. Although the “waves” I keep on going on about aren’t as distinct as they could be, what with some rocks having different speeds, I really could see the enemies in this way and it made me a hell of lot calmer. So much so that the game actually became a bit enjoyable (I know!) With the panic out of the way I actually had time to see some of the more subtle parts of the game.

One thing that became immediately apparent was the need to avoid having a screen full of small asteroid pieces. The natural instinct is to always go for the big ones (which explains why all the ladies try to get in my pants, but that’s another story) but that is actually the last thing you want to do! If you can keep a few of the bigguns on the screen while you clear the smaller debris it makes things a hell of a lot easier. Also, while the avoid then shoot plan works a treat most of the time, be careful not to shoot an Asteroid when it is too close to you as chances are it will split up in crazy ways and suddently you find yourself smashed before the next wave begins allowing you to adjust. The last thing to learn is that the flying saucers are fucks of the highest order. Pretty much every single death on this attempt was because of one of the smaller type that comes a bit later in the game. Bloody things.

What we can’t avoid here is the fact that I am getting absolutely nowhere near the records and I think I have worked out why that is (no it’s not just because I’m shit).

Technique 5: Leave a few asteroid pieces floating about harmlessly and “harvest” the high scoring flying saucers.
Here we come to the nitty gritty. See, the rocks are worth 20 points each shot so they can’t be used to build up much of a score. The flying saucers on the other hand, they’re worth thousands (especially the smaller ones with vicious “small saucer” syndrome). That’s fine I hear you say – but there isn’t actually any way that the game forces you on, as it were. Most games stop you hanging around on a single level by having either a time limit or an invincible baddie that comes on and ushers you along. – not this game, in fact it’s the opposite. If you leave just a single piece of rock floating about, then the game just keeps pouring flying saucers at you, one after the other without ever making you go to the next level. In other words, the big scores are coming from the clever management of the saucers and not the rocks at all. Let’s have a go.

Score: gave up at 42,000ish

Now we have a problem, albeit different to the one we alluded to at the beginning of this chapter. The problem with this game isn’t just that i’m rubbish at it – the problem is that getting a high score simply isn’t any fun and strictly not playing the game as it was intended. Playing the game in this way takes away pretty much everything the game stands for bar the shooting of the flying saucers. Ok, this isn’t actually the record holders’ problem, in fact I would agree that it should be allowed in the official rules as it isn’t strictly an exploit – it just isn’t for me. If I become world record holder at one of the games on this list, I want it to be something that I would proudly demonstrate to all that want to watch – to stand up in any arcade and show my skills. Watching someone sit there with an empty screen bar a couple of harmless rocks while they wait for a flying saucer every 10 seconds or so isn’t much fun – especially considering you will be doing it for HOURS and HOURS. To see what I mean and to contrast (not to gay him up or anything) watch the video of Tony Temple winning the record on Missile Command – even better watch him live at FUNSPOT one day. It’s bloody night and day I tell you.

So where did that all get us? Well I want to make it clear that I don’t de-value the record in any way, strictly speaking you are playing the machine at it’s own game, finding a weakness and taking advantage – that’s absolutely fine by me. Being such an old game, it clearly wasn’t tested against such playing techniques – If it were then I would expect either a time limit or invincible enemy hurry up as I’ve mentioned earlier. It’s just not for me that’s all. As I always say, and will keep saying I’m sure, the records aren’t actually that important to me compared to the experience and the opportunity to play these games again in anger.

So all that being said, I’m sticking to technique 4 in the future. Not only that, but I’m taking this as a victory. Yup that’s right you heard me – I started off being dogshit at this game, and now I’m merely poor. While I may not be able to walk into an Asteroid competition with my head held high, I at least now have a way of playing that not only makes it fun to play, but i reckon I could beat a few kids at it if I put my mind to it…..Toddlers maybe…….whatever, that’ll do me.�

6 thoughts on “Game 24: Asteroids (Atari, 1979)

  1. So a mere 28 years on you have uncovered the secret of Asteroids.

    Seriously though there should be a “proper” play record and a free record. This would surely not be too hard to enforce.

    Excellent post.

  2. Loving all this Rockster – loving it. Asteroids is one of those games isn’t it? You feel as though you should be god-like at it, but it always hands me my arse on a plate.

  3. Always remember the first Asteroids machine I saw – deafeningly loud, and those pin-sharp searing vectors. The saucer-harvesting thing is a tricky one … is it an exploit or isn’t it.

  4. Just saw a YT vid of the record holder and he seemed to have a screen full of small saucers, but that was at the end of the 72 hours (3 DAYS) play session that got him the record. :-]

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