Published: November 30th, 2021
Author: Caitlynn Joann
Asteroids is a multi-directional space shooter arcade game and was released by Atari in 1979. Asteroids was created by Lyle Rains and Ed Logg. Rains was known for curating the idea for the game, and Logg for programming it. Logg studied computer science and mathematics at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, landing a job at Atari after graduation. He worked on other famous games, such as Breakout in the late ‘70s. Rains spoke out on the idea for Asteroids sharing, “I guess the way I describe it is that I’m the father of ‘Asteroids’, and Ed Logg is the mother of ‘Asteroids,’ because he had to live with it for nine months and deliver the finished product. All I had to do was to provide a seed.” Asteroids was based on an abandoned project, Cosmos, with its physics, control scheme, and gameplay all deriving from other games; Spacewar!, Computer Space, and Space invaders.
Rains and Logg share their personal experience working on the game and how it affected their life outside of the office. Rains shares, “In the course of my work I have always found that there are times during the development process when the project gets to me in such a way that I'm eating, drinking, sleeping, and breathing the project. When I close my eyes the images of the screen are there and I dream about them at night. There is something just very intense when you live with a project like that day and night, for months at a time. When we were working on Asteroids, I would play Asteroids for a number of hours in the evening, then I'd go home and I'd close my eyes, and as I was drifting off to sleep I'd see the asteroids floating around the screen.” Logg had a similar experience stating, “I was shooting the asteroids all night long; I'd just play the game over and over and over in my head, just as if you were playing it in real life. To a certain extent, I play a lot of the games in my mind long before I ever write them because you have to get all the interactions down pat before you can start programming. I know what it's going to look like before I even get there.”
Paul Mancuso, a technician, and Howard Delman, an engineer, joined Rains and Logg on the Asteroids team. The discussed inspiration from other multiplayer games such as Computer Space, for a two-dimensional approach. They added a sprinkle of Space Invaders by integrating the addictive completion and elimination gameplay. Rains and Logg decided it would be more appealing to players for the game to selectively shoot at rocks that break into smaller pieces, which need to be disintegrated as well. Spacewar! comes into play with a five-button control scheme as well as the ship design. Delman also shares his process on engineering the sound for Asteroids, “in those days there were no all-purpose sound chips like we have now, so I had to create a hardware circuit for each sound. I would string together electrical circuits that would produce an output wave-form that corresponded to the wave-form of the sound. When put through an amplifier and a loud speaker, it would sound like whatever I was trying to create. The boom-boom-boom background sound was sort of meant to be like a heartbeat, and the idea was that as the game progressed, the sound speeded up, and the player's heart would speed up, too. You know, stress!”
It was said at break time, the entire assembly line would rush to play the machines that were ready to be shipped out. Other games would be sent as normal but with Asteroids, no one wanted to work! Oftentimes, coworkers would hang around after Rains and Logg left so they could play the popular game. This led to Rains creating a second prototype, just for the staff. Some machines were taking in 4,000 quarters a week, estimating some weeks where 40 million quarters were easily collected! It seemed as though some employees spent most of their earnings where they were working. Prior to this development, Atari was working on Lunar Lander. When Asteroids took off, they dropped Lunar Lander and re-channeled their energy to Asteroids.
Asteroids was one of the first major arcade games of the golden ages. The game sold over 70,000 arcade cabinets in 1980 alone and in the ‘80s, it was ported to Atari’s home system, selling over 3 million copies. Atari earned an estimated $150 million in sales from the game, and arcade operators earned a further $500 million from coin drops alone. It grossed roughly $700 million worldwide. To further show its popularity, video arcade operators had to install larger coin boxes to hold all of the coins spent by players. Asteroids became the highest-grossing arcade video game of 1980 in the U.S. The game was released in sequels as well as consoles including the Atari 2600, 5200, and 7800. Consoles expanded to Xbox and Nintendo 64 as well as Dreamcast and PCs. Asteroids Deluxe has similar gameplay but the graphics appear to have a blue “filter.” Two more sequels included Space Duel and Blasteroids.
The object of the game is to control a spaceship and use it to destroy asteroids and flying saucers. Spaceships are controlled by thrusting it forward or backward while holding the ability to turn in any direction and shoot. The ship can be sent into hyperspace, allowing it to disappear and reappear in random locations. When an asteroid is shot, it breaks into smaller pieces that also need to be destroyed. When the flying saucers appear, they try to crash into your shop or shoot you.
Each level begins with a few large asteroids and as they break into smaller pieces they are worth more points, as they move faster and are more difficult to hit. Two flying saucers appear at random. The larger of the two shoots at random with poor aim, with the smaller firing frequently and adequately. Once the player reaches 40,000 points, the smaller saucer is the only one to appear. Once the screen is cleared from asteroids and saucers, a new set of asteroids appear, kicking off the next level. The player begins with 3-5 lives and gains an extra life after 10,000 points. Asteroids slow down when the player gains 50-100 lives because there is no limit to the number of lives a player has. The player can “lose” after more than 250 lives are collected. When the last ship is lost, the game ends and the machine turns over at 99,999 points, the maximum high score. John McAllister holds the official record for this game with 41,838,740 points on April 5, 2010.