In art, throughout the ages, there has been a push towards representing the subject with as much realism as possible. We can see a drastic difference between a work by Cimabue and one by the later Gaddi, who had the benefit of living a century later and thus could start out with knowledge Cimabue and his colleagues had to discover during their careers. Only after the advent of cameras and the quick, realistic “paintings” they could produce did artists adopt a widespread genuine interest in the stylized and abstract. These artists, no doubt feeling threatened by the cheaper, quicker photography, founded a movement called Impressionism, in which the likes of Monet and Picasso flourished.
In video games, however, abstract art was not a design choice, but a requirement. The limited technology would only allow small shapes and lines at first (as in Tennis for Two), and later, areas of color (as in Combat). How then do you create an engaging game set in space, where a hapless ship must defend itself against chunks of rock hurtling towards it? Why, use vectors, of course! Done, and done!
Many years ago when I went to visit my aunt there was one thing I always made sure to do–play a game or two of “Asteroids” on the cabinet in the back room. I was a little worried that as an adult with discerning taste in games I would discover that “Asteroids” wasn’t all that good. After all, children will like any pile of crap the TV spews out. …You know what? I’m sorry for sharing that video with you. I… that was awful. I’m going to go take a chemical shower now.
As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. Asteroids is indeed a gem, which would explain why Atari had to ship several hundred copies of it in cabinets for Lunar Lander to meet demand. That high quality would also explain why it took me half an hour to capture the two-minute video below– I couldn’t stop playing! Following the success of the arcade original, Atari ported Asteroids to the Atari 2600 and, later on, the 7800 and Lynx. There was also an arcade faux-sequel called Asteroids Deluxe which featured some bug fixes and some new gameplay features like a shield replacing Hyperspace. Bootleggers had their share of the space pie too, filling the market with knock-offs like Stardust and Astro Fire. The vector-display console Vectrex had its own version called Minestorm.
To do list: Don’t suck. Learn to aim.
If there’s beauty in simplicity, Asteroids has it in spades. If the game looks good on a CRT screen, it looks downright gorgeous on an HD LCD screen. There are subtle touches, like the ship being a brighter white than the asteroids themselves. This effect would later be echoed by several games, including God of War III, which has a gently-glowing Kratos who stands out against the backgrounds.
Speaking of glowing, Asteroids was followed in 1982 by a very bright and colorful sequel called Space Duel (the second sequel, if you count Asteroids Deluxe). In Space Duel there are four modes of play: a single ship for single player, two ships tethered together for single player, and two individual or tethered ships for two players. Rather than shooting simple rocks, the objects are bright geometric shapes. The hyperspace feature was replaced with a shield. If an object hits your ships they will bounce off each other. Whether Asteroids or Space Duel is more fun depends on the player’s opinion. For me, there is no surpassing the original, but to each his own.
The abstract nature of the game applied to the soundtrack as well. The one piece of music consisted of just two alternating notes, C and C#. It was like the game’s heartbeat, starting around a comfortable 60 beats per second, and increasing as more and more asteroids are destroyed. This set the player on edge, a device that was aided by the sudden entrance of flying saucers which would fire unrelentingly at the protagonist. Fortunately, these saucers are no more immune to the asteroids as the player, and it’s often satisfying to see them crash right into an asteroid, destroying both it and themselves.
This goes without saying (and indeed, I already have). Asteroids continues to be re-released in various forms and is recognized as one of the most influential and successful arcade games. Perhaps that is why the soulless money machine known as Hollywood will be adapting it into a film. Yes, this is really happening. This is a thing that is being made. Why? I don’t know, OK? I… just… I don’t know.