Asteroids Review: An Inconsistent Classic

Photo by Blake Patterson.

After spending some time both playing and analyzing the mechanics of Atari's 1979 arcade hit, Asteroids, I've gotta say, it's intense.  You have to keep track of large, rapidly multiplying fields of moving objects with a vehicle that accelerates too slowly to make easy escapes, asteroids that break up in unpredictable directions, and alien ships that can pop out of nowhere and blast you before you have time to react.  Forget casual gamers, I've seen serious gamers balk at the idea of playing it.

And yet it’s stunningly simple, at its core.  There are only seven total objects in the game: your ship, three sizes of asteroids, two sizes of alien ship, and the bullets. This simplicity is a good thing, but only once the player has developed enough skill to navigate the asteroid field effortlessly. Unfortunately, the process of getting to that point feels more like training than playing.  Much as athletes will repeat simple technical drills to develop hand-eye coordination and reflexes, beginning games of Asteroids have a tedious and repetitive feel to them.  In the early going, there is some satisfaction in breaking up the asteroids, but you're so often blind-sided by strays, left flat-footed by  break-ups, or forced to accelerate into a clump of asteroids that it's difficult to lay back and appreciate the mayhem.

I did find myself enjoying the game more as I developed skill, however.  Unfortunately, even as an intermediate player, I felt that my scores didn’t always reflect my improvement.  I think the primary reason for this, and the biggest problem with the game’s design, is the small alien ships.  They basically function as randomizers; by the time you have learned to navigate and readily destroy the asteroid field, the small aliens pop out of the woodwork and start taking shots at you.  At this point, you either shoot them or get shot, depending on whether their randomly inaccurate bullets call your number in the short time it takes to make contact with them.  Destroying them quickly will increase your chances of survival, but in my experience, it's very difficult to improve on that margin.

What makes the imbalance even greater is that the small aliens are worth a lot more points than the asteroids themselves, so your score will depend almost entirely on how many showdowns you win.  And this, again, is very random. The most skilled Asteroids players will use the small aliens to their advantage, clearing most of the asteroid field and then knocking them off from the other side of the screen with wrap-around shots. Once you can do that, the game opens up because you get extra lives every 10,000 points and the aliens can’t effectively target you with their own wraparounds. However, this technique doesn’t really feel like it’s within the spirit of the game; it’s more of an exploit than a strategy.

Asteroids is definitely worth a try, especially considering that it presents a challenge of a kind that is hard to come by in modern games.  What's more, I do think the game is increasingly immersive as you build skill in navigating the asteroid field, even if there is a lot of randomness in the final outcome.  It will push your boundaries in more ways than most, testing hand-eye coordination, reflexes, situational awareness, and spatial skills.  It might even be a good training exercise for people looking to develop general action game skills, but as a standalone game, it falls short of my top tiers.