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Mind Your Wing Mirrors! It’s Asteroids!

Asteroids ScreenshotImagine the scary music from Jaws, but played on a cardiac monitoring
machine in a hospital corridor. That is the enigmatic sound of all round
minimalist Asteroids, track five on our journey through Buckner and
Garcia’s Pac Man Fever album. The track – Hyperspace – is so bad
that we are better off promising never to mention it again, but no fag-smoke and
Lilt-can infested early 80s arcade would be complete without the game itself.
The stark and distinctive line drawing graphics look they way they do because
Asteroids is a ‘vector’ game. Vectoring is a method that games
programmers at the time used as a clever way to make their graphics look really,
really bad. In this instance, however, it works very well, and, combined with
the medical equipment audio set up, gives a fair representation of the bleakness
of fighting a lonely battle you will inevitably lose in the bleak and chilly
depths of space.

It turns out, however, that the battle, although undeniably a lonely one, is not
quite as inevitably lost as it first appears. In fact, Asteroids is the
only game in which it is relatively easy to play indefinitely – or until the
cabinet fell apart, the screen burned out, or the player lapsed in to a coma or
starved to death – on a single credit. In common with many early games in
which distributors underestimated a) how popular the game would become and b)
the expertise of the players playing them, it was possible to exploit many bugs
and oversights left in by programmers. For example, the player could park his
spaceship in the area of the screen in which the score was displayed, and not be
hit by anything whatsoever. Also, the graphics scrolled and wrapped around
themselves – that is to say, an asteroid floating off the left hand side would
appear in the corresponding location on the right – which allowed clued-up
practitioners to execute snazzy risk-free shooting manoeuvres. This was an
especially useful tactic when employed against the flying saucers which
habitually charged across the screen, shooting directly at the

Asteroids Arcade CabinetAsteroids wasn’t about flying saucers, though. It was about
asteroids. Relentless, remorseless asteroids. Asteroids without end.
Asteroids which, when you shot them, simply turned into smaller asteroids,
which, when you shot them, turned into even smaller asteroids, colliding
and careening at random all over the place. Amid this maelstrom of brutalist
graphics span the player with his ridiculously underpowered craft, blazing away
at the eternal rockstorm with his rubbish little lazer. He had to be pretty
quick on the draw, too, as anything other than rotating on the spot was very
tricky. It was possible to move the ship by pressing the ‘thrust’
button; however, it would continue to glide under its own momentum unless the
player counterthrusted, or checked the forward drift by the more usual method of
hitting an asteroid and disintegrating.

Because of the exploitable
bugs in early versions of the game, top scores for Asteroids are among the
biggest numbers the world has ever seen. The official high score is 41,336,440
points, scored by 15 year old Scott Safran, who would have been 9 when he
commenced his record breaking game. Safran, playing for a muscular distrophy
charity, ended the game voluntarily and with several ships in hand, as he was
just so very bored. It is officially the longest standing high score in gaming
history, but when Twin Galaxies – an organisation that maintains data on this
kind of thing – attempted to honour Safran in 2002, they discovered that he had
died thirteen years previously, after falling from a balcony during a botched
domestic pet rescue. The award was instead presented to family members at a
ceremony in Philadelphia. His record is considered simply too difficult to
ever be broken, although, in the most roundabout way possible, perhaps
Asteroids – the motherboard that could not defeat him in a straight fight
– had the last laugh, after all.


Check out the RetroGT Asteroids T-Shirt.

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