This Week in Gaming History: Atari's Asteroids strikes back0 Comments
Some people are never satisfied. When Atari's Asteroids became the hottest arcade video game of 1980, everyone in the Sunnyvale-based company should have been thrilled. The game's sales numbers matched the record-shattering North American numbers sparked by Taito and Midway's Space Invaders a year before, ensuring that Atari's name would stay on top of the industry they were credited with creating.
However, the success of Asteroids also brought a gameplay flaw to light. Gamers learned that they could rack up insanely high scores by staying on one level and hunting the enemy saucers that came out from time to time. This strategy started being used to play Asteroids for hours and even days on a single coin, racking up millions and millions of points. Newspapers across the country starting filling up with stories of players who played for dozens of hours on a single coin.
This twist did not please arcade operators. They'd invested heavily in Asteroids machines, and they needed players to lose quickly for them to make any money. While marathon games were good for drawing attention to the businesses that housed Atari's hit game, it also mean that their investment only made 25 cents for the duration of the game.
They attempted to change this with Asteroids Deluxe, which went into widespread distribution in May 1981. Atari programmer Dave Sheppard added to the original game, with this sequel title aimed specifically at defeating the players who'd rocked the original. Everything from game features to the cabinet design were aimed to topple even the most seasoned Asteroids player as quickly as possible.
The famous Hyperspace button was replaced by a Shields function, which temporarily protected the player from collision yet bounced them around the screen. Asteroids now tumbled through space, and enemy saucers were programmed to aim and shoot at them in order to force players to more advanced levels. There was also a Killer Satellite added to the list of on-screen enemies. When shot, this satellite would split into pieces that chased the player down until destroyed. Enemy saucers would also shoot at these, making it challenging for players to simply avoid them. Players could now only hold nine extra lives in reserve at any given time, something Sheppard added to avoid gamers being able to bank up dozens of extra ships. Other changes included an internal mirror what reflected the image onto a painted background in the full sized upright editions.
To say the game succeeded in proving challenging to players would be an understatement. In fact, Asteroids Deluxe proved to be so hard that Atari had to release an easier version. The angle on the plexiglass also made it difficult for players in some locations to see, requiring a modification kit that would alter it to avoid overhead glare. The adjustments did little to help the game catch on, however, nor did the challenge deter all Asteroids masters. Some players still racked up millions of points on the game, thanks in part to a new glitch that provided easy extra lives when nearing the 1 million point rollover mark. In more recent years, Asteroids world champion John McAllister racked up millions of points on Asteroids Deluxe, stopping his game in progress while demonstrating that he could play the game for dozens of hours if he so desired.
In the end, Asteroids Deluxe was a mixed success for Atari. The company eventually sold over 22,000 units to arcade operators across the country, a number that fell far short of sales for the original Asteroids but actually topped other Atari titles such as Missile Command. Play Meter magazine's 1981 earnings charts showed Asteroids Deluxe as the 10th best-earning arcade game of the year, an impressive number, yet the original Asteroids came in third on the same chart. The game's failure to match the sales and earnings of the original Asteroids caused the game to be considered a relative flop, so much so that Atari released no home versions of the game on their many early 80s platforms. The game would eventually be released in some of the more recent home console collections, including appearances on Xbox Live Arcade and the recent Atari Vault on Steam.
The legacy of Asteroids Deluxe mostly exists in the lessons learned in balancing gameplay. Over time, other sequel games avoided Asteroids Deluxe's attempt at making the game super hard, instead aiming to challenge experienced players in other ways. One of the most famous examples of this involved Nintendo's decision to scrap the ultra-challenging Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 in favor of a friendlier and fun title for North America. Never again did any other company try to find success by slaughtering the very players that had loved a previous title, unless the original game was already challenging.