On the Rocks
Reeling from the fact that they hadn’t been responsible for quarter gobbler Space Invaders, Atari desperately scrambles for the next insanely great arcade game. In 1978, 27 year old Atari engineering Vice President Lyle Rains is developing a game concept for Cosmos, the company’s planned holographic gaming project headed by Pong engineer Al Alcorn. With the working title of Planet Grab and rendered in 3D graphics, the game would involve players piloting around a solar system, claiming planets by touching them. Dubbed Holoptics, this 3D gaming system is little more than a pipe dream by Atari, and is later prototyped as a programmable, tabletop game system shown to the public at the 1981 Winter CES in Las Vegas. The much-hyped holographic content is limited to flat 3D backgrounds placed underneath a simple LED display. The initial lineup of eight games for the system is to include Superman, Football, Roadrunner, Outlaw, Sea Battle, Space Invaders and, in a nice bit of symmetry, Asteroids. The mixed critical reception of the Cosmos project gets it shelved that same year. With the closure of the project, holographic games may not make it to the store shelves, but the technology behind them eventually hits pay dirt. The Holoptics process developed for the Cosmos gaming system is picked up by the scientists responsible for developing it, who then take it to another company where it is used to cheaply create embossed holograms on credit cards as a security feature, eventually becoming the standard in that industry.
Breaking Rocks and Records
Rains discusses his ideas with Atari designer Ed Logg, and the idea of having players blow up astronomical objects instead of merely touching them is developed. Thus is Planet Grab retooled and the scope scaled down into a vector graphics arcade game. A new graphical process is utilized in its development, as well as in the first Atari vector game Lunar Lander, called QuadraScan. By having the beam that draws the vectors controlled by the circuit board rather than the monitor, this technology allows finely-drawn objects on the screen to appear from any direction, at variable speeds but with a constant brightness to the lines that create them. Logg takes the movement scheme and visual design of the player’s spaceship directly from his memories of playing Steve Russell’s Spacewar!, while at Stanford University. He had also played the first coin-op videogame Galaxy Game, itself based on Spacewar, at Stanford’s student union. Naming his game Asteroids, Logg and his team know they have a major hit on their hands; they literally have to pull Atari employees off the prototypes in order to work on them. When the game is released in 1979, they are proven correct. Asteroids is a truly watershed arcade videogame…it literally defines the genre in the minds of the public. A perfect synergy between simplicity and intense gameplay, the game has players using buttons to thrust a spaceship around an asteroid field. When one rock is shot, it breaks into smaller ones, often flying off in different directions at different speeds. Using the Hyperspace button, the player’s ship can jump to a random point on the screen to escape immediate death, but at the risk of re-appearing in the path of an oncoming projectile. Every so often flying saucers enter the screen, intent on the player’s destruction. Along with the reward of a new ship every 10,000 points, adding to the popularity of the game is a high-score system introduced by Asteroids, allowing players to record their initials to be displayed next to their score for all to see. Until, that is, the game is turned off for the night by the operator, and the high-scores wiped.
Asteroids is created under a label referred to by the company as Atari Space, a complement to their more down-to-earth Atari Sports brand. Demand for the game is so strong that Atari halts production of Lunar Lander (released just three months earlier), to switch over to making more Asteroid cabinets. They go on to sell in excess of 70,000 units, outselling every other Atari game yet made and smashing the previous coin-op sales record set by Midway’s Space Invaders. It stubbornly sits at or near the top of sales charts for years, pulling in 10 million quarters a day in 1980 alone. At that year’s AMOA show in Chicago, coin-op trade magazine Play Meter presents Asteroids with an award for video game excellence, citing it as the highest earning video game of 1980. I myself become a hopeless addict; perfecting the “save one slow-moving meteorite and poach the UFO when it comes out” strategy in my arcade. To me, it was the first arcade game to really suck me into its premise and execution. I was never much of a Space Invaders fan, it was just too relentlessly monotonous. Asteroids, with its cool ship inertia and frighteningly close shaves between the rocks, is simply a masterpiece of design and programming. While the games that inspired Asteroids, such as Spacewar! and Computer Space had pioneered the concept of inertia in video games, the feeling of actual physics being played out in Logg’s creation is a huge draw of the game. The popularization of the idea of the player being unshackled from the bottom of the screen and allowed to move in any direction is another highly seminal aspect of Asteroids that would influence countless designers, including Eugene Jarvis when he is developing Defender. For his part in Asteroid’s development, in 1980 Lyle Rains is promoted to Director of Engineering, Coin-Operated Games Division at Atari.
Chips Off the Old Block
Asteroids is followed by Dave Shepperd’s sequel Asteroids Deluxe, released in March of 1981, featuring objects that zero-in on the players’ ship as well as offering a limited-use shield for gamers to protect themselves. Raster graphics makeover Blasteroids comes in 1987, headed by long-time Atari alum Ed Rotberg of Battlezone fame. Rotberg had left Atari in 1981 to help fund indie development company Videa Inc., and accepts the offer from Atari Games to come work on a re-tool of the Asteroids concept. In this new version, a choice of three ships are available, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. For the graphics, Rotberg taps Industrial Light and Magic model maker Bill George to build plastic models of each ship, that are then digitized in the required rotations with proper lighting with assistance from Rob Rowe. As for the asteroids themselves, these are simply lava rocks painted white and then digitized. Another notable variation on the theme is a Sega/Gremlin 1981 vector graphics knock-off, the talking Space Fury.
A Smash on Television
It’s inevitable that Asteroids would cruise over to the Atari VCS as an arcade port, and so it does in July of 1981, designed by Brad Stewart. The game makes a rocky (ouch!) transition to the console, with Stewart struggling to translate the 8K’s worth of information in the arcade version to the 4K VCS carts. An initial version is met with such disdain internally at Atari that the game’s release is delayed while Stewart goes back to the drawing board and utilizes a new “bank switching” technique. This process involves switching back and forth quickly between different addresses of the 4K memory bank, effectively giving the game 8K to work with. The VCS version of Asteroids becomes yet another hit for Atari’s home console, so popular that stores like F.A.O. Schwarz in NYC strictly ration the amount of Asteroids cartridges put up on shelves over the 1981 holiday season to make sure there’s at least a few copies left into December. The home version of Asteroids solidifies its place at the top of home video game sales charts, chiseled in at #1 for months until unseated by the release of Atari’s home version of arcade wunderkind Pac-Man.
Stewart eventually leaves Atari for the greener pastures of third-party game maker Imagic, making Firefighter for the company. On contract to Parker Brothers, he goes on to create the Atari 8-bit computer port of Star Wars: The Arcade Game.
Over an illustrious 16 year career at Atari, arcade asteroids creator Ed Logg develops some of their more memorable arcade games, including Centipede (with Donna Bailey), Millipede, Gauntlet, Gauntlet II, XYbots, and Steel Talons.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
“Electronic Games Hotline: Atari Report.” Editorial. Electronic Games Winter 1981: 14. Electronic Games – Volume 01 Number 01 (1981-12)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. The version [of VCS Asteroids] the company showed a year ago received such a frosty reception from those who got an advance peek that the designers went back to the drawing board. They developed a special process that puts twice as much program – 8K vs. 4K – on the cartridge as was previously possible. It seems that Atari’s wizards came up with a special bank-switch that flips back and forth between two 4K programs, fooling the VCS into reading them both…Creative Computing, “International Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Electronic Toys” by David H. Ahl, pg. 70, Mar 1981. “The system (Cosmos) is “programmable” and initially eight game cartridges will be available including: Asteroids, Superman, Football, Roadrunner, Sea Battle, Space Invaders and Outlaw.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Oct 21 2015.
Atari Coin Connection, “QuadraScan Introduced by Atari”, edited by Carol Kantor, pg. 2, Oct/Nov 1979. “The new system [QuadraScan] includes complete control of the video beam from the main PCB rather than being internally controlled by the monitor.” Retrieved from Digital Press, Atari Coin Connection archive, Sep 16 2015.
The New York Times, “For Fans of Video Games, Fast Fingers Are a Big Help” by Paul L. Montgomery, Oct 11, 1981. Retrieved from the NYT archives, Sept 8, 2015
Brian’s Coin-Op History Archive – Ed Logg Interview – coinop.vintagegaming.com/index.html
Wikipedia – Ed Logg entry – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Logg
Handheld Games Museum – www.handheldmuseum.com/
The Giant List of Classic Game Programmers – www.dadgum.com/giantlist/list.html
DP Interviews… Brad Stewart – www.digitpress.com/library/interviews/interview_brad_stewart.html
Atari Coin Connection, “The Asteroids Alert”, edited by Carol Kantor, pg. 3, Oct/Nov 1979. “Asteroids is the newest adventure from Atari Space ™.” Retrieved Sept 16, 2015.
New York magazine, “On Madison Avenue: The Toys Most Likely to Succeed” by Bernice Kanner, pgs. 26-30, Nov 23 1981
1980 image of Lyle Rains, as well as other information from Atari Coin Connection, “New Director of Engineering Appointed”, pg. 1, April 1980. Retrieved from Pinball Pirate, Atari Coin Connection archive, Sep 16 2015.
The Arcade Flyer Archive – flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=home
The Old Computer – www.theoldcomputer.com
Atari Coin Connection, “AMOA 1980 – Atari is an Award Winner”, pgs. 1-2, Dec 1980. “The highlight of the show for Atari was the presentation of Play Meter magazine’s award for video game excellence for Atari’s Asteroids.” “The award… cites Asteroids as the highest earning video game in 1980.” Retrieved from Pinball Pirate, Atari Coin Connection archive, Sep 16 2015.
Image of Cosmos handheld courtesy of The Handheld Games Museum
Electronic Games, “Electronic Games Hotline”, pg. 14, 16, Winter 1981. Retrieved from the Internet Archive
A.N.A.L.O.G., “New Products Release”, pg. 4, Jan./Feb. 1981
Electronic Games, “Can Asteroids Conquer Space Invaders?”, pgs. 31 – 33, Winter 1981. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collectionAtari Coin Connection, “New Asteroids Tops Production Records”, pgs. 1-2, Feb 1980. “”To date we’ve produced more ‘Asteroids’ than any other game in our history, and orders are still piling up,” reported Don Osborne, Atari National Sales Manager.”‘ Retrieved from Digital Press, Atari Coin Connection archive, Sep 16 2015.