I was never a huge fan of Asteroids back in the day; I always found the “turn and thrust” controls to be a bit of a challenge to deal with.
That hasn’t stopped me from playing numerous versions of this arcade classic over the years, though, including the Atari 2600 version, the Atari 8-bit version (which was subsequently ported to the 5200), the Atari ST version and two versions of the arcade game. And over time, I’ve come to appreciate this game a lot more than I did as a kid.
One version I’d never had the opportunity to play with, though, was the Atari 7800 incarnation. Now, thanks to the Atari Collection 2 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming system, I can enjoy this version — which has quickly become my favourite! — any time I want. Hooray!
On the off-chance you’re not familiar with Asteroids, the concept is very simple. You control a little triangular spaceship that starts in the centre of the screen. You can rotate this ship in two directions, thrust forwards to accelerate in the direction you’re facing, fire shots in the direction you’re facing and, in the Atari 7800 version, press a button to enter hyperspace, disappear for a moment and reappear at a random location on the screen. Some versions of the game also feature the ability to temporarily activate shields to protect yourself against collisions, but this option is absent from the 7800 incarnation.
Your goal is as straightforward as it gets: survive as long as possible by destroying the asteroids that are approaching you to score points. Asteroids progress through three different sizes as you shoot them; in difficulty levels above Novice on the 7800 version, they split into two smaller rocks when you shoot them, while on Novice, they simply get smaller. Smaller asteroids are worth more points but are more difficult to hit. Clear out an entire swarm of asteroids and another one takes its place, with the number of rocks you have to deal with gradually increasing as you progress.
Like most classic arcade games, there’s no “end” to Asteroids; it’s all about getting as far as you can and recording a top score. You get additional lives every 10,000 points in the 7800 version, so if you keep scoring you can keep playing — but with each new level, the risks increase and you’ll need to take more care. While you can get away with just blasting around yourself in the early stages, as the screen gets increasingly full with space rocks, you’ll need to prioritise targets to ensure that you can stay reasonably safe.
Asteroids is all about managing risk and space. With care, you can actually minimise the amount of movement you’ll need to do around the screen. This is good, since the turn-and-thrust controls are heavily momentum-based, meaning that if you get a bit too enthusiastic with the throttle, you’ll find it hard to change direction or even slow down. It’s better to try and manoeuvre in small bursts and keep yourself safe — and remember that while the hyperspace option may seem like a good way of getting you out of a sticky situation, there’s always a chance it will cause you to reappear right in harm’s way!
The Atari 7800 version of Asteroids doesn’t add any especially fancy frills to the basic formula, but it does look nice, replacing the outlined vector graphics of the original arcade version with some colourful, animated sprites. It’s a big step up from the flickering asteroids of the 2600 version and the “we don’t really understand how to make sprites overlap properly” graphics of the Atari 8-bit/5200 version, and the sheer number of colourful, detailed sprites being thrown around the screen without any slowdown or flickering whatsoever is testament to the 7800’s powerful graphical capabilities.
The oft-maligned Atari 7800 sound chip doesn’t fare too badly in this game, either; the effects consist of your ship’s “pew pew pew” as it fires shots, and some pleasing explosion effects as you destroy asteroids, with the pitch of the explosion reflecting the size of the asteroid. The appearance of the alien saucers and satellites is marked by distinctive sound effects, too; the whole sound experience can be best described as “functional but effective”, and this is really what the dated TIA chip was best at.
The 7800 version offers both competitive and cooperative two-player action, though unfortunately at the time of writing the Evercade’s position as a single-player device means that it’s impossible to enjoy these modes. Should the platform expand to a multiplayer-compatible home console in the future, however — which is something both the team at Blaze and the community are keen to see — then this will, without a doubt, be a lot of fun to enjoy with a friend.
In the meantime, the single-player mode of Asteroids on Atari 7800 does exactly what it sets out to do: to provide a good game of Asteroids that, rather than aping the arcade original closely, instead makes use of the strengths of the 7800 to provide its own distinctive take on the game. Four difficulty levels that adjust the game’s speed — and, in the case of the Novice level, intensity — provide a bit of variety, and making judicious use of save states on the Evercade will allow you to store your high scores and gradually track your own improvement over time.
Why has the 7800 version become my favourite? It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is, but I definitely enjoy playing this more than the other versions I have easy access to. It’s likely a combination of the satisfyingly chunky visuals, the responsive controls and the well-balanced difficulty. It also eschews the predictable two-column asteroid formations of the 2600 version in favour of a game experience that is a little bit different every time, and the whole thing just feels a bit nicer to play than the Atari 8-bit/5200 version, which suffers a little from its low-resolution visuals causing movement to feel a bit “jerky”. (That said, the 8-bit/5200 version does still have some of the most satisfying sound effects of any version of Asteroids out there… along with some great four-player modes.)
Whatever the reason for how I feel about Asteroids on the Atari 7800, it’s definitely a highlight of the Atari Collection 2 cartridge for the Evercade — and I’m very happy I’ve finally had the opportunity to experience this take on an old classic in an officially licensed capacity.
Tips and Tricks
- Be gentle with the thrusters. Fire them in short bursts to manoeuvre rather than trying to stay in control at high speed.
- Your shots wrap slightly around the screen. Use this to your advantage to pick off dangerous targets such as UFOs from afar.
- Don’t rely on hyperspace when the screen is full. You’re likely to emerge in a dangerous location — sometimes even inside an asteroid!
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