Learning to Love Asteroids 

By Mikey Shake


It may have taken a long time, but it finally happened.

When I was a kid, we used to go over to my dadís Aunt Helenís house.  Her teen kidsí Atari was in the shag-carpeted, wood-paneled, beanbag-sporting basement rec room that we lilí sprouts would gather in at family parties.  That machine was like magic, completely mesmerizing me with electronic gaming.  Weíd gather around it on the floor and play while the grown-ups socialized upstairs.  I canít remember all the games they had, but I have very distinct memories of about a half-dozen that flickered across that screen: Kaboom!, Megamania, Frogger, Pitfall, Space Invaders, Keystone Kapers, and Asteroids.

As I grew up through the Nintendo Age of the mid-to-late Ď80s, I never lost my love for the classics, but my secret shame among my group of "retro gaming" friends (though we didnít have a term for it in the late-Ď80s and mid-Ď90s), was that I never liked Asteroids.  It was iconic, and I remember enjoying whizzing along in a spaceship and shooting stuff when I was a tot, but as someone who liked PLAYING video games, I just never took to it.  I wouldnít tell anyone Ė thatís like saying you hate Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. Itís understandable to hate Defender Ė itís too hard!  But Asteroids?  Everybody loves Asteroids.

Except me.  The strange gravity and momentum, the lack of reverse thrust, the arcade machineís "button only" controls, the unfairness of the hyperspace respawn (always right in front of a space rock!).  It just made me mad.  Repeatedly.  So I was never any good.  And in that "Silver Age of Console Gaming", I had enough other games with more flash and "tighter" space shooter controls to draw my attention, so I never got good at the older model.  Of course, I couldnít knock the game.  I meanÖ itís ASTEROIDS.  It wasnít a bad game.

I just hated it.

So, flash forward to this week.  Moneyís been tight, and while I still have the urge to buy games and stuff, Iím generally trying not to cross any "high-ticket" items off my wish list.  Iíve got all the games I can reasonably play (via flash carts and an already fleshed-out collection), so to scratch that collecting itch, Iím sticking to cheap stuff ($10-ish).  That lends itself to filling in some small gaps in my Atari collection.

The other day, my wife and I took a trip to a game store that I knew had a shelf or two of boxed Atari stuff in varying conditions, thinking, "Maybe Iíll find something fun" (The guy that works there is a motor-mouth schmuck with ears like a hawk who loves to eavesdrop.  I told Mrs. S as we went in, "Donít encourage him.  Just get in and out without interacting.  DoÖ notÖ engage.").  One of the categories on my wish list has been to get decent-condition boxed copies of those "Aunt Helenís basement" games.  The idea is that, if all my other stuff went up in smoke, I could start over with just those games, in boxes, in good condition.  To once again seed the garden.  After all, those were the games that sparked my love in the first place, and should therefore be crown jewels in my modest collection.  Iíve already got several of that handful.  So I comb through what the shopís got on the shelf, and spot a boxed copy of Asteroids.  The top flap is a little thrashed in spots, but with a supposed "buy-one, get-one" deal, I can score it for $5.  I hem and haw and almost donít but then I do.  "Sure, why not?"  The fact that Iím not a fan of the game makes the box damage easier to swallow.  Even though itís at the bottom of my short "boxed Atari wish list", I decide itís a classic and cheap and will be a nice addition to the collection.

As a gamer, I donít tend to collect cardboard boxes.  To each their own, (except people that only buy sealed games and never open any Ė I donít understand that impulse at all), so when I buy a boxed game, I try to make sure to get the game out and play it a bit to make sure Iím not just paying for paper (again, to each their own).  To my mind, I bought a GAME.  Why not have a little fun with it?  Sure, Iíd played Asteroids plenty of times, usually only for a couple of minutes, and usually immediately before playing something else in frustration.  But damn it, why not give this chestnut a fresh chance?  If it didnít take, I could put it on the shelf and thatís that.

Well, after about 5 minutes in a dark room with a six-switch, wood-grained gaming console and a big CRT television, I started to get hooked.  I was into it.  I paged through the manual and turned on the UFO/satellite with the Atariís difficulty switches.  I experimented with hyperspace/shields/flip as my "special function" of choice (I like traditional hyperspace the best).  I put my nose right up against the TV and blasted those glowing things into debris.  Probably lost an hour to it before I had to get some sleep.

Then, yesterday, after a few more unexpectedly long rounds of the game, I finally got around to loading a new game program onto my Harmony Cart flash cartridge and play through my Atari: Space Rocks.  Why hadnít I played it before?  Well, I wasnít much of an Asteroids fan, so there was little reason to do so.  Itís a game, designed in 2012, intended to more closely mimic the arcade version of Asteroids (and Asteroids Deluxe, the follow-up) than the fun-but-inferior version initially ported to the Atari console in Ď81.  Plus, it adds a wealth of options that werenít even conceivable back in the day.

Boy howdy, it is the finest version of that game Iíve played outside of an OG arcade cab.  I could not have picked a better moment at which to first experience it.  I can only imagine the glee with which it was met by longtime Asteroids devotees, whoíd been plugging away at the original cartridge for thirty years.  Itís all the gameplay Iíve suddenly realized I like, along with a masterful presentation, lots of options (display variations, controller options, multiple simultaneous two-player modes, etc.) and great graphics.  In the dark, I can even see the phosphor glow around the "vector" style graphics option.  But not only is it sooooo much fun, but even though Iím new to the game, itís giving me everything I would want from an Atari 2600 home version of (*ahem* "a game based on") Asteroids.  Iíd already thought that SpiceWareís Darrell Spice Jr. was a genius because of his similar re-imaginings of Warlords (Medieval Mayhem) and Berzerk (Frantic) for the Atari VCS/2600 system, but now consider my mind officially blown. Mr. Spice, thank you so much for your work on these games and for generously releasing a game ROM program file to the public to play in our flash carts and emulators, along with the physical release.  Once money starts flowing again, Space Rocks just jumped to the top of my list of "homebrews to buy on a cart".

In fact, Iím repeatedly stunned by what some of the modern programmers can do.  I have later consoles, 8 and 16-bit up to the last-gen Xbox 360 and Wii, and even though any of those can theoretically get "closer" to "arcade-perfect", some of these games have been perfected for me on the Atari console, partially because making them these days is a labor of love, not commerce.  Space Rocks, and the sensational Pac-Man 8K, are not only my favorite versions of those games "for an Atari console", but my favorite home ports of those games ever.

So yeah, sign me up as a freshly-minted Asteroids fan.  Itís funnyÖ 30 years on and still making new discoveries about games I thought I was "so over".

Maybe one day I can even learn to enjoy RPGs.

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