Hall of Fame Inductee
Original Release: 1979 (Arcade)
Designers: Lyle Rains and Ed Logg
It’s not like Asteroids was the first video game (it was far from it). It didn’t have revolutionary graphics or rethink how players played video games. However, Atari hit on something big with Asteroids. It was simple in its design which helped make it easy to get into. It became the definitive video game in arcades and amusement parlours until games began to have more sophisticated displays. Asteroids became such a huge hit that it caused Atari to alter their entire retail plans afterwards.
By today’s standards, Asteroids looks graphically simple. In fact, even by 1979 standards, the game has a very basic look. Using vector graphics, the game is basically just a bunch of lines compiled into various shapes. The ship the player controls looks like a disfigured triangle while the asteroids floating about space look like mangled blocky spheres. However, the hardware used in the game was considered new. Atari used a new vector generator (simply titled the Digital Vector Generator) to create the display. Even with its simple display, the game had some interesting elements that made it a cut above most games of its time. One notable feature is that the game’s playing surface wraps around itself. This means that if a player moves past the edge of the bottom of the screen, they’ll emerge at the top of the screen and vice-versa (same thing happens left-to-right and vice versa).
For a simple looking game, there’s a rather simple objective; blow up all the asteroids. Players can fire missiles out of their ship in all directions to destroy the asteroids. The asteroids break apart into smaller pieces for several hits until they disappear for good. Sometimes a UFO will appear on-screen shooting at the player. The player can move the ship all over the screen. In fact, an effective strategy employed by experienced players is navigating the ship past the edge of the screen taking advantage of the ability to warp from one side of the screen to the other.
Asteroids became an immediate sensation. Arcade owners and operators had larger coin boxes installed because the game was so wildly popular. Atari was quick to release a sequel the following year (1980) titled Asteroids Deluxe. The sequel tightened up the gameplay that had allowed expert players to take advantage of some of the programming errors within the game. One of the things fixed by the sequel is that players would no longer be able to camp under the on-screen score to prevent being hit by floating asteroids (although this had been fixed on revised versions of the original Asteroids game). The sequel also added additional gameplay elements to give more of a challenge such as enemies that chase after the player’s ship. However, there wasn’t much of a graphical upgrade (the game’s only colour switched from white to blue).
Asteroids Deluxe did not take arcades by storm like the original did. In fact, many stuck with the original game. Two additional arcade sequels were produced over the years. Space Duel (1982) and Blasteroids (1987) but were not able to take advantage of the fanbase the original game had built and didn’t perform all that well as a result.
For the home consoles, Atari stuck with the original game with some minor tweaks. Asteroids was reproduced in some shape or form for multiple Atari home consoles, the Nintendo 64, Playstation, various computer systems, and the Game Boy. Most recently, the game has been published on the Xbox 360 through their downloadable Arcade service. Additionally, Asteroids Deluxe was a launch title for Microsoft’s Game Room platform for the Xbox 360 and the PC. The game has also been made available for cell phones. There are also compilation packages released by Atari that contain the original as well as some packages that have variations of the original and/or the sequels to the original. These compilations were made available on the Xbox, Playstation 2, Dreamcast and the PC.
There is no denying how popular Asteroids was during its time as the crown jewel of any respectable arcade. Its popularity years ago has kept it in the minds many; including those who have never played video games even decades after its release. In fact, Universal won a bidding war to take the video game and develop it into a movie because they feel that they could make quite a bit of money making a movie with the Asteroids name. While it doesn’t have the iconic mascots that games like Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man have, Asteroids has been able to keep its legacy alive because of its history as a huge pop-culture phenomenon all those decades ago and leaving lasting memories in those who played the game; especially considering that it was the first video game for many.