Forming part of my personal holy trinity of shooters from the Golden Age of arcade gaming alongside Space Invaders and Defender, Asteroids is one of the greatest and most successful games of all time.
Blending physics with lightening quick reflexes, players must pilot their craft through a deadly asteroid field, blasting rocks out of the way and picking off spaceships as they zip past.
Starting out with three lives, you’re dumped in the middle of the screen, huge boulders drifting ominously around you. Unleashing a burst of fire, the rock bursts apart, unleashing smaller and smaller pieces, the debris field turning the screen into a rock filled danger zone as you frantically try to let loose a blast of laser fire as a ball of death comes flying towards you.
You are not a sitting duck though. Your craft comes equipped with thrusters allowing you to move around the screen. A quick squeeze will set you off, leaving you to drift until you move in another direction, whilst a firmer press will see you tearing across the screen. But be careful because danger is never far away, either from a stray asteroid or sometimes a spaceship which can be taken down for extra points.
The screen wraps around so that if you drift out of the top, you reappear at the bottom. It is a useful mechanic, allowing you to send a bolt of blaster fire through the screen to hunt down a stray rock or pilot your craft to get the drop on a boulder or ship, changing the angle of attack. And if you really end up in dire straits, you have an emergency warp that sees your ship disappear, taking you out of the path of immediate danger, but teleporting you randomly back onto the screen. In other words, be careful what you wish for.
And all of it is played out in silence, except for a ‘thrum-thrum-thrum’ heartbeat that thumps along in the background, the beat quickening the longer you go, speeding up as asteroids are destroyed, reaching a crescendo as the last couple of rocks fly around the screen, matching your pulse, driving you on, pushing your adrenaline. It is absolutely thrilling.
Graphically it is simple, just black and white vectors. But it is the sheer simplicity that makes it so fun. Clear a screen and another appears, the game getting progressively harder the longer you go, extra lives awarded if you hit 10,000 points.
There is no end, no target, this is just you against the scoreboard.
As you would expect, such a classic and relatively simple game has been converted to every system under the sun as well as generating it’s own direct sequels.
The Atari 2600 version is pretty basic but it’s colourful and manages to capture the essence of the arcade original.
The Spectrum version is a little shonky. The asteroids are smaller and your ship seems to absolutely zoom across the screen, making it far deadlier whilst asteroids seem to be halfway through your ship before it explodes in a slow motion, line-by-line destruction. Sound is fairly annoying too.
The Amiga saw an arcade perfect Public Domain release but the more interesting game to consider is Stardust. Originally released in 1993, this retooled version of Asteroids bolted a plot on top before adding sumptuous visuals, music, power ups, time limits and awesome in-between mission tunnel sections. Despite some critical acclaim (Amiga Power awarding it an impressive 89%), it didn’t set the charts alight but it got another chance in 1994 when Team 17 picked up the publishing rights, the rebranded Super Stardust tidying up some of the mechanics of the game and further enhancing the graphics.
The franchise would get another lease of life in 2007, published by Sony as a downloadable title for the PS3.
Technically simple, visually basic, this is one of the greatest games of all time.
I defy any gamer capable of understanding the basic concept of moving and shooting not to be hooked within minutes of sitting in front of this.
Pure, unadulterated arcade perfection.