Carefully filed under Damn, I feel old! is a little note saying that today, October 14th (just in case you forget because what do days mean anyway these days?), marks the 43rd anniversary of the release of the Atari 2600. Now, my family never had an Atari 2600, at least that’s what my memory says. My brain cells much more readily recall playing Atari 2600 games on our swanky Atari 7800. So at least I can celebrate this “holiday” with the 2600’s games, if not it’s console. When my writings here were more coherently about video game nostalgia, I wrote frequently about the Atari games I remember playing the most. I don’t know that I ever had a favorite Atari game, but I do have a favorite Atari post. It’s this one here about the classically-frustrating and yet somehow enveloping game, Asteroids. Enjoy!
The following article, “Witness the disintegration of a post on Asteroids,” originally appeared here on October 13, 2013.
I, along with many others, spend a decent amount of each day in a car, either behind the wheel or as a passenger. And if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the world of cars never comes to a stand still. Even if you’re stopped, someone or something else is moving. Just because you’re in car it doesn’t mean that you stop paying attention to the world around you. This due diligence in the real world of transportation is exactly what was required in the classic game Asteroids.
If you think I’ve finally gone off the deep end here with that analogy, well my friend, that ship sailed long ago.
And if you think that the Atari 2600 version of Asteroids was just a walk in the park surrounded by the dulcet tones of nature, then do I have one hell of an air raid siren for you. Asteroids was a mean game, a hard game, and as unforgiving a game as they came.
On the outside, Asteroids looked like little more than as bunch of shapes on a screen. There was the little triangle — your ship — surrounded by a bunch of colorful, floating blobs — the asteroids. And your goal was a piece of cake — shoot the asteroids out of the way and survive to the next wave. We’re obviously talking sunshine and birthday cake, kittens and fleecy blankets, a goddamn fireplace and a mug of hot chocolate. Obviously.
Only we’re not. We’re talking about the nasty hell that is the real world of physics. We’re talking about Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, bitches: a body at rest will stay at rest, and a body in motion will stay in motion until an external force is exerted upon it. Only not cars but spaceships. A single one. Yours. At rest until you moved it, then always moving. And those killer asteroids? Well they were always moving too.
As long as you lightly moved the joystick left or right, it would simply rotate left or right. But as soon as you pushed the joystick forward (thrust), your ship began moving in a certain direction at a certain velocity. The longer you held the joystick in thrust mode, the faster it went in that one direction. If you didn’t move the joystick again, the ship would sloooowly slow down, but it never really stopped. Unless it it hit an asteroid. Since you didn’t want to hit any asteroids you had work, think, and pay attention. No phone calls, no texting, no social networking in your spaceship.
There’s plenty of discussion about how old school games are harder than modern games; and everyone has their favorite “hardest game ever.” I think Asteroids is up there on my list, but the game itself wasn’t all that difficult. The challenge of it laid in the ability to maintain one’s concentration. The mechanics of Asteroid weren’t like the back and forth of Space Invaders or the left, right, up, and down of Pac-Man. No, Asteroids involved the unpleasant physics of drift.
Playing Asteroids was like roller skating through a room full of moving bear traps. It was daunting and unpredictable. Aside from those moments of calm upon starting a game, once you started moving your ship, you couldn’t ever come to a full stop to assess the situation. It simply drifted until you told it to move another way. And when you wanted to take another path, it wasn’t like you got to make a nice three-point turn. Oh no. you continued to drift as little until you “righted” the thing. And there were asteroids in the way. Those goddamn floating blobs of death. You had to shoot them out of the way of your infernal drifting path. And your little laser beam of pixels didn’t vaporize the the damn things. No, just like in real space life, your shots only broke up the asteroids into smaller pieces, making them even harder to hit.
I was so dumb, so young, so naïve when I first played Asteroids on the Atari so long ago. Had I known then that that it would lays the seeds for a mildly incoherent blog post about space and cars and drifting (and not the cars and drifting that normal people might consider), I might not have tried to vehemently to defeat the game. But Asteroids could not be defeated. No. It could only be contained. Trapped within your ability to maintain focus in a fight for survival. The game would eat me alive if I tried it now, that I know. Oh! How we see not the days of wasted youth until retrospect allows us the visions! Or some shit.
Man, I got your Asteroids right here.
Keep ’em. And that ship. I gotta keep my eyes on the road.