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Space Invaders may have brought critical mass to the world of the coin-op but Atari's Asteroids was the H-bomb of the arcade. Asteroids was released in 1979 by Atari. At that time Atari was gearing up its production lines for Asteroids and Lunar Lander. However Asteroids was so popular (70,000 units were produced), Atari had to switch over its Lunar Lander production line to Asteroids. Several Asteroids games were sent out in Lunar Lander cabinets.


As we all know, the game featured a space ship in a wrap-around vector universe. Your ship's job was to destroy a field of asteroids. When you hit an asteroid with your cannon, it broke into two smaller asteroids. Periodically a large, slow, inaccurate UFO (dubbed "Slugo" by players) and a small, fast, accurate UFO (dubbed "Mr. Bill") would appear on the screen and try to blast you. When you cleared the level of asteroids, more appeared.


Asteroids was created by Lyle Rains and Ed Logg (who also created Centipede, Gauntlet, and a never released game called Maze Invaders). They had been working on a couple games based on Space War. One was called Planet Grab which required you to claim planets by flying your ship into them (yawn) and one called Cosmos which was a lot like Space War except there was the addition of planets that you could blow up. Rains eventually hit on the simplified idea of one ship that blows up asteroids. Rains suggested the idea to Logg and Logg did the programming.


Even during the development phase, Atari sensed it had a hit on its hands. Atari staff couldn't stay away from the prototype Logg was trying to develop in his lab. Although Atari's Lunar Lander was the first arcade game to use vector graphics, Asteroids was more widespread and for many it was their first look at a vector game. The game's sharp, fast-moving graphics stunned arcade denizens used to Space Invader's blocky, slow moving pixel graphics. Another appeal was the Jaws-like thump thump background sound. Asteroids was created before the advent of all-purpose sound chips. Asteroids sounds were created using a series of electric circuits to produce the desired wave form.


Asteroids took into account player bragging rights. With Asteroids, you no longer had to burn your initials into the game's plastic with your cigarette to let others know you were the king of that machine. Asteroids was the first arcade game to allow players to enter their initials next to their high score.



The first Asteroids cabinets delivered to arcades used a simplified coin slot mechanism. Users quickly discovered if you taped some thread to a quarter and dangled the coin in the slot you could trip the credit switch. You could keep jiggling the string and racking up numerous credits this way. After about six months, Atari got wise and modified the coin slots. The real killer cheat for Asteroids was when players discovered "lurking". Lurking involved destroying all the asteroids except one. The user then lurked and picked off the randomly appearing saucers. Suddenly there were Asteroid playing marathons. One 19-year-old woman racked up 30 million points playing 52 hours straight. Arcade owners were frenetic. In response, Atari rushed out some mod kits that made the small saucers more accurate shooters.


You can play an authentic version of Asteroids at PlaySite.


-- Karl Mamer





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