The name Atari doesn’t have a lot of currency today, but between 1977, after the launch of Atari’s Video Computer System (aka the Atari 2600), and it’s downfall in 1983, the Atari name had a lot of clout and recognition in the entertainment industry. This is due, in part, to Atari’s home video game console and its dominance of the home video game market, but a large part of their fame was the popularity, and ubiquity, of Atari’s arcade games. By now, most everyone knows that Atari’s Pong was a sensation in 1972, and in the years that followed, they scored several hits with other titles like Night Driver, Breakout, Lunar Lander, Tempest, Centipede, and of course, Asteroids. Were it not for the glut of bad console games and consumer burnout in late 1982 and early 1983, Atari would likely have been held in much higher regard than they have been in recent years. Alas, twas not to be.
But for a short time, Atari were a dominant force in the arcade scene, as well as the home console market, and many of their early games are venerable classics. Asteroids, released in 1979, was a vector graphics-based game, which means that, instead of what we normally think of with 2-dimensional video game graphics, with flat images full of color from border to border (raster graphics), these graphics were often simple, single-color affairs that consisted of wire-frame images that were merely outlines. This made them look quite simple, but the reduced aesthetic allowed for the hardware to focus more on the speed and animation of the simple wire-frame images, so as to provide faster action, as well as smooth scrolling and motion. Later Atari vector graphics titles, like Tempest and Space Duel, incorporated more color, and more sophisticated gameplay, but at the time of its release, Asteroids was a revolutionary experience, and resulted in it becoming Atari’s best selling arcade game of all time.
The gameplay of Asteroids is deceptively simple. You control a small space craft in the middle of an asteroid field, and your job is to destroy the asteroids and stay alive. This is easier said than done, of course. Each time you successfully fire upon one of the large space rocks, it breaks down into 2 smaller boulders, each of which will break down again into their own set of 2 smaller hunks of rock. The game takes place on a single screen, so when the asteroids go off screen, they simply loop back to the opposite side, in a position relative to the one they exited, and continue to travel in the same direction. Add to that, the alien ships that sometimes brave the asteroid field to try and take out your craft, and you have multiple objects on screen hurtling toward you to cause your imminent doom.
Your options are to turn your ship left or right, fire your cannon, use your thrusters to move forward in the direction your craft is facing. Unlike the full vacuum of space, however, there is some gravity, which means using the thrusters doesn’t mean you’ll continue to move in that direction perpetually. Learning how to manipulate the thrust feature becomes an essential strategy for dodging oncoming debris, as well as maneuvering your ship to better snipe the UFOs and take out the space rocks. Finally, you have a “warp” button you can use to jump to a random spot on the play field. The warp feature is handy as well, though it’s best to use that as a last resort, as you can just as easily warp away from one certain death scenario right into another, as the warp feature is unpredictable.
With the Game Boy version of Asteroids, the graphics are given the raster treatment, rather than trying to emulate the vector look of the original. This was a wise move by Accolade, who ported the game, as the original Game Boy hardware might have had a difficult time replicating the smooth scrolling of the arcade hit. Instead, we get a small, but well rendered ship, nice looking round asteroids with craters and a sense of depth, and a rather obvious flying saucer-style enemy vessel, that gives the game a classic science fiction feel, and is a nod to the source material. It’s all very utilitarian and sparse, but for what it is, it works. For this kind of game, it’s better to keep things simple and uncluttered, and that’s just what took place. The twinkling stars in the background are a nice touch.
Sound design in the game is also very minimalist in nature. There’s a bit of an intro song that plays when the title screen appears, and a little ditty that plays when you lose your last life and get a Game Over screen, but otherwise, it’s just basic sounds. Your ship’s fire, the sound of asteroids breaking up, your own ship exploding, and the annoying, high-pitched sounds made when an enemy vessel is flying across the screen are just about the only sound effects in the game, outside of the original game’s iconic “heartbeat” thumping that gets progressively faster throughout the level as you take out more asteroids and enemy ships. It doesn’t tax the Game Boy hardware, but it sounds good enough, and does its best to try and replicate the sound design found in the original arcade cabinet. It gets the job done, and nothing more.
Control is easy, as there are very few options. You can point the ship by pressing Left or Right on the D-pad, and press Up on the D-pad to use the thrusters to move forward in the direction you’re facing. Hold Up on the D-pad, and your ship progressively gets faster up to a point, so be careful not to hold Up too long, or you’ll go careening into one of the many space rocks. The B button fires your cannon, which is your one and only weapon against the asteroids and enemy spacecraft, and the A button is a “warp” feature, which will send your ship to a random spot in the screen. There’s a definite risk/reward factor to the warp, because you can use it to get out of a sticky situation, but because there’s no telling where you’ll end up, you could be warping directly to your death. The Start button pauses the game, and the Select button, as one might expect, does nothing at all.
Because there’s no real end to Asteroids, and the game continues to go level after level and just get faster and more frenetic, the whole point of the game is two-fold: survival, and score. The longer you can stay alive and continue to shoot down the titular asteroids, as well as enemy vessels, the more points you’ll score. For each 10,000 points you amass in this version, you receive an extra life. The scoring is the same in this version as it is in the arcade original, as near as I can tell. That means that large asteroids give you 20 points, medium sized rocks are 50 points, and the little pebbles net you 100 points. The flying saucer enemies give you 200 points, and the tiny ships give you a generous 1,000 points.
Obviously, shooting down the enemies is where you can earn the most points, but since they don’t show up as frequently as the asteroids are plentiful, there’s a balance to scoring big points. One classic strategy is to destroy all but one tiny asteroid, and let it fly around on the screen while you easily dodge it, and pick off enemy ships as they continue to come on screen periodically. For example, you can score approximately 2,000 points in the first stage by destroying all the asteroids, shooting down a pair of ships, and then maybe picking off a third before you destroy the last rock. At 200 points per larger flying saucer, if you’re patient enough, and skilled enough to avoid both the last asteroid as well as the enemy fire, you can quickly rack up a pretty good score. Another notable strategy, or perhaps design choice, is that when you fire your cannons, the bullets only reach so far, so you can’t just fire away and destroy everything within a few seconds. However, if you’re close to one edge of the screen or another, firing your cannons means those bullets will loop around to the opposite side of the screen, so you can use that to your advantage to destroy rocks as they fly onto the screen from that side. As you progress, the asteroids begin to fly faster, and there are more of them, so each level gets progressively more difficult and frenetic. If you want to master Asteroids, the name of the game (literally and figuratively) is practice, and lots of it.
Despite the fact that Asteroids was released in the arcades in 1979, and this conversion was released 12 years later, the ability to truly capture the arcade experience at home hadn’t truly been realized yet, and that’s especially true of the Game Boy. This port gives a pretty good approximation of the arcade game, though using raster graphics instead of the original vector approach, despite a few notable differences. The arcade game can relatively fast paced and frenetic, and because of the vector graphics and low hardware requirements, the movement of your ship and other objects on screen is fast and fluid, and you can pull off some really tricky maneuvers with your craft. This fluidity doesn’t exactly translate to the Game Boy, because the speed of the game can’t compare with the original, and with the original DMG model’s blurriness happening with any kind of quick motion, it would make the game nigh impossible to truly enjoy if it tried to replicate the speed of the arcade original. As such, the game feels like the laid back big brother of the original. He’s a bit more stylish, with his 4-shades of green and raster graphics, and slightly more fleshed out aesthetic, but moves slower and isn’t in as big a hurry to get somewhere as little brother in the arcade. On the plus side, the game replicates the “heartbeat” effect, that sort of Jaws-esque harbinger that grows faster and more menacing as more Asteroids are destroyed and more particles fly around on screen, so it really gets that unique element right. Also, I found the collision detection to be nearly pixel-perfect, so if you get hit by an asteroid flying at you, don’t get mad – it was probably your fault. One odd quirk I found is that, when entering your name on the high score screen, sometimes trying to change the letter using up and down, or choosing a letter with A, or erasing one with B, is less than responsive. I suspect that may be because of the way the letters are flashing on the screen, and the fact that, perhaps the Game Boy is being taxed a bit, and the commands you’re inputting don’t always register. It’s a minor issue, but noticeable enough to mention.
At the end of the day, it’s somewhat difficult to recommend this port of the game. Not because it’s not functionally a good game, because it is. It’s hard to recommend because, just 4 short years after this cart’s release, the game came out again as Arcade Classic No. 1, and that cart contained this conversion of Asteroids, as well as a conversion of the classic Missile Command. That cart has Super Game Boy compatibility, but also gives a couple notable upgrades to this port of the game: that is, it includes an option to change the button configuration, if you find the default control scheme not to your liking, but more importantly, you can choose to play in the original vector style, though still with the twinkling raster-based stars in the background. The advantage of this version is both of the 2-player options, so if that’s the experience you’re looking for, then obviously this 1991 version will be the one to seek out. For anyone just looking for the single-player experience, the latter release with another game on the cart, including the option for the original vector graphics, would seem to be the no-brainer option. Either way, you’re getting a reasonable facsimile of the original game, but without the ability to have the really fast action that makes the original still attractive to play. That said, you can do a lot worse for $4 or $5 on the Game Boy, so I’d say if you have any interest in classic arcade games on the go, or Asteroids in general, this might be one to add to your collection. Tentatively recommended.