Asteroids was an old arcade game released by Atari Games way back in 1979.

The story

Asteroids marked a whole new era in space games. It was unlike any previous title. This was Atari's second vector game, and it was such an instant hit that they were forced to halt Lunar Lander production simply to try and keep up with the demand for Asteroids (in fact over 1000 copies of Asteroids were shipped in Lunar Lander cabinets, complete with Lunar Lander sideart).

This game spawned three sequels (Asteroids Deluxe, Space Duel, and Blasteroids), and has been ported to several consoles (the Atari 2600 port was especially good).

The game

The game is rather simple. You pilot a small wedge shaped ship, and you begin play in the middle of an asteroid field. Large slow moving asteroids surround you, when shot they break into two medium sized asteroids, which will each break into three small, fast moving asteroids. Shooting the small asteroids makes them disappear. Your goal is simply to eliminate all the asteroids from the playing field, while avoiding anything that would cause you to lose a life (touching an asteroid, or getting shot by a flying saucer).

The playfield consists of a single screen (which wraps around in each direction). Your controls consist of five buttons which are "rotate right", "rotate left", "thrust", "fire", and "hyperspace". The ship moves rather realistically for a zero gravity craft, which means that it keeps moving even after you stop thrusting. This takes a little practice to get used to, but it really enhances gameplay, as it allows you to do fly-bys of asteroids and enemy ships.

There are two types of flying saucers that you might encounter. The first type is large, slow moving, and stupid. These are quite easy to shoot down. While the second type is small, moves quickly, and is more intelligent in its actions. These are the highest point value objects in the game, but are dangerous to approach.

There are three basic strategies that you might use while playing this game. The first is the newbie method. The idea behind the newbie method is that you do not use the thrust button at all, simply rotate in place, and use the hyperspace button if things get too thick. This method actually works for the first few levels, but is useless later on. The normal method is just to simply play the game, you won't rack up the highest score, but this is the most fun way to play. The final method is known as "lurking". While lurking you should shoot out all the asteroids except for one (or two), and position your ship in a corner. Soon small flying saucers will start appearing regularly, simply shoot these down for points (the best way to hit them is to wrap your shots around to the other side of the screen). This method assures an outrageous score (after some practice), but can get boring fairly quickly.

The Machine

The Asteroids cabinet was identical in construction to the Lunar Lander cabinet. It was a black upright with sideart that featured a scene of a starship in a blue field of asteroids (with several red explosions thrown in for good measure). The marquee featured almost identical graphics to the sideart (with the addition of the familiar yellow "Asteroids" logo). The control panel was a busy looking red, white, and blue affair that had no joysticks (only buttons). While the monitor bezel had kind of a nebula scene printed on it (this did not really seem to match the rest of the machine). Two different sets of coin doors were made on this title, with early cabinets having a unique design that was soon abandoned in favor of the same one that Atari had been using on Lunar Lander.

The cocktail version was a little uncommon, it was rather unremarkable in appearance. It seems that Atari put all the effort into the upright, and merely shipped a generic cocktail version as an afterthought.

Where to play

You can play this title in a variety of places. The easiest way is on your home computer using MAME (or one of several other emulators). If emulation isn't your thing you can try one of the many PC ports, or simply spend a few dollars on the Atari 2600 version (assuming you still have an Atari 2600). You may also be able to find a working machine out in the wild. This is a very common game, but they are rarely seen on location anymore (my last spotting of a working unit out in public was at a roller rink back in 1996). Most of them have found their way into the hands of collectors. If all else fails (and you don't want to buy one), you can always visit an amusement industry auction, as there will almost assuredly be at least one Asteroids machine at any given auction (you can play them for free until the auction is over).

This is a great title to add this to your arcade game collection, but only if you can find it at a decent price. The collectors market has driven the price up unnaturally high (see my Ms. Pac-Man writeup), so you may want to really wait for a deal (or for the inevitable price drop). Asteroids is a bit problematic (like all vector games), but it is so popular that it is fairly easy to get repair work done (by someone who is actually familiar with the intricacies of this title).

Difficult as this may be to believe, there was a time, far back in the mists of history, when neither I nor any of my friends had ever heard of “girls” or that mythical substance known as “beer” -- to say nothing of “drugs.” We inhabited a world blissfully unencumbered by such concerns.

In truth, we had but one mission in life, one all-consuming passion, and that was to play Asteroids. This was before personal computers -- I’m talking about the arcade game here, and we were hooked. The concept of “too many games of Asteroids” was meaningless. Every spare moment, every hour not under the direct supervision of our parents or teachers, was spent either playing Asteroids or hatching schemes for obtaining free games of Asteroids.

Because, you see, each game cost a quarter. Which doesn’t sound like much, but we could play for hours at a stretch, and those quarters could add up fast. Since we were only 13, none of us had jobs or anything like that. The only way we survived was by our wits -- and our allowances.

In our town there were three Asteroids machines. We had two bowling alleys (not coincidentally, a friend of mine from back then grew up to be a professional bowler on the PBA Tour. If only we’d had two libraries instead of two bowling alleys, maybe I’d be a genius today…), each with one Asteroids machine. A third machine was located in the Mayfair supermarket. This one was not as much fun. It was a supermarket, after all, brightly lit and frequented by housewives -- any of whom could be one of our moms, for god’s sake. No, the bowling alley was the place to be -- dark, a little seedy, and delightfully noisy.

The trouble was, the machines in the bowling alleys were often monopolized by older guys, 15, 16, maybe even 17 years old. Guys who shaved. Guys who probably HAD heard of girls and had at least some idea of what to do with them. Most importantly, they were guys who blew us away at Asteroids.

These were the guys who had perfected the so-called “lurking” technique that could produce ridiculously high scores. With each 10,000 points, you earned another ship, so it was not uncommon for these guys to have ships lined up in rows across the top of the screen. The simple graphics of the day meant that the ships were really just the letter A, so it looked like:

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

And so on.

You could place your quarter on the machine and call “next game,” but it didn’t matter. Their game effectively lasted forever. And so you’d hang around and blow your puny stash of quarters on Space Invaders or Missile Command, or Centipede -- they were OK, but they weren’t Asteroids, and Asteroids was the whole point. Your only hope of getting on the Asteroids machine was to wait for these older guys to get bored, and hope they’d let you finish their game for them. This always represented a major coup, as these scruffy 16-year-olds were basically our gods.

Short of this type of divine intervention, however, it was always the same. Sooner or later, we’d run out of quarters. From time to time, someone you knew got his hands on a supply of slugs, and there was always the occasional Canadian quarter, but it was never enough. We needed help.

I forget who first came up with the quarter-on-a-string technique, but I think it was my friend Bobby. He realized we’d been going about this all wrong. Why knock ourselves out trying to amass piles of quarters when all we really needed was one? Let the quarter work for us, he reasoned, not the other way around. And so, armed with a single quarter, a length of string and a bit of black electrical tape, we stepped into the promised land.

It was so simple. With a quarter on a string, you could trick the machine into relinquishing its precious games for free. Just drop the quarter into the slot, rattle it up and down and watch the credits appear as if by magic. When you had enough credits, you just pulled the quarter out of the machine and stuck it back in your pocket. Running low? Drop it back in and rattle it up and down for a bit and watch your credits multiply.

We fine-tuned this technique endlessly. Some kinds of tape were too thick, causing the quarter to jam. Same with certain kinds of string. Ordinary sewing thread seemed to have the best tensile properties, but was prone to breaking. Fishing line was stronger but had a tendency to work its way free of the tape. We experimented with Krazy-Gluing the string to the quarter instead of taping it, with passable results. One outside-the-box thinker among us even drilled a hole through a quarter in metal shop, allowing the string to be securely tied, but for some reason this didn’t work as well.

Of course, the quarter-on-a-string had the slight drawback of being technically illegal, meaning that on top of everything else, we now had to keep a watchful eye out for the Man at all times. But this only added to the deliciousness of it all. We were, at long last, utterly happy.

You'd think that given a now-endless supply of games, we'd soon grow tired of Asteroids, but, incredibly, we carried on this way for quite some time. Eventually, though, some of us began hearing talk of new machines being brought in, with coin boxes fiendishly designed to snap your string. I don’t know if they were real or just rumored. But slowly, inexorably, the fascination with Asteroids began to fade. In all likelihood what happened was that one of us discovered girls. Or beer. Probably both.

And of course, once that happens, nothing is ever the same.

They left me behind?

Crackling static poured through the ship’s speakers. In the back of my mind, I knew it would never be broken by the sound of familiar voices—but there’s always that chance, isn’t there? With a heavy hand, I flicked a switch at the console and ended that empty noise, that futile music. They left me behind.

Silence is the lack of static, the lack of hope that I would ever see the convoy again or hear the warmth of another human voice. Silence is the color black, the color of the empty starless space that stretched out around me in all directions without end.

I fell out of hyperspace only two light-years from where we made the jump. We were being pursued—by what, I don’t know. The relativistic calculations were hastily made, the coordinates were off their mark by entire degrees, but the captain gave the order to jump anyway. Half of our fleet must have been scattered in that frantic escape, left behind, left discarded like dead weight thrown overboard a sinking ship. That’s why there would never be an answer on the radio. They would let me drown in this silent darkness.

COLLISION IMMINENT!

An alarm sounded and a warning light began to blink on the console, cutting through the coffin-gloom of my cockpit. Instinctively, I reached for the controls and fired the reverse thrusters. The flickering white light from the engines illuminated the hazard in front of me: an enormous asteroid cloaked in complete darkness plummeted straight toward my ship. Quickly, I cycled the starboard maneuvering jets and performed a sharp pirouette in space before throttling forward at maximum acceleration. Another alarm, another red warning light, another massive asteroid loomed in front of me. There was no time to lose, I reached for the firing controls and unloaded a volley of white-hot plasma fusion bolts from the forward blaster cannon.

The shots cut through the darkness, burning with the brilliance of newborn stars; they streaked towards the wall of solid rock that was closing in quickly. On impact, a silent explosion shattered the asteroid, scattered enormous chunks of molten rock in all directions, and filled the void with sudden radiance. I guided my ship through the burning chaos and watched in awe as so many glowing embers danced in the darkness around me. They brought light and life to the dark heart of this extinguished galaxy.

If I am going to die…

If I am going to die, it will be here on a cosmic funeral pyre, burning like laughter against this cold abyss. I will not drown in darkness!

Asteroid mining business plan:

  1. Develop the technology to deorbit economically significant chunks of space rock.
  2. Demand money. No mining necessary.

Right?

Asteroids are a big problem. Asteroids that are likely to strike the Earth in the near future don't make up even half of that problem.

The thing about asteroid mining is that whichever way you look at it, it involves a colossal amount of energy. It doesn't matter whether you perform the refining step in space or land a raw chunk of rock in a sterile part of Alaska and build the refinery around it. One way or another, if the thing landing on Earth is valuable enough to be worth the expense of deorbiting, then it's large enough that everybody in the world needs to pay attention to its impact energy.

The basic rule is you multiply by 15. A 3,000-tonne rock carries the same impact energy as 45-kilotonne nuclear bomb. At minimum. That's an incredibly tiny asteroid, one at the threshold of detectability, and - unless it's made of solid palladium - one with negligible revenue value relative to the cost of retrieving it. Before asteroid mining becomes profitable and practical, we're adding orders of magnitude to those numbers.

Very quickly, we end up in a situation where any solvent asteroid mining organisation is a de facto nuclear-equivalent power. Private organisations seriously attempting to acquire such power should be carefully scrutinised. It doesn't matter that the whole notion is fanciful right now; the explicit intention is to change that fact.

The scenario described above is obviously just supervillainy, but think of famous industrial accidents which happened on Earth. They don't even have to be nuclear, just think of Bhopal or Deepwater Horizon. Now imagine that the responsible company was based in space, and add a few zeroes to the amount of energy released when the system breaks.

As the capability of any single organisation (be it national or private or The Whole Of Humanity) increases, so does the potential magnitude of that organisation's industrial errors. Space exploration has always carried substantial risk. Even if the risks in asteroid mining can be brought down to be equivalent to the risks of conventional mining, or far lower still, the sheer size of the prospective disaster trumps that, and makes the endeavour too dangerous to countenance.

*

You may be willing to accept that risk. Organisations already exist which, because the level of power they command, could be held to represent a similar existential risk. Think of any nuclear nation. You may trust the United States government, as an entity, to manage its nuclear weapons stockpile without intentionally or unintentionally kicking something off. (Or then again, you may not, and you may believe that against all probability we got the best possible ending to the Cold War. But the point is, you might. People exist who do.)

But asteroids only get bigger. The largest nuclear weapon was the Tsar Bomba: 50 megatonnes of TNT, roughly equivalent to a 3.3-million-tonne impactor. Asteroids larger than this are thought to number in the tens of millions, and at the time of writing only 1.1 million had been provisionally identified. Asteroid shunting at or beyond this scale is by definition a trans-nuclear technology, which means a point comes where the necessary level of trust is unprecedented.

No matter how small the risk of fatal error, no matter how improbable the eventuality of supervillainy, is there a single human or group of humans whom you would trust with that much power? And if there is, you can just imagine bigger asteroids until there isn't.

I believe that there is a threshold of power beyond which nobody can be trusted. Where, in fact, it is impossible for any entity to even theoretically demonstrate the track record of judgement, responsibility and infallibility that would be necessary.

I don't trust an aspiring Class I civilisation. A point comes, no matter how well you think of humans, when it's too dangerous to progress further up the power heirarchy, and we have to turn back. In fact, a point comes where aspirations to climb higher are red flags all by themselves.

*

I'm semi-serious about this. On the one hand I know the sky isn't falling yet. I also can't comment on the practical utility of mined asteroid resources. I do know that global reserves of neodymium and rhenium could stand to be quadrupled, and I do know that a falling asteroid could deliver as much damage to the international economy as it does to the ecosphere. The whole thing is legitimately exciting, no matter what.

But one time, many years ago, I wrote a thing about destroying the Earth, and my creeping realisation is that if you wanted to do some serious damage to a planet, while watching and cackling from a self-sufficient, unreachable lair, this is exactly how you would start.

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