Asteroids 1979

Published for the first time in 1979 by Atari, Asteroids blasted its way onto the scene as one of the first arcade space shooters. Part of the widely regarded “golden age” of arcade games, Asteroids was a huge success. It was directly inspired by such classical games as Spacewar! (Steve Russell 1962) and Computer Space (Atari 1971) evident in its use of vector graphics and simple physics. Examining the context, its success was undoubtedly bolstered by Atari’s previous trailblazing of the field, its name a reputable one within the video games community. Upon its release, Asteroidsi, became the most popular Atari game of all time with over seventy-thousand copies sold, surpassing even Space Invaders (Atari 1978). It was even heralded as Atari engineer Ed Logg’s “magnum opus” by Retro Gamer in September of 2008. The gaming community was not the only one singing the praises of Asteroids, though. In 2013, the Modern Museum of Art added the retro game along with 6 others to its collection. From an artistic standpoint it is easy to see why the acquisition happened, its vector graphics referencing the minimalist movement in America during the late 1960s and 1970s.

The game made use of the high score competition structure that was popular among arcade games of the time. Its gameplay was simplistic and intuitive. The player controlled a triangular ship that appeared in the center of the screen. It could rotate left and right moved via thruster in whichever direction it was facing. It Its physics were similar to that of Star Castle (Cinematronics 1980), which must have been inspired by the popular Atari game. The screen set up was such that the edges flowed into one another, causing the ship to show up on the opposite side once it hit an edge, a hallmark of these kinds of vector games. Players started with three lives, and had the ability to gain more each time they scored ten-thousand more points. This feature actually caused the game to slow down once the player earned between fifty and one-hundred lives due to a programming error in which there was no limit set to the number of possible lives. The objective was simple: destroy all the objects on screen using the ship’s front facing cannon. Periodically among the asteroids, flying saucers would appear offering an extra point bonus of one-thousand. The game is lost once a player loses all of their lives, but winning is only determined by high score.

Asteroids is part of a long history of video games and set the stage for subsequent shooters like the aforementioned Star Castle and even closer copycats like Astrosmash (Mattel Intellivision 1981). The game is a quintessential example of longevity of classical games; it still reigns as one of the most popular arcade games and has seen many iterations and reboots to date.

Works Referenced

Stephanie Mlot (June 28, 2013). “MoMA Adds Seven Video Games to Art Collection”. PC Magazine.


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