Game 26: Astro Blaster (SEGA / Gremlin, 1981)

Playing rules:

Difficulty: Factory Default. Start: 3 lives. Bonus: 1 life at 10,000 points.
Dip-switch Bank A (Upright cabinet): 1-5=Doesn't matter; 6=Open; 7=Closed; 8=Open; Dip-switch bank A (Cocktail cabinet): 1-5=Doesn't matter; 6-7=Closed; 8=Open.

Current Record holders

1st: 299,100 - Gus Pappas - 1982
...
8th: 64,610 - Phil Lati - 1982

Long before the days of Alex Kidd and Sonic, SEGA were pumping out all kinds of crazy games, most notable being the absolutely mad “005” that you may remember from way back at the beginning of this quest – well, Astro Blaster may just have been the game to offset such madness. Released in the same year as 005, Astro Blaster is a much more traditional fare – the much loved top down shooter and although I have never seen it before the screenshot certainly suggests that it’s pretty conventional. I’m not convinced that I’m a fan of that to be honest. As you may well have gathered some of my favourite discoveries on this quest have been the batshit insane games, the ones that have you controlling a watermelon fighting against the evil purple banjos (ok, we haven’t seen that yet but it’s only a matter of time I’m sure). 

Even the poxy name is boring; I wonder what this game could be about? oh, an astro spaceship blasting things. Is that it? I mean where’s my motivation? “Space Invaders” – shit! Things are actually invading us from space? QUICK lets get at them! “10 yard fight” – we have a fight on our hands in some sort of territorial conflict? I’m up for the fight, lemmie at ’em! “Astro Blaster” – who cares? There is some sort of blasting going on in an astro fashion – why the hell do they need me? I’m off down the pub instead. I mean the game is off to a loser from the word go surely?

 That is unless the fucker actually talks to you.

Which of course it does (otherwise it would have been pointless me mentioning it silly). Now, by no means is this the first game to feature such genius, that accolade goes to the seminal “Berzerk” with it’s highly entertaining robot chatter or even “Gorf”, which used to scare the living shit out of me from the other side of the arcade. That being so, it was still a rather new technique back in the day and one that really made the machine stand out at the time, bravo SEGA you truly are the masters of marketing!

Before we get the game on, let’s take a quick look at the records. As is usually the way with the more obscure games the records all seem to be from the early 80s and none of them seem ridiculously high so we may be on for a winner. Saying that it could be another of those games that gives a third of a point per 100 ships killed or something so let’s not get carried away just yet eh? Enough of that, I guess we better go Astro Blasting, if I have to like – not as if it sounds very interesting.

“FIGHTER PILOTS NEEDED IN SECTOR WARS – PLAY ASTRO BLASTER!!!!!!”

Fuck my old boots! The second you turn the machine on it starts shouting at you. FIGHTER PILOTS NEEDED! Hang on, I could be one of them, where? SECTOR WARS! “Count me in!” I shout as I metaphorically pull on my fighter pilots uniform and run towards my ship. PLAY ASTRO BLASTER! Ok, you’re getting desperate now, you may as well have followed that with “OH PLEASE. PLEASE? look I didn’t choose the bloody name did I, please play me or I won’t be able to afford to buy my kids the new shoes they desperately need, I mean the ones they have worn out to almost their bare skin…please?” Despite that though, stroke of genius that was – talk about get a player interested. I can’t help feel something niggling away however, something that perhaps makes the whole thing all a bit of a waste of time. No time for that though, fighter pilots are needed – not wanted, NEEDED!

As soon as the game starts it becomes clear that the part of SEGA that chose the name have really let everyone down, the game is as frantic as it comes! Immediately you’re hit with half a dozen aliens whizzing about at the top of the screen, throwing bullets down at you as they go – they weren’t kidding when they said that they needed fighter pilots, the buggers are already here on our doorstep. “ALERT ALERT”, screams the announcer, “INVADERS IN SECTOR ONE, PLAYER ONE TO BATTLE STATIONS!” Fuck me, I’m here, I’m here – better get stuck in! So off you go, shooting away weaving in and out of the bullets in a panic. Hang on, what’s this? “LASER TEMPERATURE CRITICAL!” What does that mean? “Shit off” you scream as you notice the bar at the bottom of the screen, every time you fire the bar increases a little to reflect the heat of your laser until before you know it “LASER OVERHEATED” and you’re a sitting duck, unable to fire for what feels like minutes. Not only that but you also see an ever decreasing fuel gauge to make things even worse, bugger me, the pressure! Finally to top all of this off you have the music. Well I say “music”, it actually sounds like a cross between an engine revving and a drill and to make it even worse the speed and tone increases for every ship to destroy. Before you know it you have a fuel gauge running out, a burning hot laser that you’re afraid to fire too much and a couple of rabid aliens flitting about at great speed firing away whilst slowly advancing towards you. ARGHHH! I can’t take the pressure.

……And relax.

Soon after the shock has gone I was able to actually look at the game and I have to say I was rather pleasantly surprised. True, on the surface it is just another top down shooter in the Galaxian vein, but it has masses of variety and a couple of really smart touches to keep it interesting. The laser overheating and the fuel gauge turn out to be a decent pace setter, encouraging you to be conservative with your firing but also urging you to get on with it. Also, the waves of enemies are nice and varied with a mix of sizes and speeds each with unexpectedly erratic movement patterns. If that wasn’t enough, every couple of levels you get an asteroid shower followed by a small docking sequence where you fuel is replenished, giving you a well deserved breather. Some of the waves are quite tricky though, and a few in particular prove a little too frantic for my liking and I’m spent.

Score: 7,640

Not the best score that but a lively opener I suppose. Still keen I jump straight into the next game, but before I do I confirm what was bothering me before. The opening speech, willing you to play the game, getting you all riled up and ready, the very speech that made me eat my words about the naff title doesn’t play again when I start a new game. What that means is that it ONLY plays when the machine is first switched on. Now, you don’t need to be a veteran of the old arcade halls of the 80s to know that arcade machines are only ever turned on at the very most once a day, in the morning when the guy that works there goes round switching them all on ready for the day’s mauling. So after all of that effort to get people to play the bugger, the only person that will ever hear it is the arcade attendant. Now this is no reflection on arcade staff as a whole here, but I would imagine pretty much all of them have the willpower to resist the call to arms at 8am of a morning when they have hundreds of machines to switch on and a multitude of sins to clean off the floors and walls. Even if they did happen to be recruited, chances are they would be either sacked within hours or just use free credits anyway. Complete failure SEGA you tarts.

Anyway, I have the unusual benefit of still being riled up from the first episode so that doesn’t matter a jot to me and I’m back in – and then it happens, as it so often does on this voyage of discovery. At the beginning of my second go I start getting adventurous and press a few of the other buttons and blow me if I don’t find a slow motion button. That’s right, fuck you in the ear Max Payne and your ilk with your bullet time, this is 1981 and we have a slow motion button! On pressing the aforementioned button, “warp” is activated and everything bar your ship slows down to a complete crawl making shooting the enemies and avoiding the bullets a breeze. Of course it doesn’t last forever and it’s not long before the announcer chap is counting you down from 10 and you’re back in the room as it were, full speed restored. Also it soon becomes apparent that you can only use it once per life/round when like a spoilt kid I tap the button straight afterwards screaming “again, again, again!” and nowt happens. Fair enough I suppose, but wow what a subtle addition that is. Actually it makes the title “Astro Blaster” all the more stupid, this game should be called “Bullet time blaster motherfucker” or at least something that screams innovation from the hilltops. (Actually on reflection that may be a tad unfair as this *was* the early 1980s and pretty much every arcade game was an innovation in itself I suppose. Still, seems a shame it didn’t raise itself above the Galaxian clones of this world a little more.)

With this new found power I strive on, using the slow motion warp to navigate the trickier waves to grand effect and before I know it I’m a good half dozen waves in. Fuel begins to be more and more of a problem as you go through the game however, with some of the waves taking a little longer than you’d like to clear and the announcer wastes no time in telling you so – “FUEL LEVELS MARGINAL” it screams. In true crazy videogame logic I find that there is a way to replenish the fuel besides docking, and that is by shooting the flaming asteroids as they come hurtling towards you, because of course doing that would obviously refuel a spaceship, stupid.

Score: 14,720

At least we are in the realms now, and while the enemies are getting a little trickier it certainly feels more like the occasional rock hard wave than a difficulty progression as such that cause the most trouble. With clever use of the slow motion warp button I reckon you could get on top of this game. 

Third and final play and subtle bonuses still continue to show themselves, sometimes literally acheter cialis 20 mg. Several times the message “secret bonus, 900 points” flashed up on the screen, and aside from an occasion where I docked without touching the controls (it really is quite a generous area to dock into) I have no idea what I did to deserve such an accolade. Don’t look a gifthorse in the mouth and all that and besides I’m sure with a little effort it wouldn’t be too hard to spot what’s going on. Just as intriguingly you are told just before the fuels runs out that all scores are doubled – suggesting that there is cause to fly close to the wind fuel wise to increase your scoring potential, all interesting stuff and in attempting to do just that I lose the game completely even though I had a life left. Running out of fuel causes an immediate game over! HARSH stuff there SEGA harsh indeed, you really can be a cruel mistress sometimes especially as I was on a semi decent score at the time.

Score: 16060 (with a life in hand you cheeky slag of a game!)

All in all that’s a bloody good game. Looking at the scores the record would take quite a marathon, but it doesn’t strike me as impossible like some of the other records out there. I reckon with a little practice I could get on the board as 60k isn’t that far away. Definitely one to play again, if not to just see how many varieties of enemy there are, there are at least a dozen that I have seen with no repeating, which is unheard of for a game released so early on in the 80s.

Interestingly (or not) apparently on further reading there were THREE separate revisions of this game. The original version was allegedly almost impossible to play so they tweaked it a little and made it easier. Still, the second version was too hard so they tweaked it again. I was playing the resulting third version yet the records don’t appear to make a distinction between them. I would imagine that it would also be the 3rd revision mind as by the looks of it the changes were made proper early doors after the release. Told you it was interesting stuff. Hey! wake up! ah, forget it……

9 thoughts on “Game 26: Astro Blaster (SEGA / Gremlin, 1981)

  1. Hoorah! The quest lives! Again!

    I would have named the game “Space Shooter #42” myself, but that’s probably why I work in a tiny cubicle while working my life away for nickels an hour instead of living the glorious life of a video game designer, constantly avoiding women randomly throwing themselves (and cash, if so inclined) at me.

    So it goes.

  2. Astro Blaster is one of those sadly neglected games you find sometimes when browsing around the lesser-known corners of MAME’s game list. It was even known back in the old days for having lots of secret bonuses.

  3. Great post about the secret bonuses there. Rocky – you should get an interview with the devs or something, would love to know what their thinking was on this.

  4. From what I read they were bugs originally and they decided that they may as well turn them into “features” or somesuch.

  5. A great read about one of my all-time favourite video games ‘Astro Blaster’. I liked the game so much as a child in the mid-eighties I spend 18-months to 2 years trying to write version for the Atari 8-bit home computers – which I got close to publishing but it never quite got finished (100% machine code).

    It ended up being a mix of Astro Blaster/Phoenix/Space Invaders – I remember at the time struggling to recreate the engine ‘revving / drilling sound’ as described. If anyone is interested in seeing a video of the game a video can be found on YouTube – details are on the http://www.sectorwars.co.uk website.

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