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STORY & OBJECT
You control the Cosmic Spacecraft (or, as Homer Simpson calls it, "The USS Triangle"), which is in the middle of an uncharted asteroid field. Theoretically, if you blast enough asteroids you'll eventually be able to find your way home. But alas, in classic arcade fashion, this game is just another take on the Sisyphus standard because no matter how well you perform there's no way you'll ever be liberated.
The spacecraft starts off in the center of the screen with columns of asteroids moving up and down on either sides of the screen. You press the button to blast them, which breaks large rocks into medium rocks which can in turn be blasted into small rocks which can actually be destroyed. The smaller the piece, the higher the points awarded for blasting it.
Of course, you're not stuck in the middle of the screen, you may move around if you like (and will often have to in order to advance or survive). Pushing up on the joystick thrusts the ship forward and the harder you push the faster it will move (the problem is trying to slow down or stop which requires counter-thrusting in the opposite direction). You can move the joystick to the left or right to rotate the ship [counter] clockwise. Pulling the joystick down activates one of three special features: hyperspace (where you appear somewhere else on the screen, but possibly in the path of an oncoming asteroid); shields (which are nice protection against those buggers you just can't turn to shoot in time, although the shields will actually destroy your spaceship if you use them for more than two seconds); or flip (which quickly flips your bearing 180 degrees which is good for hitting rocks from behind at the last second or to constantly change directions to take out more rocks faster). You also have the option, depending on which mode you select, to have no special feature at all.
GAMEPLAY, CHALLENGE & STRATEGY
As I said, there isn't much more to this game than simply blasting everything and anything in sight, including the occasional UFO and satellite (both of which can fire at you, but since when are satellites equipped with laser cannons?). You do have the option of a fast or slow mode as well as which special feature and at what score intervals you'll receive a 1-Up. All in all there are 66 versions of the game on one cartridge. I prefer the game with shields being my special feature in the fast mode (the gameplay is VERY slow otherwise).
The difficulty should be set to "A" to ensure a true challenge. The UFOs and satellites do not appear in mode "B," which is a shame because you won't get to see them crash themselves into the asteroids - what stupid aliens they are!
No matter what variation of the game you chose, it doesn't change the fact there's almost no strategy to succeed at the game. Simply stay put in the middle and blast away as quickly as you can! You will have to quickly move around to catch those last few asteroid bits on the screen, as well as to save yourself from a rear collision, but that's about all the quick thinking you'll ever have to employ. It is kind of fun to just blast the rocks to oblivion, but nothing ever really changes. The pacing of the game does increase slightly with each stage you complete, but never enough to make it much of an impossible challenge. After all, it's just a trajectory-based button masher.
Considering the object of the game is so action-oriented and dependant upon eye-to-hand coordination, it's quite annoying the controls don't allow you to fire as quickly as you'd like. You can tap that button as fast as you want but it won't make your spaceship shoot any faster. And holding the button won't work as auto fire.
Thankfully, Asteroids is not a slave to that old "One shot at a time" rule, such as Space Invaders. After playing this game for 5 - 10 minutes my left hand and forearm began to get sore from trying to mash the button so quickly. The game would have been markedly improved from quicker response time from the fire button. Of course, this flaw could be additionally blamed on the mediocre design of the Atari 2600's controller (really, why couldn't there be a button on either side or on top of the joystick to make the thing ambidextrous?). An ergonomic joystick might make this game more fun and less painful to play.
As for the rest of the controls, they are fairly decent. The USS Triangle will react to your commands fairly quickly and accurately. You'll rarely feel as if it's moving too fast or slow. The harder you push up on the joystick the faster it'll move, and it's got a great sensitivity factor to move as soon as you want without spiraling out of control.
However, the special features seem a bit delayed to me. I'll push down on the stick fast but it's not always fast enough and now I'm dead. You really have to keep a close eye on everything in your immediate vicinity to know when to activate your special feature.
GRAPHICS & ANIMATION
I like to refer to this game as "Killer Rainbow Amoebas from Outer Space!" Naturally, I have to give this particular version the benefit of the doubt because the arcade version used vector graphics which simply aren't possible on the Atari 2600. I can believe a triangle is a spaceship and I can also believe that large, irregular, brightly colored shapes are asteroids, and that's all that matters as far as graphics are concerned.
There does seem to be a problem with the entire contents of the screen flickering as well as the fact most of the left side of the screen has an indentation to it (what the…?). The asteroids move up and down along the edges of the screen very smoothly, but there's definitely a stuttering effect as they shift over slowly to the left or right.
MUSIC & SOUND
What's impressive about Asteroids is it was one of the first games to employ constant background music, which in this case sounds eerily like the theme to "Jaws." In fact, the "music" is technically just two notes repeated over and over, but which occasionally swell in speed and pitch depending on the circumstances of the game. This has a nice effect of increasing the tension and making the game somewhat suspenseful.
The sound palette is pretty much standard tones for the time, but all work well to represent the actions they're associated with. They certainly aren't grating on the ears like Pac-Man or Space Invaders.
The appeal to Asteroids lies in its action-oriented gameplay. Since every screen is essentially the same and the challenge varies slowly, it's really a test of how fast your can blast everything as well as your endurance to routine (and cramps!). No doubt button mashing can be fun for a time, but those with a longer attention span and a desire for games utilizing true strategy might want more.