Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Asteroids (Atari)

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Back in the 70s, before the VCS/2600 dominated the home market, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell created the first arcade game, Computer Space.  Intended to be a single player version of what is considered by some to be the first video game, Spacewar! by MIT students on a PDP-1 valued at $100,000, it was a marvel of ingenuity that was met with commercial failure outside of the scope of nerdy college kids.  Shortly after, Bushnell created the much more user-friendly Pong and raked in over $1 million annually for Atari.  Unfortunately back then it was much easier to copy a game and get away with it (home versions of Pong that didn’t come from Atari/Sears were actually referred to as “Pong clones”) so the way Atari stayed on top was to make the newest and best games.  The apex of the concept begun in Spacewar! came with the Atari coin-op Asteroids in 1979.

Although the connection with Spacewar! and Computer Space hasn’t been universally made, I always view the games as being generational improvements on the formula.  If you ask Atari exec Lyle Rains, which is credited with conceptualizing the game, he would probably tell you it came from his famous discussion with Ed Logg, a then Atari programmer, when he asked, “what about a game where you smash asteroids – big rocks into small rocks?”  After that Logg and designed and programmed the game with fellow co-worker Dominic Walsh.  One of the basic concepts to be born out of the early days of arcades, Asteroids is not only one of the highest regarded titles of all time but it holds the top slot in terms of sales at Atari.  Selling more than 70,000 units domestically, many of them needing to be modified with larger coin boxes to keep from shorting out, this game was so popular that when the next big game, Lunar Lander, came out some were custom installed with Asteroids instead because the customer was only interested in that specific game.

The concept is simple: shoot big asteroids, which break to smaller pieces until eventually disintegrating, while avoiding collisions.  As the stages progress the player will have to deal with more asteroids and occasional foes, like flying saucers.  In addition, the game has a zero gravity effect like you would experience in space – once you use momentum it will continue unless you can neutralize it with an opposite momentum or colliding (dying).  With a score system and a nearly endless cycle of loops and levels, Asteroids is easy to figure out and amazing to watch those that can master it.  Since all of the scoring glitches were worked out in the 1980 update, Asteroids Deluxe, this game is still one of the famous few games that compete for high scores even today at Twin Galaxies (a company created solely for tracking world record high scores on video games).

I don’t know many people who haven’t played Asteroids and these days it’s available on most consoles, cell phones, portable devices and even in-browser flash versions of the game.  It has been cloned, bootlegged and overall stolen more times than you can count and newcomer developers frequently breakdown the code and put their own spin on the concept.  At this point it’s all but public domain, but that doesn’t stop it from being ported and generating sequels time and time again including the most recent, Asteroids Gunner on iOS and Android in November 2011.

Tomorrow we continue classic shmup week with a game that caused a shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan: Space Invaders.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Shmuppreciation 2012

Tagged with , , ,

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