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"Rasteroids" on the Atari 2600

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Asteroids was a game I had played before on my Wii 2600 emulator, but I didn't really start enjoying it until I got my Jakks Pacific 2600 Joystick Plug 'N' Play. Sometimes when you have less games to choose from it helps you appreciate the ones you have more. Whenever I'm exposed to an emulator or something and I have a folder with hundreds of abbreviated ROMs, I often just play the same two or three games over and over again until I get bored. When I have less games availiable to me, I often enjoy the games I have access to more and appreciate them more for what they are. That's part of the reason I love physical cartridges.

Like I said, I mostly played it on the Joystick Plug 'N' Play. We had this CD+G karaoke machine that we got in around 2011 or so for Christmas that happened to have some composite ports on the back of it. The machine had maybe a five or six inch monochrome screen. You know how some of those old computer monitors had green phosphor to make it easier to see text? This one had a blue color palate going on. In retrospect, I'm shocked that they were still making tiny CRTs for karaoke machines in the early 2010s, much less monochrome ones. Sometimes I'd sneak that bulky thing in my room and play some Atari games on it. I remember the display being very crisp. Monochrome displays often are. I used that karaoke machine as a psudo-television in my room. I had been begging my parents to let me put up this crappy twelve-inch Hitachi CRT in my room since I was 8 years old. I had this really strict doctor that I hated. He was a good doctor from a parent perspective, but he was so boring and overexplained everything and made each appointment about twelve times longer than it had to be. He convinced my parents to not let me have a television in my room. He said if it was there I would never leave my room and just stay there and watch TV all day. I couldn't get it through to my parents that all I wanted to use it for were my old video game systems.

Six years. It took until I was fourteen to finally get it through to my parents that I wasn't going to use it to watch TV on it. It took two years after we stopped getting analog TV through coax and needed digital adapters in order to watch TV. All of my friends teased me for having a "stone age" TV in my room and for getting it so late, but I never minded. I have always preferred CRTs to modern displays. I used to have my Wii up here, then switched to Wii U, then added NES (for zapper games) and finally replaced it with my 2600 when I got it. I have put another 12-inch downstairs to play those Zapper games in my main gameroom. Now that I have older systems in my room, I have no intentions of getting a newer TV.

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So, back to Asteroids. I loved this game. One of my favorite 2600 games growing up, along with Pac-Man, Adventure, Space Invaders, Pitfall II, and Keystone Kapers. I didn't discover Tunnel Runner until later. I will have to cover that one soon. Asteroids on the Jakks Pacific Joystick wasn't actually an emulation of the 2600 game, rather it was a recreation of the game using a NOAC (Nintendo [Entertainment System] on a Chip). The game looks the part and sounds the part to a casual gamer who hasn't played Atari in years, but diehard Atari enthusiasts like myself might find the minor sound and graphical alterations to be a deal-breaker, though since I grew up with some of these games on here it doesn't bother me much. The sounds in Asteroids are a bit different than the 2600 version and there is less flicker if I remember correctly.

But we can't talk about the 2600 version of Asteroids without talking about the original. Asteroids was released for the arcades in 1979. It used a vector display. I assume most people here at the I/O know what a vector display is, but I am just going to explain it anyways. A vector display meant instead of pixels the cathode ray was directly controlled to just draw lines on the screen. Back in the day, this was heavily used in certain arcade titles. On the plus side, vector games had much crisper graphics and could handle 3D games much better with wireframe models. Vector games could also handle scaling effects much better than games that used a raster scan in the early days. On the downside, vector games were rarely in color. Mostly the games that utilized this display method only drew white lines. Many games had overlays over the cabinet screens, like Star Castle. Later on, vector games started appearing in color. Games like Major Havoc and Star Wars Arcade used color vectors for their graphics. The problem with color vectors, however, is that the backgrounds were still all black and there wasn't really a good way to fill in the blank spots in the graphics. Plus, vector games typically flickered more as there was only one line being drawn at a time. Eventually, once video games evolved and pixel based games had more to work with, vector games fell to the wayside. After pixel games started having polygons and whatnot, it was all over for vector graphics. However, vector graphics are still special to this day as there is no way to accurately reproduce them on modern displays. If you want to play a vector game the correct way, you have to find an old arcade system or a Vectrex. There's just no other way to get the real vector experience anymore.

Asteroids" by Atari: Classic Arcade Game Review - LevelSkip - Video Games

Unlike its 2600 adaptation, which uses the standard Atari joystick controller, Asteroids' arcade conversion consists entirely of buttons. There are two buttons for rotating the ship, one button for thrust, one for fire, and one for hyperspace. I was fortunate to have played the real arcade cabinet before at an arcade exhibit at a museum. There really is nothing like a real vector display. The owners of the cabinets were there and they were kind enough to give me a bit of a tour after most people left. I was lucky enough to see such great games like Burgertime, Gran Trak 10, Major Havoc, an early prototype of Bubbles, Donkey Kong, and even the elusive Death Race. Only a few cabinets were available to play on as most were roped off for display purposes only. Though I did sneak in a game of prototype Bubbles. SHHHH!

I really enjoyed the arcade version of Asteroids when I played it. It was on free play, and most people wanted to play Pac-Man, Burgertime, and Frogger, so I mostly had the game to myself.

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So, now that we have gotten some background knowledge on where this game came from, we can talk about the 2600 version in greater detail. Right off the bat, the game is obviously going to be different from the arcades graphically. I know that's very shocking news for you all; "Oh no! The 2600 doesn't have arcade graphics?!?". But here, it's actually impossible to reproduce them. The 2600 hooks up to a television set, and consumer TVs use a raster scan instead of a vector one, hence the title of this review, "Rasteroids". Though it doesn't have the same graphical fidelity of the arcade game, it does add color which the arcade vectors lacked.

The object of Asteroids is to, well, shoot all of the asteroids without getting hit yourself. When you shoot an asteroid, it will split up into smaller chunks. If you hit one of the medium size space rocks in the coin-op version, it will split in two, though on the 2600 it just grows smaller. Occasionally there are UFOs and satelites that show up in the arcade version and try to shoot you down. I thought for years that they weren't in the 2600 adaptation until I read the manual when I first got my system. That was a completely mind-blowing moment for me. So yeah, they are in the game after all if you flip the difficulty switch into the A position. The 2600 cartridge features 66 game variations, including variations that change the amount of points you need for an extra life (if any at all), variations that swap out your hyperspace function for shields or 180 degree turning, and variations that change the speed of the game. The Asteroids cartridge has a copyright date of 1981 and is notable for being the first 2600 game to use bankswitching. Bankswitching allows for games to have file sizes of over 4 kilobytes. It played a massive role in the long lifespan of the Atari VCS.

The controls for Asteroids at home are obviously going to be a bit different than in the arcades as it uses a standard joystick controller instead of a button-only layout. Left and right on the stick, as expected, rotate your triangular spaceship, which on an unrelated note is the same spaceship sprite used in the system's adaptation of Spacewar! three years earlier in 1978. Up on the joystick is your thrust, which can be a problem as one could easily thrust by accident right into an oncoming asteroid. Down on the joystick is different depending on which variation it is in, but in the default mode it is the hyperspace function. This will make your ship temporarily disappear and reappear somewhere random on the screen. This could theoretically place you right by an oncoming asteroid that would almost assuredly kill you, but it can help in certain situations if you are lucky enough. And the button, shockingly, fires your missiles. On the default variation you get an extra ship every 5,000 points.

Now, I was pretty excited to play this game again when I got my 2600. At this point, I hadn't played Asteroids for a while. This was one of the first games I played when I got the 2600 controllers fixed and the system set up. This was actually the first game I wrote down on my high score notebook. I played the game again on the default variation (B/B on the difficulty switches) and really enjoyed it! I got 14,720 and I thought that was pretty good. On my next attempt I got 48,590! I thought that was great! So I stopped playing for a few days and when I picked it up again I rolled the score over and got 114,250. The reason I got only 114,250 is because I quit because my index finger hurt way too much. I normally play Atari games with the joystick resting on the desk in my room and playing it kind of like an arcade game, so I use my left index finger to shoot. I needed a higher difficulty in Asteroids, so I tried with the UFOs. But I still quickly got bored of the game.

I never found the same enjoyment I did when I was younger with 2600 Asteroids again. The pattern was just too predictable. In the arcade version and most other versions, the asteroid chunks fly off in all directions when you shoot them. But not here. Here, it seems like most of the asteroids fly in the same downward path at a slight diagonal angle. Once you get a pattern down, you can comfortably last for a long time. And soon, for me at least, it just gets boring. 

I know this game is popular and beloved by fans of the 2600, but I just don't like it that much anymore. It's way too easy and predictable. The arcade version has so much going on at once; all asteroids hurling towards all in different directions, but here on the VCS it's monotonous and machine-like. I want to love this game again, I really do, but I just can't get into it again. I'm sorry, everyone, but I have to rate this game a 5/10. I'd rather play E.T. or Pac-Man again.

If you don't already have this game (which is honestly hard to believe if you have the system), it goes for about $5 if you get the Black or Sears label varients. The silver label is a bit pricier at a whopping $20. AtariAge gives it a rarity of 1 for the Atari picture label version, 2 for all of the Sears versions, 3 for the silver label variant and a rarity of 5 for the red label cartridge.

I'm sorry, but this game just doesn't do it for me anymore. I will need to try the 7800 version someday and the homebrew Space Rocks. I have the ROM, but it doesn't seem to work on my emulator. I'm all Asteroided out for now. Now, I'm going to leave and play Super Meteorite-- I mean, Super Metroid.



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